Thursday, 31 July 2014

Life After Life ~by Kate Atkinson

Simply put - I loved this book.  Life After Life - by Kate Atkinson, is a book you will not be able to put down.  It is a definite choice to add to your 'must read' list this summer.  Its fascinating structure, is like nothing I have ever read before and kept me enthralled throughout.
The story is based on an age old question: what would we do differently if we could live our lives over again? As such, the novel  is quite philosophical at times, prompting its readers to consider the big ideas: life, death and fate.
I mean, if you could go back and live your life over, what one thing would you change?  Avoid ever meeting your ex?  Stand up to that bully in school?  Somehow prevent Princess Diana from visiting Paris in August 1997... or maybe from marrying Prince Charles in 1981?  But surely if you could go back in time and change history, you would make it momentous: foil the September 11 plot, murder Hitler?  These are the thoughts that must have pulled at Kate Atkinson's mind as she danced her way through this novel, and it certainly feels like this was a pleasurable book to write.  The characters can live forever - dying, then being reborn, over and over : they can survive anything.  There is something very satisfying, as a reader, to know that the people in the story will make it through; that no matter how bad things get, they will be okay.  . This very plot device enables Atkinson to deal with some very disturbing issues, such as rape, domestic abuse and murder, in a palatable way.  And in turn, she makes us, as readers, face the idea in our own lives: no matter how bad it gets, where there is life...

The protagonist, Ursula Todd, is born in 1910, in rural England, as the snow begins to fall, but lack of medical assistance and a complication at birth, means that she dies immediately.  In an instant, she is reborn, as the snow falls and the story begins again, made possible because one detail was changed: this time her mother had a small pair of scissors at hand to cut the cord.  And so the story progresses, moving swiftly through the Great War period, and up to and beyond World War Two, with Ursula dying many times, and being reborn over and over.  And so we come to realise that the title, 'Life After Life', actually refers to a series of lives, following one after the next and not a reference to the afterlife that one usually associates with dying.

One thing that I noticed in the book, was that, perhaps, it was not only Ursula who could go back in time and change history.  It seems that her mother too, made notes on how to do things differently 'next time round' - like when Ursula died the first time - 'remember to keep a small pair of scissors nearby', she tells herself.

 I thought it interesting too that the only thing that Ursula wanted of her mother's, years later, was the carriage clock, which her mother, in turn, had taken from her mother's home.  This special clock, with its associations time and perhaps time-travel,  passing from mother to daughter, is a very interesting concept and added a layer of detail to the story that was delightful.

Indeed, there is much food for thought in this novel, but more than anything, it is a hugely enjoyable read, with characters that live and breath, and will haunt you long after the final page has been turned and the book returned to the shelf.  Simply put - read 'Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, or spend the rest of the year wishing that you had.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring up the Bodies' ~ by Hilary Mantel

A 'Must-Read'.

I never like to lump two novels together into the same blog-pot, as it were, especially not two such exceptional books, but so seamless was the transition between these texts, that they feel like one in my imagination, and so I will break the rule just this once.

Of course, Wolf Hall came first.

From the opening scene, I was hooked.  Thomas Cromwell, a young English man, is being beaten badly by his father.  He is lying on the hard cobblestones, in agony, unable to lift his head to avoid his father's stamping heel.

How will he make his escape?  How can he survive when all the odds seem so stacked against him?  We are at once inside his head, experiencing what he experiences, feeling every hurt and ache as he feels it.  The novel is written in the continuous, present tense, making the narrative seem instantaneous, current, and so very real that one forgets that the book is set in the 16th century.  And that is my favourite thing about these book - and I have to lay my cards on the table from the start, dear reader - I loved these books - my most absolute favourite thing about the books is how fresh they feel.  They might as well have been set in 2014 in some ways, feeling every bit as real and perhaps even moreso, compared to many modern novels.


In part, it is because the book is told in the present tense, but also because the central character, Thomas Cromwell tells, the story, as if he is writing a verbal record of his life. But it is not as formalized as a traditional diary, because an omniscient narrator is also present; but the reader hops willy-nilly, in and out of Cromwell's consciousness throughout.

I must explain early on that the Cromwell at the centre of this novel is not Oliver Cromwell, the most hated of men (on this side of the Irish Sea at any rate).  No, this is the story of King Henry VIII's influential adviser, Thomas Cromwell, and how he came to hold such a position of power, beginning, as he did, as the son of a blacksmith.   It is almost completely impossible not to google Thomas Cromwell while reading this novel. Hilary Mantel has created such a vibrant, detailed account of sixteenth century England, that it is difficult to separate what has been imagined and what has not.  I continually found myself wondering, 'Did Cromwell actually say that?  Did he really think that?'

Clearly, Mantel has meticulously researched the period and the lives of those who populate these epic, historical tales.  We learn about the ins and outs of Medieval life, the working of Henry's court; the clothes and styles worn by people of fashion, (or not as the case may be). But we also see, first hand, the corruption of those in power (some things never change), petty sibling rivalries, bitter family squabbles etc.

Like I said, there is something of the moment about these novels. Mantel has managed to described the world of Medieval England with an immediacy that is beguiling.  She acts as an archaeologist who has resurrected these ancient characters and draped them anew, and presented them to modern readers, pumped fresh blood into their veins, fleshed them out with new passions, new feelings, new life.

In this way, Mantel reminds me of William Shakespeare.  It is the very humanity of Hamlet, King Lear and Othello, that allows these ancient creations to live and breath still in our imaginations, more than four hundred years since they first graced the Elizabethan stage.  It is just so with Thomas Cromwell.  Mantel has managed to do just that, filling the gaps in our knowledge about these historical figures, with her own imaginings.  She speculates on how they might have felt on getting married; when their first child was born; how they spent Easter, and even the family's involvement in the Christmas nativity celebrations.

Who cannot relate to such familiar, family events?  It is because these characters' lives are draped with the familiar, cloaked with the ordinary, that the world they inhabit feels so wonderfully real.

One of my favourite moments in the book is when we are presented with the delightful imagine of Cromwell's young daughter Grace, dressed for the nativity play performance.  Her home-made angel costume, replete with long, peacock feathers, is lovingly made by her proud father.  This touching scene could be taken from any of our childhoods. Mantel chooses these universal memories to move us, prompt us, to imagine this 16th century world and, like the Thomas Cromwell of her novel, she manages it all effortlessly.

And so we are all left waiting for the third, and final, installment of this trilogy.  History dictates how this story will end, so we know, at least on one level, what awaits the blacksmith's son.  Yet, we can rest assured that the story will never have been told in such a way before and that Mantel will take us on a journey like no other, but it will be familiar in a strangely ordinary, human way.  We only hope that we will not have to wait too long.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands ~ by Natasha Solomons


Already a big fan of Natasha Solomons, I couldn't wait to read her latest novel - hoping against hope that it would be just as good as 'Mr Rosenblum's List', or 'The Novel in the Viola'.  Was I disappointed?


Well, 'The Gallery of Vanished Husbands' is a novel that follows the life of 30 year old Juliet Montague; mother of two, Leonard and Freida, and the wife of 'vanished husband', George.  The latter left home on her birthday, and hasn't been seen in seven years.

