Thursday, 31 December 2015

Post 22: Happy New Year and final reads of 2015. The Horse and his Boy and The Tea Planter's Wife

Happy New Year to you all.  Having been given a book for Christmas by my son, I was determined to add it to the final (and I admit, rather meagre) bookcount for 2015. Looking back over the reading year, I have enjoyed a variety of titles, but still far fewer than I would like, and significantly less than my goal.....ah well, if you read back to the review of 2014 I did acknowledge that 40 titles would be highly unlikely...

So onto 2016 and new promises to myself.  2016 will see big changes in our house.  Child 2 will leave the nest and hubby and I will be back together in coupledom.  We were only married two and a half years before we had Child 1, so this is a new chapter.  I hope, that with it, I can also indulge myself a little more. More books in 2016 than in 2015 certainly, but maybe I should aim for 30 rather than 40! Perhaps we can have a few weekends away and add to the book tally in that manner!

But back to the present.  After The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe last month, I have continued to redress the lack of CS Lewis in my childhood canon. The Horse and His Boy was an enjoyable children's title.  Its morality is evident and the fair minded always win through.  Christian allegory is less obvious in this one, but Aslan retains his authority with powers to protect and to punish.  I liked the personal nature of Aslan in this text; he refuses to give any details about other people;  "I am telling you your own story, not hers.  I tell no-one any story but his own." This integrity has real comfort behind it and alludes to the personal relationships that can be achieved with Jesus.  Similarly the description of Aslan as "Myself" echoes the biblical "I am" of Old Testament teaching.  "It was from the lion that the light came.  No-one had ever seen anything more terrible or more beautiful!" Here, allusions can be traced to the gospels and to the final book of the bible.  CS Lewis conveys awe with  childlike simplicity, conveying the magnitude of his lion protagonist.
In all this however, we cannot forget Shasta, the child hero of the day.  He is honest, kind and wholesome! He sits well with the creation of Susan, Peter et al from the previous novel, and his adventures are fun.  The talking horses are a feature, with the haughty pedigree Bree learning a lot from the more humble Hwin.

And onto my Christmas present.  Most of my family are reluctant to choose me books unless I have specified author or title, but child 2 has proved game to investigate my preferences. Looking at it on Amazon, The Tea Planter's Wife has received good reviews and the "you may also like" section contained novels I have previously enjoyed.  And so I set myself the challenge to complete it within this year, and finished it about half an hour ago!
Image result for the tea planter's wifeIt centres around a young newlywed, Gwen Hooper, who begins the novel by travelling to Ceylon to be reunited with her tea planting husband.  She is enthralled by the whirlwind romance experienced in England and is determined to settle into his environment.  The novelist, Dinah Jefferies, is new to me, and she evoked Ceylon and the plantation mansion with credibility.  The sultry heat and consuming rain are background features that add to the authenticity of the geography.  The plot is complex; it has some twists and turns, but they are not overly subtle and can be said to be predictable at times. To suspend disbelief, you need to accept the book as a good story rather than an elegant one, and you need to accept fully the naivety of the central character.  For it is naivety that creates much of the tension, and with this comes a profound fear of loss.  This is set against a background of shifting racial questions and the more fundamental realisation that tea pickers and native workers are human and worthy of consideration and respect.  Set between the 1920s and 1930s, the novel reveals the shifting ideas of the world as the Empire builders began to recognise the audacity of their colonisation.  This sounds like a heavy political substrand, but it is not.  It is a nod to the times, and a clear recognition that the conflicting feelings and views held by Gwen are representative of changing and more progressive times ahead.
This was a good light read to end the year.

And onto 2016.  What shall tempt me first?  I bought several prize listed novels recently, and I think I may begin the New Year with A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.
Please continue to read my reading thoughts, and feel free to add your own recommendations to my reading list.

Here's to more than 23 titles in 2016! Cheers!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Post 21: A God In Ruins, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Love Songs and Lies.....

I thought it was high time that I popped up in your newsfeeds again!  It was poor Kate Atkinson who suffered the most with my stilted attempts to complete A God in Ruins. I think I can be specific at pinpointing blame this time though...I have decided that, despite its conveniences, (cheaper at first publication, can fit in the handbag, can have multiple titles downloaded at any one time, and the back light), I am not a natural e-reader girl.  The 67% complete bar at the bottom of the text is not the same as a bookmark in a tome. The frisson of excitement when I can actually see that I have 5 chapters to go is totally absent at the 80% mark.  In short, I find e-reading makes a delightful escape of mine into a slog to the end of a text. It makes reading a chore...heaven forbid!

