Monday, 31 October 2016

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall ~ By Anne Brontë

There were a number of stylistic features that I found really interesting in this novel. For a start, the narrator switches half-way through the book.  In this way, it is not unlike sister Charlotte Bronte's book, 'Wuthering Heights'.   The novel is structured around a collection of letters written by Gilbert Markham and others by Helen Graham, the titular character.  It takes a little getting used to, as your ear must re-tune to Helen'a voice and then back to Gilbert's as the novel moves along.  And these are long letter, as each author explains in full the minutiae of their lives.  But more than anything else, this novel details in full how a woman's life in the mid-1800s is controlled by her husband and how society, despite the laws governing divorce, still looked on marriage as the means of giving a man total control over a woman - her income, liberty and social standing.

There were times when I felt like I could not continue with the novel, hard though that is to admit, because I did not enjoy Helen's purity.  She was desperate to make a go of her marriage, to do the right thing.  How could a woman bear such treatment?  Well, it seems that Anne Bronte knew the limit of what a woman could endure and she presents such a character in this novel.  No one, liberal or conservative, could accuse Helen Graham of not doing her duty by her malevolent husband, Arthur Huntingdon, and so Bronte makes her point.  By the novel's end, you cannot doubt the power of this text.  In a world where women do not have the vote, where a woman is measured by the wealth of her husband's estate and by his successes and failures, it is an achievement that this book was written and published at all.  The fact that the book was originally published under a male pseudonym, Acton Bell, is in itself very telling and reveals something of the pressures faced by female authors of the time.

Helen herself uses her creativity as an artist to provide her with an income and I wonder if Anne Bronte herself considered Art as a means of gaining freedom and independence.  This was her second and last novel.  Her first, 'Agnes Grey' is a wonderful novel, and I recommend that you read it if you have not already.  This book contains little of the warm country characters that are so enchanting in 'Agnes Grey'.  Here the locals are far less endearing and are meant to be so.  Still, I missed the charm of those characters this time round, though I think that Bronte had more serious things on her mind.  She demonstrates beyond any doubt, that women need independence from their husbands, and her argument is so convincing that none could think differently.

Helen is a little saintly for our modern tastes perhaps, she is no feisty Elizabeth Bennet, more like Jane Bennet if anything, but it is important that Anne be beyond reproach as a mother and wife, so that the reader, even the most prejudicial, will take her side.  Balanced against the angelic Helen, is the dastardly Arthur Huntington, whose ultimate suffering is too good for him.  And here we are presented with another dark, troubled man in the Bronte cannon, making us wonder all the more who inspired such creations?  If it was indeed Bramwell, the Bronte brother, we can only imagine what horrors those girls endured and witnessed as they grew-up.  Let us hope that they each had very powerful imaginations and experienced no such torment as the women in their novels did.

So, if you enjoyed 'Jane Eyre', 'Wuthering Heights' or 'Agnes Grey', then you will also enjoy 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' (great title), and find yourself thinking again, what a pity it was that these three Yorkshire girls died so young, before they lived full and fruitful lives, and how thankful we are that the time that they did have was spent writing, leaving us these amazing novels in their wake, that teach us so much about the times they lived in, and the many injustices in the world.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ~ J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne - Spoiler Free

-A Spoiler Free Review-

Didn't we already say goodbye to Harry Potter?  Didn't we grieve at the end of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' and mourn the end of the wizarding world?  Well, those were wasted tears.  To all intents and purposes, this is just like all the other Harry Potter books, so you should allow yourself to get excited about this publication.  A new HP book - something we thought would never happen.  The fact that it is written as a play is very interesting, forcing the reading to imagine so much more than with the novel.  Many of the locations are already familiar to Harry Potter readers, so it is easy for us just to recall previous descriptions, such as the headmasters office at Hogwarts and the owlery.  Like so many of the previous books, this one begins on platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station, and a train journey on the Hogwarts's Express.   But some locations are new and it is very refreshing to imagine, without any detail forced on us via an omniscient narrator, a whole new wizarding world.
For so many readers, this will be the very first play they have read, which is exciting and interesting in itself.  I've always found that reading a play is a very intimate thing, as we get to hear directly from characters, and become very attached to them very quickly.  This is the case here as we meet the next generation of Harry Potter characters, which we were presented with at the end of the last book in the series.  As the book blurb says, this book focuses on Albus Potter, Harry and Ginny's son.  This, along with the book's title, 'The Cursed Child' reveal the most powerful of text's themes, the relationship between parents and their children.  Being a successful, famous parent is something that J.K. Rowling herself has some first hand knowledge of, and makes this play all the more interesting.

Rowling always toys with her readers; she will break your heart, shock you and take you into the unknown, expect the same with this book.  She throws more than one curve ball here and you might find yourself railing against plot turns and revelations, but you can trust her to deliver a very Harry Potter tale, which makes me wonder just how much the play's author, Jack Thorne had to do with the creative process that went in to making this 'Special Rehearsal Edition Script' as the book is described.  Rowling's name is in the largest on the cover and I suspect that the book will be filed under 'R' along with the other Harry Potter book in the library.  It must have been a strange, selfless thing to hand over a short story to someone else to develop, for Rowling to take the place of editor almost, while Harry's words and world are shaped and formed by someone else.  And lucky for us, it seems to have worked perfectly.

The thing you wished for for so long, another Harry Potter book, has come to pass - so fear not. Enjoy the hype and embrace this chance to enter Harry's world one more time.  It won't last forever.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Not the End of the World ~by Kate Atkinson

Those of you who follow this blog will know how much I admire the novels of Kate Atkinson.  Well, here is something by the same author, though not quite what you might expect; it is a wonderful collection of short stories that taunt and stretch the very form itself until you can almost debate the very nature of the thing.  For when is a short story collection  not a story story collection: when the stories are so interrelated that they actually form a series of chapters in a novel.  So, if you have always run a mile from short stories, you might want to give this clever, clever book a try.  Atkinson creates a tapestry of colourful characters who lie side by side, linked together with a finely woven narrative thread, binding the stories together and creating new shades and nuances with every additional one.  You might be introduced to a character in the first story, but only discover their complete story when you read the second-last story, say, which really does set the mind ringing.
Reality is what you might expect to find in this text, with its down to earth, 'real' characters, but you with Kate Atkinson, you never get the expected.   This author, again and again, surprises us with outlandish events and twists, just as she lures you into a false sense of security; you forget that nothing is as it seems in this book.  For a start, the title is misleading.  The book begins and ends with Trudie and Charlene, clearly living in a post-apocalyptic London, at the end of the world.  This could be a theme of the book in truth: characters surviving the unthinkable, the unexpected; after all, it's not the end of the world or is it?
Not only do these funny, profound stories develop, like a snowball, ever-growing as it rolls along, but the entire collection is soaked in subtle references to Greek Mythology.  Characters might be begotten of sea-gods, taken prisoner by Zeus for half the year, or be covered in ancient lizard-like scales merely to disintegrate into dust like some kind of human phoenix.  One could spend forever just researching the many layers of meaning in this text and how the Greek parallels relate to these modern stories and their characters.
There is clearly a woven thread which links these stories and takes you from a certain beginning to a certain end, so please don't be put off by the form - whose afraid of a short story anyway? - and give this clever book a chance.  You will be amazed at Atkinson's skill and will come to love all of her ingenious characters.  The only trouble is that you will instantly want to re-read the novel as soon as you complete it, to deconstruct it and retrace that fine woven thread, picking and pulling at it to unravel this masterpiece.
SO, when is a short story collection not a short story collection? When it gets the Kate Atkinson treatment.  For that alone it is worth picking up and for the wonderfully-drawn characters it is worth reading again and again.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Flight of the Maidens ~ by Jane Gardam