She is just tolerated by the tight-nit, conservative Jewish community in a small village in England, where she lives, because she is an 'aguna': a woman whose husband has abandoned her.  She has to live as a living widow, because she is neither divorced, nor single.  To make matters worse, her husband was a known gambler and thief; local gossip claims that she 'could  not keep a man', and even her mother begins to feel guilty that they brought shame to the family by allowing her to marry a stranger, and not one of the usual local, 'nice boys'.

But Juliet feels no such guilt, and actually enjoys doing things her own way.  As such, she is a very likable character.  And when she fritters away her savings for the family fridge on a portrait of herself by a handsome, young artist, and complete stranger, we cheer her on, despite what the neighbours might think.
So begins a new life for Juliet, and Charlie, the young artist, and she embark on a business career together, setting up 'Wednesdays', an art gallery, where Juliet is the curator.  Of course, other artists come on board, and Juliet becomes a success in her own right. Yet, there is the problem of the missing husband, a love interest and two adolescent children to factor into things, but you get the picture. (Ahem!)

But what about the book in general?  Is it a good read?


Well, to start with, I thought that the structure of this book was very clever; it reads like a gallery catalog; each  chapter beginning with a painting, listed as it would be in an art exhibition.  The ensuing chapter then deals with that painting and how it came about.  The down-side of this formalized technique is that each painting must be contrived to fit into the story and, at times, I thought that the story and life of the characters became a little stifled as a result.  I wanted to stay with Max and Juliet in the cottage in the woods, but things move on quite quickly in this book - there is always another painting to be introduced and explained - and so, alas, we had to leave them behind too soon.

Abandonment

All the male characters abandon Juliet at some point in the book: George, Leonard, Max and even Charlie.
The only exception is Mr Green, Juliet's adoring father. In this way, this is a book about fathers too: the good father, Mr Green - who is always happy to see Juliet and has a special smile just for her, and George, the bad father - who loves gambling more than his children, and cannot seem to give himself wholly to fatherhood.

Indeed, the title refers to a newspaper column in an American newspaper, looking for men who have all abandoned their wives back in Europe' The Gallery of Vanished Husbands'.  Once again, as in her other books, 'The Novel in the Viola' and 'Mr Rosenblum's List', Solomons uses traumatic periods in human history, in this case the end of World War Two, to add drama to the plot.  It is the war that brings Bulgarian refugee George to England in the first place; a stranger who makes the older women anxious and the younger ones swoon.

|But there is another gallery in the book, not just the one of book's title, and that is the gallery of Juliet's portraits.  

One might be excused for wondering about Juliet's slightly self-absorbed, quasi-narcissisticobsession with her painted self.  What must it have been like for her children to grow-up surrounded by an ever-multiplying collection of their mother's image, gazing at them from every available wall space in their average-sized home? Perhaps this accounts for Freida's, at times, strained relationship with her mother.  Indeed, the narrator explains it best at the the beginning of the book when she says, 'Juliet Montague wanted to be seen'.

And, it is true, identity, is another key theme in this novel.  

Juliet is constantly dealing with the expectations placed on her by the conservative Jewish community that she belongs to; her parents; her children; her friends, and even herself.  But more than anything she has to deal with the fact that she is a wife, yet not a wife; not a divorcee nor a widow.  The reason why Juliet is so upset with her husband for stealing the portrait of her, is because he has stolen her identity, her sense of self, her position in society.  In addition, he has made her an aguna - a living widow - someone who is not free to marry another, but not a socially acceptable married woman either.  She is a persona non grata, so George has, in fact, stolen her identity, making him truly the thief everyone knew him to be. As in real life, we must deal with how our identity changes as we grow older, and in a way, this is what Solomons cleverly comes to terms with in this, her third novel.

My one wish for this novel is that it came with a collection of paintings or illustrations.  (Ok - I realise that this is quite an outlandish ask and nigh on impossible - but it could happen!!?) It seems a little hard that in a novel filled with many references to portraits of Juliet, there would not even be one for us one to look at. But I suppose, that is what the imagination is for.

Read this book - buy it for your friends - you won't be disappointed!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Daughters of Mars ~ by Thomas Keneally


As we approach the centenary of the start of the First World War, it seems that television, radio and newspapers are full of stories about people who lived one hundred years ago - and rightly so.  Book shops are no different. So when my eye caught this beautiful book cover in a shop recently, and I read the blurb, I knew that I would have to read it.
 
It tells the story of two nurses, sisters in fact, Sally and Naomi Durance, from a small town in Australia, who leave home to do their bit for the war effort in Europe.  (The title, with its reference to Mars, the god of war, is very apt and is referred to numerous times in the book.)  They are not very close; theirs is a complicated relationship.  One had fled the ties of filial duty early on, leaving the younger sister to stay behind with the responsibility of a sick mother to age her before her time. Both saw the war as a means of escape; the similarities between them are there from the very start of the book.
Keneally cleverly uses the sisters to tell the story of the Australian men and women volunteers, as they move from one theatre of war to another.  They begin with Gallipoli, and are placed on a hospital ship, and are met with the ceaseless tide of injured and dying from the Dardenelles.
Of course, they are not alone, and we are presented with a collection of nurses, from varying backgrounds, along with officers and members of the Royal Army Medical Corps, to give us a more complete view of the war.  The reader is left with an anxious feeling that not everyone can survive the fighting; surely some must perish? In that way we are can never rest easy, just as Sally and Naomi cannot.

From Turkey and the hospital island of Lemnos, the girls are sent to various hospitals and clearing stations in France and Belgium. Keneally's detailed research allows us to step inside an army medical tent, to witness, at close quarters, wound irrigation and amputation; death by poison gas and hemorrhage.  It is, after all, a story about military nurses at a time of war; at times the stench of freshly-spilt blood is almost over-whelming.
Yet, there is something about Keneally's narrative style here that keeps us at a distance from the main characters.  Perhaps it has something to do with there being two central protagonists, but I always seemed to be at one remove from Sally and Naomi; as if the story were being told second hand.
Much of the time, we were told what the characters did, not silently shown for ourselves, to observe and imagine.  Keneally also decided not to use punctuation, specifically apostrophes, when people were talking, which made some sections of dialogue difficult to follow. It was more annoying than anything.
Yet, I felt that it worked well in one section of the story, when the girls are in a dangerous situation, and have to talk to themselves, silently, to get through.  Here, I thought, it was interesting not knowing if they were indeed talking to themselves, of if anyone could hear them.  In the author's notes, we are told that he used this technique to mirror that lack of punctuation in wartime letters and diaries - but I think that makes little sense - as his book was not a diary or letter, and there were times when the missing punctuation was quite distracting.
While I am at it, I might as well comment on another thing that I found annoying, and that was his clear anti-Irish comments in the book.  He invents an  Irish regiment, made up of foul-mouthed, brutal thugs, and declares at the end of the book, that he invented their part in the story.  In fact, it seemed to me, that every time the Irish were mentioned, he either referred to hard-gambling, hard-drinking or ignorant behaviour. He makes up for it, slightly, by creating an Irish nurse, Honora Slattery, who is one of Sally's pals, so he just about gets away with it.
What he doesn't get away with is the ending, which I will not give away here, not because it is sad or predictable, but because it breaks the rules of storytelling. It is most unusual, although Dickens played a similar trick with one of his novels. When you read the book - you will know what I mean.
I was fascinated by the sheer detail in the book and how much I learned about life in the Casualty Clearing Stations, on baord a hospital ship etc.  Keneally deals with the conscientious objectors, the mercy killings, the shell-shock, the cowardice, the bravery, the gas, the injuries, the destroyed relationships and the overall illogical logic of army life.  But because of the narrative style, I never came to love the central characters as I wanted to.  Knowing the fate of such men and women in real life - it was probably for the best.
I remember reading Schindler's Ark, Keneally's most famous novel, as a teenager, and being unable to put the book down until it was read. While he is dealing with another important story from history, that must be told, I do not think that he engages the readers with the same sort of intensity as he did with his earlier novel.
However, this is still a book worth reading.  It tells a story that must be told and indeed should be read.  As nurse Freud wisely comments at one point, 'Their heads are empty of history.  Sometimes... people need a history enema'.  Enough said.








Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Elizabeth Bishop ~ Life Lessons

Like most people who read her work, I have long thought of poet Bishop as a painterly poet, in the manner of G.M. Hopkins. No one can colour a scene like Elizabeth Bishop; it is her trademark.
Doubtless her powers of description are keener than most; the famous Bishop 'eye' never fails to capture the essence of a scene. As poet Robert Lowell once told her, 'No eye in the world has seen what yours has'.
Yet, having come to her poems after a gap of almost a decade, I find that they have changed during the passage of time, (or rather I have!) and I can suddenly see beyond the glorious description.

For a start, most unexpectedly, Bishop speaks to me as a mother. Bishop herself never had children, yet there is no escaping the female experience of motherhood in her work, in poems such as 'Filling Station'.  Here, the mother of the family featured in the poem, who live in the oil-soaked, gas station, is never mentioned, but is inescapably present.
Somebody embroidered the doily. Someone waters the plants ...Somebody arranges the cans of oil... Somebody loves us all.'  
Of course, Bishop is never specific, but I cannot help but imagine that the 'somebody' that is being referred
to is the mother of the greasy, monkey-suited family. She is the unseen home-maker, who crochets and maintains the home, beautifying the environment - not unlike Doris Day in the film, 'Calamity Jane' - whose Woman's Touch can 'Give a cabin glamour'.  This is a poem that praises the thankless lot of mothers the world over.
How many times a day have I questioned, 'Why oh why the doily?' when dusting, straightening, mending or fixing something or other about the house.  Why do women feel the need to create a home; to fill it with beautiful things; to furnish?  One might as well ask 'Why oh why IKEA?'

Here Bishop is touching on one of the most basic differences between men and women, but more importantly, she is making a statement about the over-riding feeling of love that a mother feels for her children.  The source of all that creativity, I believe, comes from the same place that love comes from.  That is why writers, poets , painters and composers often fall in love with the piece of art that they have made, referring to it even as 'their own darling child' (Jane Austen).  As a poet then, Bishop did know something of a mother's feelings.

We all of us have a mother; and so 'Somebody loves us all'. Yet the irony is, of course, that, when she was just five, Bishop's own mother was incarcerated  in a mental institution and she never saw her again.  The loss of a parent, alas, is something that I too have had to face in the intervening ten years since I first read this collection of poems.  Suddenly, Bishop's themes touch me, like never before.  Such a monumental event left an indelible impression on Bishop, so much so that fellow-poet Seamus Heaney, called her a 'poet of loss'.

Of course, loss was something that Heaney knew something about, having being sent home from school as a boy because his four year old brother had been killed by a car on the road outside his home.  In his poem 'Mid-Term Break', he recounts seeing young Christopher Heaney in the small white coffin, '
Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
Bishop describes something very similar in her poem 'First Death in Nova Scotia', where she recounts her first experience with death, when her young cousin Frank, named Arthur in the verse, died.  Most telling of all, it is her own mother who lays out the body and then lifts her up to see the body.  In this way, it is her mother who physically introduces Bishop to Death.  This would be the first death of many in Bishop's life.

The similarity between her poem and Heaney's is inescapable.  She writes:
Arthur was very small.
He was all white, like a doll
that hadn't been painted yet.
Jack Frost had started to paint him
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush

and left him white, forever.
Both poets make reference to 'snow', the bruised head of the child, marked with the colour red, and give prominence to the small stature of the dead boy's body.  But while Heaney's poem swallows back raw emotion, Bishop's presents us with an emotionless view of death.  In fact, the child speaker in the poem transforms the death scene into something almost magical and fairytale-like, with references to Jack Frost and a prince and princess.  However, it is the title that is most telling, this being the first death of her experience, reminding us of the later death-like loss of her mother, which is conspicuously NOT the subject of the poem.  Once again, it is the absence in Bishop which is most telling.
Bishop rarely mentioned her mother in her poems, preferring instead to focus on geography, travel and animals amongst other things, yet the loss of her parents at such a young age seems to colour much of her writing.  And while Heaney did name Bishop a poet of loss, and it is true that Bishop experienced much of what can be termed 'awful',  in her life, her outlook remained wryly positive, despite everything.  As her poem 'The Bight', and her tombstone, claim: life goes on, despite everything, 'Awful but cheerful', which is something that I can certainly relate to more and more as the years go by. Who knows how Bishop will speak to me a decade from now - I promise to let you know as soon as I find out.

Monday, 31 March 2014

William Morris - Artist Craftsman Pioneer' ~ by R. Ormiston & N.M. Wells

Growing up in the 1970s, I have to say that we had our fair share of crazy, geometric-patterned wall paper around the house.  The colours brown, beige, orange and yellow come to mind, inevitably floral, swirling or hexagonal and kaleidoscopic.  I have to say that it was enough to turn me off wall-paper and complicated patterns completely, for a few decades.
Yet, how then can I explain my love for the work of William Morris, the master pattern designer of the Victorian age?    I suspect, like many others, I am drawn to his work by the richness of colour and simplicity of form; every pattern pulls you in and holds you transfixed.
So, when I found this copy of ' William Morris - Artist Craftsman Pioneer' by R. Ormiston & N.M. Wells', I was compelled to add it to my book collection;  I simply could let let it out of my sight.

If Morris railed against the industrial revolution, he glorified in nature and sought to make the world a more
beautiful place.  In this book, it is clear to see that he fulfilled that goal.

The book deals with all of the things that inspired Morris, history, nature, poetry, art and social change. Each page is covered with rich reprints of his designs, while at the same time, explaining his ideology and technique.  As such, it is the perfect combination of biography and portfolio; something to satisfy your mind and eye at the same time.
Working in an organic chronological way, the book follows Morris's many interests and new directions, every time supplying a visual aid to accompany the text.
If nothing else, this book will remind you that there is colour in the world and that simple patterns are things of  great beauty.  It has certainly cured me of my horror of wallpaper: even those overpowering 1970s patterns seem a little more appealing to me me now.

In his lifetime, Morris wrote over 90 books - so he deserves a place among the other authors in my book blog - if not for his writing, then for the many beautiful ways he patterned a page, a cloth, a tile, with colour and style.

'Have nothing in your house that you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,' William Morris once famously said.  Well, then, I know that he would have been very pleased with this sumptuous hardback, created by Ormiston and Wells, as it succeeds perfectly on both counts.

This is a large, hardback, coffee table book, of about 190 pages, replete with index and introduction.  If you
know someone who enjoys arts and crafts, art history, or just simply loves to look at beautiful books, then this would make a wonderful gift for them.  And if not - then you may very well have to keep this book for yourself.  I predict you will not be able to part with it once you see it with your own eyes.  It may even set you re-imagining your childhood, making everything suddenly seem beautiful - well perhaps that is a step too far even for William Morris.