So, I have vowed to re-read A God in Ruins  when it appears in its paperback form, as my slow pace of consumption did nothing for its cohesion.  However, I know that I was a bit disappointed that the exciting narrative technique, so redolent in Life After Life, was absent.  The story therefore seemed a bit pedestrian in comparison.  I had re-read Life prior to its sequel, but really there is no need to.  My empathy with Teddy was never as great as that with Ursula of the first story.  But for those, who like me, enjoy some playing with plot or narrative voice, there is a surprise at the end. It was one which I did not foresee, which made it even more satisfying.  I cannot reveal what it is as that would be a spoiler, but it is, inimitably Atkinson and worth reading.

The novel follows Teddy's war, from his own view.  Atkinson conveys the reality of being a bomber pilot and imagines the mental and moral cost with considerable credibility. The war scenes are interspersed with those of his family.  His wife is Nancy, his sweetheart next door from the first novel, a satisfying union for the reader, but one that proves more practical than romantic in its realisation. Their child, Viola also forms a signifcant chunk of narrative as we see her into adulthood and witness Teddy's demise into old age. His grandchildren are also important characters and we recognise through Teddy's affability with Bertie, a palimpsest of Ursula's love for her young sibling and their father's regard for their welfare. And then there is the twist, which may well need the context of book one for full appreciation!

My second read was a direct reaction to the slow consumption of A God in Ruins. I had a beautifully pleasurable childhood in which books were my brother, sister and best friend.  I had groaning shelves that literally fell down on a number of occasions and I had insatiable appetite for Enid Blyton! Somehow, in my memory, I skip from Noddy, the Famous Five and Malory Towers to Grange Hill Annuals and then to Sue Barton and the newly emerging teenage love stories of  the Sweet Dreams genre. From there, according to my father, it was a very downward slope to rabid reading of Mills and Boon!  I was, apparently, too intelligent for such junk and should have been reading Dickens! Much to Dad's relief, I did discover the classics thanks to the timely intervention of Mrs Hannah, an English teacher at Cirencester Kingshill School, and Harper Lee. But this path of readership missed out C.S.Lewis entirely.

My husband loved the Narnia series as a child, and I had bought him a nostaglic boxed set early in our relationship.  I have seen some of the films and read some of Lewis's theological works, but have never made it a mission to read the whole series.  So, with the slow reading on the kindle app behind me, I wanted something that I could finish quickly.  With hubby's advice, I started at The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as opposed to number one in the series, The Magician's Nephew.  And it was fun!  I enjoyed Lucy's exploits and warmed to her character the most.  I despised Edmund and was chastised by said hubby, for still disliking him even at the end!  (Yes, I get it, we are all a bit more Edmund than Lucy and we all rebel against the good and wise and are tempted by the terrible and enticing, but hey I am a heroine kind of reader!) I loved Aslan and his infinite wisdom and dependability, but that is not surprising...he is Jesus in a mane after all!  And so I escaped to childhood writings, loved the archaic turns of phrase and relaxed into the simplicity of the story and the incongruity of Father Christmas appearing in the midst of a gospel allegory. And so I picked up the next book with anticipation...only to be so disappointed that it no longer featured Peter and Lucy, that I decided to sandwich the series with other books in between.

And that led me to Libby Purves. I have long been a dedicated Libby Purves reader.  I have all her novels and am disappointed that she seems to have left her career in fiction behind.  She is very erudite and interesting on her BBC Radio 4 programme, Midweek, but I miss the anticipation of her next novel. But it was whilst listening to her in a recent radio broadcast, that I felt compelled to revisit her fiction.  I randomly picked Love Songs and Lies as it is a title I know I have only read once, and in all likelihood, that was in 2008 when the paperback first appeared on the shelves. I was not disappointed.  My son has recently had an Oxford interview, and so the setting of part 1, was particularly apt. Sally is a studious and sensible girl who has settled well to her studies and is embracing the independence that university offers.  She has a penchant for friends slightly more decadent and glamorous than she is and the wonderful Marienka becomes a significant minor character in the development of the protagonist.  Essentially a love story, it moves significantly from the puppy love of youth to the agonies of first falling and then to the deceit and disappointment that so often makes adult relationships complicated. It is not trite, nor is it cliched.  The narrative voice is reflective and first person which aids cohesion and prevents self pity.
I love the way the novel captures the era in which it is written.  Sally is a student when I was a child, and a young mother when I was a student.  The movement through the 1970's and 80's was familiar to me, and Purves reflects the attitudes of the time well.  I particularly enjoyed the different pace of change.  Sally's parents are safely ensconced in 1950's attitudes and have a simple and complete love for their child. In contrast the Jacobwitzs are dysfunctional and don't know how to approach the new concept of divorce and step families.  Suitable matches are necessary and lies and silence are used to cover up any perception of social failure.  Marty is the rebel of the time and embraces a culture of rock and drugs, but essentially is a product of an unhappy home.  His brother Max is Sally's idol, but as in most idolatry, what he represents is false hope and disappointment.
This was a satisfying re-read, and has stood the test of time.  If you haven't discovered Libby Purves as an author of fiction, I recommend that you give her a try.

