Friends and Books in High Places!
It’s been a while since I last posted a book review. This is by no means the entire list of books that have passed through my hands since then, just a few that were noteworthy for many different reasons, some good, some bad. The first two fall into the former category, though how could I say otherwise, particularly since I’m acquainted with both of the authors? 🙂 Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and Claire Fuller are regular participants in the Friday Fictioneers group, a band of writers whose brief is to produce a 100 word story in response to a photo prompt posted every Wednesday. I enjoy their work on a weekly basis, and was delighted to get my hands on each of their novels. Some books in this review were recommended to me as a result of my last Bookworm post, and other gems were discovered at the back of the top shelf in our cabin at the boat, as we called there on our way down to Spain for the winter. I might have to pay a further visit to that shelf on the way back.
Please Say Kaddish For Me – Rochelle Wisoff-Fields *****
This was a compelling read, from beginning to end and I finished it in two sessions. A thoroughly engrossing tale about a Jewish family’s struggle to survive during extraordinary times – a truly vivid portrayal with brilliant characterisation. I felt as though I knew the characters well, and since my knowledge of history foreshadowed an imminent pogrom, I found my anxiety levels increasing the more attached I became to them. Atmospheric, graphic, charming and horrifying. The pace was just right as was the changing and contrasting cycle: horror – forbidden love – bitterness – love – horror – redemption. Characters were despatched expeditiously with just the right amount of detail and at appropriate intervals – and none of it was signalled up in advance. As Havel’s family reach America at the end of this, the first of a trilogy, there is a mood of optimism, of renewal, which is subtly tempered with underlying currents of residual apprehension. The second in the trilogy is already out, and the third in production. Well done, Rochelle, not only on account of your writing talent, but also your wonderful illustrative abilities.
Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller *****
Being familiar with Claire’s work from Friday Fictioneers, I knew when I picked up this book that I would be in safe hands. Nothing could prepare me, however, for the colossal impact of this wonderfully original tale. The characterisation was expertly crafted, drawing the reader in to the point where a real anger would be felt towards Peggy’s father, not only for isolating her from her former life and family, and subjecting her to a cruelly spartan existence in pursuit of his crack-pot beliefs, but also genuine fondness for the stoicism and resourcefulness of the little girl. Wonderfully graphic descriptions of nature and the seasons; I’m guessing that a fair amount of research went into the background detail of the story. It has a charm all of its own, and it says a lot for the ingenuity of the plot that after finishing it, I went back to read the last third of the book again, finding more clues and pointers this time than I had in my earlier anxious pursuit of a resolution to the little girl’s plight. Mysteriously developed, the plot is not all that it seems, but uncovering the truths and half-truths whilst distinguishing between the two will have me reflecting on it for some time to come. You don’t get to say that often about a book. And I won’t be passing it on to friends for some time yet, as I’m sure I’ll be wanting a second read, from beginning to end, before too long.
