Book No 4 (2017) The Sea House

the sea houseWriting a book review isn’t an instantaneous thing for me. I don’t turn the last page of a book and immediately start bashing away at the keyboard. Instead the review forms over time in my head, sometimes whilst I am still reading, and then it takes me a little while to put it all in to words. For about half of Esther Freud’s ‘Sea House‘, the review which was forming was at best indifferent, at worst uncomplimentary. But then something changed and I was totally won over by its charm.

Lily has rented a Suffolk cottage so that she can work on her research of a famous architect, Klaus Lehmann. Reading through Lehmann’s letters, given to her by his son, Lily learns of Klaus’ passion for his wife, Elsa – a love which is possessive and jealous. The focus of the novel alternates between Lily and Max Meyer, a young artist who was commissioned many years ago to produce a painting of the house of Gertrude Jilks. Through Gertrude, Max is introduced to Elsa and the pair embark upon a passionate affair. Lily’s echoes Max’s; while she and her partner, Nick, are apart, she is drawn in to a relationship with Grae, her neighbour. Gradually, the past and present converge, as the links between the characters are revealed.

The book has a fairly complex plot – I couldn’t work out the connections between the main players: the lines joining them were only sketched lightly. After a while, I decided to abandon my frustrations and stop thinking so hard about the plot. The novel is full of insightful descriptions and prose, in which the sea and its shoreline communities play an important part. Unsurprisingly, houses also feature heavily, anchoring people in time and place.

It was at the point that I stopped concentrating so hard that I began to enjoy this book more. It must have been all those descriptions of the sea. I just let it wash over me.

Book No 3 (2017) The Butcher’s Hook

butchers hookAnne Jaccob is a young woman who knows what she wants. What she wants is Fub, the butcher’s boy. With her household thrown into disarray by the arrival of a new baby, Anne is drawn into the arrangements involved in running a London house in the 1700s, including the checking of meat brought for inspection. Fub brings the cuts of flesh to the back door, and hooks Anne. He awakens something in Anne which she has not experienced before and which she is not going to give up easily. But when their liaison is threatened, Anne herself is drawn into a realm of butchery and blood spillage that Fub could never have envisaged.

This novel, the debut novel by former ‘Blue Peter’ presenter Janet Ellis, fascinated me. The period and historical details of the book are finely drawn, creating a credible backdrop against which the author sets out the tale. But it is Anne herself who provides the main interest; from the outset the reader knows that Anne has the capacity for malevolence when she is slighted.  She is cunning, duplicitous and single-minded, capable of hot-blooded passion yet also cold-blooded revenge. I was totally drawn in by her.

As well as Anne, there is a strong supporting cast of characters who spring to life from the page: Simeon Onions, to whom Mr Jaccob hopes that Anne will be married, lecherous Dr Edwards who abuses the trust of both Anne and her father, twittering Aunt Elizabeth. The women in the novel are largely compliant and malleable, shaped by the strictures of their society. The men don’t fare much better, being self-interested and unscrupulous.

Some reviewers have called the ‘The Butcher’s Hook‘ a feminist work and I am not sure if I entirely agree with that conclusion. However, what does become apparent as the plot progresses, is that in order to hold on to what she wants, Anne has to behave more like the men around her than the women. Leaving me wondering if anything much has changed since 1763.

 

Book No 2 (2017) : Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

batle hymnThe parenting style which has been my default position for the last 19 years is sometimes referred to as ‘benign neglect’. You know the kind of thing; snooze upstairs at the weekends while the kids watch cartoons and make their own toast, allow them to wash their own hair, let them fall off swings in the park and at least once, totally forget to collect them from an extra-curricular activity, leaving them wailing in distress at the village hall.

Amy Chua’s approach to parenthood is the antithesis of mine. Chua, lawyer, mother and author of ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother‘ raised her children in what she calls the Chinese way. She supervised, managed, coached and organised, overseeing every aspect of her daughters’ lives. Sophia and Lulu were not allowed playdates or sleepovers, she returned the handmade birthday cards the girls produced, requiring them to be re-worked to a higher standard. Both girls excelled academically and showed prodigious musical talent; maybe not surprising when instrument practice could take up five hours at a time. At times even her husband questioned her methods.

Her approach required absolute obedience from her offspring;  back-chat was viewed as defiance and therefore shaming to both parents and children. There were many battles, particularly between Amy and Lulu. The wheels begin to fall off the Tiger Mother’s rickshaw when her youngest daughter rebels, railing against the tough regime. One of them is going to have to capitulate.

