Book No 15 (2018) : Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew

Let me tell youI don’t think this is a book you would pick out of a line-up as something you had seen before, as the name of the author doesn’t seem especially memorable. But this author has been on my radar for a while, as she wrote ‘Witch Light‘, a book published in 2011 and one which I often recommend to other people.  I read it before I started this blog, but it is one of those rare reads which lingers in the imagination, scenes sometimes come back to me. (Note to self – read ‘Witch Light‘ again and review it here!)

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew‘ is a fictionalised account of the time the troubled painter Vincent Van Gogh spent at the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy in 1889/90. He admitted himself after a period of anguished mental illness which culminated in the artist cutting off his own ear. Local townspeople petitioned for him to be removed as they believed him to be insane.

The novel is written from the viewpoint of Jeanne, the wife of the warden at Saint-Paul. With her adult sons now grown and left home, Jeanne feels increasingly isolated from her husband. Clearly concerned for her safety, Charles forbids Jeanne to associate with the new patient. But she is drawn to the red-headed artist, whom she sees painting in the grounds of the asylum. At first Vincent is dismissive of her, but he gradually begins to tolerate her presence as he paints.

Jeanne’s defiance of her husband precipitates a change in their marriage, and Jeanne, weary and unfilled, thinks often of her friend Laure who walked away from an unhappy union. The tenderness with which Charles and Jeanne seek to re-define their ways of being together, is beautifully portrayed, without sentimentality.

This novel breathed new life into Van Gogh’s paintings for me; he painted many works whilst at Saint-Paul, probably most famously ‘The Starry Night‘, but others detailed the asylum buildings, wildlife and people. Many of them, and especially the colours chosen by the painter, are woven into the text of the novel. I realised that Fletcher’s writing is the same as Vincent’s work – textured, reflective and meaningful. Look out for this and her other work – my edition of  ‘Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew’ has sunflowers on the cover!

Advertisements

Book No 14 (2018) : Thornfield Hall

thornfield hallSusan Hill and Sally Beauman have both tackled Rebecca from new angles and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is a well-imagined prequel to Jane Eyre. Jo Baker’s Longbourn retells Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the below stairs staff. Thornfield Hall adopts the same device, as it is Jane Eyre’s tale told by Mrs Alice Fairfax, Mr Rochester’s housekeeper.

Jane Stubbs’ re-telling of Jane Eyre is accomplished in that all of the details dovetail accurately with those in the original. Most readers who pick up Thornfield Hall will at least have read the Brontë, and I imagine most will know it extremely well. If major plot events like Bertha’s identity, the arrivals of Jane and Adèle, the fire in Rochester’s room, and the master’s courtship of Blanche Ingram were not faithfully portrayed, Stubbs would lose all her readers at the first turn. She is careful not to let that happen and the synchronicity is very satisfying.

The plot is sufficiently intriguing to keep the reader turning the pages and Alice Fairfax is a reliable narrator, who admits her own mistakes and shows compassion to her charges, especially Bertha. Mrs Fairfax comes out of this novel fairly well, as someone who seems to have others’ best interests at heart, at the same time as wanting to secure her own position. She perpetually seeks a happy ending!

It’s difficult to tell whether ‘Thornfield Hall’ works well as a stand-alone book, as I’m so familiar with its inspiration. However, I think it would.  But at less than half the length of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Stubb’s exploration of Jane’s story is far less complex. Jane Eyre is written in the first person;  Mrs Fairfax actually knows very little of the governess’ inner turmoil or strength, and so draws her conclusions about Jane from her observations. For me, it is Jane’s inner voice which provides one of the most satisfying elements of the original novel and this is missing from Stubb’s story.

Of course there are miles of bookshelves dedicated to commentaries and analyses of Jane Eyre, all of  which enhance our understanding and don’t detract from the source in any way. For me though, just as Tetley is to tea bags, so Charlotte Brontë’s novel is always the Original and the Best!

