Friday, 19 May 2017

Post 56: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

As promised in my last missive, I have been afforded more reading time this week.  Hubby did appear for an unexpected 24-hour pass after the cancellation of a meeting, but despite this interruption to my reading schedule (!) I have finished both The Miniaturist and The Jewel Garden. He's home tomorrow afternoon, so I may even be able to squeeze in another title before his key turns in the door!

Before I dive into The Miniaturist, I must say, that even as an English teacher, the spelling of Miniature is ridiculous!  If English spelling gives you amusement and/or despair, I must recommend the poem  I Take it You Already Know.

And so to the novel. The Miniaturist received a great deal of acclaim when it was published in 2014. It is one of those books that I have had on my shelves for a long time but never got around to picking up.  It was even downloaded on my Kindle, but something held me back. It was probably because I had heard a review on the radio that emphasised a mystical element to it, and I'm not really a fan of magical realism or portents...

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. (Have you ever noticed that low expectations sometimes garner the most satisfying experiences?  Shhh, don't tell school...that is not a growth mindset!)

Set in Amsterdam in the 17th century, the book gave a historically accurate glimpse of life as a merchant in a busy port.  Trade was largely controlled by Guilds and the Burgomasters and thus corruption was rife.  At a time when few black people were in Northern Europe, Johannes Brandt's domestic servant, Otto was looked upon with fear and derision in equal measure.  Hasty to point out that he was employed and not a slave, Otto forms an integral part of family life.  Loved by the house maid, Cornelia, she, along with Johannes and his sister Marin, is fiercely protective of him.

Into this tight household comes Petronella.  Married off to Johannes by her Mother as a good, wealthy match, 18 year old Nella finds herself as far removed from her rural upbringing as she could have imagined.  She is considered as a blessing and a miracle by Johannes and Marin, and yet, at the same time, she is both ignored and humiliated by them both.  She befriends Cornelia but even in this relationship there are secrets.  Nella feels alone and marginalised, despite her best efforts to be a wife.
Johannes sees this and seeks to make amends by buying her an extraordinary dolls house; a replica of their own home.

Given with good intent, Nella is insulted to have been presented with what she perceives to be little more than a toy.  She also has a blank cheque with which to furnish the house.  Marin insists that she does so and it is here that the story takes the turn towards the portentous.

The miniature furniture and dolls are exact replicas of those in the house.  The craftmanship is beyond compare, and Nella finds herself drawn to the figures.  Other commissions arrive at the house unannounced.  Their arrival is unpredictable, but it soon becomes apparent that the miniaturist seems to know everything about their lives, even things Nella did not know about herself.  Thus the packages become emblematic of the future and the novel creates intrigue by building on whether the talismans govern events or whether they are effigies that result from hands that can see into a future already mapped.

Nella becomes obsessed by the miniaturist, a woman she has never met, and this plot strand continues to the end.  But this is not the whole story.  The lives of Nella, Marin, Johannes and their household reveal much about trade and morality in Amsterdam at the time.  The church and the judiciary all play a part in making the novel exciting.

And it is exciting.  It is a gripping read.  Made up of short chapters, Jessie Burton ends each one with the desire to know more.  This structure makes for compulsive reading and it is a book that is easily consumed. For those of you who enjoy a detailed historical novel, this is not one of those.  It is a light read, a popular read. It is definitely a recommendation from me and I am certainly interested in reading her second title, The Muse.

And before I go, I must just give you a life update.  Child 1 has just heard that she has got her job of choice which will begin after university.  Very proud of her.  Indeed.  But... this also means that she will not be moving back into her own room and that the bank of Mum and Dad can look forward to closing pretty soon!

 Mmmm....perhaps I should start rearranging the furniture to give me more space for my library!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Post 55:Celebrations and Vigilantes

Dear Readers, I thank you!  In borrowing a little from Charlotte Bronte, I wanted to express my amazement and gratitude that my blog has now had over 10,000 hits. This counts as fame in my book, and yet I can still walk the streets without being beleaguered for an autograph! I have been reliably informed that my musings have influenced reading lists and present purchases.  This is incredible, and I get really very excited when I discover a new reader. The little map on my statistics page also suggests that I have readers in every continent except Antartica: if that is to be believed then the penguins are seriously missing out!

Now the nature of this business means that I don't know who most of you are, but I do know that I love being part of this bookish community.  As always, may I encourage you to comment and suggest other titles for me to read...though I confess my to-read shelf is committing the cardinal sin of having books led sideways to accommodate all my recent purchases....