The book is written with warmth and insight, and whilst I may have disagreed with Amy Chua’s ideas, her love and dedication to her family is never in doubt. Plus, she gets impressive results.

Now in their twenties, the Chua-Rubenfeld girls are both at Ivy League universities and achieving brilliant results, largely down to their ingrained work ethic. Their stellar futures are assured. So while Lulu and Sophia are highly successful young women, erudite and accomplished, my own lumpen teenagers are a blight on society, lying on their beds in darkened rooms, watching PewDiePie on You Tube.

Only that isn’t quite true. My daughter holds down a full-time job while she waits to take up her place at University and my son, Head Boy at his school, is about to take GCSE’s. Despite, or perhaps because of, my lax attitude towards structure and regulation, both are competent, socially adept and independent. Maybe with more effort from me they could have achieved more but they are doing just fine. They will define their own success. After all, I don’t believe anyone approaches the end of their life wishing they had put in more hours at their desk.

 

Book No 1 (2017) : The Owl at the Window

owl-at-the-windowHaving a dead wife is not funny. I mean, even I can see that the opportunities to extract humour from being a widower are extremely limited. Which makes ‘The Owl at the Window’ extraordinary. Carl Gorham writes with such under-stated proficiency (he is the creator of ‘Stressed Eric’ and his credentials as a wordsmith are not in question) that  his book drew me in and made me laugh as well as weep.

The autobiography chronicles the author’s relationship with his wife, Vikki, from their meeting at University to her untimely death from cancer. Beginning at Oxford where the couple were undergraduates, to courtship, marriage and successful careers, Carl and Vikki seem to have a charmed life. He is prattling on about an exciting job prospect when Vikki drops the bombshell that she has discovered a breast lump. Through the diagnosis of cancer, chemotherapy, then six years of bi-annual checks and yearly scans, I was willing Vikki to beat the big C. But of course we know the ending of the book; it’s written on the (beautiful) cover. The re-appearance of the disease and Vikki’s death is related through a series of flash-backs, alternating between Carl’s panic and the re-emergence of hope. I felt slightly guilty about giggling at some parts (Cardboard Mummy in particular), and I cried lots of times (his daughter’s memory Box and an imaginary telephone call both reduced me to tears). But no-one wants to read about unremitting despair. Gorham is smart, he knows that for sure.

Despite the sadness of Carl’s experience, this is not a sad book. The author examines bereavement and grief with an honesty and self-deprecating humour which is inspiring. There is no bitterness, no ‘why me?’ but instead an acceptance that shit happens. And sometimes it’s really bad shit, like your wife dying of cancer, so you have to just keep going.

I’m not sure whether it is a good thing that this has been my first review of 2017. On the one hand, I have 11 months to tell people about ‘The Owl at the Window’. On the other, the bar has been set rather high for remaining 49 books of my year.

2016 : The End (thank heavens)

I don’t have that much in common with Queen Elizabeth II. She has far more money than me, her eldest son is a loose cannon and so far this winter (touch wood) I have managed to avoid catching a ‘heavy cold’. But, like our glorious monarch in 1992, I’ve just had an ‘annus horribilis‘.

Due to family bereavements, building work at home and a new job, I have been rather distracted from reading. Or, more accurately, I have been reading but neglecting my blog.

Undeterred, however, I’m going to get back on track in 2017 and look forward to sharing my thoughts on the books I read.

 

Book No 15 (2016) : The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

Harry QuebertLike most people, before I learned to drive I had to use public transport – trains and buses. My bus-riding days were before the advent of digital signage and the Internet, so if your bus didn’t turn up at the allotted time, you just had to wait. Sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for an hour. This always posed a dilemma: did you stand there for an unspecified length of time, investing in waiting and hoping for something exciting to come along. Or did you cut your losses and start walking, hoping that you would get home before the bus passed you en route? Reading Joel Dicker’s novel reminded me of that predicament.

Marcus Goldman is a successful author, having been mentored by his College tutor and erstwhile friend, Harry Quebert. Harry is himself the writer of a best-selling novel, entitled ‘The Origin of Evil‘. The title is somewhat mysterious, as the book is a love story, recounting the passion of a thirty-four year old man for a fifteen-year old girl. When Marcus begins to experience writer’s block while trying to craft his second novel, he invites himself to Harry Quebert’s home in Somerset, New Hampshire. A few days after Marcus’ departure from Somerset, a sensational story hits the news; the body of 15 year-old Nola Kellargan has been unearthed from Harry’s garden, 33 years after she disappeared. Harry is arrested and charged, but Marcus is convinced of his friend’s innocence. He returns to New Hampshire where he takes on the investigation of the case, to clear Harry Quebert’s name.