When you see the inky* sprawl of towering branches silhouetted against azure skies at dusk, and feel the very air pulling at your senses, you know it is exam time again.  It is almost June and in houses and bedrooms all over the city, teenagers have their heads crammed in books; not for the love of it, but because exam season demands it, and not even the warm, perfumed evening air can tempt them out of doors.  For some, it is the in-between time, between school and college, when the rest of life lies ahead and every waking hour is spent guessing at what the future holds.  Such is the time frame of this charming novel by Jane Gardam, called 'The Flight of the Maidens'.  Here she presents us with three young women, all around 18 years old, who are just about to leave home and go to university, in London and Cambridge.
The novel begins with the three 'maidens' sitting in a graveyard, imagining what their future's hold, on the day that they have received coveted government scholarships for university. They are the exceptional few, the clever elite, whose lives have been touched by grace and brilliance.  They are Hetty Fallowes, Una Vane and Lieselotte Klein. The former are Yorkshire girls, the latter a German Jew who was saved from the concentration camps and fostered by a devoted Quaker family.  The year in 1946, just after the end of World War Two, when the world was suddenly full of possibility again and dreams were countenanced once more.
In the short few months before the rest of their lives begin, each girl faces a challenge, whether it is,
as in Hetty's case, to free herself from her mother's tight grip and her father's flakiness, or, as with Una, to explore physical freedom, the unknown delights of passion and love.  For Lieselotte, to whom the book is dedicated, her search for identity has an altogether more practical bent, she is literally searching for who she really is, her family, her history, her identity papers having been accidentally lost on her journey to England.

Each of these girls is interesting in their own right, but the real delight for me is the world that Gardam creates between the pages of the text.  It is full of eccentric characters, not unlike the sort you might find in a Jane Austen or Agatha Christie novel (English through and through) so that you feel that these people really lived and this world must surely have existed. Just take Mr Fellow's, Hetty's father, who is still suffering the effects of The Somme.  This handsome man gave up a brilliant career in academia to become a gravedigger.  He likes to quote 'Hamlet', Shakespeare's famous play which features the two nameless gravediggers (1 and 2) who give Hamlet Yorik's skull to ponder.  Una too has 'father issues', hers having walked off a cliff, like Gloucester in 'King Lear' (are you sensing a pattern?) when she was a girl.  And as for Leiselotte, well she has neither father nor mother, both having been gassed at Auschwitz.  In her clever way, Gardam is really then dealing with the awful pulling apart that comes when a child leaves home for the first time and morphs into an adult.

It is a curious age to write about and perhaps a difficult one, when one is an older author, like Gardam, but her ability to recall the fears and anxieties on leaving home at that age is uncanny; they are captured brilliantly in this book.  If you liked 'Old Filth', you will like this book. And if, like me, you remember the thrill of breaking free and the ache of anticipation, a time when summer evenings came calling like an unfulfilled promise, then this is a book for you.


*The word 'inky' kindly suggested by Luke Kehoe Roche.
Dedicated to 6MB - who loved to read  Shakespeare and Jane Austen and who are caught in the delicious agony of pre-university limbo, as I write.   

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Lady Susan - by Jane Austen

As lovers of Jane Austen get ready for the release of the film adaptation of  'Lady Susan', I thought that it was time that I return once more to that short and often-times over-looked text.  'Love and Friendship' is the name of one of Austen's earliest stories, and funnily, and confusingly, enough the makers of this new adaptation have decided to call it after the short story, instead of the novella, 'Lady Susan', as it was titled by Austen herself.
That confusion aside, I wanted to write something about this little gem of a text.  If you enjoy reading Austen for her lively wit, brilliant irony and tongue in cheek humour, you must give this book a try: it is a very funny read.

It was written as an epistolary novel, like 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'Pride and Prejudice', but unlike these later works, Austen did not return to 'Lady Susan' and restructure it.  So here, I believe, we get a glimpse, not only into a novelist's young mind, this was her first completed novel after all, but also Austen's true writing style.  It is as if this novella is some kind of first draft, from which she would later carve that inch of ornate ivory, as she once famously describe her writing.
As for the novel itself, it is delicious in that the titular character, Lady Susan is shockingly selfish, manipulative, ruthless and, as Mrs Bennet might say, a woman who is only 'out for what she can get!'
She cares even less for her daughter's happiness than either Mrs Bennet or Lady Bertram, and is far too busy trying to catch her own wealthy husband than to bother with her daughter's needs.  She calls Frederica a 'stupid girl', and we are hardly surprised when the poor fatherless child runs away from school and seeks help from her relations, the Vernons.  However, it is because Lady Susan
is so wicked that she is so entertaining.  She has at least three lovers on the go, one of whom is married.  I found it quite shocking that Austen's central character was a scarlet woman, scandalous and unscrupulous and it makes me wonder if the Brontes ever read this novella.  They might have thought differently about Austen if they had.  Again and again we see how Lady Susan uses her beauty and sexuality to manipulate herself out of a sticky situation.  The plot builds up into a climax of duplicity, with a final crises that is described to us from an eye witness account, making the scene all the funnier.
The confusing thing for me though, is whether I should or should not like Lady Susan.  I find her
most entertaining, but I know that I ought not to. Surely she is a cross between Mary Crawford in 'Mansfield Park' and Caroline Bingley in 'Pride and Prejudice', so every feeling should revolt! But instead, I find myself hoping that Lady Susan will evade discovery and that her daughter keeps to her room!   Am I wrong dear Jane?  It is certainly an unsettling thing in an Austen novel not to know who is the heroine and who is the villain.  Of course, Lady Susan certainly is the villain, but is there such a thing as a goodie-badie in Jane Austen?  Maybe not before, but perhaps there is now.
'Love and Friendship' is released in Irish cinemas on 27 May 2016.  With scenes shot on location in Dublin, it promises to be a real treat for Austen fans.  Miss it if you dare.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Human Croquet ~ by Kate Atkinson

Oh joy, another Kate Atkinson book.  'Human Croquet' very much feels like a Kate Atkinson novel but it also seems very different from her other texts.  Once again she considers the relationships between children and parents, missing mothers and hopeless fathers, endearing protagonists and wide-eyed little boys.  Her genius really is how she captures the events that go on within rooms; simple, beautifully wrought conversations, moments of neglect, revelation, brutality.  Her characters are ordinary, everyday people like you or I.  Atkinson pulls together a cast of interesting, true to life characters, who jar and rub each other up the wrong way - a true family.  They speak our language and think our thoughts, whether in some ancient time or right up to the present day.  This last point is very pertinent to this novel because the main character, Isobel Fairfax, is a time traveller.  As such the novel is the true mother of her more recent and extremely successful novel, 'Life After Life'.  Like Harper Lee's 'Go Catch a Watchman' is the certain originator of  'To Kill a Mockingbird', 'Human Croquet' is the precursor to 'Life After Life', with its toying with time travel, the turning back of clocks. There is even the 'falling snow' moment after one such journey back in time.
So, if you enjoyed reading about Ursula Todd and her journeying through time, then you will certainly enjoy this story about Isobel as she tries to unravel the truth about her broken family and navigate the waters of teenage existence.  A treat lies in store for Atkinson fans - 'Human Croquet' - oh joy!
 

