I’ve had some good reads during the autumn months, and discovered some interesting new writers whose work I’ll be keeping an eye out for. I’ve also made some bad choices, and abandoned several books along the way when I’ve become irritated with writing styles or what seemed to me to be badly thought out plots. I put my poor selection of books down to the fact that I’ve pretty much exhausted all that was of interest to me on the top three shelves at the public library, and am now having to get down on my knees to explore the bottom shelf. That’s not a comfortable experience for someone with a dodgy back, so I think I’ve made some rather hurried choices. Anyway, here are the ones that did make it to the finishing post… 🙂
Claire Morrall: The Man Who Disappeared ***
The second book I’ve read by this writer – I reviewed The Language of Others last time. It’s a competently written book that evolves at a nice pace, and the characterisation is as good as in the other book I’ve read. The plot is a little thin though. Respectable husband disappears when a money-laundering scandal breaks, and a sheltered middle class wife and privileged children have to come to terms with the disgrace and the drastic alteration in their personal circumstances. Respectable husband, a likeable enough chap who’s nowhere near as culpable as painted, tries to start another life for himself whilst sheltered wife starts to look more closely at the husband she realises she never truly understood as she develops the resilience to adapt to her new life. An engaging enough read.
Rosie Thomas: Lover & Newcomers ****
Six college friends, wild in the sixties, are now facing their sixties together, having sold up to live in a slightly respectable ‘commune’ arrangement. Each has their own reasons for agreeing to buy/develop land or property adjacent to Miranda’s home, and at the start the omens are good. Drink flows, memories re-emerge, and emotions are ignited once more. And then things start to go wrong. When building work reveals an iron age burial site beneath the land they are developing, progress is halted, privacy intruded upon, and the past is revealed in more ways than one. This book is rich in characters, some less germane to the plot than others, but all in all a really good read that held me right to the bitter end. I shall be reading more by this writer. What I did find hard to come to terms with though, was the basic premise that they remained as close at this stage of their lives as they had been some forty years earlier. My own take on this would be that anyone whom I’d found attractive and/or socially interesting in my twenties would probably be unlikely to arouse the same instincts forty years later, or at least sufficiently enough for me to want to go and live so closely with them. We all evolve, we all move on. But maybe that’s just me.
André Brink: Imaginings of Sand *****
Having lived in South Africa, I’m always a willing recipient of a book that has its roots in that country. This was a book I found on the dusty shelves of a port library in France – and I’m very glad I did.
Kristien Muller’s grandmother is dying, and she flies back to South Africa when it is on the eve of the first free elections. This is a complex work focusing on the post apartheid period when apprehension and suspicion haunt both black and white populations both fearing that an apocalypse is imminent. The tensions are explored beautifully, as the grandmother embarks on a series of stories relating to her ancestors, at times mythical, at times bordering on fantasy and legend in order to acquaint her grand-daughter, a radical reformist, with the history of her past. I’ve never doubted the ability of South Africans to weave tales of magic, heroism and legend, and this does not disappoint. It’s a lengthy book, but well worth the read. Truly enjoyable.
Lisa Unger – Black Out **
I’ve persevered with this writer because the first book of hers that I read was pretty good. The second was rather less so and this, the third pretty much ends my interest in reading any more.
Yet when I started the book, I thought it was going to be brilliant, and indeed for the first third or so it was. I’ve long held the view that it you want horror to be truly horrific you leave it nameless, invisible, unquantifiable. And the first part of the book supports that view. We know that Annie (formerly Ophelia) is a fugitive from her past (most of which she can’t remember) and from a violent partner in crime. Now married with a young daughter she is supported by her husband, his father and stepmother, (and her errant father who abandon her as a child) in an elaborate façade and new identity which has been constructed following her ‘death’. Yet someone is now asking questions, a mysterious woman keeps appearing, and the very people she relies upon are acting strangely. Her tormentor, who was believed to be dead now seems to be very much alive. And it at this point that the story opens, before we engage in the past, present and future.
