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.