A Summer of Discontent
This book review spans a fairly lengthy period of time (April to October) during which I picked up and discarded an infinite number of books. Was it the books themselves? Was it because there was so much going on this summer (we’d a fairly busy cruising schedule). Or was it the mood I was in?
I seldom lose interest in reading, but this has been one such period and I’m pleased to say it seems to be coming to an end. I’ve struggled with some of the books in this review, but these are the limited number that I actually managed to read right through to the end. Occasionally I was captured sufficiently to read some of these into the small hours, but not often. Yet as I began to emerge from this restless phase, I found I kept on renewing the last few books I had taken from the library… they were worth reading, I decided; they just weren’t compulsive enough. Hopefully things will take a turn from the better from here.
The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress – Beryl Bainbridge **
Rose sets off from England to meet a man she knows as Washington Harold. They are joining forces to search for the elusive Dr Wheeler, who Rose credits with rescuing her from a dreadful childhood. Harold has a different agenda – he blames Dr Wheeler for causing his wife’s suicide after they’d had an affair.
They trail through America, an unlikely alliance, in Harold’s camper van, mixing with an army of Wheeler’s acolytes until the dramatic and unexpected ending.
Not one for me, this. People had one line conversations with each other that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the plot, nor to develop into anything It had a jerky feel to it, almost as though at times it had become a showcase to enable a few memorable lines to be delivered. Truly memorable lines though. 🙂 A review calls it waspish, sinister, inimitably vivid and marvellously strange. I can concur with the first and last adjective (minus the adverb). This was her last book, largely written on what was to be her death-bed, and was finally put together by a long time literary friend in accordance with suggestions she made before her death. For me, it still has that unfinished, unsatisfactory feel to it.
Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty *****
I couldn’t put this book down. An apparently well-grounded, intelligent and successful woman (a renowned geneticist) embarks on a sexual affair on the spur of the moment, literally. The man in question is given to having sex in public places (not in full view of course), and their unlikely liaison continues over a period of months during which his air of mysterious anonymity leads her to conclude that he is a secret agent. Unlikely as that might seem for a woman of such intelligence, the evidence is presented convincingly, cloaked in the euphoria of the moment. We explore her comfortable and sexless marriage to her husband, her dysfunctional son, and her handling of her laudable career before a violent episode brings everything crashing down in a matter of weeks. Both participants end up on trial as their personal lives and careers unravel. I won’t give this plot away – it’s too good to spoil.
The only thing I’d say is that it is written in the second person singular. I always have a problem with this, as most of the time the female main character seems to be telling him things he must know for himself. Phrases like ‘you bow your head, you don’t return my calls etc’ surely are equally evident to the perpetrator? Having said that, I found the style quite imitable, and I actually wrote a couple of pieces in the same format shortly afterwards. I found it more comfortable than previously, having spent several hours in that mode.
The Farm – Tom Rob Smith *****
An excellent read. The majority of action set in Sweden though the tale starts in London when a young man, Daniel, receives a surprise visit from his mother, who has been living for some years in Sweden with Daniel’s father.
The mother is either suffering from delusions, or she has uncovered a trail of heinous crimes. We read along, as she tells the tale to her sceptical son. She has fled from Daniels’ father, who has tried, along with a powerful neighbour in Sweden, to have her committed as being mentally unsound.
Throughout the narrative the reader’s conviction swings first in one direction, then the other, as does that of the son. Is she deluded? Or is she the victim of a callous plot? As Daniel’s father arrives unexpectedly at the apartment, Daniel takes flight with his mother to continue to listen to the tale and to examine the portfolio of evidence she’s brought with her. Daniel must make a decision. He does.
But the story doesn’t end there. The twists and turns continue to a very, very satisfactory ending. I would read this author again.
Innocence – Dean Koontz ***
I used to really love Dean Koontz though I think he may have epitomized a particular stage of my life. His stories had (to my mind) supernatural flair, a gentle philosophy, contrasting characters (the power of good over evil) and imaginative plots. This one was a disappointment, despite having all of the above in abundance. The main character, grossly deformed with some supernatural abilities, has lived beneath a city ever since his mother turned him out into the world before killing herself. As a fugitive, he is taken in by a man of similar unusual characteristics, and they have lived a sophisticated existence beneath the city streets, venturing out only at night. He calls this man his father, until one night when two policeman, horrified by his face, beat him to death and the son is forced to flee. He meets a young woman, another supernaturally gifted individual who has lived a sheltered existence but is now being pursued by a man possessed by the forces of evil. They join together to overpower this person, and the evil that is to befall the world.