Friday, 28 February 2014

Lizzy Bennet's Diary ~ by Marcia Williams

This is a sweet little book, full of witty references to Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice'.  As with every proper diary, it is crammed full of detailed observations and private comments about those around her.  As such, the book reads like a summary of Austen's novel, with additions relating to every day life - such as favourite fabrics and  ribbons; mementos and  souvenirs.  This works particularly well, because we experience so much of the novel from Elizabeth's point of view.  

However, there are times that the Lizzy in William's book says some things that Austen's Lizzy would never say, such as 'Although Charlotte does not like me to
mention it, she is already twenty-seven years old - nearly ten years my senior!'  Of course, the real Elizabeth Bennet would never say such a thing, and certainly would not refer to her dearest friend as an 'old maid' as Williams's Lizzy does.  I suppose that is the draw-back of condensing a long novel into such a concise format: much character development is omitted.  The brevity of the text is a little unsettling and at times the book is overly-simplistic, with Lizzy occasionally sounding too much like Lydia and Kitty - obsessing about ribbons and balls - than our beloved heroine.

There are over twenty letters in Austen's novel, and some of them feature here.  They are handwritten in beautiful fold out pages, and, as in the original text, they allow us to hear directly from the other characters in the novel, such as Mr Collins, Mrs Gardiner and Fitzwiliam Darcy. Some letters are copied verbatim from the mother text, while others are fabricated entirely from Williams's imagination.

We catch glimpses of Mr and Mrs Darcy, at home, at Christmas, preparing for dinner with Georgiana and the Gardiners.  Such delicious flights of fancy are what make this book worth having.

But let us not forget the wonderful illustrations that accompany the book - Marcia Williams is clearly an
illustrator first and a writer second.  They are full of detail and will draw you to the book again and again.  They may lead you to believe that the book is more suitable for a younger audience, but I think that readers who are very familiar with Austen's novel, probably older book-lovers, will get a great kick out of the many in-jokes and references.

That said, there is much to enjoy in this book, for readers of every age.  Well, how could it fail? It is inspired by the great Austen herself!




Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Beautiful Books ~ 'Dear Peter' Anniversary Edition


Continuing the series on 'beautiful books', I wanted to show you this one hundred and tenth anniversary edition of Beatrix Potter's 'Dear Peter', which features many of the letters that the author wrote to children of friends, and fans of her picture book stories.  This miniature hardback book, called Dear Peter, with its bronze, guilt-edged pages, contains the very best of those letters.


Indeed, the entire series of twenty-three tales detailing the adventures of semi-human, prettily clad creatures, first began as a collection of letters.  Peter Rabbit, arguably her best known creation, made his first appearance in 1893, in a letter to cheer-up an ailing little boy called Noel Moore. What a lucky little boy!


For our enjoyment, this first letter is presented, in full, here in this book, complete with illustrations of Peter himself, and his incorrigible siblings, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail.

It didn't take much to transform these letters into the stories that have regaled and entertained generations of children in the intervening one hundred and ten years. What is especially nice about this collection of letters is that we get to learn what happened next to Peter and his friends: the letters
continue where the picture books end. It is clear that Potter was so enamored with her characters that she too was loath to say goodbye to them when their story was told.

But if you had conjured from the air the likes of Mrs Tiggy Winkle and Jemima Puddle-Duck, dressed them, sketched and draped them in water-colours and ink, you too may have delighted in resurrecting them occasionally to please yourself and young readers.
And how glad we are that she did!

If you delight in the tales and illustrations created by Beatrice Potter, or know a little person who does, then this is the book for you.  It's small size is in keeping with the format preferred by the author for her own books, and will fit nicely among the other, treasured Beatrix Potter books in your collection.  

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Beautiful Books ~ 'The Secret Garden' - illustrated by Lauren Child

Each Christmas I like to pamper myself with a beautiful hardback copy of a classic text, and this year I was especially delighted with this, anniversary edition of Frances Hodgson Burnett's best-loved tale, 'The Secret Garden'.

Now, if you are familiar with my blog, you will remember that I previously posted on this novel, waxing lyrical about Inga Moore's illustrated edition of The Secret Garden, but I know that you will forgive such repetition just this once, when you cast your eye over the beautiful illustrations that accompany this enduring text.  

At once, you will recognise the stylized artwork of Lauren Child, she of 'Charlie and Lola' picture book fame.  And what a wonderful job she has done with Hodgson Burnett's classic tale of the spoilt little girl from India, who, with the help of Dickon and a friendly robin redbreast, comes to discover the value of friendship and family in the cold, unlikely environs of the Yorkshire moors.  


Just look at the very first page of the book- there is a cutaway door, that opens onto the following page, revealing the title of the book.  How clever and even thrilling to discover a secret door of one's very own just inside the book cover.    

There is something ever so satisfying about seeing these modern illustrations alongside this classic Edwardian tale, where little girls wear white petticoats and black laced-up ankle-boots.  They bring a freshness to the book, that my young daughter (and I) find very appealing. 

But, let me be clear, this book is a true luxury item, and in my opinion is not meant for sticky fingers and spilled breakfast cereal, but is more suited to an older, more appreciative reader.  That said - you can always purchase an every day copy of the book, for younger readers, alongside this splendid copy, and reserve the latter for special days.  



So, if you love books like I love books (which I suspect you do!) then treat yourself to this glorious edition of 'The Secret Garden'. 

It was published in 2011, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the original publication, and, as a fan of author Frances Hodgson Burnett, you owe it to her, and the little child inside of you, to purchase a sublime, hardback, cloth-bound copy of this, her most popular novel, while you still can.  

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling ~ by Robert Galbraith

To begin with let me say that this is a really enjoyable novel.  From the first, I was hooked, and delighted in every twist and turn that we have come to expect from the novelist who brought us the Harry Potter series.  Rowling's private investigator, Cormoran Stike - what a great name!- is in the classic murder mystery style; a flawed, troubled, hard-living, hard- drinking ex-army officer, who is down on his luck but afraid of no one.  His love-life is in the toilet, but he still manages to attract the ladies.

At his side is his trusty new secretary Robin, as reliable as Batman's sidekick, a fiesty, quick-witted, normal girl from the north of England who is the prefect match for Strike's unorthodox methods and rock 'n roll family background. Together they make a winning team, especially as their is a possible simmering attraction just hinted at between them. But as we know, Rowling has a history of writing great platonic friendships between the sexes, so we only hope that there will be a sequel, so that we can find out if Robin goes through with her marriage plans to her perfect fiance or not.

But what seems curious to me is that J.K. Rowling chose to reinvent herself with this book, using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and not her first post-Potter publication, 'The Casual Vacancy'. My own theory is that she uses the pen name to create some distance between herself and the story. Indeed, there are some parallels between Rowling and the murder victim at the center of this novel , Lula.

Like Rowling, Lula is world famous, and spends her life in the public glare.  She is followed by unscrupulous paparazzi who make a living out of the suffering of others.  The author certainly has much to say about the behaviour of the British press, and even refers at one point to the practice of phone tapping. Of course, Rowling herself was involved very publically, in the recent Leveson phone-hacking inquiry in Britain, so the impact of such intrusive behaviour was obviously on her mind and such thoughts have found their way into the narrative here.

