Friday, 31 December 2021

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman ~ Denis Theriault


 One has to wonder just how much of this short, little book is lost in translation?  Set in Montreal, Canada, the story was created in French, but the version that I read was translated into English by Liedewy Hawke.  I mention this because, unlike most books translated into English, this one must have been particularly challenging I imagine as the text contains numerous three line poems written in the Japanese Haiku style.  I often wonder how much of a poem's meaning is conveyed through its syntax and word choice. How can a poem be translated when  the poet has spent so long threading each syllable, each word together for a specific effect?  From Shakeaspeare to Seamus Heaney - the intended meanings are surely lost in translation, changed, mutated at the very least. 

However, the world of Bilodo the postman is as familiar as any postman I have ever met, though his obsessions and blatant - illegal - disregard for the rules of the postal service are what sets him apart and keep us reading to the end. I cannot say much about the plot - I would hate to spoil it for curious readers - but it leaps and bounds, ofen into the realm of disbelief and you have to make a bit of an effort to follow it wherever it leads. 

Above all else - this is a book about fantasy and what ifs - where Thériault has let his imagination run wild. He creates a world where characters are not limited by financial concerns - who needs a job! - and enjoy endless resources - why have one apartment when I can have two!  Still, as readers, we are only too guilty of imaginiting our way into a good story, and this is what Thériault does here. He follows where Bilodo leads and ends up someplace unexpected. The ending of the book was quite clever and had me reaching for the sequel immediately. This has to be a good sign, doesn't it?

Truth be told, it was the cover that drew me to this book - a beautiful soft back, textured cover, that had the feel of rough handmade paper suitable for watercolouring. Nomoco is the Japanese artist and illustrator responsible for art that wraps around this text and I am such a fan.  And so we return to where we began - the international appeal of this book. A team of creators from many diverse backgrounds have produced this text that will at times make you blush, but more often will challenge you to believe that the impossible is possible in a busy street in Montreal, in the rain. 

Sunday, 31 January 2021

The Girl with The Louding Voice

It has been a while since I read a book that I simply could not put down. This was such a book. I was gripped from the first page to the last to learn the fate of this charming Nigerian character, Adunni and I could not rest until I had. Everything from the unusual grammar and syntax to the description of household objects and social norms convinced me to suspend my disbelief and believe completely in this main character all all who journey through these pages.

The story is grim, yet happy - such a conflict. I still am feeling mixed emotions at the story's end.  It must be said that the book contains details of rape and attempted rape and as such I do not think it suitable for everyone.  

Above all else though, is the incredible sound of this book. There is singing, yes, as Adunni's beautiful voice longs to express itself.  But as the title of the book suggests, having a voice is a central theme.  Again and again, characters tell Adunni to stop singing.  This is not because she does not have a nice voice - indeed there is power in it. She is able to sing an unborn baby and its expectant mother to sleep.  She uses her voice to sooth her terminally ill mother and it attracts compliments from others who hear her sing as she works.  But the malevolent characters in the book try to take away her voice.  She is beaten by Big Mama for singing in the garden.  The brutality in the face of Adunni's happiness is shocking. 

But there is another sound that fills this book, it is the sound of Adunni's speech. Adunni's voice is the voice of the narrator in this personal account of life as a 14 year old Nigerian girl. The author uses Adunni's vernacular and writes it phonetically so that we can hear her voice rippling through every page. I still can hear her phrasing ringing in my ears days after finishing the text.  

Adunni meets a neighbour who tries to teach her written English, and we see and hear Adunni change her language as she educates herself, but not entirely!  Adunni masters her use of words as she does her circumstances, learns, adapts and thrives, despite a difficult start in life. She finds her voice - a louding voice - and we know that for Adunni, there will be no going back. 

This book will creep inside your heart and make its home there: a nest where Adunni will sing and sing forever - with a strong, full, louding voice. 

Thursday, 31 December 2020

The Yule Tomte and the Little Rabbits ~ by Ulf Stark and Eva Eriksson


This beautiful book written by Swedish author and screenwriter Ulf Stark, who passed away in 2017.  It is illustrated by author and artist Eva Eriksson and is a must have for anyone who loves Christmas. The story borrows heavily from Swedish folklore and the the Christmas Tompte who brings presents to children at Christmastime. He is a Dobby-like gnome who lives in people's houses or on farms and protects children and animals. If treated badly, he will play tricks and can be grumpy at times. The tompte in this book is certainly grumpy, in fact that is his name! Unlike Percy the Park Keeper - this Tompte is upset when animals come to his home seeking shelter. Yet he is kind despite his best efforts to the contrary.  He doesn't like a fuss and is the most unlikely Christmas character that I have come across in a long time, not since Scrooge perhaps!  