On Chessil Beach – Ian McEwan ****
A slim volume that spoke volumes, and a former Booker Prize Winner. Recommended to me by The Reluctant Scribbler, I found this book, by the author of Atonement to be a delightful read. I don’t know what young people today would make of it, but the tortured simplicity of the tale, a young couple nervously anticipating their wedding night in a hotel on Chessil Beach, is quite heartbreaking. We read about Edward and Florence, she a budding musician, he a student, and the blossoming of their relationship. By today’s standards they might be considered incompatible, both from a social class standpoint and from the divergence of their interests. Yet their relationship blooms and prospers, until the wedding night when all is swept away in a painful episode. It’s not that simple of course, the bride (something about the father?) suspects herself of being frigid. Whilst she loves her new husband, the prospect of physical union revolts her, a frame of mind not improved by his premature climaxing and her response of disgust. She runs to the beach, he follows… and the course of their lives is changed dramatically, to their mutual lifelong regret, by a cataclysmic stand-off which does nothing to repair the rift. I wouldn’t have missed this book for the world, relating as it does, to a time when conversations about sexual difficulties would have been considered horrifyingly taboo. The accompanying photograph here was taken from Portland, looking down onto Chessil Beach when we visited during the summer of 2015.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum – Kate Atkinson ****
As with Life After Life by this author, reviewed last time, this story darts about chronologically, plugging into various branches of the family tree. It tells the story of Ruby Lennox’s family, seen through her eyes from the moment of conception. (Had a bit of a problem with that particular aspect – particularly as the mother starts suffering morning sickness practically the same day.) I like Kate Atkinson’s writing style, it’s quirky with arresting facts being delivered in a relatively nonchalant manner. But I don’t like this business of going backward and forward in time which is exacerbated by the intricacy of the family tree. So many names, so many generations – it might have helped if there’d been a family tree at the start of the book to help the reader keep track. As with Life After Life, there’s not much in the way of plot, and though there is a ‘denouement’ towards the end, it’s a revelation of the truth behind an event that was never fully explored earlier in the book. The story could have ended earlier than it did. I’m not at all certain about the purpose of the last section, detailing a foray into Scotland to marry an Italian, a failed marriage that produced two children. It seemed pretty much like a cursory add on.
As before the characterisation is superb; I loathed Gillian, admired Patricia and empathised with Ruby. But… and it’s a big but…, it just seems like a series of meandering reminiscences without much of a story arc. I would guess it’s the kind of book that’s capable of provoking reactions from either end of the love/loathing scale. Certainly it won the 95 Whitebread Book of the Year, so it found favour in some places, but many of the other reviews I’ve read encapsulate my problems with a story spanning four generations.
Human Croquet – Kate Atkinson ****
Yet again as in the first book I read by Kate Atkinson, we find the same alternative realities, different conclusions etc. All thoroughly confusing, though now I’m accustomed to it. Stylish wit, incredible writing style. I defy anyone to explain what’s going on. Good characterisation, good anecdotal glimpses of other people’s lives, or alternative lives. And the characters of Vinny and Eliza were as real to me as my own mother and aunt. An excellent read, and if it had been the first of Atkinson’s that I’d read, I’d have declared it an unqualified success. But the truth is, I’m getting bored with time travel and alternative realities.
The Night Circus Erin Morgenstern ****
The story begins in 1886 with the sudden appearance of a mysterious night circus, which becomes an immediate sensation. This circus, constructed entirely in black and white, is not one of lions, horses, clowns, but rather a series of tents containing mysteries of unimaginable proportions; clouds, ice, wishing trees… bolt on your imagination and give it free rein or else you will not extract from this book all that there is to be delivered. At the heart of the story are two young people, talented magicians, who have been chosen by their masters, deadly rivals, to take part in a challenge, a contest from which only one can survive. I guarantee you will be pulled into a world far beyond your wildest imagination.
It’s a magnificent book, but one that you might equally love or hate. Nothing is spared in descriptive prose, sights, smells, sounds, feelings to the point where you might feel as though you have almost fatally indulged yourself in extremes.
Emotionally Weird – Kate Atkinson **
I struggled with this one, eventually giving up at page 240. On a remote island off the west coast of Scotland, Effie and her mother take refuge in an old family house telling each other stories. At page 240, Effie had been doing most of the recounting, relating to her life at Dundee University, her cronies, her lecturers, with a thin plot occasionally surfacing amongst all the anecdotes and the surprisingly one-dimensional characterisations. I love her writing. She can be an excruciating comic, a brilliant weaver of relationships, but it’s her plot development that turns me off. Or her lack of plot development. Not for me this one. Someone told me, after I’d given up, that the books turns a corner at page 300 and I should have stuck with it. Life’s too short, and too much good literature about, I say.