Monday, 29 February 2016

Yeats in Love ~ Annie West

It is 29 February, a leap year; traditionally the day women deign to propose to their male counterparts.  And I have been thinking of romance and women; I have been reading and enjoying Annie West's book - Yeats in Love.  And I was wondering about Maude Gonne, is she ever would have proposed to Yeats; if she ever even remotely entertained the idea of a future with the famed Irish bard.
It seems that all the world has come to know of Yeats's rejection, his everlasting shame of having loved and not been loved in return.
West has created a curious book about Yeats's relationship, or rather famous obsession, with the great beauty Maude Gonne.  We imagine theirs as the love of Yeats's life, but it seems that the whole affair was one sided, a mere figment of Yeats's imagination, no more real that the fairies of the Celtic Twilight, or his journey to Innisfree.  He did nothing by halves, and it seems that Yeats's adoration of the elusive Maude was all consuming.  Today, we'd call this lover by another name: STALKER!  

This is the slant that West takes in this book.  It presents a humorous collection of prints, punctuated with quotations by and about Yeats; comments, poetic snippets, that shed some light on Yeats's relationship with Mrs MacBride.  
The irony is, that the more West pokes fun at Yeats, the more sympathetic the reader feel towards him; the humour giving way to something altogether more melancholic.  It seems cheap to poke fun at someone else's misery, but aspects of  Yeats's life are undoubtedly comic - his proposal to Iseult MacBride, Gonne's daughter, followed by another inevitable rejection (the apple didn't fall far from the tree!) was silliness itself.
Yet, there is something charming in this portrayal of Yeats as the lover eternal, doggedly determined
to have his amour. These images reveal his foolishness for all to see, but the poet himself.  He dreams and schemes to have his love, while those around him laugh.  And it seems to me, that this book humanises Yeats, more than any biography.  Here is the real Yeats, the lover, the dreamer, the man who wrote of fairies and misty vales. And it seems to me what a fine thing to be; we could all be a bit more like Yeats.  And I think that perhaps Yeats was more a Colonel Brandon than a Mr Collins (to speak in the parlance of a Jane Austen fan), whose steadfast love was something to admire, not belittle.  So perhaps it is Gonne who we should pity; the woman who turned her back on the love of a poet.  Did she regret him?  Did she wish he would call again? Did she wait for a leap year to come
around at last?  

Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Fawn's Surprise ~ By Dean Walley and Lois Jackson


For years I have been searching book shops for a copy of the first book that I ever owned.  What happened the original, I can only surmise.  It was a gift from my older sister, who must have been just a teenager herself when she gave it to me.  All I had to go on was that the cover was green and the story was about a little deer who was given a surprise birthday party in a forest.  There were fireflies, a honey comb, a cake made of clover.

Google was no help at all, and for years I searched through online vintage book shops and Ebay stores, but to no avail.  And then, a few weeks ago, I found it.  There it was in a shop three thousand miles away, in America.  It was all there; the green cover, the little fawn, the clover cake covered in fireflies.

I was over-joyed and even more so when the book, much smaller than I remembered arrived in the post.  The images were just as I recalled, the story just as beautiful.  Though I can't be sure, I must have been very young when I first owned it, because I couldn't read yet, which is probably why the pictures made such an impression on me.

See how 1970s it looks?  The key colours seem to be green, brown and yellow, the colours of my childhood.  The illustrations are adorable and Lois Jackson perfectly create the magic of the enchanted forest, where animals talk and sing.
Author Dean Walley writes in the genre best captured by Beatrix Potter, who delighted in investing animals with the gift of speech, and thoughts of their own.
The premise is simple: the animals pretend they have forgotten the fawn's birthday, but surprise him at the end.  His joy is complete when they emerge from the old hollow tree with home made gifts. Wonderful!  I wonder if it was this story that prompted my sister to give me a similar surprise for my 13th birthday, possibly.

Funnily enough, none of my siblings remember this book, though it meant so much to me.  Still, I now get to share it with my children,
giving them a glimpse into the past, into that 1970s world of light brown and cold yellow.  All that is missing is an electric fire in the bedroom, vinyl wallpaper on the walls and the sound of The Bay City Rollers on the radio.  Well, maybe some things are better kept in the past, but this little treasure will be with me and mine now forever.




Thursday, 31 December 2015

Alice in Wonderland ~by Lewis Carroll and Manuela Adreani

Alice in Wonderland was published 150 years ago this year so I couldn't resist purchasing this copy of Lewis Carroll's timeless classic for myself just before Christmas.  In fact, I found it in a local bookshop, during a poetry reading and could not leave the shop without it.  I fell in love with it immediately and have scarcely had it out of my sight since.
This is a very large book measuring approximately 11.5 inches by 14.5 inches and it all the more beautiful for that! Created by Turin graphic artist Manuela Adreani, this sumptuous, delightful edition will have you gazing for hours at the moving and surreal illustrations that capture the strangeness of Alice's world.
There is nothing 'normal' about this book. You
can see how a young reader could lose themselves in (or behind) this book - which is why the oversized nature of this edition is its genius. And when Alice tumbles 'down and down and down' the rabbit burrow, we do the same; pulled into these enormous illustrations laid before us.  But do not imagine that this book is for children only - lovers of beautiful books, young and old, will adore having it on their shelves, or displayed on a sideboard, like the real piece of art that it is.  I usually do not add so many images from a book, but you have got to see how wonderful these illustrations actually are. (And this is just  sample - there are many, many wonderful illustrations within).  
Do something nice for yourself - buy a copy of this amazing book... and then buy it for your friends, and people who will appreciate it for its pure beauty.  Enjoy!










Monday, 30 November 2015

Career of Evil ~ Robert Galbraith

If this book gave Jo Rowling nightmares, you can certainly expect it to give readers nightmares too.  And while she takes great pains to articulate how the misogynistic killer in the book thinks and feels, I wish that she hadn't!  She brings us inside the head of a serial killer - we see him bite into the frozen breast of a woman who he has murdered and chopped into pieces, and kept in his fridge - and how he is aroused by this little treat. And this is just for starters.  There is rape, domestic violence, child abuse, all perpetrated against women or young girls. The book tells of an online website/club whose raison d'être is to discuss how having their limbs amputated is their greatest fantasy. Yes, this certainly is Rowling revealing her dark side, something readers of Harry Potter sampled in the penultimate novel of that famous collection.

Once again, Rowling has written a book series which starts out as one thing and becomes something else - something that I feel is somewhat deceptive.  Whereas 'Cuckoo's Calling' began as something akin to a Kate Atkinson novel, character-focused and light on the grotesque, this latest novel is more reminiscent of 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo', heavy on graphic violence, which, for me, was most disappointing, as I would rather have not read about a girl having her nose and ears sliced off as trophies, thanks very much.