Here Galbraith (aka Rowling) cleverly chides the British tabloid press and comments on their lack of moral judgement when interfering in the lives of the famous, and sometimes vulnerable members of the public, through the mouthpiece of this male author, while leaving herself out of the argument.  Cleverly done Joanna!  

What this novel does so brilliantly though, is to put celebrity under the microscope; to question if happiness does follow fame, to consider the long line of hangers-on who silently group themselves around celebrities, like hungry sharks waiting to attack; and the endless minor celebrities who would do anything to get one notch higher on the fame ladder.
The divas, dodgey dealers and even the druggies are all mentioned here.

By setting the story in the world of modling,  Rowling cleverly keeps the novel at one remove from herself and the world of film and books, that she knows so much about.
As one of the most famous living writers, she must know a thing or two about the preying press and how such unexpected adoration, can change the way others behave around you
.
As such, the novel was a fascinating study on what fame is really like and the very act of writing about it at all and in such an honest way, reveals just how unchanged and normal Rowling is, despite her reknown thc world over.

One last thing, there is a considerable amount of swearing in the novel, and I only mention this in case you might consider accessing this text on audiobook: I heartily recommend you use headphones should there be any little people about.  That said, this is a most enjoyable read, full of memorable characters and  plot twists that are bound to please.  A good book club choice.  7/10

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Pleasure Seekers~ by Tishani Doshi


Alive with the sounds, tastes and smells of India, here is book to set your taste buds tingling! While 'The Pleasure Seekers' ostensibly tells the story of a young Indian man, Babo, who falls in love with Sian, a red-headed girl from Wales, it is much more than that.  The opening paragraph recounts a dream- the very first dream- of Prem Kumar Patel, Babo's father, in which he climbs mountains trying to find his wife and four children, feeling as if he was taken 'back to the coils of his mother's womb' and hurled 'to the end of his life'.  Such is the imaginative, metaphorical scope of poet, turned novelist,Tishani Doshi, whose prose style is the most original aspect of the book.  Indeed, as is often the case with modern novels, nothing very unusual or unexpected happens in this story; it traces the life-events of one family over a number of years, charts the highs and lows of life that we are all familiar with.  Yet what is original about his story is the way that Doshi considers these mundane events and shares her thoughts with the reader.  In this way, the book is more than anything a philosophical novel. Perhaps I should be more specific and say that this is a book filled with the author's views about life, people and familial relationships.

As the book is primarily a story of enduring love, despite prohibitive distances, both culturally and geographically; there is much for the author to ponder about the bonds that hold families together and the contradictory human desire to strike out alone in the world.  There is something which drives us all to become separate from the humans who created us, and this is what makes the book an interesting read.

I found  that Doshi was particularly insightful when it came to dissecting the mother-daughter bond, and the often traumatic separation that occurs in families whose parents hail from two, different countries.  The sense of belonging nowhere, yet yearning for a home place, is keenly felt on every page.

While I was captivated by the initial scenario, which is loosely based on Dohi's own parent's relationship, I did find that the second half of the book was somewhat disappointing.  The depiction of the parents as the eternal honeymooners, was particularly unrealistic in my point of view and detracted from the overall veracity of the text.
However, this minor disappointment was more than made up for by the wonderful character of Ba, the wise old grandmother, a semi-witch -like figure, whose blindness was compensated for by her extraordinary sense of smell.  Ba was a women who could foretell a child's future at a glance and could smell that guests were arriving , though they were many miles away.  It seems ridiculous I know, but Doshi manages to bring this almost mystical character into the novel and allows her to live side by side with her other more mundane earthlings.  This is a sign of the poet's deftness as she forces us to suspend our disbelief because Ba represents everything that we like to associate with India: mysticism, wisdom, knowledge, and ancient goodness.  I do not think that I would have enjoyed the novel half so much without her colourful presence in the book.
I cannot end without noting the many mouth-watering references to food in the novel: I had an appetite for Indian cuisine the entire time that I was reading the book.  I get the sense that food and the preparation of it is hugely important to the author, and her characters too.  And while the book begins with the story of the male protagonist, Babo, this is very much a story about women, mothers, daughters and wives; their lives, their choices and their relationships.  For this alone, I think the novel is worth sampling, and if nothing else, it will give you a taste of India that will send you scurrying to the pantry for that bag of rice, and that tin of coriander, to recreate something of the sensual journey that is promised by 'The Pleasure Seekers'.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Longbourn ~ by Jo Baker

There can be no denying, that there is much fantasizing associated with the novels of Jane Austen.  Some people dream of their very own Mr Darcy, while others don the clothes of Regency England and parade down the streets of Bath in an attempt to journey back in time.

Yet, I have always felt that had I been alive in the Georgian period, I would have most likely been one of the servant girls running around after the likes of Miss Jane or Elizabeth Bennet.  At last, we don't have to imagine too hard to know what life was like back then for women of the lower classes.  Jo Baker has done all the imagining for us and told a story that HAD to be told.

'Longbourn', follows the tale of Sarah, the below stairs servant at the home of the Bennet family, as she undertakes her daily chores and discovers much about herself and those around her. Yet, there is more at work in this very clever novel, as Baker takes the basic plot of 'Pride and Prejudice' and retells it from the point of view of those below stairs, and young Sarah in particular.  For example, we see how the house is turned upside down when Mr Bennet announces that Mr Collins is arriving that very day. The servants have been given no prior warning and must pull out all the stops for the man who will one day be their master when he inherits Longbourn.  Such are the delights of this novel, as it teaches us so much about the original story and its characters, from a fresh point of view.

What I really liked about this book was the way that it forces us to look again at the members of the Bennet household.  For example, we see how desperate the situation truly is when Lydia runs away.  The servants have to face the scandal in the local post office, forced to mingle with the villagers when Lydia runs away with Wickham.  They are not allowed the luxury of hiding away at home, but feel the full force of society's censure during the affair.

Yet, the observant reader, can see that Baker actually uses many stylistic aspects of 'Pride and Prejudice' in her novel.  Consider the plot line.  Like Lizzy and Darcy, Sarah and the handsome young footman, James, argue about books and the importance of reading.  It is one of the first things that both couples discuss and discover that they have in common.  Also, both female characters anticipate liking their male counterpart, initially, but are sadly disappointed in him.  In each case, there then develops a strong feeling of prejudice, whereby the heroine actively takes against the hero, simply because he does not show enough interest in her.

Similar too, is the narrative technique Baker uses; allowing us to always know what Sarah is thinking, and then slipping, momentarily, into James's mind - as Austen does with Lizzy and Darcy -  so that we learn how he truly feels about Sarah.  In this way, the reader, unlike the heroine, is aware that the central male character has fallen in love, and is caught up in the dramatic irony of the piece.  Will she ever discover the truth?  Will he ever express his feelings?  How will they ever be together?

The characters are similar too.  Darcy and James share a taciturn deposition, both due to social inexperience.  This fact is something that each is aware of and it causes them some anxiety.  Sarah, too, is quite like Lizzy, being energetic, feisty and prone to judge people by their appearances.  Like Austen's character, Sarah misjudges people and makes her fair share of mistakes along the way.  Like Lizzy too, she is embarrassed by her 'family' of servants when a footman arrives from Netherfield with a letter for one of the Bennets.  She looks around at the sorry lot in the Longbourn kitchen and she suddenly sees them as he must see them, recognising for the first time, how shabby they all are.  As with Lizzy, we witness Sarah re-evaluating herself and her home, and not without some pain.