However, I do find myself home alone for a whole week.  Hubby is hobnobbing in various hotels and family stop-off points before heading into a long weekend jolly with friends from Church, Child 1 is revising for finals in Sheffield and Child 2 is enjoying a term without exams in Oxford, (he's done them already...don't worry, the bastion of learning has not given up on examining their students!) The upshot of all this abandonment is bound to be an increase in reading time.  My aim is to complete The Miniaturist which I am currently enjoying and then I might treat myself to the new Maggie O'Farrell. I've had it for a couple of weeks and it is still in its postal packaging.  Delayed gratification!

To kick-start my week, I'm going to fill you in on my latest completed read, which was Shelley Harris's Vigilante. Some of you may remember that Shelley was the tutor at a creative writing day I went on at Faber and Faber last year.  More surprising was that she knew me!  In her teaching days, we had crossed paths twice, and I was the (only ever-so-slightly) older, wiser one!! Her debut novel Jubilee is reviewed here. Vigilante is totally different.  The audience is the same; I would hazard at predominantly female and generally favouring a light read.  I hesitate to say chick-lit because that seems to me to be a derisive term...and I tend to agree with Marion Kaye that no equivalent term would ever be tagged onto popular fiction written by a man.....

But this is a book that is easy to read.  I purposely chose it after the dense and evocative Gardens of the Evening Mist  as I wanted a quicker, light-touch book.  This certainly achieved that aim.  The protagonist, Jenny Pepper is a middle-aged wife, mother and charity bookshop manager.  The book opens with the provocative statement, "Before I was a superhero...I'd have been tidying up." And there you have the plot in a nutshell.  She is an ordinary woman, feeling her age, feeling hemmed-in by her life, and significantly, being defined by what she is to everyone else.

In many ways it is a familiar story of middle age.  The kids are growing up, the career has dwindled as family life has superceded ambition and we wonder how we got here, and more importantly, how are we going to get out! This is not about me by the way! Nor is it about Shelley Harris she assures us in the author interview at the back of the book, but she does say that she relates to the feeling of dreams squandered and having to find the resources to cope when life stares back at you with no interest in who you are anymore.  I read an article in the Times Sunday Supplement whilst clearing out the newspapers collected by an elderly friend of mine, and there was a humorous column on the joys of middle this she declared that past a certain point, you realise that you become invisible, indistinguishable, unremarkable.

But middle age is not that depressing! Shelley Harris acknowledges this in her plot.  Jenny Pepper, whilst walking to a fancy dress evening dressed as a superhero, complete with high heels, cape and a mask, serendipitously comes across an actual crime taking place.  Staying in character, she swoops on the scene and protects the victim.  Comedic, yes. Plausible? Almost.  It is certainly within the realms of suspension of disbelief.  But she becomes entranced by the possibilities afforded to her by the anonymity of the costume.  It releases her from being just Jenny and empowers her to be somebody different, somebody who effects things around her.

And so the story unfolds.  From a street mugging, the small town of Bassetbury becomes a hotspot
for increasingly sinister crime.  Undeterred by potential danger, Jenny goes out at night in full costume, patrolling the streets and becoming embroiled in an unbelievable number of skirmishes. This was the point where I did begin to lose faith in my ability to hold onto the storyline and stay with the character.  I couldn't find a place to suspend my disbelief long enough to accept that she would have continued to go out, knowingly putting herself in danger and believing herself to be more useful than the police.

But I was impressed with the shift to a pseudo detective genre as the novel progressed.  I wanted to find out if my hunch on whodunnit was right, and whether I had correctly identified the red herring. It was satisfying to come to the end and feel smug about my own detective skills, but at this point I must reassure you that not once did I leave the house dressed as wonderwoman!

I loved being taught by Shelley.  She is fun and talented and her classes are both inspiring and down-to-earth. This is a good light read, but it is not my favourite genre.  It is quirky, and I laughed out loud at the Conversation with Shelley Harris section when she quotes, "Certainly, when I walked down the streets of High Wycombe dressed as a superhero, I found that I was horribly nervous right up to the point that I put on the mask. Once I was wearing it, I felt in control..."

Anyone who is prepared to research their central character with such passion deserves a wide readership!  So...going on a plane, sitting on a beach, or just feeling a bit uninspired by daily life, then escape to a life of vigilante crime-solving with Jenny Pepper.  She is no Emmilene Pankhurst, but she does her bit for standing up for the girls!

Friday, 5 May 2017

Post 54: Garden of the Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Since my last post, I have spent a disproportionate amount of time walking!  I'm fervently hoping that my faithful boots, bought some seven years ago, will be able to withstand the beating and propel me over the finish line of our marathon in July. Some walks have been more adventurous than others, with this one, in and around Hambleden, finding us in the tiniest of public right of way gaps imaginable!  The Hambleden walk also saw us get lost  twice and extend what was meant to be a 10 mile walk to almost 16! The second woodland wandering off-track found us slap-bang in the middle of a Tough Mudder circuit.  Hubby was not amused as we found ourselves skirting obstacles only to re-emerge in yet another cordoned-off area.  Thank heaven for GPS which finally decided to work long enough for us to find an alternative way out of the woods and to the sanctity of tea and flapjack!