And now to you.  Happy Christmas to all my readers, and thank you for reading my blog for the last year.  Please continue to do so, and feel free to add comments and recommendations.


Sunday, 25 October 2015

Post 20: A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

My reading has sped up of late...must be the football season!  While the boys spend many units of 90 minutes glued to the not-so-small-screen in the now-entitled Man-Room, I am free to pursue more civilised recreation.

Half term is upon us, and I have cunningly given essays to be completed over this period rather than have them to mark!  I am hoping that such a plan will give rise to more reading and writing time.  I was reading the author Q&A with Patrick Gale at the end of his novel, A Place Called Winter  and he writes of his practice of "daily walks with [his] dogs..walk[ing] through one landscape with [his] head ..full of another."  So maybe I need a canine to kick start my writing career...?!  Not sure that will meet with hubby approval though.

That Patrick Gale is absorbed by the landscape and characters of his books as he walks and lives his daily life is not a surprise to his readers. In my view, he definitely shares top ranking with my other favourite, Kate Atkinson as one of the best contemporary novelists; Gale evokes character with empathy and tenderness.  He is equally good at portraying men and women and he finds hope in the muddle of humanity. And I think this is the key for me.  He is positive about human experience.  He does not shy away from conflict or difficulty but he allows compassion and tenderness to drive his characterisation.

And so to the nitty-gritty of his latest novel: A Place Called Winter is, in some ways, a departure from his previous novels (and, yes, I've read them all!).  The protagonist is Harry Cane, who was Patrick Gale's mother's grandfather! The plot is weaved around uncertainty as to his character, and mystery as to why anyone would take up the lifestyle offered by Canadian emigration and settlement in the early years of the twentieth century. And so Gale makes his magic.

Harry Cane is a likeable character, somewhat foppish and naive.  A legacy from a wealthy but distant father ensured that he and his brother, Jack were well provided for.  The contrast in the brothers is evident.  Jack, though equally privileged, has drive.  He studies and becomes a veterinary surgeon, never dependent on his inheritance.  Harry, on the other hand, never works.  He spends his day walking, reading the paper and at his club.  He is somewhat at a loss, and where we might despise such vacuity, we recognise his dissatisfaction with his lot, and empathise with his inability to see a route out.  When he meets a kindred quiet soul in Winnie, marries and becomes a father, it seems as though his role might be more clear.  On the contrary, he retains the leisured lifestyle of before, merely taking the pram with him on his daily walks!

As always... no plot spoilers, but you need to know that Winnie, whilst a delightful wife, has confessed on their honeymoon to loving another man.  Their marriage then, is at best, a good friendship. Meanwhile Harry has stumbled into acknowledging that love comes in varied forms, and he surprises himself when he finds attraction and satisfaction in secret liaisons with Hector Browning.

And so the novel, on the one hand, is about exploration of identity in a society where homosexuality was a criminal offence, but it is more than that.  It is also the discovery of strength and resilience as Harry moves from the comforts of a married home, to the more communal existence with Winnie's family and then onto a stark and punishing year in Canada with the Jorgensens where he learns how to farm in a landscape far removed from England's green and pleasant lands. The rather soft, soppish character is formed by this landscape and energised by the physical work. He becomes a man with purpose and determination. This determination sees him leave the safety of the Jorgensens and create his own homestead on a plot of land in a place called Winter.

Interspersed with short chapters from a rehabilitation centre for those diagnosed with mental illness of some sort, Gale maintains the tension in the novel and the driving force of the plot.