In Ptolemy Bingley,  the illegitimate son of old Mr Bingley from his sugar plantation, we meet again the idea of inequality of inheritance rights amongst siblings that we found in 'Pride and Prejudice'.  As Wickham was almost a brother of Darcy's, so Ptolemy is half-brother to young Charles Bingley.  He too has no entitlement to inheritance.  As with Wickham, the opportunity to harbour resentment is there, but this time is not allowed to fester.  Instead, the novelist chooses to show that even a freed slave, in Georgian England, has the power to go make a living for himself, unlike the ladies who decorate the drawing rooms that they serve in.  They cannot even earn a living, but must marry one instead.

This novel spans a period longer than 'Pride and Prejudice' itself; from the time before Mr Bennet marries his wife, to after the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy.  And, indeed, while this book mirrors much of Austen's novel, in its dialogue, plot line and style; there is much that is very unlike Austen.

For a start, where Austen just mentions in passing, that a private had been flogged, Baker takes that footnote and builds an entire plot around it.  The brutality and horror of the Napoleonic Wars plays a large part in the second volume of the novel (Like 'Pride and Prejudice' this novel too is made up of volumes!)  As such, this book is like a mixture of the mother text and Bernard Cornwell's  'Sharpe', being every bit as gritty and gory.

Of course, being a novel about the lower, serving, classes, Baker could hardly escape discussing a part of history that effected so many English men and their families.  She does not shirk from her responsibility here:
we see the sense of duty, so similar in the lives of soldiers and servants, and we think of the drudgery that so many people endured.  Sarah is very unhappy with her lot at one point, and it is only when she begins to care for another, and she feels loved in return, that she finds some purpose in her life.

Indeed, that is not the only way that Sarah differs from Lizzy Bennet.  Sarah is in a way a very modern heroine, for she, like Lizzy, says no to a superior member of the de Bourgh family; not Lady Catherine this time, but Mr Darcy himself.  She says no to his entreaties to stay in his employ and opts, instead, to seek out the love of her life; to be proactive and make her own destiny.  You could say that Lizzy does the very same thing in 'Pride and Prejudice', but what Sarah does seems all the more impressive.  She makes her own happiness, risking everything for love; but on this occasion, if she fails, the result will be complete destitution. There would be no soft landing for someone like Sarah.   She does not need a Darcy to rescue her, but, it could be argued, ultimately, it is she who does the rescuing.

As such, this is a story about a girl, trying to make her way in the world.  At a recent public event, P.D. James said that all of Austen's novels are a retelling of Cinderella.  Well, from this idea, Jo Baker certainly does not wander far: the main character is, more than once, depicted among the cinders, and one of the first times we see her, is in the morning as she stokes up the fire to set about washing the family's dirty linen.

Jane Austen tells us, by all means, to marry for love but to take care and fall in love with a man of good fortune - and we can at last, understand the true merit of this statement.  While there is a world of difference between the poverty known by the gentile women of the higher classes -even for the likes of 'Emma's' Miss Bates- and the poverty experienced by those walking the streets or living in the workhouses of Georgian England; it is a fate that no one would wish to succumb to.

'Longbourn' has changed the way we read will Jane Austen from here on in: we can never again look at a beautifully dressed Regency lady without considering the hours of work that made her so.  Forevermore, Jane and Elizabeth will be shadowed by Sarah and the girls from below stairs - though they will be out of sight, hiding behind closed doors, or silently watching from atop a carriage- and whenever muslin is worn, we will think of the invisible women who helped scrub and sew, curl and mend, for their stories are important too.  

Monday, 30 September 2013

The Aftermath ~ by Rhidian Brook

What struck me as interesting about this book, was the setting and the period - Berlin 1946.  We are shown a world where the German people are left trying to make sense of events in the aftermath of the Second World War; facing the reality that they are the losers.  The author manages to capture the sense of injustice and loss that the German people must have felt, through the characters of Freida and Albert, the young teenagers who resent the presence of the allied forces in their country.

The novel begins and ends cleverly with the feral street children, orphans who belong to no-one.  Like the monster children of The Lord of the Flies, they seem capable of atrocities, but are just children after all.  It provokes one to think about the way defeat in war time has endless repercussions for those living in the fallen country.

Of course, the book also deals with other issues, such as the breakdown of a family unit, perhaps inescapable in a war-torn city.  Everyone has suffered great loss, making the characters appreciate happiness when it comes before them, but all too eager to turn their back on the reality that they once knew and that now has no real meaning for them.

It seems that the world is ready to read books that tell the story of what the Germans suffered during and after the Nazi years, with novels like 'Alone in  Berlin' and 'The Book Thief' doing the rounds of the book club circuit.  Still, there is something unsettling about reading such texts, this one more than the other two.  In this novel, there is very little reference to the horrors of the concentration camps, and I think that this is a mistake.  There must be balance in all things, especially when dealing with this time period in Germany.
The prose was nicely written and the plot-line perfectly enjoyable, making this a book that I would recommend, but I would not re-read, the subject matter being a little to light for my liking, especially considering the period in question.


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Secret Passion of Jane Austen

Something that I cannot understand is why the Bronte sisters did not like Jane Austen, Emily especially. She felt that Austen lacked passion and her female characters lacked spirit. But a close reading of Austen's novels reveal how many of her female characters are fighting against the norms of the day and are trying to find a balance between living within society and being accepted as a lady in that world, and being true to their own desires and passions. 
Lizzy, in Pride and Prejudice, P&P, is nothing if not passionate when she reels against Lady Catherine de Burgh's admonishments. When she tells her that she has nothing more to say to her and must beg to return to the house, it is tantamount to social suicide. 
In fact it is just what a young Catherine Earnshaw would have done in Wuthering Heights. Similarly Lizzy's refusal of both Mr Collins and Mr Darcy showed that Elizabeth Bennet was equally willful, refusing to bend to her mother's will. 
And then we have the Dashwood girls, Marianne and Eleanor, who resemble something like the two sides of the same coin, one being wildly passionate and carefree, the other being more sensible and cautious in all things. 

Here, with these two characters  Austen openly debates how difficult it was for women of her day to deal with emotions of passion, and yet display the decorum that society insisted upon. And here we have a crucial point. The careless passion displayed by both Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, for example, or indeed by Rochester and to an extent Jane in Jane Eyre, was only possible because they were living in secluded rural communities in the middle of nowhere. Austen's heroine's on the other hand have to contend with life altering passions and emotions in the midst of society, be it in London, or in Lambton. 

Jane Bennet does not run off to the nearest cave to reveal her true feelings to Mr Bingley as Cathy does with Heathcliff No, here's is a much more difficult plight, for she must restrain herself, and disguise her deep feelings, even at times, to her sister Elizabeth. The fact that she cares deeply for Bingley and suffers a great deal when he spurns her cannot be, for a moment doubted. 