 

Book No 13 (2018) : Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

eleanor oliphantEleanor Oliphant is, by all accounts, a bit of a misfit. She doesn’t conform to the social norms her colleagues expect, often speaking her mind seemingly without considering the effect her unbridled honesty might have. Eleanor doesn’t really join in, spending every weekend alone, comforted only by a couple of bottles of vodka which she buys from her local corner shop. Sometimes when she speaks, her voice is croaky because it is so long since she last had a conversation with anyone. If her phone rings, it makes her jump.

But she’s certainly not daft. Eleanor has a university degree in Classics, can finish the crossword in the ‘Telegraph’, has held down a job for 9 years, watches BBC4 documentaries and reads books.

Life is plodding along uneventfully for Eleanor until a series of events come together to make her start to question, well, whether she is completely fine. The reader of course, knows this dysfunctional young woman is far from fine. Very early on we sense the undercurrents in Eleanor’s life – her tense relationship with ‘Mummy’ to whom she only speaks once a week by phone, the involvement of social care professionals, scars on her face. A traumatic past is hinted at. Eleanor has secrets to hide.

To start with I was intrigued and amused by this book, as Eleanor’s odd naivety provides an ideal opportunity for comedy. But I began to feel more and more uncomfortable when I realised that very often Eleanor was the butt of the jokes; I wasn’t laughing near her, I was laughing at her.

My unease began to grow as the inconsistencies in Eleanor’s character and behaviour began to emerge: even though she is widely in touch with the world via papers, magazines and TV, she speaks in an oddly stilted way which is totally at odds with someone highly educated. Eleanor orders a Magners and continues to refer to it as ‘Magners drink’, despite the fact that the label clearly says ‘Irish Cider’. She doesn’t know what a laptop is called and refers to dancing as ‘freeform jigging’. Eleanor just didn’t make sense, I couldn’t reconcile these inconsistencies in the author’s development of her character, and I got crosser and crosser. Although I finished the book, I felt it was over-long, contrived and based upon a highly improbable central character.

Eleanor Oliphant is due to appear as a film, produced by Reese Witherspoon. Maybe a cinematic interpretation of the book will be less reliant upon the finer details, and so more forgiving of its failings. But as far is the book is concerned, I am at odds (again) with the Sunday Times, Costa Book Awards, BBC R4’s ‘Book at Bedtime’ and a whole host of other enthusiastic admirers. ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine‘ feels like a lost opportunity to examine the plight of the lonely in our society.

 

 

Book No 12 (2018) : The South in Winter

south in winterOne of the lovely things about being an amateur book blogger is that people often lend me things to read, which they’ve enjoyed, and/or think that I might like. In this way, I get to find out about authors I may not have heard of. So it was with a friend who lent me ‘The South in Winter‘ by Peter Benson.

Tread Lightly‘ is a travel guide with an ethical stance, and Matthew Baxter is one of their contributors. Packed off to Italy in winter, he is tasked with writing about the places from the perspective of an off-season visitor, not just a high season tourist. Back in London, the offices of ‘Tread Lightly‘ are undergoing some changes, one of which turns out to be bad news for Matt.

Written in the first person, a device which gives an immediacy to the narrative, the novel also portrays Matthew’s relationship with Cora. Their love affair seems to have been an on-off relationship, which is currently off. But there is sufficient tension in the to make the reader hope it might one day be on. Even though Matthew seems like a bit of a twit, and Cora is really not all that likeable. Maybe I had a sense that they deserved one another.

A fair bit of the plot is moved on via dialogue, some of which is very true to life. The problem being, that a real-life conversation is often not very interesting, with its pauses, broken sentences, non sequiturs and misunderstandings. All of these things are intensified because Matt and Cora are communicating via phone and text message, but I felt like a voyeur, a slightly uncomfortable eavesdropper.

Because Matt is writing for a travelogue, there are descriptive paragraphs intended for the ‘Tread Lightly‘ guide and I enjoyed these, even consulting Google maps a few times to see what places like Ravello and the Amalfi coast actually look like. (I went to the Amalfi coast for my honeymoon. If the internet is to be trusted, Sorrento has changed a bit in 28 years!). Certainly food for thought for future trips and a clever plot device.

I thought this was a very realistic book, with credible characters and a plausible setting, but in some ways it lacked dynamism as a result. I like my fiction to be a bit less true-to-life. If it’s introspection I crave, my navel is as interesting as the next person’s!