The sum total is a loving, compassionate story where strength of character is the dominating force. Harry is transformed through circumstance, but also through exposure to great characters.  Jack, Winnie, Petra and Paul are all beautifully evoked and influence Harry in his journey into whom he becomes. And, somewhat delightfully, Gale manages to draw a protagonist who, though he develops in strength and character, remains a little naive and retains a little fragility.  In that, he represents us all.

And if I haven't done enough to convince you that I'm a bit of a fan... I'm going to let you see my signed copy of the book.  For those of you who know me well, you will be not at all surprised, that the book has been thoroughly read with absolutely no crease to the spine.  This book, my friends, is not for lending!

Monday, 12 October 2015

Post 19: The Dressmaker of Dachau by Mary Chamberlain

Author photo copyright Sean Gannon
I'm excited to write this post.  There is something about meeting a real live author in the flesh that helps to bring books alive. Those of you who have kept pace with my bookish exploits in the past couple of blogs will remember that Mary Chamberlain was one of the authors I listened to as part of the Henley Literary Festival. As I read the novel, I kept remembering Mary's quiet elegance and her evident enthusiasm for her first published fiction.  This, despite being a multi published writer of non-fiction (or re-created fiction as Michael Holroyd wanted it to be known)! She also sported a very nice scarf!

I asked her during the book signing (yes, I know, a signed book is so special!) whether she had found the ending satisfying to write.  I don't know about you. but I am often disappointed by the resolution in many novels and I wanted to find out how Mary Chamberlain had gone about this aspect of her writing.  She smiled and said that she didn't think I would be disappointed with the ending of The Dressmaker of Dachau and I have to say that she was absolutely right! But, as always, no spoilers here, so I'll dive into the main plot.

Ada Vaughan  is immediately likeable.  Working class, embarrassed by her humble family origins, she is determined to better herself.  She is a talented seamstress, and with youth on her side, she quickly becomes a mannequin for the "Hon. Mrs Buckley [who] traded under the name Madame Duchamps." Such style and pretension appealed to our protagonist, and she set out to learn all that she could about couture.  Dreaming of one day owning the House of Vaughan, Ada is determined and resolute in her efforts to realise her ambitions.
Those ambitions were thwarted somewhat by the outbreak of World War Two.  Finding herself trapped in Paris as war is declared, Ada is dependent on her beau, Stanilaus von Leiben.  But, as with all good yarns, it is soon apparent that he is not as noble and dependable as he should be.  In short, Ada finds herself ultimately incarcerated in Munich for the majority of the war, But, by a twist of fate, her dressmaking skills are fundamental in her staying alive.
The ending takes place back in London post-war.  The novel moves fast apace, from January 1939 to November 1947 covering London, Paris, Namur, Munich and London again. It is well written, the character of Ada is empathetic and I found myself "shushing" hubby several times as I had got to "an exciting bit!"
As with all books, I am sure this benefited from being read swiftly, but it is a storyline that demands attention.  I didn't want to leave Ada without my attention for too long!
So, a definite recommendation from me. It is an undemanding read, but character and plot are well devised and the whole book is well constructed and beautifully written.  That Mary Chamberlain is excited by words is evident in her vocabulary.
You know, I might just investigate the Royal Holloway Creative Writing appears Mary is a graduate from this course...

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Post 18 A Little Bit of Jeeves and Wooster and Quite a Bit about the Henley Literary Festival!

And a tiny bit of Jeeves and Wooster at that!  I have just completed Thank You Jeeves, my final compulsory read for my A Level students' coursework.  I know Jeeves is fondly regarded as a English institution, and he was created as the landed gentry were beginning a steady decline towards World War 1 and subsequent radical social change, and yet I cannot get excited about the series.  Yes, it is a light touch; candid humour that reveals relationship, but essentially, it is still dependent on slapstick. And I'm not a fan of slapstick!  Even You've Been Framed makes me wince rather than giggle.

So what of it?  Jeeves finds himself in a series of scrapes whilst staying in Chuffnell Regis.  He has moved out of the metropolis because his banjolele practice has been annoying fellow residents.  But he finds himself at the mercy of American J Washburn Stoker, his daughter Pauline and their friend Sir Roderick Glossop.
Because of the said banjolele, Jeeves has parted company with Wooster, leaving him to fend for himself with a temporary (and rather unhinged) valet, Brinkley. Lacking Jeeves, Wooster gets into considerable scrapes and misunderstandings, culminating in him sleeping in hedges, potting sheds and garages, provoking the local constabulary and risking his friendship with Chuffy. He is even imprisoned aboard a luxury yacht in an attempt to force him to marry Pauline Stoker.
All comes right in the end.  With a face blackened by boot polish so that he could escape the yacht disguised as a wandering minstrel, Wooster, with considerable help from intervention by Jeeves, manages to communicate so that all wronged parties are soothed and pacified.
A jolly set of scrapes, but a bit gung-ho for me!

