Book No 16 (2014) : Thérèse Raquin

raquinI must have read hundreds of books in my lifetime (maybe more? I feel a bit of maths coming on!) but for some reason, scenes from ‘Thérèse Raquin’ come back to me quite regularly. I have no idea why, other than perhaps it’s because I studied the original in French and scrutinised the text in great detail. I also seem to recall there was a TV adaptation in the 1980’s?

In the rooms above a haberdashery in a dank back-street of Paris, a pair of lovers, Thérèse and Laurent, embarks upon a clandestine affair. Thérèse’s calm, almost static exterior belies her inner life as a passionate woman. Having spent her life with the pallid, sickly cousin to whom she is later married, Laurent brings about her sexual awakening. Desire drives away all reason and the pair plot to kill Thérèse’s husband, Camille, so that they can be together. On a day out at the river, Laurent drowns Camille. After a respectable period of mourning, Thérèse and Laurent are married, but their union is blighted by the ghost of Thérèse’s husband.

This is a dark, dark book. Published in 1867, it was criticised for being pornographic. Interestingly, the ensuing debate allowed Zola to answer his critics by means of a preface to the second edition of the book – which was great for sales! The setting is dark and the emotions are base. Despite being over 150 years old, this novel is a fascinating examination of the essence of humanity. It is worth knowing that Zola used the text to examine theories about Naturalism, the ideas that people are essentially ‘human beasts’, driven by the same instincts as animals. He wanted to study temperament, not character. Don’t let the notion of theories put you off – the book really has stood the test of time.

Whilst writing this review, I discovered that a new film adaptation of the novel was released in February 2014 as ‘In Secret’, an American production starring Elizabeth Olsen as Thérèse and Jessica Lange as Madame Raquin, Camille’s mother. I’ll look out for a copy.

By the way, you will be relieved to know that I am certain that the reason the book is so vivid is not that I am involved in an adulterous relationship with a man from the Railway Board, nor am I planning to dunk my husband in the Cherwell so that I can take off with my paramour. It’s just a gripping read. Honestly!

zola quote

Book No 15 (2014) : The Shock of the Fall

shockWell, everyone tries to read the big prize winners, don’t they? The ‘Shock of the Fall’ by Nathan Filer fought off the competition to take the 2013 Costa Book of the Year Prize.

Matthew Homes is a 19-year old schizophrenic and, as he points out: ‘I’m a mental patient, not an idiot’. Told in his own words, the book describes Matthew’s attempts to live within the confines that his illness places upon him. Desperate to get away from home, Matt takes on a flat with a friend, but the arrangement doesn’t work out. Left to live independently, his Nanny Noo comes to visit him every week, and the local care in the community support tries to engage Matthew and encourage compliance with his drug regime. Later, sectioned under the Mental Health Act, he spends time confined within a psychiatric ward. This unsettled existence is played out against the backdrop of an earlier incident in his life, when a fatal accident befalls Simon, Matthew’s younger brother. Simon’s voice, and the belief that the siblings are to be reunited, is the soundtrack of Matthew’s inner life.

Although the language used to narrate the book is accessible and typical of a young person, the underlying themes of the book are disturbing. Primary amongst these is the woeful inadequacy of the care offered to Matthew as a result of his illness. I noted that the author is himself a registered mental health nurse and that one of the book’s wardcritics was Jo Brand. Although well-known as a comedienne, Ms Brand’s former career was as a mental health nurse. Her positive endorsement of the book suggests that the descriptions of the time Matthew spends in ‘hospital’ must be indicative of the truth. The days are monotonous, there are no diversions, entertainment or stimuli and he is simply fed drugs at regular intervals. This condemnation of the ‘care’ system  is damning.

The ‘Shock of the Fall’ is not a comfortable work, but I recommend it. I couldn’t understand why it had overtaken Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’ in the Costa race – having read them both, I can now.

Book No 13 (2014) : The Universe vs Alex Woods

alex woodsI suggested that my book buddies read this for our March meeting – so, if you are in my book group, look away now! It was recommended by a friend who raved about it and I have to say I agree with her view that it was one of the best things we had read in ages.

Alex Woods is a young lad who, following a freak encounter with nature, develops a form of epilepsy. This, together with his social awkwardness, leaves him isolated and without many friends of his own age. Circumstances throw him in the path (well, actually it’s the garden shed) of an elderly neighbour, Mr Peterson. The two form an unlikely friendship, despite their age difference. When Mr Peterson starts to develop some disturbing health problems, he and Alex make a controversial decision which alleviates the older man’s worries about living with a degenerative condition.

The joy of this book for me was Alex’s character. I do not want to label him, but he does display many of the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome. He is extremely literal, has to work hard at banal pleasantries and is disconcertingly honest. He is also compassionate, observant, intelligent and has an enquiring mind which allows him to seek out and remember facts about a wide range of topics. These vary from astronomy and neurology to Kurt Vonnegut and Alex’s diverse knowledge is the source of a great deal of the warmth and humour of the book.