Still, this is a really charming book. Eva Wriksson has created a collection of beautiful illustrations that fills the heart with joy. Published in 2014, this hardback edition is stunningly produced, with a sumptuous red binding in a large format. I have shared lots of illustrations here, just so you can see the quality of the images. 

One interesting thing about this book is that it is broken into 25 sections, one for each day of advent.  What a perfect way to count down to Christmas!  Of course, you don't have to read it in sections, but I strongly recommend it. 

In a way, it it the unexpected meanness of the tompte that reminds us of the spirit of Christmas.  The family of rabbits, embody what Christmas is all about - their faith in the Yule Tompte never wanes.  The little rabbits are especially faithful to the magic of the season - two little rabbits take matters into their own hands and seek out the tompte.  They insist that he visits their home and he cannot refuse them. Their deep concern for one another is truly heartwarming. They live in hope and never doubt that the tompe will come and all will be well. 

And while the yule tompte is meant to bring gifts to the rabbits, it is they who give a gift to him - the return his lost hat!  Yet they also give him something even more important - the gift of friendship and comraderie in the depths of winter. This is something that we can all certainly relate to as 2020 draws to a close. 

The spirit of Christmas is captured between the covers of this beautiful book.  It would make the perfect gift for anyone with an interest in children's literature, or illustration.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Where My Heart Used to Be ~ Sebastian Faulks

I've just finished reading Sebastian Faulks's novel, 'Where My Heart Used to Beat' and I have to say, I want to go back to the start and re-read it. That's not because the book was unbearably complicated, but because by the novel's ending. I was gripped by the story and enchanted by its characters, I don't want to say goodbye to them just yet. This is a story about one man's long, complicated, lonely life - simply that.  Yes - it really considers how can a person go through life not connected to another human being.  Are we actually alone, or does it just feel that way?  After all, we all have parents, acquaintances, and colleagues, don't we?  This novel focuses on someone whose life began during the Great War, and spanned the Second World War, its aftermath, the Cold War and right up until the 1980s.  I have always wondered about the generations who lived between the Wars, how they coped and how they survived that awful time, not just the soldiers, but their wives and children. This novel considers some of those questions and follows the life of English doctor, Robert Hendricks, the novel's protagonist, as he looks back over his life and begins to heal. He is contacted by someone who fought with his father in WWI and so begins a period of reflection that changes his life forever.
This is an incredibly moving book, Faulks takes your breath away with his hard hitting pathos and the end of this book genuinely left me winded.  
What was so impressive was the way that Faulks builds to this point in the plot. He slowly layers detail upon detail in a meticulous fashion, but not so that you'd notice. It is only at the book's end that everything falls into place with staggering effect.  Faulks traces all of the minor and major moments in a life and connects them all together, creating a matrix of memories that is reminiscent of how Dickens creates Pip in 'Great Expectations', or David in 'David Copperfield'.  We live in the day to day life of these characters, and learn to love them. So it is with Robert Hendricks. From his earliest memories living with his mother, then school life with his Latin tutor, to life in the trenches on the Western Front, to endless hours with his patients and colleagues on the psychiatric ward - we follow Robert wherever he goes and come to know him intimately.
This book also deals with developments in psychology and the treatment of mentally ill patients during the twentieth century - Hendricks is a doctor of psychiatry. As such, the novel seems to me to be a cross between Faulks's 'Birdsong' and his later novel 'Human Traces' - not in terms of plot, but in terms of subject matter. Here the author returns to two topics that he knows well.  He is so at home in this period of history, it is easy to forget that he isn't a contemporary of Owen or Sassoon.  Is there any living fiction writer who writes so well or so movingly about WWI?
I'd happily recommend this book to a friend, but only after I have read it once more - I can't part with Robert Hendricks just yet.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Convictions of John Delahunt ~ by Andrew Hughes