Also, the Strike-Robin love story seems to go nowhere.  Rowling does not maintain the suspense and tension in their relationship successfully in this novel. It seems clear that Robin no longer cares for her boring boyfriend, Matt, and despite being a clever, independent woman, she stays with him.  There is a lot of Robin thinking about Strike, and Strike (sort of ) thinking about Robin; she is mad at him, he is mad at her and in the end we are back where we started and Matt, tall handsome Matthew, (the weakest character in the novel by far) puts up with it.

Basically, I feel like Rowling has broken that precious ingredient that is essential for a positive reading experience: reader trust.  I didn't expect the violence, I didn't enjoy the violence, and the my opinion of the novel was tainted as a result.  And while Jo Rowling claims to have enjoyed writing this novel more than any novel that she has ever written, and has gone to great lengths in the media to cry off clams that this book is it any way violence-porn, I will think twice before reading a "Galbraith" novel again.  Like a box of every flavour beans, with a Rowling novel, you never know which author you are going to get, and sometimes it just isn't worth taking such a risk.
If you seek a book that will give you nightmares, than this is your lucky day - I think I may just have found the perfect book for you.  If not, buy yourself the latest Kate Atkinson; you'll get exactly what it says on the tin.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Sweetland ~ by Michael Crummey

It is almost Halloween, and if you are looking for a book about ghosts, this is one for you.  But you won't find any horror here, just humanity laid bare, like the rocks along the lonely Newfoundland coastline; love and loss, life and death, the bountiful and the barren, side by side.

This is a book of two parts; the first describes in microscopic detail life on Sweetland Island: the topography, the characters, the weather and the whinnying refrigerator.  Alive, alive, this book is a breathing living thing. It is because the first half is so real, and we have come to know the intricacies of the lives lived there, that the second half of the book is so powerful.  It is as if we step from the real world, into some misty unreality, though that description is not quite right.  The world is half real, half out of memory, but seeming all the more vibrant and vital as a result.  

When your life is touched by those who are suffering from mental illness, every experience is coloured by it.  The last time  read King Lear, it was about a proud old man, but this time, since my mother diagnosed with Alzheimer's, it has become clear to me that the play is about a man suffering from Alzheimer's.  It was the same with this novel. Surely this is a book about a man, Moses Sweetland,  losing his reason; a man slowly slipping into madness, succumbing to the memory loss (or gain, depending on your point of view) associated with old age.  In a way, this book is not very unlike 'The Buried Giant' by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I reviewed during the summer, which deals with memory and the power of forgetting: they certainly make fine companion books.
In terms of plt, this is a story about a island closing down.  The residents are being paid by the government to leave, the only codicil is that all must go.  Sweetland does not want to leave, and so his neighbours and friends pressure him to take the government package.  You must read it yourself to earn what happens.

One adorable character that we meet is Jessie, the young, Autistic boy who speaks regularly to his deceased great-uncle Hollis, though he is not the only ghost that haunts the island.  As in his earlier (fantastic) novel, 'Galore', Crummey presents us with the semi-comforting idea that ghosts walk beside us in life.  Once again, I was reminded of my mother, speaking of recent conversations she'd had with long deceased relatives.  Yet when Crummey writes it, it isn't unsettling or strange.  It feels natural, possible, plausible.
And this is probably why it is so difficult to finish this book and to leave the world that Crummey has created behind: there is a plain comfort in the frill-free, simple world he describes.  I find that I had to begin to re-read it instantly on turning the final page because the loss of the world, with interwoven lives, and colourful characters, was pretty unbearable.  Perhaps this is Crummey's greatest achievement: he makes us mourn the passing of a world that is all but disappeared except between the pages of a history book, or in the memories of the very old.  As such, Crummey is an archivist, a collector of memories, a Lady Gregory of our times!
But  the entire premise is debatable, questionable even: Is Moses Sweetland just a man with a vivid imagination, someone who has been alone too long, or is he actually losing his grip on reality? 
There is something heroic, and noble about the man, a John Wayne of sorts in his ruggedness.  He is the one they rely on to fix thing, sort things out.  Yet he has made mistakes and has regrets, and these are the thing that haunt him in the second half of the book.

We are fearful that he won't leave the island, the threats are growing evermore serious, but we are more terrified that he will leave.  How can the man leave when his very name  is intertwined with the land under his feet.  He is the island, the island is him.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons that we come to care so much about this character; because we have come to are so much about the place, each colouring the other until they become synonymous with the book's title.
Michael Crummey should be given some sort of national award: he is done so much for tourism.  This book had me Googling flights to Newfoundland and pricing holiday homes in St John's, though I don't know if I would ever find much of  Sweetland's world in modern day Newfoundland.  It seemed too alien for Sweetland himself, though it would still be worth looking for.   

Halloween or no, this book must be read and reread, for one reading will not be enough.  It will leave you heartbroken at the loss of it; the brutal landscape of the Mackerel Cliffs, the dogged tenacity of Moses Sweetland, and its people, ghostlike, yet all the more real for that. 

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Go Set A Watchman ~ By Harper Lee

All along, I thought that it was a bad idea to publish this book - as a first draft of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.  Did Harper Lee really want the world raking over her first attempt at telling Scout's story? I was especially suspicious that the novel only came to the world's attention after the death of Lee's sister last year, at 103 years of age. Alice Lee, an Alabama lawyer who was 'a confidante, housemate and gatekeeper for her sister Harper Lee', (Washington Post) had kept the manuscript amongst her possessions and it was only found by her lawyer, when she died. Should that lawyer have handed over the manuscript to the publishing world? Why hadn't the book been destroyed, if it was never meant to be published? Is it not like a diary, private yes, but begging to be read simply because it is written down?

The scenario reminded me very much of two hundred years ago and another set of sisters; Jane and Cassandra Austen. The elder sister, Cassandra decided to destroy many of Austen's letters, and perhaps manuscripts, too - who knows. No doubt, Cassandra did it to protect the integrity and reputation of her sister. She made that decision, and acted, perhaps on Jane's instruction, to set her sister's words alight. Did Alice Lee do wrong by not doing the same?

As an English teacher, I have read and taught 'To Kill a Mockingbird' many times and every time, I am still stunned by the skill of the writer and the wisdom of the text.  In hindsight, it was naive and foolish of me to be think that Mockingbird was born into the world, in so perfect a fashion.  What 'Go Set a Watchman' is, in fact, is a first draft of the novel that we love so dearly, and it must only be thought of in this way.  In this version, she decides to include how Scout deals with menstruation, her first dance, kissing a boy, learning about the facts of life; unimaginable in Mockingbird.  She also omits the trial and Boo Radley too, and gives Dr Finch a much more prominent role. The biggest shock, of course, is the revelation that Atticus was as one time, in the Klu Klux Klan.  Now, as Atticus explains it, it was only so that he could discover for himself, the identity of the other Klan members, but it is a shock nonetheless.

This novel is much grittier than its sleeker offspring; the racist filth that spouts from a speaker at a local meeting is meant to disturb and perhaps gives a truer account of what life was really like in Alabama in the 1950s.  In this book, World War Two has just ended, and Moville is littered with returned, injured soldiers, again, something new.  This brings a whole other flavour to the novel.