One criticism I did have though, is that the novel starts with the ending of the story. I wished this had been different; although the conclusion starts to become clear, I think I would have preferred the revelation to have been at the close of the narrative.

But, to be honest, I’m being picky. I defy anyone not to enjoy this heart-warming read. Whether you like Kurt Vonnegut or not!

Book No 12 (2014) : Everything and Nothing

everythingEverything and Nothing’ is a ‘Hand that Rocks the Cradle’ plot. An efficient nanny joins the chaotic household of Ruth and Christian, to take care of Betty and Hal. Betty doesn’t sleep and Hal doesn’t eat, but Agatha manages to resolve these issues within weeks of arriving. She brings order to the household and gradually makes herself indispensable. Her employers, facing their own personal demons, take scant interest in their new helper, until her behaviour starts to cause concern – just who have they allowed into their family?

Now at this point I do not have to confess that I have never written a published novel, nor am I likely to. That fact alone should probably convince me to proceed with caution when criticising others’ efforts. But in this case, I just can’t resist quoting what must be amongst the clumsiest descriptive writing I have ever come across:

‘Her hair was as insipid as over-cooked spaghetti’spaghetti

‘She felt as see-through and inconsequential as a lace nightdress’

‘He felt as insubstantial as an evaporating puddle on the floor of a forest’

Although the plot moves along smoothly, this book lacks dynamism. It felt flat and predictable with few surprises. All of the characters were clichéd; Ruth, working mother wracked with guilt, Christian, misunderstood husband engaged in an extra-marital affair, Agatha the psychopathic nanny.

I think a better title for this book might have been ‘Something and Nothing’.

Book No 10 (2014) : The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

lemon cakeTo be honest, I just didn’t ‘get’ this book at all. In fact, it was so frustrating that I hunted down an online web chat with the author, to see if she herself could shed a light on the mysteries of ‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’.

Rose Edelstein has a peculiar gift. She can taste in her food the emotions of the person who prepared it. This insight turns out to be rather a curse, as mealtimes lose all their pleasure and she discovers that her mother is hiding a secret. chairRose also has a brother, Joseph who is, frankly, a bit weird. He begins to undergo unexplained disappearances, withdrawing for varying periods of time and then re-appearing. When he fails to achieve a place at his preferred university, he moves into a flat on his own and eventually vanishes altogether. Only he hasn’t actually vanished. Joseph has morphed into a chair. In case you think you have read that wrongly, I repeat – Rose’s brother turns into a chair.

My main frustration with the book (apart from the lack of speech marks) is that Rose’s family’s so-called talents are completely pointless. The knowledge Rose gains is not put to any use, either good or bad, it merely seems to be a strange strand to an otherwise fairly ordinary American teenager’s diary. The premise of the book is exciting, but the book just doesn’t deliver. It felt as if the author could see an idea in her imagination, but can’t convey her vision clearly. If it is intended as ‘magical realism’, it’s rather skimpy in the ‘magical’ department.

So, how does Aimee Bender explain her work? Turns out she couldn’t really, claiming that she liked the ambiguity of the ending: ‘I’m not really sure what [Joseph’s] gift was’. A deeply unsatisfying read, which I probably would have discarded half-way through if it wasn’t for not wanting to waste the time I’d invested thus far!

Book No 9 (2014) : Enquiry

enquiryThere are many famous authors whose books I have never even considered reading. Given that I need to make my way through 50 volumes this year, I decided I need to move out of my literary comfort zone, which tends towards classic novels and contemporary literary fiction. I’m prepared to admit to a certain reluctance to attempt writing which I perceive to be too popular. OK, I am getting to be a bit of a book snob in my old age! To counteract this creeping pomposity, I decided to sample the work of some writers whose names I instantly recognise, but dismiss as being not quite ‘my thing’. Dick Francis was the first of these household names which I have hitherto completely ignored!

‘Enquiry’ was chosen at random from a shelf in the charity shop. According to reviews though, I luckily picked one of Francis’ classics. The book is a mystery thriller, concerned with the enquiry conducted following jockey Kelly Hughes’ second place finish in the Lemonfizz Cup. His failure to win arouses suspicion of betting irregularity – both Hughes and his trainer (Cranfield) have their licenses withdrawn, leaving the yard facing ruin. Hughes is convinced he has been framed and sets out to prove it. The trail causes him to question many in his racing circle and sends him to private investigators and Jockey Club dinners. No doubt about it, Hughes is a sexy hero – he’s gritty, witty, determined, and drives a Lamborghini!

There was nothing at all to dislike about the book; the characters are somewhat stereotyped, but still credible. It’s cleverly plotted, fast-moving and leaves no loose threads at the end.

I can’t say I’d rush to read many more Dick Francis but I’ll try anything once.

Apart from Sophie Kinsella, that is.