I've just been transported to the dark and corrupt Dublin of the 19th century - a place that I had always imagined that I would enjoy sauntering though.  In his second book, 'The Convictions of John Delahunt', Andrew Hughes takes us from the elegance of Merrion Square, to the squalor of the Dublin tenements, along alleyways where horrendous acts of depravity and cruelty take place. 
Given that the titular character begins his narrative in a prison cell, things do not bode well for Mr Delahunt, but I honestly did not expect the world of this text to be so dark and grim.  Neighbours turn on neighbours; one person's misfortune is another person's opportunity.  Georgian Dublin is a heartless place, inhabited by back-stabbing cutthroats who would sell you as soon as look at you.
I have no better opinion of humanity having read this book and I think that my view of Georgian Dublin has forever been changed for the worse.  Yes there was poverty at the time.  Yes there were unscrupulous individuals, but unlike an author, say like Dickens, who also deals with a grim and corrupt society, there is nothing to balance the brutality that Hughes describes. Where is Joe Gargery or Mr Micawber?  Where in the humor, the redemption?  This leads me to consider, is it always necessary to depict that brighter side of life?  Perhaps not.  Andrew Hughes's book prefers to dwell in darker corners.
This is a story about the criminal mind, its focus is on the mentality and social circumstance that creates a murderer.  As such, this book is successful.  The very strange thing is that most of the really disturbing events in this story are the very ones that are based on fact - they actually took place.  The post-script is quite shocking and the most disturbing reading of all.  Human life seemed to have mattered so little at the time.
I am not sure if I am glad that I read this book, but I know that l will not forget it ... 
Every time I pass though Gardiner Street or Merrion Square I will be thinking of Delahunt and taking a backward glance over my shoulder.  

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Wreckage ~ Michael Crummey

Just because I don't talk about it doesn't mean that I haven't spent the entire night having imagined conversations with you about it. So much of our lives is spent living inside our heads - it is difficult to calculate what things are important to us, where our passions lie and who we really are!  So little of our preoccupations even exist outside of our heads.  So many conflicts and arguments never actually happen - we imagine them all.  Maybe the same can be said of love?  Do we convince ourselves that we are in love when we are sitting alone, contemplating another person?  Do we 'talk' ourselves into believing that that love is reciprocated?  In 'The Wreckage', the main characters,Sadie and Wish, are separate for much of the novel, yet each cannot forget their passionate affair many years before.  That intense encounter changed their lives completely, consumed their waking hours in the years since, and influenced the life-choices that they made.  Crummey is forcing us to consider the great relationships of our lives in this novel.  He is asking, are their people who mark us forever?
Is there a great love for every one of us - a love that will alter our lives and who we are?  Can another person have such an impact on another person's character?  What is it that happens to us when we fall in love with another person - do we change and if so, is it for the better...?
Human relationships are at the very heart of this novel set before and after the Second World War, and leading up to the present day.  Crummey perfectly presents us with vibrant characters and cleverly makes us care for their welfare as they collide with one another and their lives become entangled. There is a young couple from divided Catholic and Protestant communities in a small Newfoundland town, and a Canadian Soldier and his Japanese prison guard, whose lives are as bound up together as are the lives of the young lovers.  Crummey considers how lovers and enemies mark us in this life, how encounters can scar us and leave us reeling for years after, struggling to regain our ballast.  There are people that we never get over meeting - some people whose voices we can never evacuate from our heads - this book deals with those human interactions. There have been endless encounters that have effected my life - countless encounters, countless kindnesses, countless cruelties. Aren't we all the same?  Grandmothers, aunts, sisters, teachers, pupils, sons and daughters whose comments still ring in my ears years later - and that is just it... How many of our interactions with others are only brief encounters, that reverberate at length in our minds.  In Crummey's novel, the male protagonist, Wish, is haunted by a single comment that his girlfriend said to him, "Don't make a whore of me."   You can imagine how a young Catholic might find that line particularly jarring, just as he was about to do exactly that.  He is also burdened by memories from his time as a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp and later in Nagazaki, when the atom bomb was dropped.  The memory of seeing a dead woman with a living infant feeding at her cold breast is just that kind of image that is central to the Catholic preoccupation with the Madonna and child.  In fairness, this image is one of the most disturbing of the book, but there are more that I cannot mention here.  Crummey has certainly written a love story here - but the novel works on so many levels, symbolism and philosophical questions are never too far from the surface, and that is what makes this text so extraordinary.  Expect suffering, great passion, long distances and short conversations, unanswered questions and shocking revelations - presented in the masterful language that we have come to expect from this wonderful writer, and you will have an idea of what 'The Wreckage' has to offer.  It's a great book - what else is there to talk about?