 

Book No 11 (2018) : This is Going to Hurt

this is going to hurtHaving worked for the NHS many years ago, I have had first-hand experience of the stress involved in working for the UK’s largest employer. I did long hours, juggled many conflicting priorities and dealt with people in genuine need of care. All from the relative comfort of my desk. I was a manager, a tiny cog in a huge machine. I lasted a year.

This is Going to Hurt‘ is an autobiographical account of what it is like to be on the real front line of the NHS, as a junior doctor. Tough doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Adam Kay kept a diary from his early days as a House Officer, the lowest rung of the hospital hierarchy, right through to when he became a Senior Registrar some 6 years later. He is a very, very funny writer, describing his daily encounters with the exasperated tone of someone who can’t help but marvel at the oddities (and sometimes stupidity) of his patients. There is no sugar-coating; some of the anecdotes are graphic, messy and often smelly. But funny nevertheless, in a peek-through-your-fingers way.

About half way through the book, Kay’s anecdotes gradually stop being so amusing. Kay specialises in Obs & Gynae and struggles on, poorly supported by senior colleagues, swimming against an endless tide of mothers and babies, caesareans, ventouse and forceps. Yes, the journal entries are still comical, but the writing is shot through with a permanent sense of panic, exhaustion, always feeling on the back foot, being hopelessly ill-prepared and inexperienced. Kay’s relationships with his partner and friends begin to founder, he has no life other than work.

I suffered an obstetric emergency when my son was born (I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say there was a lot of blood) and I will be forever indebted to the team of doctors and nurses who worked around the clock to save my life. Engulfed by the trauma of my own experience, I thanked the staff profusely, but didn’t give a second thought as to how those medics may have been affected by my suffering. They were just doing their jobs. Adam Kay’s book put me right on that score. The diary ends shockingly abruptly.

This is Going to Hurt‘ does hurt. It is a painful indictment of a system which is broken from the inside, and which exploits those amongst us who are willing to take on the responsibility of  studying and practising medicine, for the common good.

Read this book. It will make you want to hug your doctor. Although probably not just after she has performed your colonoscopy.

Book No 10 (2018) : The Island

the islandHaving read and not particularly enjoyed Victoria Hislop’s most recent offering ‘Cartes Postales from Greece‘, I decided to remind myself how good she actually is, by re-visiting ‘The Island’. The fact that we were going to Crete, where the novel is set, made the idea more appealing.

Spinalonga is a leper colony, an island off the north-east coast of Crete. Those diagnosed with leprosy are exiled from their communities, linked only by regular visits from the boatman and two doctors. Eleni is a teacher in the village of Plaka, which overlooks Spinalonga. When she and a young pupil, Dimitri, are diagnosed with the dreaded disease, they both know they will have to say goodbye to their homes and families. Leaving behind her young daughters, Anna and Maria, Eleni is rowed across the water to Spinalonga by Georgiou.

The novel follows the fate of Eleni, Anna and Maria and the residents of Spinalonga. Their story comes to light when Alexa, Eleni’s great-granddaughter, is drawn back to Crete to unravel her mother’s past.

The first time I read ‘The Island’ I cried a lot. When we read, I don’t think we can help internalising the experiences of the characters and relating them to our own lives. So I imagined having to leave my daughter while I was carted off to an island. Heartbreaking. Leprosy doesn’t sound like a bundle of laughs, either. Then a war comes along and one of your kids marries the wrong guy and ends up sleeping with his cousin. It was all very moving.

But on this re-read, presumably because I knew the story,  I was able to concentrate more on the style and the plot devices, the latter being almost identical to that of ‘Cartes Postales‘. And the book lost a lot of its appeal. The prose is sentimental and not  that clever, the plot becomes more unbelievable the further in you get, especially the [SPOILER ALERT] body count at the end. It just didn’t grab me in the same way as it had the first time.

‘The Island’ is a hugely successful novel which was published in 2006 and there are probably not that many bookworms who haven’t already read it. I do recommend it, if you like an absorbing family saga with a Mediterranean setting, rooted in history. But once is probably enough!