Far more to my taste was the time spent at the Henley Literary Festival last weekend.  Regular readers will know that I mourned my session with Patrick Gale earlier in the week, missed due to illness, but I had recovered enough by Sunday to mosey on over to the final day of the festival. Lovely hubby decided he could face putting his literary toe in the water and he accompanied me to a talk by Mary Chamberlain about her novel The Dressmaker of Dachau and Michael Holroyd who was talking about his novel A Dog's Life.  This was a really civilised and interesting way to spend an hour, and needless to say, I left the session with two new books! Mary Chamberlain has spent many years in historical publishing, but this is her first novel.  Softly spoken, intelligent, articulate and bubbling with enthusiasm for her fictional foray, she was an inspiration.  Her reading of her own work was beautifully executed and I am anticipating a very good read. Michael Holyroyd was also entertaining, his wry humour permeated the session and is a key focus in his novel. Interesting is the story behind his fiction; his novel was written in the 1950's, but not published in the UK because his father objected to the comedy created from his own domestic situation.

But the highlight of the festival for me was the Dragonfly Tea Short Story award. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I was delighted to be shortlisted, and felt like a winner already....but that was nothing compared to being announced as the actual winner! Helen Lederer was presenting the prizes and as she described the winning entry, my knees started to wobble....  When my name popped up on the screen, I somehow managed to get up and walk across the stage to be greeted by Helen and receive my prize.  How I made it back to my seat without my jelly legs giving way, I'll never know!

A few days later, I can still barely believe it.  A tiny, almost unacknowledged dream has been given credence.  I can admit that I want to write fiction.  Now I just need to give it a go.....

And as a post script...I may have missed Patrick Gale, but I did manage to snaffle one of two remaining signed copies of his latest book, A Place Called Winter  from the cute, independent  The Bell Bookshop in Henley. Maybe I should use some of my winnings to see him at his next literary event!

Friday, 2 October 2015

Post Number 17: Ian McEwan Saturday and The Children Act; Kate Atkinson Life After Life

I'm back in the conservatory today when I should, in fact, be at work.  I am hugging a honey and lemon drink and trying not to cough as I type. I am not someone who misses work, and to have a week off is almost unprecedented.  So, four weeks into term and my proud boast of a iron constistution rendered immune to all viruses by 14 years in the same school, is now proved useless.

I also had to miss a much looked forward to event.  I had booked tickets for the Henley Literary Festival  to see one of my favourite authors, Patrick Gale.  It was to be a self indulgent day off. I had envisaged catching the train to Henley, taking a coffee whilst reading a novel, going to the first talk and then lunching by myself , still reading!  The pinnacle was to be the Patrick Gale session, but alas, not this year.  My lovely hubby, has however been a star.  Not of a naturally literary bent, he has agreed to come with me to a session on Sunday afternoon where we will hear from authors Mary Chamberlain and Michael Holroyd in conversation with Sue Cook. And from there we will have tea in the dragonfly tea tent before nipping off to the short story awards.  Here, I have a confession to make.  I am very excited.  I entered the competition but with no expectation at all.  To have heard I was long listed was hear I had been shortlisted from over 1000 entrants to the final 6 actually made me dance for joy in my kitchen!  I feel like a winner already as I had no thoughts of victory when I penned my tale, but nonetheless, I am terribly excited about attending the event on Sunday afternoon.

Now back to reading.  I have been remiss and find myself writing about 3 books at once, with a 4th about to be completed. This is because it is text transformation time at school.  My students have to read a novel and then transform an aspect of the story into a different genre from the original.  This is my favourite part of the course, as the students learn that they can indeed write well.  Much of English is about analysis, but the creative process is just as important to the development of these young people. And so it is, at this time of year, that I am armed with books of their choice, (nicely and subtly guided by me, so I get to work with some of my favourites) and read frantically, so that I can best help them with their drafting.