This book is long at 614 paperback pages, so not one you can dash off in a few hours. And it is soooooo slow. The text was originally written in French (Dicker is Swiss) and maybe that accounts for the simplistic, wooden dialogue which seems to ascribe Harry with the same vocabulary as that of his teenage muse. The relationship between Harry and Nola stretches belief to breaking point and there are also so many plot holes you could strain vegetables through the pages of this book. It sort of comes together in last ten pages or so, as the author reveals the perpetrators of Nola’s murder.

I got about a third of the way through this novel and was tired of waiting for something to appear, something which would transport me somewhere more interesting. But the more time I invested in reading it, the more reluctant I was to give up on that investment. Spurred on by Simon Mayo’s endorsement (he called it “the book of the year”), I carried on. It was the wrong decision. Take my advice; if you are waiting at the Harry Quebert bus stop, start walking. Get out of there as soon as you can. It just isn’t worth the wait.

Book No 14 (2016) : Early One Morning

early one morningHave you ever bitten into a jam doughnut, only to discover that it has custard in the middle? Not that there is anything wrong with custard doughnuts, it just wasn’t what you were expecting. That is what reading Virgina Baily’s novel ‘Early One Morning‘ was like. Once I got into it, it wasn’t what I thought it would be.

It is 1943 and Chiara is making her way through the Jewish ghetto in Rome, when she witnesses Jewish families being herded onto trucks by soldiers. When one of the persecuted mothers catches her eye, silently pleading for help, Chiara acts on impulse and pulls the woman’s young son to safety. It  is a brave and dangerous act, as she knows nothing about the child, he has no papers or identification, only that his name is Daniele Levi.

From this dramatic beginning, I was expecting a story of how Chiara’s  compassion would be rewarded in spades, as she and Daniele become increasingly devoted to one another. Her adoption of the boy would be the ultimate act of selflessness, allowing him to grow into a sage and loving boy, grounded by Chiara’s devotion. Only that is not how the tale develops at all. Instead, Daniele is sullen and resentful, is never accepted by Chiara’s own sister and grows into a dysfunctional, damaged young man who is finally banished in order to save his mother’s sanity. When Chiara discovers that Daniele had fathered a child by a young Welsh woman, the wounds of the past are re-opened.

This novel is beautifully crafted and surprising. Chiara is strong yet so fallible, as she struggles to give up smoking and cannot bear to part with the possessions which clutter her small apartment. I have never visited Rome, but the descriptions of the city, through the eyes of Baily’s characters, made the place come alive in my imagination. Daniele is also depicted third-hand; imagined and romanticised by his daughter, despised by Chiara’s sister and protected by the priest, his form is enigmatic and uncertain. There is a fine cast of supporting characters as well, including Chiara’s long-suffering maid, Assunta, and her father’s lover, Simone.

If you like to have your expectations challenged and enjoy stirring descriptive writing, then this is a book you will certainly enjoy. Just don’t expect it to be sugar-coated. Unlike doughnuts.

Book No 13 (2016) : The Girl in the Red Coat

girl in the red coatThe Girl in the Red Coat‘ is Carmel. She disappears from a festival she has been enjoying with her mother, Beth. The reader learns what happens to the young child and whilst her abduction doesn’t appear to be motivated by physical or sexual abuse, what happens to her is certainly creepy.

The novel is narrated alternately by Carmel (who is given a new name by her captor) and her mother. This is not a murder story and is not gruesome, so don’t be put off reading it just because that kind of fiction doesn’t appeal to you. Carmel is chosen because of her spiritual energy and healing powers, so a willingness to believe in those abilities might enhance your enjoyment of the book.

Even before the disappearance of of Madeleine McCann, reports of missing children fuel the fires of every parent’s deepest fear. To bury a child is all of our nightmares, but for a son or daughter to disappear, and never know their fate, adds a whole new level of unimaginable grief. I don’t know how the likes of the McCanns, Ben Needham’s mother or the families of the Chibok girls get through each day. This is why I felt Beth’s character lacked definition; I was unconvinced by the descriptions of her, which didn’t seem to me to convey the gut-wrenching agony that must pervade every waking, sleeping moment of not knowing what has happened to your child. The terrors your mind could conjure about the fate of your child would surely drive you insane?