As the narrator in Watchman is omniscient, the book is much more adult in style and so can afford to be more adult in its content.  I can see why this style appealed to Lee in the first place, the subject matter being the stuff of adult life.  Let me just mention the title, which is a line quoted from a preacher in the novel and repeated by the narrator near the book's end.  To 'Go set a watchman', means to place a watchman, or a look-out, on your soul.  She is talking about how we all need to listen to our consciences, if we are to know the difference between right and wrong.   The irony is that it is Atticus, and perhaps the children too, who literally become  the watchmen for Tom Robinson in Mockingbird.   In hindsight, you can see how one book begot the other.
And that is , ultimately, why I think that this book is worth reading.  You can see how the character of Scout is formed - the feisty, opinionated Jean-Louise is not so very different to her literary daughter and even our understanding of Atticus, is deepened by reading this first novel.
So, I would say to you, that, in this case, I am glad that Alice Lee did not play God, as Cassandra Austen did, and destroy her sister's manuscript.  She left it to fate to decide its future and now it is up to you and I to decide to read it or not.  I have made my decision and am happy with it.   Have you? 

Friday, 7 August 2015

Case Histories ~ Kate Atkinson

I am not sure if I am now officially in love with Kate Atkinson, or Jackson Brodie (or both!), but I simply can't get enough of her novels.  'Case Histories', I am delighted to learn, is the first in a series of novels which revolve around the ex-soldier, ex-police inspector, private-eye, Jackson Brodie.  While Jackson is Yorkshire through and through, a tough guy, certainly; he still manages to weep on numerous occasions in the novel, and in a way is every bit as fragile as the many of the victimised women and girls that populate its pages.
His marriage is in ruins, his eight year old daughter is already rebelling against him, his secretary is openly antagonistic towards him and even his dentist seems out to torture him.  But all of this chaos merely makes Brodie even more attractive as a central character: we feel sympathy for the man whose life is falling apart, while he spends his life trying to put other people's lives back together again.  There is a poetry in this.  He can't seem to help himself.
As the title says, this novel deals with a series of cases that Jackson tries to solve, including one involving the murder of his own sister, Niamh.  And I suppose, this is why we instinctively trust Jackson; we know that he will prove to be a great detective because he understands suffering; he lost a sister of his own and is haunted by that memory.
Of course, like Darcy, Rochester, and other great romantic heroes who have gone before him, Brodie is a tormented, brooding, loner, who has difficulty communicating his feelings with the women in his life - he would much rather buy them a bag of chips, wrap them in a warm blanket or find their lost kitten, to show he cares; or, with men, speak with his fists (especially to David Lastingham, his fiancé) or just say nothing at all.  He is an all round do-gooder (but not in a 'men in tights' kind of way), who'd give you his last tenner for a cab ride home, just to make sure you got there safely, while he takes the bus, in the rain.  For Jackson Brodie, you say it with a cup of tea rather than flowers.

Of course, the intertwining plots are captivating, just what we have come to expect from Atkinson. There are mysteries, twists and complications, that endlessly delight the reader. It is all here; a beautifully written novel whose narrative brings us inside the heads of a myriad of unforgettable characters, each with a unique, individual voice: there are no stereotypes. each character is as real as the next.

But for me, the appeal is anchored around the compelling character of Jackson Brodie, whose strength is in his vulnerability.  We are presented with a collection of mothers, brothers, husbands and sisters who have 'lost-girls' in their lives.  And while Jackson, and Theo, whose daughter was murdered by a yellow-jumpered mystery killer, agonize over the vulnerability of women, it is actually this fear and anxiety which cripples Jackson; this is what makes him so vulnerable.  It is his love for his daughter, his sister, old widows and homeless orphans, that is his Achilles' heel.  No need for Kryptonite here, a damsel in distress will bring Jackson to his knees every time.  

There is some comfort for (female?) readers in that: would Jackson come to our rescue if we needed him?   He surely would, if he could climb out of the pages of the book and if he wasn't actually a mere fabrication, devised by Kate Atkinson to delight readers (and herself).  But let's suspend our disbelief, because, as I say, I am quite in a mind to be in love with Jackson Brodie (at least for the duration of this latest book affair) and to declare that Kate Atkinson is an author to love.  You feel as safe in Atkinson's hands as we imagine we would feel in Jackson's.  Now there's an image for you!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves ~ by Karen Joy Fowler


I didn't really take to Rosemary Cooke, the book's  narrator at the beginning of Karen Joy Fowler's novel, 'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' .  Much like Jane Austen's character Emma, I didn't find that there was much to like.  She is a precocious, apathetic college kid, devoid of endearing angst and apparently loveless. She cares so little about anything really; disliking her parents, distrusting her friends, if she has any friends, and has little interest in anything much.  Rosemary, is passionless.  She misreads people, doesn't know how to relate to them and seems very jealous of those around her, especially her sister Fern, hates her father and has mixed feelings towards her older brother, Lowell.

But of course, over time, we unravel Rosemary's story and we begin to understand her psychology. Why is she so uneasy in her own skin?  Why is she so insecure in her position as daughter in the family, and why do her sister and brother leave?  The cleverness in this book in is the telling - there is a great surprise, quite near the beginning, which hooks the reader and will not let you go until the book's end.  

Now, I do not spoil books, but it is near impossible to review this book without giving away too much.  However, as I came to this book without knowing anything about it, that is how I think that you should come to the novel too.  Don't Google it beforehand or read the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads.  Instead, let the events unfold, as I am sure the author intended them to.  
  
Some very basic facts-
At the core, this is a book about families and the choices that they make.  It considers the fragility of relationships and presents us with a portrait of the Cooke Clan, living in America in the 1980s, '90s etc. up to about 2012.  Told in the first person, this novel will get under your skin and by the end, you will feel that you are part of the Cooke Clan yourself.  The narrative starts in the middle and radiates backwards and forwards, much like the branches and roots of any family tree.  Rosemary will explain the reason for this herself. 
Fowler considers the nature - nurture debate that people the world over all find so fascinating, and with the siblings of Fern, Rosemary and Lowell, we have three prime examples to study. The three share so many similar traits, but are very different.   Fowler also considers the impact that science has on the world in general and the moral implications that are involved with that, so be prepared for some big questions, as the author, through the experiences of the family,  forces you to consider some difficult truths about the world we live in.  

So, I managed to discuss the novel, without a spoiler in sight.  What a relief.
Once you can get over the first chapter, and the annoying Rosemary, you will enjoy this book, and maybe even come to like the passionless, joyless girl; I suspect, like me, you will. 




Sunday, 12 July 2015

A God In Ruins ~ by Kate Atkinson

I don't know about you, but I couldn't wait for this book to be published.  Kate Atkinson is fast becoming one of my favourite contemporary writers.  Her stories dip into different genres, but at the heart of them all, lie wonderfully drawn characters who we come to really care about.  Having read Atkinson's previous novel, 'Life After Life', the forerunner of  this book, it was with some trepidation that I began 'A God in Ruins'.  The main reason for this was that things didn't always work out well for Teddy, whom I adored, in the last book and I was fearful of more of the same this time round. I didn't think that I could bear that.  However, despite the worrisome title,  'A God in Ruins', is far less bleak for Teddy.  He gets through the war and fulfils his dream of marrying Nancy, the girl next door.  His life 'afterwards' is quite normal.  