And so to Ian McEwan.  The Children Act is one of his shortest novels, but it is also one that tackles some of the most complex of moral and ethical areas.  Fiona, a family court judge is faced with a case whereby a Jehovah's Witness needs a blood transfusion.  The patient is nearly 18, but as he is not yet of age, Adam can be ruled by the court.  Fiona meets him and a bond is formed.  She recognises that he is nearly at the age of consent, but she, in his best interests, decides that although his faith is strong, she will overrule.  The consequences of this decision are far reaching.
Adam's subsequent idolatry of the judge is the key part of the plot.  The narration is third person, but from Fiona's perspective, so we only get a partial view into Adam's life post transfusion. Her reactions reveal much about her, but the  resolution is one from which she might never be able to fully recover.
This is all set against the background of a marriage that is wobbling. He husband needs more of her and she is exhausted.  Her work is consuming and important and she often has too little to give to him. As a result he is absent for the opening sections of the novel and Fiona makes some decisions that can be said to be out of character. As this resolves at the denouement, the reader is left more aware of the delicate balances in life, and the fragile axis around which we spin our daily lives.

I think this is one of McEwan's best, but I'll move onto Saturday, which deserves air time because it is so clever.  It reminds me of the time at university when I was the only student who ploughed the whole way through James Joyces' Ulysees.  Saturday, like the Joyce tome, is actually a stream of consciousness.  The improvement (dare I say it) on the earlier text, is that McEwan assembles Henry's thoughts so that they are comprehensible to the reader! The achievement is immense.  The whole plot takes place on an ordinary Saturday.  This day, like so many others, becomes extraordinary by circumstances.  McEwan allows his protagonist to dwell on current political questions as well as the mundane, such as buying fish for supper! We learn about his family through his thoughts, his relationship with his wife, (beautiful, a true depiction of good marriage) his
daughter, his son, his father-in-law and his aging mother. It was never going to be action packed, but it is a wonderfully written, beautiful reflection of a day and a man's thoughts in that day.  Cleverly woven through is the plot, whereby Henry, a neurosurgeon has an altercation over a minor car scrape with an aggressive and defensive fellow driver.  He recognises possible symptoms of motor neurone disease in the man's behaviour. His unlikely meeting with him that same evening is tense, dangerous and surprisingly credible! A good read which again highlights our humanity and our vulnerability in the modern world.

Oh dear, doing three at a time makes for a long post.  Well done if you're hanging in there! My final read is Kate Atkinson's Life after Life.  As with the other two, this is a re-read.  A note to all you bibliophiles out there; don't eschew a re-read.  There is always more to discover if the book is well written.

I re-read this with a view to reading the more recently published sequel.  I felt I couldn't do the sequel credit if I hadn't revisited the first novel.  It is stunning.  Again, it is very clever.  Atkinson follows a series of possibilities for a single life, and you are not entirely sure, which path Ursula takes of the many choices given.  At its crudest level, it is a choose your own adventure for adults! It is however, far more than this.  It is well written, the characters are convincing and the concept is original and well executed.
Ursula Todd is born at the beginning of the twentieth century to an affluent and jolly family at Todd's Corner.  In one scenario, she doesn't survive the birth.  In its alternative, she is loved and has a raucous, English carefree upbringing, but there is always darkness lurking.  In fact darkness is a symbol used throughout the book to denote death, "And darkness fell" is a repeated phrase to suggest a gentle end to the protagonist.  But she is always resurrected into the alternative plot line.  It sounds incredible, it sounds as though suspension of disbelief would be impossible, but that is the magic of the novel.  The reader is absorbed into all the storylines as Ursula works in the Blitz to recover bodies and casualties, as she endures an abusive marriage, as she enjoys a luxurious affair and as she takes tea with Eva Braun in Hitler's mountain retreat!  Incredible?  Still unbelievably no!  The protagonist is well constructed and evokes empathy.
Now I'm ready for the sequel which follows Teddy, her younger sibling whom we had thought of as missing presumed dead as a fighter pilot in WW2......

Next read is Jeeves and Wooster!
Thanks for sharing my blog.
Happy reading!

Friday, 14 August 2015

Post Number 16: Victoria Hislop, The Sunrise

I finished this sitting in a big comfy chair in the conservatory, listening to the rain. Ironic, when  you consider the title of my chosen holiday read! Can't complain however, we haven't had too much rain this summer and the conservatory has been far too hot to do more than pass through it of late.