I was also irritated by the lack of filling in the ‘back story’ about Pa and another character, Mercy. Having read some of the reviews on Amazon, this was a frustration which other readers shared; just too many unanswered questions.

On balance, I am not sure I can recommend this book. Although it held the promise of being a riveting read, and despite the fact that I did finish it in order to find out whether Beth and Carmel would be reunited, I generally found it to be lacking in pace and suspense.

 

Book No 12 (2016) You, Me & Other People

you me and other peopleYou, Me & Other People‘ by Fionnuala Kearney is a bestseller, it having been called a ‘stunning debut’ and ‘a gripping story’. I wonder why I found it mediocre at best?

Adam and Beth have split up after she discovered that he had been having an affair with a young restaurant owner. The couple have a daughter, Meg, who is aware of her father’s wandering and is disdainful. Beth is in therapy, Adam is struggling at work. A phone call from one of his former clients forces him to reveal a far deeper secret, one which has particular implications for Meg.

At just over 400 pages, this book is far too long. The whole of Part One needed some heavy editing; notwithstanding the need to set the scene and establish the characters, it was very mundane. I almost gave up. Adam does not appear to have any redeeming features as he lies left, right and centre, then tries to apologise afterwards. Beth, a songwriter just getting her big break in the States, oscillates between hope and despair, with some sex with a stranger she meets on a plane in between the two. Really, I just couldn’t take the pair of them seriously, the characterisation lacked emotional depth and believability.

And another thing. The author uses the ‘F’ word liberally throughout the novel, so why on Earth use ‘sloshed’ and ‘sozzled’, descriptions which my Grandma would have used? The word is ‘pissed’, dear Fionnuala. Pissed.

Oh dear, having said it was mediocre, I rather think I thought it was worse than that. And I didn’t like the title either.

Book No 11 (2016) Sarah’s Key

Sarah's Key10-year old Sarah’s mother has told her to wear her star with pride, to hold up her head and be proud. But when French soldiers come knocking at the family’s Paris apartment in July 1942, rounding up Jews, Sarah begins to realise that her father may not have been telling her the truth about what was happening in France. Whilst her mother is paralysed by fear, Sarah makes the swift decision to hide her brother from the policemen. Ushering him into their secret hiding place with some water and a teddy bear for comfort, she closes and locks the door. She promises she will come back for him later. Sarah and her parents are taken with thousands of others to a Parisian velodrome (The Vélodrome d’Hiver) before being herded onto cattle trucks to prison camps.. Children of all ages are forcibly separated from their mothers, who are then marched away. Sarah keeps the brass key in her pocket, knowing that she has to get back to Michel. But, having missed an opportunity to escape from the Velodrome, will she get another one?

Julia Jarmond is an American journalist living in Paris, who is asked to write about the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up as the 60th anniversary of the event approaches. The article has come at a busy time in her life, as Julia and her French husband are about to move into a new apartment. But as the writer delves deeper into the background to the piece, she finds that Sarah’s story begins to turn like a key, in her own heart.

I came across Tatiana de Rosnay because she has written a new biography of Daphne du Maurier, which is hopefully going to be available in English very soon. I had honestly never heard of her before, and who can’t fail to be intrigued by someone with a name like Tatiana de Rosnay?

Sarah’s Key‘ has a very rare quality for me – memorability. I read a lot of books and for most of them, if you mention them to me six months later I will probably remember the title and the author, whether I liked it or not and maybe one or two sketchy details of the plot. But, like ‘Sophie’s Choice‘ and Chris Cleave’s ‘The Other Hand‘, ‘Sarah’s Key‘ has a central premise which is very simple in principle, and as a plot mechanism, but has devastating consequences. Becuase part of the story is told by Sarah herself, I was also reminded (in a good way) of Michelle Magorian’s wonderful ‘Goodnight, Mister Tom‘. The Vel’ d’Hiv  round-up actually took place, a fact which renders the novel even more heartbreaking.

Although harrowing and upsetting, this is not a difficult read – some readers would easily manage it in one sitting. I could think of a lot worse ways to spend a couple of hours and don’t be put off by the subject matter; no book about the Holocaust is going to be easy reading, but this has courage, hope and kindness in abundance. A great read.