Viola, his daughter and only child, is a disappointment; she seems to have been born angry.  It is unclear why such a loved and wanted child could be so unhappy, but perhaps this is one of the questions that Atkinson addresses in the novel.  Were the whole 'love and peace' generation, who came of age in the swinging sixties, all reacting to the violence and hatred of the years before their births?  Did they imbibe all of that angst?  Did they bear the psychological marks of trauma because of what their parents had done during WWII?  Was this some kind of trans-generational bad karma?  Either way, it seems to take a generations for all the anger to work its way out of the blood line, and it isn't until Teddy's grandchildren come along, that he begins to feel the familial love that he always hoped for and indeed expected.

Bertie and Sunny, are both sensible enough to appreciate Teddy for what he is, a kind, decent human being, who cares about nature and loves his fellow man.  Viola, the choleric daughter, can see nothing but her own pain, and is happy to destroy the lives of everyone around her if it means she has even a moment of happiness, which she never does.
Once again, Atkinson covers a wide period in history, the British during The Second World War, presenting us with amazing facts and figures about the time; giving us a history lesson in fact, not that we ever really notice. Her narrative is focused firmly on the lives of the small group of characters whom we come to know intimately.  Some are taken directly from the previous novel, such as Ursula and Sylvia Todd, for example, but it is not necessary to have read the companion book to appreciate this one, though of course, reading 'Life After Life' beforehand is highly recommended.  (See my earlier post.)

I cannot speak much about the ending of this novel - as with most of Atkinson's novels, her endings are full of unexpected twists and surprises, but I will say that with this novel, Atkinson has surpassed herself.  I found myself in a daze, one minute laughing, the next crying, as I stumbled over the last half a dozen pages or so.  What a roller coaster ride this novel has been. 

While reading the book, I was reminded, very often of the television show, 'Only Fools and Horses', in particular a character called Uncle Albert, who would often chime out the phrase, 'I fought a war for you , you know!' to which canned laughter was the regular response, along with rolling eyes and mocking jibes  from Del Boy and Rodney.  What this book does, is zoom in on the uncle Alberts of England, and consider that generation, who are now passing out of existence.  I never liked how those TV comedians treated Uncle Albert, nor the similar late 1970s punk ethos that sang/spoke a similar mantra.  I always have believed that the soldiers of WWII (and WWI for that matter) suffered enough on the battlefield.  The generation who lived through the Second World War really did strike out against fascism and saved the future for millions of us.  

What Atkinson cleverly does here is tell the story of the countless millions of people who were never born, because their WOULD-BE fathers and mothers died in the war.  So, if Teddy had died, as he had died in one of Ursula's lives in 'Life After Life', then Sunny, Bertie and even the file Viola would never have been born.  Their whole stories would never have been.  But Atkinson, DOES write Teddy's story.  She breaths life into him, from childhood to old age and what a wonderfully warm, vital man he is.  

I adored this character, his tenderness, his love of larks and bluebells, his bravery and sense of doing right.   Some of the time you feel, is this what he fought the war for?  Is this all he gets in life, a thankless, bitter child; a cold, sometimes distant, wife?  But life is unfair: ordinary life is messy and cruel, and old age is the cruellest of all.  And anyway, surely it is better to have survived the war, even if the 'afterwards', that Teddy and Nancy so often spoke of,  turned out to be less than ideal?  Surely it is better to suffer 'the slings and arrows' of this mortal life, than have it ripped away from you in the burning cockpit of a Halifax over the English Channel?  

The description of the treatment or mistreatment, of the old is very moving.  The slow, relentless undermining of power and the rise of the next generation is heartbreaking to read, and we feel it more keenly because we are reminded of Teddy's brave, fearless youth through the use of repeated flashbacks to Teddy's war.  This narrative technique keeps the youthful version of Teddy always in our mind's eye and it is even more poignant to see the old and the young Teddy side by side, chapter by chapter, in this way.  

Atkinson's narrative technique is also worth mentioning.  She is a weaver - and the tapestry that she creates is rich and bold, vibrant and intricate.  The picture created is at once familiar, a patchwork of familial relationships, tugging and pulling all the time, yet each one vital to the overall story.  Teddy, Nancy, Ursula, Bertie, Viola and Sunny, all coexist together, each has a story that needs to be told.  There would be no Teddy were it not for Ursula, no Viola if there were no Teddy and so on.  This patchwork the Atkinson creates resembles the very fabric of England; its people and their sacrifice during the war.  In this way, the impact of the war stretches through the generations, over time, touching us even now, and must never be forgotten.

I couldn't wait for this book to be published and now that I've spent the last week living within its pages, I feel like going back and reading it all over again.  I strongly advise you to do the same.
  

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Buried Giant ~ by Kazuo Ishiguro

'The Buried Giant' is one of those novels whose greatness can be measured by the degree to which it changes its readers.  It should, in fact, come with a warning - This novel will change the way you perceive the world - beware!
Yet, do not be afraid, this book just knocks you sideways and slightly changes your perspective on things, a little shift, perhaps, though mind-bending for all that.
At first, this book seems like a simple story, in the genre of fairytale:  there is an old lady, Beatrice, referred to as 'Princess', by her husband, the wise and tender Axel.  They are on a quest to find their son and meet, on the way, a brave knight, Sir Gawain and his trustworthy steed, Horace, whose mission it is to kill the she-dragon, Querig.  
There are ogres, pixies and beautiful damsels in distress, it is true; but if you expect that to be all there is to this novel, expect to be mistaken.  
This is a book like no other.  It has a secret, because all of the characters have secrets.  They live in a world where memory does not exist.  The sleeping dragon's breath is bewitched and while it drifts over the land, those living there lose all memory, of the distant past, and more recent occurrences.  So it is that Beatrice and Axel cannot remember their son all that well, and never call him by his name.  They know they have a son, but cannot remember how they came to be separated.  At first, the reader believes that old age has stolen away their memories.  Their neighbours think it is so, and they are no longer allowed to keep candles in their dwelling place, for fear of settling the village alight.  But then we begin to realise that even the young, like Master Edwin, apprentice knight, is also plagued by poor recollection. It seems like the worst cruelty of all, to be separated from your own memories.  As such, one cannot help but see how the entire story might some sort of metaphor for dementia and Alzheimer's.  But Axel and Beatrice wonder if it is not for the best that they do not remember the past, as they are happy together now.  What if something bad drove their son away, some argument, some horror?  Surely it is better to remain in the dark about such things?  
Ishiguro cleverly forces us to consider what life is like for someone suffering with chronic memory loss.  Would it be so bad to live moment to moment, to have to regrets, no resentments, no anger and to feel no guilt or recriminations?  Beatrice and Axel have one another.  Isn't that enough?  The idea is so unexpected, that it sets the reader on edge.  We begin to fear for the old couple as they go in search of the past.  What will they learn, and will they be able to cope with what they uncover?