I added up my total reads for 2015 and am ashamed to say that it stands at only 12.  I am going to give myself more comfy chair time in the latter part of the year to boost this paltry number! I have probably read less this summer because of a new addiction...a free app on my tablet called twenty.  It is deceptively simply move tiles in numerical order, reaching 20 as often as you can. My daughter discovered it as a uni revision distraction, and it has rapidly become the time waster of the summer holidays.

picture from
Onto summer reading then. I have read Hislop's other novels, and enjoyed two of them enough to give her latest release a go.  The Sunrise is set in Cyprus at the time of the civil war in the mid 1970s and shows how terrible it was for both the Greek and the Turkish Cypriots. As with her other novels, The Island  and The Thread, I learnt about a period of history of which I had been previously unaware.  I like the fact that fiction mirrors life, I have learnt a lot of facts through historical and political novels. Though I was only a young child at the time, I had never realised that there had been a civil war in Cyprus, and was shocked to read that the ramifications are still being felt.  In her afterword, Hislop brings readers up to date, and there remain 40,000 Turkish troops in the north of the island, even today.

So the backdrop is interesting.  The story is also good but its telling is a little stilted.  I never fully believed in any of the characters as real people.  For me, there was far too much telling and not enough showing. This was also my difficulty with The Return. It is a light read but with a heavy topic as its background, and I'm not sure that goes together.

The story begins with the tale of hoteliers Savvos and his wife Aphrodite and their exploitation of a rich and luxurious tourist market. The eponymous new hotel forms the backdrop to introduce two key families, the Georgious and the Ozkans. The names convey their cultural identity, but their contented co-existence, and indeed, co-dependence in the face of invasion belie the stereotype of racial disharmony. These families are used to show that cosmopolitan living is achievable in Cyprus, and was indeed lived out in the everyday lives of those who lived and worked in Famagusta before the troubles began. A significant side story follows Markos Georgious, Savvos's right hand man.  His initial depiction as someone whom Aphrodite is suspicious of, made her love affair with him an inevitability from the start. This plot line was never fully credible.

The plot follows the two families as they remain isolated in the city long after others have fled.  Such a situation enabled Hislop to convey the history of the place from a civilian viewpoint.  Fear is written about, but never feels tangible, and the story feels a little stilted and contrived.

In summary, I enjoyed it, but was glad of its brevity.  Now I find myself wanting to read something which makes me work harder, with more implication, but significantly, something whose characters live on after I've finished.  I have a feeling this book may be one of  my forgettable reads.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Post Number 15: A Medley of Middlemarch, The Storyteller and How To Be Both

July seems to have rushed past without a blog entry.  I'm not entirely sure why as I haven't actually stopped reading! I have however, been reprimanded by my slow consumption of novels.  For that, we can all have regrets! I think the reason is a combination of too many hobbies, (people will keep asking me to make cake and the garden just keeps on growing!) and the occasional need to push the hoover round the house and actually do some teaching, marking etc.  I am also not a speed reader, and prefer meandering through a plot rather than a motor through that misses spectacular views along the way.

Speaking of which, we have just returned from a trip to Normandy en famille, where we saw some amazing sights.  Mont St Michel is a fairy tale picture rising up from the sea, and I thought that would be my photo moment of the holiday, but then we climbed the  lighthouse at Barfleur (the westernmost tip of the Cherbourg peninsula), and the views across the sea, down the coastline and back over the land were breathtaking.  It was also very windy and very high, so the exhilaration factor put a broad smile on my face, (even if hubby's "I'm at the top" smile was more of a tenacious grimace!)

Back to books then.  I slogged through George Eliot's Middlemarch again through June. I had beautifully neat undergraduate chapter notes throughout and I remember loving it back then.  And, whilst it remains a classic and an interesting study of English life and people, I was never gripped.  I confess to downloading the audio version so that I could tick off some chapters whilst walking to school and cooking dinner! That sped up the "reading" process and momentum is
essential if you are to take on such a weighty tome.  It is that momentum which I find hard to grasp hold of in everyday life.  I still find that reading is an antisocial pastime; by necessity it shuts out everyone else, so I tend to do most of it in the 15 minutes to half an hour before bed.  Such stitled consumption is not the best way to read, especially when some nights, my poor eyes won't allow me much beyond a single chapter, (sometimes even a single page)! So, to avoid totally denegrating George Eliot, I must hark back to halycon days of student life, when my whole existence was centred around a reading list. Lectures were 4 per week and seminars the same, so most of my time was spent with my head in a book in the Hartley Library (5th floor, bay window overlooking the main campus).  Read so indulgently, Middlemarch will bring its rewards.