Book No 9 (2018) : Manderley Forever

manderleyI bought my copy of ‘Manderley Forever’ when I went to the Fowey Festival of Arts & Literature in 2017. In conversation with Dr Laura Varnham, Tatiana de Rosnay revealed her lifelong fascination with Daphne du Maurier, and her desire to explore the French influences in the author’s life. Laura is a renowned du Maurier expert who drew out the best of Tatiana’s meticulous research and insights for the benefit of the Festival audience. I had my book signed by its author and came away happy. Since then, it has been up on my special Daphne shelf, waiting for March 2018. Because that is when I went to Manderley.

Menabilly in Cornwall, together with Milton House near Cambridge, was the inspiration for Manderley, the house in what is probably du Maurier’s most famous work, ‘Rebecca’. Menabilly is the seat of the Rashleigh family but Daphne rented it from them for 26 years, using her own money to restore and modernise the neglected mansion. She never owned the house. We rented Keeper’s Cottage on the Menabilly estate and I read ‘Manderley Forever’ while I was there.

There is already a great deal of published work about Daphne du Maurier, as well as her own novels, short stories, letters and memoirs. So is there room for another biography? Yes. Absolutely.

Tatiana de Rosnay uses a strong sense of place to examine Daphne’s life from a different angle, visiting the places which influenced du Maurier so profoundly. Not only Menabilly and Cornwall, but also London and France. She highlights Daphne’s fascination with her own French heritage and family history. It seems to me that when Daphne was grounded in a place, her imagination was free to soar – the staging of childhood plays in Cumberland Terrace and Cannon Hall, the blissful solitude of Ferryside in the early days of her writing career, her deep connection to Menabilly.

I could go on, and on! The nature of this blog is to provide short, useful reviews but I can’t resist the temptation to share the fact that Keepers Cottage features in ‘Don’t Look Now’, that Justine Picardie stayed there with her son while she was researching for her own novel, that Rebecca’s beach house on Polridmouth beach is real, or that I actually rang the doorbell of “Mena”. Such simple pleasures for a Du Maurier groupie but oh, such fun.

‘Manderley Forever’ is wonderful; an accessible and comprehensive account of Daphne du Maurier’s life by a skilled and intuitive biographer. I sank into it and didn’t surface for two days.

Book No 8 (2018) : Cartes Postales from Greece

cartes postalesI still send postcards when I go on holiday. They’ve rather gone out of fashion with the advent of social media, but I’ve always liked them. As a child, I collected the ones sent from afar by a pilot friend of the family, and even now I cherish a collection of vintage ones depicting UK lighthouses. So Victoria Hislop’s most recent bestseller ‘Cartes Postales from Greece’ appealed to my love of the picture postcard.

The storyline is attractive. Postcards from Greece keep arriving at Ellie’s flat. She knows they aren’t for her, but the images and messages intrigue her. She plans a holiday to Greece to discover its magic for herself, and just as she is leaving for her trip, a notebook arrives in the post, addressed to the same recipient as the postcards and bearing the same simple signature. Just ‘A’. The notebook gradually reveals how A. rebuilds his life after a failed love affair. He travels through Greece and each section of the book is a ‘postcard’, a short story with accompanying photographs. As Ellie nears the end of the notebook, she cannot resist the temptation to track down its owner, and return the journal to him.

On the plus side, I like books with pictures. If I pick up a biography I usually flick to the middle to peruse those few glossy pages which accentuate the life story. On the negative side, this is a strange book, despite the promising premise. The short stories are unconnected to one another, and apart from one very creepy one about a young couple whose car breaks down in a deserted village, unrewarding. A’s cathartic journey is simply a washing line on which to hang all these wet rags, and it doesn’t work well. The ending of the book is twee and contrived, trying too hard to please.

I’ve read everything Victoria Hislop has written, but this was a disappointment. If you’ve never read her before, don’t start with this. If you are a fan, I wonder what you’ll make of ‘Cartes Postales’. Answers on a postcard, please…..