And then, to add further layers of meaning, there is also the question of what will happen on a societal level, if the citizens emerge from the fog of memory loss; what then?  If they begin to recall atrocities that have already been carried out, will they rise up and take revenge?  Wouldn't it be best, after all, to let sleeping dogs (or dragons in this case) lie?  Who needs to remember all the bloodshed, killings, false deeds of the past?  Surely it only serves to prolong hatred and war.  Of course, Ishiguro is forcing us to consider today's societies, especially at a time in history where nationalism is on the rise; in Russia, Iran, Egypt etc., and there are numerous anniversaries of past wars on the horizon; Waterloo, Gallipoli and V.E. Day.  Are these things better forgotten.  The Jewsish people would tell us that we must 'never forget' the atrocities of Auschwitz or Belsen, and I agree.  Yet, this book questions the wisdom of such memory, just as it does the usefulness of personal recollection. Is it possible to move forward when historical memory keeps us rooted to a particular spot?  It is certainly food for thought.  
And so we come to consider the book's title; 'The Buried Giant'.  More than anything, this novel looks at buried memories and experiences, so the title is most apt.  Yet at the same time it cleverly conjures up the context of the text.  Perhaps it is a euphemism for a euphemism; the elephant in the room: the things we cannot speak of.  Ishiguro seems to be asking the question, 'what are the buried giants in our world, in our relationships?'  What is it that we are suppressing in society?  Race and gender inequality? Religious persecution and abuses within the church? The guilt about historical injustices, ethnic cleansing and the treatment of indigenous people? And what about the things we suppress in our relationships with our parents, siblings and lovers? Do we really want to go there or should we keep it buried? I suppose, our lives contain a combination of the revealed and the concealed and this is what the novelist is asking us to consider.  
In his last book, 'Never Let Me Go',  Ishiguro creates with a version of our world where people are bred for organ donation. There the title suggest the plea; 'do not forget me, remember me'; whereas here, Ishiguro is considering the things that should be forgotten and buried.  As with his last novel, Ishiguro also creates a whole world that is at once familiar and strange.  The people live in Britain, believe in Christ.  There are priests and monks, but the tale also contains ogres, hags, pixies and creatures that firmly belong in the world of myth and fiction.  The language too that the characters speak, is not at all modern, though not unfamiliar to our ears.  The writer has taken great pains to make this book 'sound' archaic, from a time before the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain.  There is a simplicity to the syntax that we soon become accustomed to; a music that echoes somewhere deep in our consciousness.
It took Ishiguro ten years to write this novel, but it was surely worth the wait. Like Joyce's great masterpiece, 'Ulysses', that was also many years in the making, this is a book that you will want to read and read again; but be warned, it will demand all of your attention.  It will make you think differently, about modern politics, war, memory and truth.  You will find yourself pausing in the middle of a page, to consider the definition of collective knowledge; or ponder the value of history books. 
Be warned,. 'The Buried Giant', WILL change your view of the world, and so much more.

Read, read, read this novel. #Amustreadforbooklovers

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Glorious Madness ~ By Turtle Bunbury

When I first wrote down the year, '2014', I felt a shiver run down my spine; the centenary of the start of WWI.  I knew that I would spend the next four years remembering the suffering and sacrifice of a whole generation of people, across the globe, during The Great War.  I dipped into book after book, both fact and fiction, trying to get a true sense of what life was like one hundred years ago for those who lived through those terrible times. When I opened up  Turtle Bunbury's book, 'The Glorious Madness', I immediately knew that I had found the book that I had been searching for.  

And this is, indeed,  a very special book, that looks at the experience of Irish men and women during World War One.  I have to declare an interest in the subject, having spent hours researching the soldiers who died from the school where I work.  There is something wonderful about opening a book and seeing the face of a soldier that you have been ceaselessly tracing, there on the page before you.  So it was when I opened this book, and it happened again and again.  To know that someone else was commemorating these men, was a glorious thing indeed!  

This beautifully produced book is crammed full of interesting stories, about extraordinary, yet ordinary, Irish people who took part in The Great War.
But of course, we have come to expect this from Bunbury, who not only is a great historian and researcher himself, but a talented teller of good yarns.  He manages to look into a period in history and pick out the really interesting and moving stories and to tell them in such a pared-down way, that we cannot help but be enthralled and captivated. 

For example, a story that is very near to my heart, is the story of  Colonel Alexander, who invented a special 'Spear-Point pump', that enabled the soldiers in the desert to drill for water.  This unassuming, but very clever man, was a pupil of the school where I teach and his brother Charlie's name is engraved on the WWI War Memorial there.  Because of his engineering skills, he changed the outcome of the war, and saved countless lives.

And the book is filled with such stories of the great and the good, poets and painters, soldiers and nurses, who each have a tale worth telling.   Yet, for me, this book really comes into its own in the section dealing with the fiasco that was Gallipoli.  

Around about now, exactly one hundred years ago, Irish soldiers of the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and the Irish Munster Fusiliers were dying on mass, as they attempted to take the Turkish stronghold.  Yet, the worst was to come. In August, 1915, the Pals Battalions, consisting of sportsmen, rugby champions, athletes, surgeons and solicitors, many of whom were students at Trinity College Dublin before they trained there in the Officers' Training Corps, met their end on the banks of Suvla Bay.  Bunbury tells their story, but not in a gruesome way that can often times prevent people from reading about this part of the war.  Instead, the author focuses on the individuals who took part in it; the officers, the solicitors, and the shoe-shop boys; every echelon of Irish is represented here, the tragedy headless of wealth or status. 

If you have an interest in people, in history, especially Irish history and The Great War, then this is the book for you.     It's sumptuous presentation makes it an ideal gift and a semi-reference book, that you and all the family will return to again and again.  

Already it is 2015, and my thoughts are firmly fixed on Turkey, and the events that happened there one hundred years ago.  This book has changed how I think of Gallipoli .It is more to me now than a place with strange-sounding names, unpronounceable and dusty in the mouth.  Now I can recall the faces of men and can hear the accents of Waterford and Ringsend in the sound of Seddelbahr and the spelling of Kiretch Tepe.  Now that is some special kind of book.  

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry ~ Gabrielle Zevin

If this book were a tin of varnish, it would be Ronseal Varnish: it does exactly what it says on the tin. 'Delightful. I read it in one sitting', writes Eowyn Ivey, author of 'The Snow Child' on the book's distinctive front cover.  And indeed, I did read it all in one go.  The New York Times Book review writes on the back cover that the author's touch is 'marvellously light'. This is also true.

On the inside cover, the blurb tells how this book is about 'how unexpected love can rescue you'.  All this is very interesting and, for the most part, undeniable.
However, nowhere on the cover, or on the book blurb, does it mention one, certain fact: that this book is a retelling of George Eliot's 'Silas Marner'.

Now, I must own that I really like Eliot's story, and when A.J. has his first 'blackout', I did think to myself, 'Oh, that is like Silas Marner.'  But when a prized, rare book goes missing and the island community rallies round, alarm bells began to ring.  Yet, it wasn't until  A.J. returned home to his book store to find a beautiful little girl where his treasure had once been, did I come to accept that there was no escaping it- the plot had Eliot stamped all over it.