A similar situation arises for Marianne Dashwood, who must suffer the consequences of exposing her emotions too freely. She actually comes close to death, her spirits having been brought so low by her uncontrolled passion for the inconstant Willoughby. So it could, in fact, be argued that the heroines in Austen's novels are just as passionate as those in the Bronte novels, suffering equally for their passion. Just because Austen's characters must display decorum, it does not mean that they do not or are not capable of, feeling passion. 
As Austen sees it, you may feel the passion, but must learn to control it. We know this because of Austen's depiction of Marianne Dashwood, who lives to regret her unbridled display of love for Willoughby.




Sunday, 21 July 2013

Transatlantic ~ by Colum McCann

'Transatlantic' is a novel that sparks.
Colum McCann tells the story of a group of characters, all linked in some way, though they live in different periods of history.  So, we have a black, runaway slave turned abolitionist preacher;  a passenger on board a famine ship; a daring pilot making the first transatlantic crossing in an airplane; a politician trying to make a difference in the Troubles of Northern Ireland; a mother coping with the loss of her home as the bank repossess her house. Each character has a  riveting story to tell, but what I find most interesting, and indeed inspiring about this book, is the poetic way in which the author shapes their stories.  

Like the Irish landscape itself, the book's structure resembles that of a patchwork quilt; a text made up of small, individually sound sections, each one connected to the others by interwoven threads, their tones and colours impinging on those nearest to them, yet all possessing a matching tone that suggest Ireland.  Indeed, if these stories were to be given a colour, to represent the nationality of the main characters in each, and were then laid out side by side, I suggest that they would create the Irish flag:  green, for the the Catholics, white for the neutral Americans and orange, for the Protestants.  Ireland is the theme of the book, and Ireland is spelled out across every page, in the language, the imagery and even the structure.  

McCann sets out to analyse what it is to be Irish and recreates a sense of that reality, not in a arbitrary way, of statement followed by statement.  As the rule goes, a writer should not tell but show, and here McCann does precisely that:  he shows, through the senses, through imagery, what it is to be Irish.  Instead of preaching about the horrors of the Great Famine, he shows us the young, starving mother, cradling a dead child amid a bundle of rags, begging desperately for food to feed the child, denying that all hope is gone. The child is already dead. One tiny, grey arm, flops out at the passing gentry, as if begging still; ghost-like, way past starvation, an assault on moral decency, reminding us all of the horror that took place.

There is no need to show us hoards of starving people: one tiny, outstretched arm will suffice.  One image is enough to convey to the reader what starvation does to a mother, a country, a nation.  Like a poet, McCann places before us an array of startling images, each one working on so many levels, yet sparse in their way.

The overall effect is to create something that is uniquely Irish and fresh, making this mostly historical text feel very contemporary. I think McCann manages this by submerging the text in echoes and filling it with mirrors. For example; one story relates the death of a boy on a lake by the family home in Northern Ireland, while another describes the tragic demise of a father and his sons on a frozen lake in North America.  While each story happens miles apart, one impacts upon the other, changing it in some way.

We see this mirroring effect again when we read about three long walks that take place in the book; one from Dublin to Cork where a famine ship awaits; another across miles of pitiless ground, during the American Civil War, in search of a soldier son; and lastly a modern journey, sometimes by car, sometimes on foot, from Northern Ireland to the south, looking for a home, or the promise of one.   While these journeys are important in themselves,  taken together, they speak of a people constantly on the move, in search of something better, and prepared to do whatever it takes to survive.

Of course this image of humanity on the move reminds us of displaced people all around the world. especially during times of famine and war.  In this way, McCann cleverly approaches his themes by visually layering imagery.  Indeed, how can one tell the story of Ireland without discussing the often hackneyed topics of famine and war. But by using this original approach, the author requires the reader to make the connections and draw their own conclusions.

For me such mirroring of imagery and meaning is best explained when we consider the pivotal arrival of black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, towards the beginning of the book, arriving in Ireland in 1848, just as the Irish Famine began and the image of a likewise venerated Barack Obama near the book's end.  Both men appear to mark a huge shift in the world's thinking, offering hope against prejudice and hatred. It cannot be simply a mere coincidence that McCann brings these two images together.   Perhaps it was the similarity between the two events which was the imaginative starting point to this extraordinary text.

The book deals with migration and eviction, past and present, one caused by famine, the other by greedy bankers, and all the things that make us Irish - prejudice, war, hunger.  It seems that we are continuous beleaguered by the same tragedies.  Yet, through it all, women are at the coal face, struggling through and surviving. McCann seems to be saying that the survival of the Irish race is dependent on Irish women, making strong parallels between the female supporters of the abolitionist movement in Victorian Ireland and the Women's Alliance in Northern Ireland during the negotiations of the Good Friday Agreement, and noting the enduring power that can be found in a cup of tea.
Images spark off other images to create new meanings in this book, as McCann bridges the gap between novelist and poet.  Like Heaney's most recent publication, 'Human Chain', McCann writes of the links that unite us, not only today, but forwards into the future, back the the past and even, sideways, beyond time and space. I urge you to read this book, especially if you are Irish: it may teach you a thing or two about who you are and what it truly means to wear that sprig of shamrock on St. Patrick's Day.  It certainly did me.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

May Lou and Cass - Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland ~by Sophia Hillan

'May, Lou and Cass - Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland', by Sopha Hillan, is an extraordinary book about one of the world's favourite authors and her connection with Ireland, generally, and Donegal, specifically.   This book charts the life of Jane Austen and her association with the Knight family, her brother's children.  Of course, these children should have inherited the famous 'Austen' surname, were it not for the fact that Jane's elder brother, Edward, was adopted by wealthy cousins who had no child of their own to inherit their fortune and large estate at Godmersham in Hampshire.   A stipulation of the inheritance agreement required that Edward take the name of Knight for his own, which he duly did.  
This book follows the lives of the Knight children, some of whom were very close to their spinster aunt who lived near their large house at Chawton.  Jane was often called upon to help care for the large number of Knight nieces and nephews, when their mother was expecting a child, for example, but especially when Mrs Knight died suddenly and unexpectedly,  just weeks after having given birth to her last baby.  
Jane's letters to her relatives reveal a great deal to us about her, her letters to her eldest niece Fanny especially.  However, what I found most interesting about this book was the uncanny way that the plot lines of Jane Austen's novels mirrored, so exactly, the future lives of her relatives, particularly those of her nieces, Marianne, Cassandra and Louisa Knight.  Indeed, because their aunt was long dead when some of these events occurred, one might be forgiven for surmising that Austen was some kind of clairvoyant.  But I think not; it is just a case of life imitating art and uncannily so.  
Like Anne Elliot, one niece falls in love and becomes engaged, only to face serious censure from  her family and that of her beloved. The engagement is terminated, then unexpectedly rekindled, eight years later, just as she is preparing to marry another man.  The similarity to her Austen's novel,  'Persuasion',  is unmistakable.  
Then there is the secret elopement, in the style of Lydia Bennet, but this time the marriage does indeed take place in Gretna Green.  The similarities are considerable, and are cleverly detailed by Sophia Hillan.  Again and again, she finds parallels between Austen's novels and the lives of her extended family, much to the delight of her readers.
Hillan also tells the story in chapters, each one beginning with a scene from an Austen novel, which perfectly reflects the theme of the chapter.  In this way, the text is very focused, yet feels not like a work of non-fiction at all, but something akin to a novel itself.  Character after character is shown to have lead a life stranger than fiction, making this book very difficult to put down.  Anyone who I have spoken to about this book has said that they read the book in only a couple of days, and I found that I too read it continuously.  
For me, the sections that dealt with Donegal were particularly interesting, especially since I was visiting in that part of Ireland at the time, which really brought the book to life in my imagination.  As an Irish woman, I was very surprised to learn that three of Austen's nieces came to live and be buried in County Donegal, with a grand-niece being born there in fact, who was fluent in Irish and was very much involved with the local community.  
This text is full of historical references and facts, and must be applauded for its attention to detail.  However, one need not have an knowledge of Irish history to understand the cultural context of the book, as Hillan expertly fills in much of the necessary background information on the period for her readers.  Jane Austen herself famously fell in love with a young Irish man who later left England, to settle in Ireland and became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.  Whether or not he left her with a good impression of the Irish, we will never know, but she did once famously warn her niece, who was writing a novel of her own, to beware of writing about life in Ireland,especially when one did not know what style of manners they had there.  Regardless, it is clear that her nieces adapted to their lives in Donegal and brought something of the Austen refinement and sensitivity with them when they came.  
If you like Jane Austen, and are interested in the strange lives of those long gone, I urge you to read this book.  It will have you amazed and bemused at the strangeness and sometimes cruelty of life, and more than anything, it will make you realise how grateful we, as women, should be to live in this century, with the power to determine how and where we live, whom we love and marry, and how we earn our own living.  Times have certainly changed since Jane Austen and her nieces were alive, and I believe all would be glad to learn of how life has changed for many women in today's world, and thankfully much for the better.  