 

Book Nos 6 & 7 (2018) : The Lewis Man & The Chess Men

Starting these books and putting them down is a bit like trying to hide chocolates in the fridge. They just sit there shouting and waving at me, ‘wooo-hoo, we’re over here’, until I have to go and retrieve them and finish them off!

The Lewis Man‘ and ‘The Chess Men‘ are the 2nd and 3rd books respectively in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy and I found them highly addictive.

The 1st novel, ‘The Black House‘, drew me in with its combination of murder and family stories, set against the background of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. I’ve visited the island. It is beautiful, but also somewhat bleak, and the weather dominates daily life in a way we probably can’t quite comprehend, as so many of us have lost our essential connections to the land. May’s descriptions of fishing communities, peat-cutting and folklore, together with relationships and feuds stretching back through decades, make for compelling reading.

The Lewis Man‘ centres upon the discovery of a body in the peat bogs, its features preserved by the acidic soil. Crucial to identifying the victim and discovering his fate, is Marsailli’s father. But Tormod’s mind is confused by dementia, making the pieces of the crime puzzle even more difficult for former detective Fin McLeod to piece together.

The members of a successful Gaelic band are the central characters in ‘The Chess Men‘. When a freak of  nature reveal s a wrecked plane with the former lead singer of Sòlas still strapped in the pilot’s seat, Fin is drawn into unravelling the fate of the band’s musicians.

Both books weave in and out of Fin McLeod’s past. Although each could be taken as a standalone work, reading the whole trilogy allows the reader to examine the experiences and relationships which have shaped Fin’s life through childhood, teenage years and adulthood. The threads of the story are dropped and picked up, intertwined and re-visited in clever ways, but there is not really a neat ending for Fin. Even though it would have been satisfying, I rather liked the ambiguity about his future. Peter May has said there won’t be any more books in the series, so each reader is left with their own ideas about how McLeod’s story will continue.

If you decide to embark on this trilogy, I suggest buying all three books at the same time. Because if my experience is anything to go by, once you finish ‘The Black House‘ you’ll be so keen to move on to ‘The Lewis Man‘ that even waiting for it to arrive in the post will be a frustrating delay!

Book No 5 (2018) : The Humans

the humansTrain journeys are a great way to crack on with a good book, so I looked forward to starting Matt Haig’s ‘The Humans‘ on the way to London. I soon remembered that crowded trains can be awkward places to be caught reading laugh-out-loud funny books!

When Cambridge professor Andrew Martin cracks a mathematical problem which could push human innovation forwards, he doesn’t realise he has endangered not only his life, but also that of his family. Other life-forms have been keeping an eye on the backwards Earth, and they fear this new breakthrough. The hapless Prof. Martin is abducted and replaced with a Vonnadorian who is tasked with doing away with anyone who knows the answer to the mathematical conundrum. So far, so schoolboy sci-fi.

Although the premise of the book may not be that original (alien lands on Earth, what does he make of it all?), the writing is. When the narrator (we don’t learn its name) first lands, he has no knowledge of language and so has to acquire it quickly. He grabs a copy of ‘Cosmopolitan‘ in a petrol station, leading him to conclude that the large, ornate buildings in Cambridge must be ‘temples to the orgasm’. Stuck in the professor’s body, the visitor negotiates life with his wife and son, with hilarious and sometimes touching results. His interactions with Gulliver (age 15) reminded me that our teenagers clearly do think their parents are aliens.

From an outsider’s point of view, earthlings are strange creatures with odd priorities. “They can drive a car 30 miles every day and feel good about themselves for recycling a couple of empty jam jars.” I have a feeling that some readers may find the observations a little trite and simplistic, but I thought it was a humorous take on what it is to be human, with more than a little truth in its explorations.

P.S. teenage boys are not an easy audience to engage when it comes to novels. ‘The Humans‘ might be a good choice for some of them. The last few pages include invaluable advice for Gulliver. I found it hard to choose my favourite maxims, but these work for me. And probably for teenage boys:

30. “Don’t aim for perfection. Evolution, and life, only happen through mistakes.”

67. “War is the answer. To the wrong question”

37. “Don’t always try to be cool. The whole universe is cool. It’s the warm bits that matter.”

93. “School is a joke. But go along with it, because you are very near to the punchline.”