Don't get me wrong, I liked this book.  As an avid reader and book collector, this novel has much to attract a person like me.  It refers constantly to what makes a good book, listing which books you ought to read and even the character-creations are book-mad. They are either publishers, editors, authors and even the local policeman is a crime-novel geek - not that unexpected really.  The setting epitomises the perfect booksellers hideaway; an island where book clubs are regular occurrences and everyone decides who to marry depending on which books they read (or do not read, as is also the case.)
There are even nods to famous novels in the naming of the characters: the ballet teacher is Madame Olenska, named after a character from 'Age of Innocence' perhaps, while the publishing company that Amy works for is a nod to Austen's 'Knightley'.  Maybe I stretch the idea a bit far, but such is this book; a dripping tap of literary references.
If you love books, and your favourite place to hang out is an overcrowded, over-stocked, bookshop, then you will love to step inside the world of this novel and meet some like-minded characters.  But, perhaps, like me, you might feel a little cheated that you were not forewarned about the borrowed plot of this book.  But, you needn't worry about that; now you know!
If this book were a tin of varnish, you might be disappointed.  It says Ronseal on the front, but you know it's an old brand, just with a different label stuck over the faded one.  It's a little cheeky, selling one thing as something else, and not even giving credit to Eliot, and the more I think of it, the more annoyed I become.
So, while I really wanted a nice, new book to read, I got varnish.... and that, my friends, is a sticky kind of metaphor that no one should ever have to deal with.




Friday, 13 February 2015

Wake ~ by Anna Hope

'Wake', by Anna Hope was a story I did not want to read.  World War One... three women ... the tomb of the Unknown Soldier? ... Surely this book would leave me an emotional wreck?  But my curiosity got the better of me and I began to read.  

It's 1920, London, in the aftermath of the Great War.  There is heartbreak everywhere: again and again, people's lives prove more difficult to heal than missing limbs and damaged bodies.  How do you move on when so much has been left behind?  The story of three main female characters, each struggling to come to terms with the loss of someone: son, lover, brother, is compelling reading . Ada, Evelyn and Hettie have yet to achieve a complete recovery, have yet to face, head-on, the sadness that has interrupted their lives. For them, a moment of catharsis comes with the commemorations on Armistice day, 1920, when the body of the Unknown Solider is finally laid to rest, bringing London to a standstill amid crowds of onlookers.  


Author Anna Hope takes many recognisable images from the war; the statue of the Virgin and the baby Jesus dangling from the bombed Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières; groups of faceless soldiers gathered on a nameless river bank; crowds gathering to welcome the return of the Unknown Soldier, and pumps life into them. She inflates the historical until it balloons before us and forces us to reconsider it. So, there's a nurse, delaying her return to England to escape a marriage that she doesn't want; a farmer, happy to lose an eye if it means returning to his beloved fields, two soldiers, clinging to one another in the darkness.  There is death yes, but more often than not, this novel tells the story of those who did not die; focusing instead on the survivors left behind. 


But survival, in Hope's novel, it's a tricky thing; streaked with disappointment and tasting of bitterness. These pages are filled too with countless soldiers' sad stories: Irish, French, Scottish and British, all present to recount a memory from the war they experienced in France; men who came home, feeling their luck, like a weight about their necks.  They are but mere glimpses of human experience, yet Hope manages to thread them all together to form an historic tapestry, a panoramic warscape, where the dust has blown away, and only their voices remain.


We witness a mother,  going through a box of mementos, her young son's short life reduced to a few, paltry keepsakes.  Hope describes her feelings and thinks her thoughts with such honesty, that we believe every word.  Surely this is just what it felt like for millions of women, each one searching for hidden messages, hidden meaning inside a torn brown envelope that they hoped would never be delivered to their door.     


Anna Hope steps inside the lives of those who lived at this time in history, walks in their shoes and gives voice to their passion and torment.  We witness Ada's mental anguish, as she tries to come to terms with the loss of her son. Time has moved on for the world,  but not for the relatives and loved ones of the soldiers who've died.  Some find escape in the company of strangers and the darkness of dance-halls; others in the visions of sightseers and clairvoyants, but there is only so much running a person can do: demons must be faced in the end.  


This of course touches on the title of the novel, which has many meanings, all of which apply perfectly to the story.  Of course it refers to waking the dead, something that was denied to the families of the many soldiers who did not return home and whose bodies were so destroyed that they were never found; and the act of being awake, alert and alive to the world around you.  But it also relates to the reawakening of those who were left in a sort of limbo, with the coming and going of war; those who felt, that in some strange way, the letting go of pain was in some way an act of disloyalty. As readers, we will these characters to move on, to heel.  


So do not fear this book.  It won't torment you or be unbearably sad, because this is a book about life.  The characters are wonderfully real, from their individualistic way of speaking, to their complicated relationships.  They have more in common with you and I than you might expect. The author breathes life into these long dead people; allowing us to step into their shoes, feel how they felt, and challenging us to imagine what life was like, one hundred years ago, when innocence was lost and madness prevailed.  Now that was a frightening thing indeed. 

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Lovesong of Queenie Hennessy ~by Rachel Joyce

'The Lovesong of Queenie Hennessy', by Rachel Joyce, is the companion book to 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry', by the same author.  If, like me, you lovingly followed Harold's every step on his journey from one end of the UK to the other, then this is a book for you.

We catch-up with Queenie in a hospice for the dying, as she waits for Harold to arrive.  The novel is told in her own voice, and is largely consists of her last letter to Harold Fry - her lovesong. In it, she looks back over her time with Harold and re-tells their story, from her point of view, from their very first meeting, in the cafeteria - not the stationery cupboard as he mistakenly recalled.

Joyce takes the opportunity to develop the character of Harold's wife, Maureen, and their son David, while introducing a whole band of new characters who reside or work at the hospice, with Queenie.  It is in this, that Joyce really shines.  As we saw in the previous book, Joyce is masterful in her creation of believable, enchanting characters who converse together about what really matters in life.  This ability most probably comes from Joyce's experience as a writer of radio plays.  Most of the time, when reading her novels, we feel as if we are eaves dropping on a conversation between people in a room next door.

There are many parallels between Harold and Queenie - their odd choice of shoes, for one thing. While he decides to traverse a country in a pair of senseless yachting shoes, Queenie longs for her beautiful red dancing shoes, her most treasured possession.  They seem to share a dog too, one who likes to carry stones in his mouth, although, in Queenie's case, the dog is probably a figment of her imagination.

The fact that Queenie is not Harold's wife, is a little unsettling - surely it is Maureen who Harold truly loves, or did I mis-read the first book? Aren't we hoping that Harold and Maureen can find each other again and live out happy lives together?  One of the greatest things that I remember about the Harold Fry book is that both Maureen and Harold look back over their lives and regret wasting time being mad at one another; they should have loved more and hated less.  This new book adds a third wheel to their story and upsets the resolution at the end of the first novel.  By bringing Queenie back into the picture, Joyce is eroded that hard-won resolution, for a while at least.  But that said, it is lovely to spend some time with Harold Fry again, and I am sure that the author too enjoyed dusting him off and bringing him back into the line light once more.

What is delightful about this book, is that while reading Queenie's story, one is actually returning to the previous book, Harold's book.  By revisiting the plot, Joyce begins to add layers of meaning to the stories.  Each informs the other, creating a richness rarely obtained in this genre.  The novel almost insists that the reader returns to the Harold Fry novel, so as to understand this novel all the better, and visa versa, which would encourage the reader to enter into an endless cycle of re-readings  that may never end!

As the cover suggests, this book is the perfect match for 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry', and as such, you can't really have one without the other.  And as I said in the earlier review of that first book, reading it, was like meeting a new friend, one that will always have a hold of your heart.  And likewise, I feel that this introduction to Queenie Hennessy is a revelation; she is every bit as real as Harold, in her quiet, everyday way and just as unforgettable.