Book No 8 (2014) : Oh dear Silvia

silviaSilvia Shute is in a coma following a fall from a balcony. She is being cared for in hospital by a compassionate nurse (Winnie) and is visited in turn by her husband, daughter, sister, best friend and cleaner! In an attempt to encourage Silvia to regain consciousness, her visitors talk to her, trying to unlock her becalmed mind. It is through their one-sided conversations with the silent Mrs Shute, that the plot is revealed. Each visitor to Suite 5 has a unique and distinct voice, some of which are strongly reminiscent of Dawn French, comedienne. The individual revelations of Silvia’s companions gradually weave together into something altogether much darker than the quirky accents and idiosyncrasies initially suggest. It’s a carefully crafted book, surprising in its complexity.

The reviewers of this book describe it as ‘utterly hilarious’, ‘darkly humorous’ etc. Whilst it undoubtedly made me laugh, the sub-texts of tangled relationships, betrayal, hurt and confusion, made me feel uneasy about laughing at all.

Incidentally, I am not a big fan of audiobooks myself, but I think this is one which would work well, especially with Dawn herself reading some of the parts. Maybe a long-car-journey gift?

Book No 7 (2014) : The Impressionist

impressionistSweeping Indian novels are a passion of mine – I cut my teeth on ‘The Far Pavilions’ when I was about 14 and swore for years afterwards that I would name my son ‘Ashton’ after the lead character! Well, that didn’t happen, but I have enjoyed many Indian sagas since then.
The Impressionist’ by Hari Kunzru, is the story of Pran Nath, born as the result of a fleeting union between an English officer and an Indian beauty. Circumstances see him ousted from his privileged home and catapulted into a series of lives from a male prostitute to a place at Oxford. He encounters characters from all walks of life, most of whom appear to be indifferent to him, and with whom he rarely forms any mutually meaningful attachments. Pran/Rukshana/WhiteBoy/Pretty Bobby and Jonathan Bridgeman (Pran’s various personae) are all ‘dodgy’ characters, drawn to the seedier side of life, quick to exploit opportunities. But Pran is essentially a blank canvas, a chameleon soaking up the hues of his surroundings, using the pale colour of his skin to his advantage. His quest to find his place in the world is at times violent, amusing and thrilling.
It’s not a quick read and the pace seems to slow, leaving the conclusion somehow unfulfilling. At times I was enthralled by the book, but towards the end found my concentration waning. Despite it having been critically acclaimed, ‘The Impressionist’ is not a novel that I particularly enjoyed.

Book No 6 (2014) : Life after Life

life after lifeI’d been waiting ages for this to come out in paperback and finally got my hands on it thanks to the dwindling but sufficient funds on my Christmas ‘Waterstones’ Gift Card. I have nothing against hardbacks; other than they are cumbersome to hold, won’t fit in my handbag and take up too much space on my shelves!

Atkinson’s last four works have featured Scottish detective Jackson Brodie and combine a wry sense of humour with a contemporary  setting and plot lines. ‘Life after Life’ has the trademark observational humour but most of the story takes place between 1910 and the end of WW2. Ursula is born to parents Sylvie and Hugh at the start of the book, but fails to take her first breath. Presumably realising that this inauspicious beginning would not herald much of a story, Atkinson unfurls a careful plot which sees Ursula born again, at the same time and place, into the same family. This time she lives a little longer, but before long the darkness falls and she begins her life cycle again. There is no explanation of how this happens, but to get the best from the novel, I discovered it was easiest just to accept that it does! With each incarnation, although the central characters in Ursula’s life remain the same, her circumstances and experiences vary. The novel begins and ends with the same scene, where Ursula (with the benefit of hindsight) has the chance to completely change the course of European history.

It’s a fascinating premise, how differently we might all lead our lives if we had more than one opportunity to get it right. The prose is warm, artfully observed and at times very funny, at others very touching. More than one of Ursula’s deaths moved me to tears, and the scenes set in London during the bombings are vividly recounted. Yet somehow the book is lacking. At just over 600 pages, it feels overly long, and the cyclical nature of Ursula’s life necessitates reading the same scenarios several times. Obviously! Many of the reader reviews of the book have expressed the same sentiment – ‘I usually love Kate Atkinson , but …’ which sums up my view of ‘Life after Life’.

Of course, in my next lifetime, I may choose to feel differently about it.

Book No 5 (2014) : Painter of Silence

painter of silenceThis novel was described so eloquently by a friend at our last village Book Group meeting, that I swiped it out of her hands there and then! Written by Georgina Harding, ‘Painter of Silence’ was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012 – although it did lose out to Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’.

Augustus and Safta are raised together in Romania. He is the son of the cook, she is the daughter of the house at Poiana. They share an unbreakable bond, made all the more poignant by the fact that whilst Augustus is a talented artist, he is profoundly deaf and never acquires language. He watches quietly, observes the behaviour and senses the mood of others, although the world is frequently a bewildering place for him. Safta and Augustus are separated by the outbreak of WW2 and the invasion of the Russian armies, but they are reunited when Augustus seeks her out at the hospital where she has enlisted as a nurse. Through the medium of his drawings and mini figurines, Augustus draws upon his memories to portray to Safta the story of his life and the fate of her pre-War lover. The ending is both surprising and satisfying.

It’s a beautifully atmospheric book, underlining the importance of place and suffused throughout with Safta’s gentle care for Augustus. I recommend it.