The Coroner's Daughter ~ Andrew Hughes

If you have ever found yourself walking along a Georgian street, imagining what it must have been like to wander there when the houses were newly-built, fanlights newly-polished and panelled doors freshly painted; mused awhile about the inhabitants, from footmen to fine ladies in their high-waisted fashions - then 'The Coroner's Daughter' is a book for you.  Wicklow author Andrew Hughes has managed to take us inside a typical Georgian townhouse in Dublin, back in 1816, breathing life into the tall five-storey main stay of the Dublin landscape.  In the character of Miss Abigail Lawless of Rutland Square, (now Parnell Square) we are presented with a heroine unlike those of contemporary novels such as those by Jane Austen.  Abigail may be as curious as Elizabeth Bennet, who also faces the failings of a beloved father, but the similarity ends there.  Hughes's creation is if anything more like a modern woman than a creature of her time.  She expects to be seen as any man's social equal, possibly because her father treats her that way, but she is not at all resigned to the inequality of her time as one might expect.  In that way, Abigail reminded me of a kind of time traveller, like Claire Randall  from Diana Gabaldon's 'Outlander' series- a modern woman who finds her self cast adrift in the past. Abigail Lawless expects to accompany her father to a medical lecture at The College of Surgeons, takes carriage trips out of the city on her own, wandering the streets of Dublin alone, down its back alleys and thoroughfares.  We know from contemporary letters by Jane Austen that such independent journeys were unheard of - Lizzy Bennet is made fun of for visiting a local neighbour alone and on foot and that was in the relative safety of a small rural village.  For Jane Austen herself carriage rides unaccompanied through London were a shocking luxury and most unusual- she could only afford such freedom at the pinnacle of her literary success when she was in her late 30s.  But young Abigail Lawless (living up to her name perhaps?) cares little for such social mores.  Instead, she follows those she suspects of murder down dark alleyways or to lonely, derelict country houses, to challenge them outright.  But we must remember that being a Georgian heroine, she has not had the advantage of reading the Miss Marple novels and knows little of the art of trapping the guilty by stealth, and with the assistance of a willing police constable!  Again and again, Abigail places herself in great danger, (not unlike Lydia Bennet perhaps?) but in this case it is her passionate desire to know solve a puzzling crime that persuades her to leave the security of her father's house.   In the character of Mr Darby (not Darcy!) we are presented with a dark villain worthy of the name, and in Ewan Weir, her father's young student, we find a charming Scot and fitting side-kick for Abigail. There is undeniably a romantic spark between them, but also a professional respect and a mutual interest in pathology that sets this pair up as a great crime-solving duo who may have numerous crimes to solve in the future.  The ending certainly opens the way for one sequel if not more.  The very thought delights!
If you are prone to dream about those who first inhabited Georgian Dublin, then you will most likely want to shake Andrew Hughes by the hand and thank him for his novel 'The Coroner's Daughter' - for he has kindly done the dreaming for you.
-A must read for Austen fans and Dubliners alike.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Dear Jane

It has been 200 years since you last drew breath on this earth, and we are still captivated by your books and characters.  There are so many mysteries surrounding your life and work - it is no wonder that we have so many questions that we would like to ask you.
For a start, did you like your mother?  So many of your mothers are weak, distant or dead!  It really makes one wonder.
Then there is the great Darcy question... Is he based on a real man? Many question that such a man could exist, but we like to think that he could and in your absence we can imagine that your paths crossed once.
This brings me to my next question: Did you ever know true, requited love?  Not with Bigg-Wither or LeFroy, but with one who cherished you for who you are whom you loved in return?  I hope you did. During those uncharted years, when we know nothing of your whereabouts, perhaps you found complete happiness, wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice and were as carefree as a bird.  I wish all these things for you - on this day, when they put your face on the £10 note, when your family kissed you a final goodbye - we think of you and hope that you knew great happiness once - as great as the happiness that you have given to so many around the world.  Rest easy, dearest Jane.
Ni bheidh do leithead ann aris.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

All the Light We Cannot See ~ Anthony Doerr

The further we move away from 1945, the easier it seems to view the horror of WWII from new perspectives.  Has it taken all this time for the world to consider the German side of the experience? It certainly seems that we have come a long way since the Leon Uris books of my youth, and those classic war films where every German was a villain, every liberator a hero. Well, Anthony Doerr certainly faces this stereotype head on in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'All The Light We Cannot See'. We are presented with a young, blind, French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc - enchanting, perceptive and oh so vulnerable. Just as vulnerable is Werner Pfennig, a young German boy - clever, dutiful and brave. Both children suffer greatly because of the war; parents are lost as are homes, possessions and childhoods.  The whole movement of the book is based around their coming together - step by step, a gentle, inevitable progression.  And the novel seems to come down to this moment- their meeting - and on what the next generation have to say to each other, when the adults have made such a mess of things.
In truth, their meeting is crucial: if it goes badly, it'd spell curtains for future peace.  Luckily it is a success.  Is not this the most hopeful of moments?  Doesn't it foretell the inception of the European Union years later? That France and Germany can be such forgiving neighbours in 2017 - after twice facing each other down the barrel of a gun - still surprises me,  yet in Doerr's book, it all seems possible.  There are incredibly brutal acts perpetrated on both sides, and this book contains some of the most horrific I have ever read.  The suffering of German women on the arrival of the Russian troops, as described by Doerr, will haunt me forever.  He shirks from nothing - presenting us with the horror of war - experienced on all sides - because these stories must be told.
But this is just a story after all - and Doerr is a master teller of tales.  Page upon page of vibrant imagery, beautiful language and characters so real that they must have lived once... make this book one that will keep you just where Doerr wants you, while he re-programmes your mind and shines a light on the truth about WWII.  And it suddenly seems to me that Marie-Laure's is not the only blindness at the heart of this novel.  And if there is light - the light the we cannot see - well perhaps now is the time to face that light, that kindness, that hope... because after all... 1945 was such a long time ago.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Gone: A Girl; a Violin; a Life Unstrung ~ by Min Kym