We learn that Annie is subject to ‘fugues’ and psychotic episodes, that she is receiving psychiatric treatment. Eventually, we also learn that what she thinks she sees may not be actually happening, a piece of wilful misdirection that I abhor. In a series of flash-forwards we learn that she has cast off her shield of protectors and is on the run. That’s quite an interesting structure, but it becomes tiresome as it’s employed to excess.
In the end the plot became hopelessly complicated, Annie’s reactions became weirder, and we were asked to suspend belief just too often to leave the reader feeling that the plot was credible. Too much was introduced as fact, only to have it devalued in subsequent chapters as being another of her ‘episodes’.
Pity; it started so well.
Kate Mosse – Citadel ***
I’ve made a point of reading Kate Mosse’s books where I can get hold of them, ever since I got hooked on Labrynth. I found Sepulchre a little less compelling, but nevertheless a good read. This is the third and final book in the trilogy – Citadel. Thankfully. There’s too long between the books for me to identify the links between the characters in any but the loosest of recollections, and I think I’ve had my fill of the Languedoc, the ghosts and the ancient history thereof.
This book deals with an all-female resistance unit based in the Carcassonne area. Now I freely admit that this was a great hook for me; we’ve travelled a lot in Languedoc-Rousillon, and we’ve moored the boat in Carcassone for significant periods of time. The books brings the town to life in a way that had specific interest for me, though I wonder whether the continual reference to the street names, districts and buildings would hold quite the same attraction for anyone else. We’ve also visited enough villages in this area and spent time examining the history and war memorials that proliferate therein, to have developed a more than passing interest in the work of the resistance movement during the second world war. And this is a truly powerful account of the trials, setbacks and horrific sufferings of those brave young French citizens who gave their lives for their country.
But the book, at 700 pages, is a bit too long, and the pace seems at times uneven, though it picks up sharply towards the end. It wasn’t compulsive enough for me to want to pick it up at all hours of the day, and unusually for me it’s taken at least a couple of weeks for me to get through it in bedtime reading and one massive stint on the day I was due to return it to the library.
And I have discovered incidentally, that I have an aversion to books that open with an account of an incident that takes place at the end of the story.
Hannah Richell – Secrets of the Tides***
Another book that starts at the end, with someone throwing themselves off a bridge. We are then introduced to Dora, who, having found herself pregnant is beginning to wonder whether she wants to have a child. From there it tracks backwards and forwards through time alternately telling a story from Dora’s point of view and then the point of view of Helen (Dora’s estranged mother). We read about Helen’s badly thought through marriage to Richard and her first encounter with her overbearing in-laws at their Dorset cliff-top house. In time the grandparents are killed, Helen and Richard take over the house even though Helen prefers a more metropolitan lifestyle and yearns to resume a fulfilling career. Three children later Helen has realised at least the career part of her longings, and is now in the throes of an affair with a fellow lecturer at a local university. And then disaster strikes the family.
This is a rich and intricate exploration of a family torn apart by tragedy and the way in which several characters are nursing guilty secrets about their part in the disaster that has overtaken them. I was absorbed by the way the characters work through their individual guilt, forgive each other and resume something like a working family model but it is a torturous and complicated route, with only the full story about what happened that dreadful day emerging towards the end of the book.
An enjoyable read.
Kate Long – Bad Mothers United ****
I’ve read several by Kate Long, Swallowing Grandma, Queen Mum, Mothers & Daughters, Bad Mothers Handbook, and she has an engaging, down to earth style that appeals to me. Set in a northern England town (quite close to where I was born), the characterisation is brilliantly executed. This book follows on from The Bad Mother’s Handbook so the characters are familiar and in some cases just as irritating as in the earlier books. The ingrate daughter (now following in the footsteps of her mother by having had a baby and thus putting her university education on hold) is particularly well done – I felt I wanted to shake her. The book is interestingly structured, with the procession of events being narrated alternately by both the mother and daughter, a style which I thought I was going to find irritating but ultimately discovered that it added quite a lot of depth to the story and the characterisation.
It’s not a literary masterpiece, but it’s entertaining, funny and engaging.