So… very much the mixture as before. And probably the last Dean Koontz I shall read for a while. Maybe I’ve just grown out of him.
The Storyteller – Jodi Picoult ****
I’ve always been a Picoult fan. She researches her books with a dedication that can only be described as obsessive, and she writes effortlessly. This book was a slow starter, but eventually I was hooked. It’s really a book within a book, and the inner book is about the holocaust, as seen through the eyes of her grandmother. The main character, Sage, is in a dark place, loitering in the fading days of an affair with a married man, and working in a dead end job as a baker. She has been badly scarred from a car accident which killed her mother, and at grief counselling sessions meets an old man whom she befriends. As she gets to know him better, he asks her to kill him. He has a dreadful secret with which he cannot live – he was a camp commandant at Auschwitz. As the story unfolds, so does the story of her grandmother – a harrowing account of life in those dark times.
The story ends in a satisfactory manner, (although I saw the twist coming) and the final 100 or so pages kept me up until the early hours. A long time since any book did that.
Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver ***
This is a book that I must have had on loan for two to three months. For me, the book was too long. It had stopped saying anything to me long before it ended, but to its credit, I still wanted to see how it eventually did end. And it’s true to say I enjoyed the characterisation of the leading lady, Dellarobia. (Not a name I’d ever have thought of using for any of my main characters. 🙂 ) I found the general topic fascinating (climate change suddenly prompting an entire species of butterfly to migrate to a completely different micro-climate, a heavily forested Appalachian mountain) and liked the way the phenomena begins to affect the lives and the balance of power within the family to which the forest belongs. But the writing style and plot, good as they were, didn’t justify the 600 or so pages the book took to reach a conclusion. In fact, for me, the real story was just beginning as the book ended and the main character takes control of her life again. If the thorny issue of climate change is your ‘bag’ as they say, you will enjoy this book, though perhaps not the message within.
Honeydew – Louise Doughty ***
Back home in Peterborough, and spurred by the satisfaction of reading Apple Tree Yard (above) I was pleased to find two more books from this writer in the local library. Both were fairly slim volumes, this one a mere 173 pages. According to the biography, this book was the author’s second success. Apple Tree Yard must have come significantly later. Had this been the first I’d read from her, I might not have been so enthusiastically inclined to pick up another. It’s certainly well-written; the author has a very readable, intelligently (though savagely) witty style – yet the plot seemed to fall flat. A middle aged couple are found stabbed to death, their teenage daughter missing. A young local journalist is determined to find out the truth. The story then vacillates between an account of the events leading up to the murder (from the daughter’s point of view, and briefly from the viewpoint of the mother as she herself becomes a victim) to a revelation that the journalist has an equally dark secret in her past. The overall message is, I assume, that though we might lock our doors and windows against external dangers, the darker side of human nature might already lie within our own homes. One of the most memorable and moving parts of the book was the brief part written from the point of view of the mother shortly before she fell victim to her daughter.
I was left with the feeling of… And???? Not to mention the persuasion that whilst events leading up to strange or savage deeds might offer something of an explanation of how things came about, they didn’t really justify them.
Another slim tome, this one at 250 pages of larger print. I enjoyed this one much more.
Bet meets Peter but three whirlwind weeks later he dies, leaving her as his sole beneficiary. In the same town, Iris, a self employed consultant working in a decrepit rented office built over an ancient mental asylum, and getting over an affair that ended badly, begins to experience strange phone calls and apparently ghostly appearances.
We follow the plot from both womens’ points of view as they meet each other in the struggle to make sense of what is happening in their lives, and it makes very gripping reading. As I’ve said, this is an accomplished author with a style that is hugely entertaining in its acerbity.
However, I’ve no idea what it all means, or how it ended. The conclusion, strange though it is, undermines the foundations and veracity of all that has gone before leaving too many loose ends. It’s difficult to get this frustration across without spoiling the ending for others, and if anyone has read this book and understands the denouement, I’d be glad if they’d comment and let me know. Having read some of the reviews, it appears my sense of bafflement is not unique though.
I think I know what the author is getting at, but as it just doesn’t seem to balance with the previous events in the book, it leads me to the dreaded ‘it was all a dream’ scenario.
In which case, frankly, I’m outta there!
So that’s the summer/autumn of 2014 – encapsulated in just eight books. The list of those that were cast aside in frustration is far longer. And now it’s time to settle down for the long cold descent into winter, hopefully with a more inspirational range of books. And after Christmas we’ll set off for warmer climes for a while.
*For the index of previous book reviews please click on the page link at the top of this page.