It was a sunny afternoon in Dublin, and I had just stumbled from watching a masterclass given by Maxim Vengerov to some very talented young violinists.  With strains of Sibelius still echoing through my head, I wandered by a book shop on Dawson Street and saw Min Kym's autobiography in the window.  The striking black hardback was jacketed in vibrant teal, with the silhouette of a curvaceous violin cut out in the center.  I thought the image intriguing.  I had to have it.
To be honest, I hadn't even heard of Min Kym before I bought the book, but having spent a few days with her voice ringing through my head, and listening to the CD the accompanies the book, I feel that I know her well enough now.  As an autobiographer, Kym manages to walk that tight-rope between story telling and truth that this genre relies upon.
Indeed there were times that I felt that Kym too easily ran from responsibility, blaming all life's problems on her parents for making her too submissive, which resulted in her Stradivarius violin being stolen, her resulting depression and anorexia. But in a way, I think that this was part of the book's charm; her imperfections as a protagonist made her seem more human.  When you read between the pages, you can see that Min was a very determined little girl, every such 'master' musician  has to be selfish with their time, and egotistical to a point.  The young Min was well able to challenge her Korean teacher who lacked the skill to teach her.  Determination and confidence were inherent in the young progeny.  What was so tragic was how an opportunistic crime sent her into a tail-spin and that confident little girl got lost. The hard truth was that it wasn't just a violin that was stolen in the café that day.  
The reader can empathise with Min's loss because in the chapters leading up to the theft, she explains simplistically and poetically what a violin means to a player.  She describes it as her child, a female baby, another limb, her teacher, but is not content with any of these similes.  What is clear, is her utter anguish at the violin's loss and the tragic thing is that this book is a tragedy.  Though the violin was found, the instrument was never returned to her to keep, insurance companies put pay to that, and to this day, it remains locked away in a bank vault, suffering the silent fate of so many of the world's most valuable instruments.  And this is something that the book forces you to consider: how is it that musicians can no longer afford to own and play these very old and treasured instruments?  Surely they do not belong in the dark?
It is because Kym repeated personifies the Strad that we are horrified by its ultimate fate.  She compares her suffering to it, saying how they are both imprisoned now.  This was the most moving part of the book for me.  Her beautiful instrument, which 'glowed' for her, now never sees the light of day. Surely it should be where the public can enjoy it, someplace where it is not just be a musical equivalent of stocks and bonds.  
Yet, experts argue that these hugely expensive violins are not as special as we imagine them to be.  In a recent study, listeners prefered the sound of modern violins, when comparing them to old instruments while blindfolded.  This suggests that the myth of the master luthier and his violins is just that, a myth.  That supports what any sensible person already knows, that these old violins are ridiculously over-priced, but it is to the benefit of banks and investors that the myth continues.  And after all, there is an intangible romance about violins, whether be their aesthetic design, or evocative sound, that keeps us spellbound.
For me, every violin is a promise of something truly beautiful, in the hands of the right player that is. And Kym's book publishers have knowingly used the image of the violin on the book's cover to entice readers like me.  The really clever bit is that the image is a void, a cut-out, the violin itself, missing from the image, and as such mirrors perfectly the book's narrative.  
'Isn't it beautiful?' the book shop sales assistant said to me when I presented it to her at the counter.  'I saw it this morning myself', she added, 'and I had to get a copy.  We ought not to judge a book by its cover I know.  Let me wrap that separately,'  And with that she enfolded it in soft paper so as not to tear the jacket, and placed it lovingly into a bag on top of my other purchases, just as if it were a real violin!  So I was not the only one guilty of loving this book cover, of loving violins, of loving a myth. And with this book you get all that and a good story.   

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.