Carol O’Connell – Bone by Bone***
A new author to me who comes with high praise from renowned mystery writers such as Jonathan Kellerman, Richard North Patterson and James Patterson. In a northern Californian town, two teenage brothers go into the woods one day; one comes back, but what happened to the younger brother, Josh, still remains a mystery. The elder brother returns home after serving in the Army Criminal Investigations Division for twenty years. The first morning back he discovers a human jawbone, teeth still intact, and not the first such object that has landed on the porch recently. Josh, it seems, is coming home bone by bone.
This is a well crafted story which, as it evolves, eventually throws just about every character under a cloud of suspicion. This process can be extremely irritating, but the author pulls it off to perfection. It is a book you don’t want to put down – always my measure of a good read. Good characterisation, good plot and good plot development.
Claire Morrall – The Roundabout Man***
The third one I’ve read by this author. Of the three, probably the least compelling. The main character, (though not a tramp), lives in the middle of a traffic roundabout in a caravan, surviving on left-overs from a near-by service station and other people’s cast-offs. This exterior hides quite a different story though. He’s actually Quinn, a principle character in a world-famous series of books (The Triplets and Quinn) written by his vague, unapproachable mother. It’s this inheritance he’s run away from.
When his reclusive existence is invaded by local louts, he is forced into a situation where not only does he have to relate to the outside world but also to some truths about his relationships with his mother and his three sisters. It’s an engaging idea, and it works well, but not exceptionally so. In a series of flashbacks, together with a foray back into the real world that houses numerous characters from his past, we trace his path to … what? I think that’s the missing ingredient from this book.
Nevertheless some engaging characterisation (both positive and negative) and as always, beautifully written.
Barbara Pym: Civil to Strangers **
I’d searched for this author before when her name appeared in connection with a writing competition being launched by the Barbara Pym Society. The entry fee was exorbitant, (something like £15-20 though I can’t remember exactly), so I didn’t bother to enter. Nor could I find any of her books at the local library, though I did manage to discover something of her history. Born in 1913 and Oxford educated, her first novel was published in 1950, followed by six others before she stopped writing. In 1977 she was chosen by both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil as one of the most underrated novelists of the century and she emerged to acclaim after 16 years of obscurity and published several more books, one of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She enjoyed only three years of her newly discovered status before dying in January 1980, leaving behind an enthusiastic fan following – hence the society in her name.
When she died in 1980, she left a sizeable amount of unpublished material and this book was one of them.
For me, a disappointment. I suppose you might term it a comedy of manners, revolving as it does around middle class life in a small town, Up Callow. It has the characters you might expect of a Jane Austen novel, and indeed the style is not entirely dissimilar though slightly more humorous, with slightly less over-evolved prose. (I’ve never got on with Jane Austen – the use of double negatives and multi-claused sentences nearly always became tiresome.) There is a self-absorbed writer, his graciously elegant and understanding wife Cassandra, the rector and his wife, their daughter and the curate, an old bachelor who has given home to a sharp-mannered niece, and a conveniently amenable widow for the old bachelor’s attentions. Add to this a newly arrived Hungarian who has bought a house in the neighbourhood and who develops an unrequited passion for the saintly Cassandra, and a tepid story gets underway which left me with the question, “and so….?” on my lips. Throughout the book I found it difficult to place the era in which the plot takes place, since although the language and mannerisms seem to indicate the Jane Austen period, there are few if any historical references. It came as a surprise when a cinema was mentioned, which seemed at odds with the period style of the book.
She’s an extremely competent and slightly amusing writer who does brilliant characterisations. All the same, I’d probably not search high and low for another of her books, though I’d probably give her another try if one came across my path.
And so now to Spain for the winter, where the array of books on offer will be limited and less variable. We’ll select our books from a stall on Moraira market each Friday at 1 euro each, and we’ll take them back so that people’s cast-offs can continue to support the local animal shelter charity. In addition we’ll visit the charity library in Javea which again is populated by other people’s cast-offs.
The good thing about having a limited supply of reading material is that you do tend to take things more slowly, savour the words, contemplate the plot, identify with the sentiments. There’s something a bit more measured about the reading process when books are harder to obtain. I’ll be reading books I wouldn’t normally read, bound by the tastes of others, so if you think the range of books I’ve reviewed thus far is a tad eclectic, you ain’t seen nothing yet!