Friday, 28 June 2013

Instructions for a Heatwave ~ by Maggie O'Farrell

Flicking through these pages was like taking a stroll down a familiar path, into the past.  This latest novel, by Maggie O'Farrell, is about a family, called the Riordans - an unusual choice of name, considering that it was the name of a long-running tv drama that ran throughout the 1970s on Irish television, something akin to the BBCs 'Emmerdale Farm'.  Perhaps the author did this intentionally, because theirs is a very Irish family, complete with suffocating mother, sexual repression, religious fervor and fiery tempers.  (Please forgive any unintentional stereotyping, I speak as I find!).  The fact that this particular family actually live in London is quite surprising, considering how Irish they still are.
O'Farrell picks a particularly hot summer, 1976, in which to set her story, adding stress to the predicament that the family finds themselves in.  Mr Riordan, has disappeared and the children, who, for various reasons, are not as close as they once were, must return to the family home and face each other and their past, to work together to find him.
The idea is quite simple, but with the added element of the relentless heat, the old Riordan homestead begins to resemble something of a pressure-cooker, about to explode at any moment. In this way, the text could be easily adapted to the stage, and is reminiscent of Tennessee Williams's 'Cat on a Hot Tim Roof', in places.  She cleverly uses language to re-create the heat on that infamous year, writing long, meandering sentences that force the reader to slow down, as she evokes the stifled atmosphere of summer:
 'But now the grass is a scorched ochre, the bare earth showing through, and the trees offer up limp leaves to the unmoving air, as if in reproach.' 
(O'Farrell, Maggie)
She also uses her prose style to create the character of one of the Riordan daughters, Aoife.  This, the youngest of the three children, cannot read and was always a 'problem' child.  The author is not explicit, maybe intentionally so, but it is clear that Aoife has some sort of intense, sensual relationship with the world. Perhaps she is autistic, perhaps not, but she loves libraries and books, not for their words, but because she likes to touch their covers and look at their visual images.  When she looks at words, they jump out at her and attack her.  O'Farrell brilliantly describes her return to the old home in the highly visual style of Virginia Woolf.
'And yet here she is. Here is the row of trees, roots rupturing the paving slabs. Here are the tiled front paths. Here is the triangular-capped concrete wall that runs along the fronts of five houses. She knows without putting her hand on it the exact rasping, grainy texture of the concrete, how it would feel to try to sit on its unyielding, unfriendly ridge, the way the inevitable slide off it would catch and mark the fabric of your serge school skirt.' 
(O'Farrell, Maggie)
 Here O'Farrell brings us right inside Aoife's head by describing the way she experiences the world, through her senses.  This was the most enjoyable aspects of the novel for me.  I also liked the way she described the inner-life of Michael Francis, the only son in the family.  He continually disguises his true feelings and says and does things that he did not mean to say and do.  In this way, it make him a very likable character, who, just like his father, keeps his true self locked up.  Of course, the reason why these characters repress their true emotions becomes clear as the story is revealed and family secrets begin to reveal themselves.

The 1970s setting of the story really appealed to me, surprisingly so, and the whole ambiance of the novel was strangely familiar.  Because of this, I would recommend this book to my friends, especially any who grew up in the 1970s, and especially who are Irish, or have an Irish mother.  This is a fine summer read - buy it for your sisters and girlfriends and  take a trip down memory lane together.

Painting the Darkness ~ by Robert Goddard

'Painting the Darkness' is a novel about identity and family, set in the late Victorian period.  The premise is simple, and very compelling: a man, James Davenall, who everyone thought was dead, suddenly reappears after eleven years, surprising his family and especially the girl who had once planned to marry him, Constance Trenchard.  Of course her new husband, Willian Trenchard, instantly distrusts the prodigal son, and sets out to prove that he is a fraud.  His family refuse to recognise him, as does his doctor, old school friends, and even his mother.  Only his old nanny believes that he is who he claims to be.

The plot is complicated by the fact that the stranger is very knowledgeable about many facts and secrets that only the true James Davenall could have known, so, just like Constance, the reader begins to believe that James truly was not driven to suicide on the eve of his wedding, as was originally believed.  How can he know so much and NOT be James Davenall?  If he can prove his case, he will inherit a huge fortune and a position of high social rank.  But most important of all, to him and the reader, is whether or not will he convince Constance to leave her husband and young child, and return to him, the only man she ever truly loved.

The appeal of this story is obvious, but most surprising is the beautiful, eloquent language that Goddard uses to tell his tale.  For example:
 'A moment later came the brief yellow flare of a match, a faint sigh of pleasure at the first inhalation, then the sound of his footsteps as he moved away, a mobile shadow in the stationary night, leaving only a drift of smoke and an acrid scent among the moon-blanched leaves.' 
Every line is phrased for its musical affect on the ear, which is why the audiobook version of this novel, read by the masterful Michael Kitchen, is a treat indeed.

 If you enjoyed the 'family mystery' genre of authors such as Kate Morton or Natasha Solomons, then you will love this book.  Every generation of the Davenall family have an horrific secret hidden away, as do most of the minor characters.  The fun is unraveling their mysteries, page by page.
 
Moreover, the plot of this text is never predictable or run of the mill.  Goddard spins a web of interrelated connections and links, that will require you to pay close attention from the word go.  In this, he always goes for the unexpected option, changing narrative point of view if he must, to take the reader places, and engender feelings, that we never expect to feel.  Do we want the stranger to be the real James Davenall?  Do we want Constance to give up everything to be with him?  Can she live up to her name and be constant to her husband?
Or do we side with the narrator, the hard-done-by husband, William Trenchard?  There are countless other characters, each with their own stash of secrets, providing countless subplots to keep even the most demanding reader guessing til the very last page.  Indeed, this is a book that I wanted to go on forever, the best testament for a book, I believe.  So please, do not be put off by the novel's non-descript title, the one over-sight by Goddard and his publishers, and give this delicious book a try.