Now time for a reading confession.  I read much of Gardens of the Evening Mist by Tan Twan Eng on my Kindle, but I also listened to it on the associated audio file.  I put it out to my readers as to whether or not this is allowed to count in my reading tally for 2017.  I was roundly accused of cheating by my colleague when I admitted that I had listened to the latter half of the novel whilst out on a solitary walk along the Thames Path. So, does this count?  Please give your views!

I love a good audio book.  Many an hour was whiled away on long car journeys with the children as we listened first to a cassette with story recordings by many family members, progressing through to Dick King-Smith, Enid Blyton and J K Rowling.  Hubby does a lot of commuting and therefore much of his reading is actually listening.  But the advent of Kindle and audio synching has opened a whole new world.  I am still delighted when the audio knows how far I have read and the Kindle knows how far I have far as I'm concerned, this is magic!

For this book, the audio really helped.  It is a slow read, lyrical and quite soothing, but I found that, against all exercise of my will-power, it often put me to sleep.  The audio therefore, was an immersive experience.  It enabled me to focus all my attention on the story and gain a lot more reading hours in one go.

The book is beautiful.  It is a story told through the creation of a Japanese garden in Malaysia.  The designer is dead at the outset of the novel and so the story is woven in retrospect, building the lives of Aritomo and Yun Ling through their past experiences.  Aritomo had been gardener to the Emperor but had retreated to Malaysia. Yun Ling and her sister had been victims of the Japanese following their invasion of Malaya in 1941.  This little-known war preceded the attack on Pearl Harbour by just a few hours, and I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing of its history at all.

This is one of the beauties of the novel form.  It opens fictional worlds, but gives us a wider perspective on real history.  Aritomo is a construct, as is Yun Ling and her sister Yun Hong, but the facts of the invasion, the concentration camps and Operation Golden Lily are all historically accurate, giving us a window on the world we have inherited.

The story is deeply complex and opens with Yun Ling (known as Judge Teoh) retiring from the bench to warm accolades from her colleagues.  Her legal career began after she escaped the concentration camp, prompted to take a role in the war crimes trials to find out where she had been held prisoner and where her sister had met her death.  The whole story is a homage to her sister.  Yun Ling goes to the Cameron Highlands to meet Aritomo and ask him to design a Japanese Garden as a memorial to her.  The relationships are complex.  Her sister had never lost her love of the Japanese style of garden beauty; paths that lead to a particular view, hidden from sight until one reaches the optimum point, a balance of nature and control and punctuated by buried stones that speak simplicity and grace. Years of cruel imprisonment and routine rape had not robbed her of her sense of beauty. Quite simply, the dream of a garden kept her alive.

And so her sister, Yun Ling, spends most of her life dedicated to providing her with a legacy.  But it involves close contact with the enemy.  Aritomo is a beautifully conceived character. Tan Twan Eng introduces him as an archer, focused and controlled, "He drew back the bowstring...until he reached a point where he seemed to be floating just above the floorboards...Time had stopped: there was no beginning, there was no end." And this eternal force resounds throughout the story.  Aritomo never apologises for his country's treatment of Malaya and the prisoners who were taken.  He quietly wins Yun Ling's trust as he proves an exacting mentor in the art of Japanese garden design. He seems wise, intense and ephemeral. And it is the latter quality that provides the mystery at the centre of the novel. Is he who he appears to be?  He leaves so much more unsaid than stated and his death is as unconventional and controlled as his life.

The story is majestic in its setting of the Majuba tea estate in the Cameron Highlands.  The tea

plantation is owned by a South African. Magnus Pretorius who had know his own suffering in camps in Boer at the hands of the English, The setting itself is not peaceful. though it is almost disturbingly beautiful. Following WW2 it suffered repeated guerilla attacks that maimed, murdered and threatened inhabitants.  This is the backdrop for Yun Ling's apprenticeship with Aritomo. So it is against an atmosphere charged with political unrest, and a past scarred by terror and loss that the relationship between Aritomo and Yun Ling is built, Her return to Yugiri some decades afterwards gives us the vehicle for the complex story to unfold.

It is a story in which to immerse yourself.  Its complexity is beautifully told, but its pace is slow and deliberate, the author holding a mirror to the Japanese art of garden design. This was a satisfying book that opened a new page of history for me, and created characters that have not yet left my consciousness.