Onto my first read that nudged into "official holiday reading time." This was The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult. Here, she adopts her usual style of a different narrator for different chapters, but I loved the fact that some of the chapters were very long, enabling key characters to tell all of their story rather than dividing it up.  This was particularly the case with Minka's tale; a harrowing story of holocaust survival. I dislike the sensationalist way that Picoult promotes her books.  Even her official website begins with such a blurb. The questions are not how can you live next to such evil? Will she bring herself to do what he asks? Rather they are about humanity and its extremes.  The book serves a new audience, bringing a key part of history to the popular novel, and she writes well.  This book is not sensationalist,and this is why I baulk at its advertising.  If you have done the same, then I urge you to reconsider adding this book to your summer reading lists.  The novel works on several levels, one being about narratives themselves. Grandma Minka used to write tales herself, and one of her stories forms a narrative that weaves through the contemporary storytelling.  At first this seems like an unnecessary intrusion, but ultimately it serves a bigger purpose to bring the various plot strands together. The title is apt, considering carefully how we use stories and narratives, how all of our lives are made up of storytelling in some way or another.
And the ending? I confess to being disappointed at first. The protagonist Sage Singer (silly names for all the modern characters I'm afraid) seems to be condemned to a life of lies, or at least, a life of shadows.  This seemed unfair and I wanted (surprise, surprise to anyone who knows me) a more uplifting conclusion.  But as I strolled to the patisserie boulangerie to get my morning croissants, my head was filled with Sage Singer and her conclusion, and I think it was a most fitting end.  Like her Grandmother, there are things that she will choose not to tell, and like her Grandmother, she will choose silence to protect those around her.

Reading about the holocaust whilst on holiday in Normandy had an added poignancy.  We visited the Dday beaches of Omaha, Utah and Gold and saw the graves of thousands at the American, English and German Cemeteries. So many sacrifices for freedom and democracy. The stories of the Ghetto and the Concentration Camp in German-occupied Poland, retold so well in Picoult's novel, underlined the reason that the allied forces needed to regain France and conquer Hitler.  The German cemetery was also poignant.  It is beautifully kept and has an appalling record of the total numbers that have been killed in WW1, WW2 and subsequent conflicts.  Humanity does not have a good track record. Poignant too is the acknowledgement that many of those in uniform for the Nazi machine, were conscripted and participating in a war that they would never have chosen.  Picoult too brings out simultaneously the compassion and the cruelty that existed behind the Nazi machine of war.

And onto a complete shift of gear, I moved into Renissance art and contemporary narrative with Ali Smith's How to be Both. I was intrigued by this, as the narrative is experimental.  Those of you who have been loyal blog readers from the start will know that I like this. But I'm not sure that it fully worked.  The idea is that different readers will buy the book and some will purchase a text beginining from the perspective of "Eye" and others will have a novel that begins from that of "Camera." I read on Kindle which meant that I had the choice.  I chose "Eye" first because logic told me that without the eye then the camera is nothing.  Discussion with my family threw doubt on my premise however as the cliche about the camera never lying belies the eye itself. Still, I went with my first instinct and read the "eye" first.
This narrator it soon transpires, is speaking from the grave. He is an artist of the Renaissance and struggling to make a living.  We hear of his adventures, his friends and his painting.  Some of his lines are written in poetry to create a further form of art within art. He is an interesting voice and the revelation about his character is beautifully created, teasing the reader through implication before final revelation is achieved. His narrative then includes a modern teenage girl whom he seems attached to.  It is through her that he can have a viewpoint on modern life. And yet, he does just observe, rather than comment. I particularly enjoyed a renaissance description of mobile phones!
The modern narrative is also well constructed and is focused on a mature teenager who is grieving the loss of her mother. The art of the "Eye" forms the cohesion of the text, providing a link between the two narrators.  That however, is not the most significant link.  Here the reader does the most work, and I imagine the points of discussion around the comparisons between the two protagonists is almost limitless as different readers will make different connections. The idea is that readers will have different interpretations dependent on which way round they read the novel.  If anyone has read it "Camera" first, I would love to hear your ideas. I intended to read it twice, made very easy in the Kindle version, but that doesn't fully show me whether the empathy and connections made would be different because I can't unknow what has happened from my first reading!
I loved the experiment in narration, but wasn't happy with the ending. There wasn't one really, and that is a problem for me. Yes, I can fill in the blanks, I can justify it, but I wanted a full meeting of ideas, concepts and ideologies between the two timeframes and the two protagonists. Interesting, but not for those who like closure...and a bit arty and experimental for those like my husband, who like their fiction just a little more straightforward!