The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood ***
I’m a great fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing style. Written in 1965, but first published in 1969, this was one of her earliest fiction works, if not the earliest. Its publication coincided with the rise of feminism in N America and Atwood is of the view that it was not a product of the movement, seeing the book as protofeminist rather than feminist. The book was later published by Virago Press in the UK. The story centres around the perennial debate, a career going nowhere or an escape into marriage and the main characters are the narrator Marian, her room-mate Ainsley, who is hell bent on finding someone to father her a child, and Peter, Marian’s boyfriend who is beginning to panic himself into getting married as his friends all disappear into matrimony and fatherhood. Marian appears to be a young woman swept along on the tide of other peoples’ convictions and desires, entertaining all the while a glimmer of doubt, and an embryo conviction that life should have offered her some other alternatives. Marian’s engagement eventually comes to an end after an unconvincing dalliance with Duncan, and odd young man whose initial chat up line comprises a request for her to allow him to iron her clothes. Yes, it’s that kind of book. I enjoyed it, though it wasn’t a compelling read, and found Marian an eminently likeable if slightly frustrating heroine.
The Ice Twins – S K Tremayne **
A much hyped book that I was really looking forward to reading. But shortly after starting it I realised that it was going to be pretty much a second-rate read. The story relates to a couple whose marriage is falling apart following the accidental death of one of their twin girls, Kirsty and Lydia. We are asked to believe that these twins are so identical that neither of their parents can tell them apart, other than by their marginally different behavioural attributes (when exhibited), one being a Mummy’s girl, and the other Daddy’s girl. That was my first stumbling block – I don’t know any twins, but I find it hard to believe that a parent would not find one tiny speck of evidence with which to differentiate them. And if you couldn’t, surely you would arrange to impose an identifying characteristic yourself, say in the shape of a tattoo or something, for health and safety reasons at the very least? The other unbelievable development is revealed in the opening pages. This fracturing relationship, and this weirdly behaving child who is now claiming to be Lydia, and not Kirsty, are now to be subject to even more stress, as they relocate to a semi-derelict cottage on a remote Scottish island, where the only semblances of civilisation have to be reached by boat. The dialogue is clunky, the twists, turns and red herrings are irritating. So far as the plot goes, having been led up the garden path on several occasions, I found myself itching to get to the end just for the final reveal. And when I did, there was a sense of anti-climax so pronounced that despite the fact I read it in the last two months… I can’t remember now what the final denoument was!
Overheard in a Dream – Torey Hayden ****
I read several of Torey Hayden’s books around six years ago, in the end tiring of the intensely theoretical side of the books, mostly about children with learning and socialisation difficulties. So this one, acquired at from a port capitainerie’s library over 18 months ago, lingered in the cupboard at the boat. On our way down to Spain, I harvested every remotely readable book I could from the same source and scoured our cupboards on the boat. This, which I believe from the jacket was her first novel, was well worth the effort. A nine year old boy, Conor, has been labelled autistic and is out of control according to his mother, Laura, an enigmatic novelist. Conor’s father is desperately trying to keep Conor from being institutionalised. Their psychiatrist who takes the case is currently going through a marital breakdown and separation from his children – an interesting background story. Conor, who is apparently haunted by a ‘ghost man’ communicates via a toy cat, – “Cat says it is good”, “cat likes this” and the psychiatrist painstakingly develops Conor’s communication skills through a series of ‘play’ exercises. Over time, the full scale of the problem that lies within the family is revealed in the form of Laura relating the story of her own imaginary ‘friend’ – Torgon. If you’re not a fan of ‘books within books’ or ‘stories within stories’ then steer clear. Normally I would too, but this was a fascinating book with a hugely satisfactory ending as it’s revealed that Conor’s phobias and convictions have very real roots in his mother’s secret past.
Trick of the Dark – Val McDermid *
Another book read in Spain simply because there was nothing much else to read. Charlie Flint, a psychologist/profiler who is in a lesbian relationship with Maria, a dentist, is awaiting a disciplinary tribunal for a perceived previous professional error of judgement. During this time a former tutor at Oxford sends her a package of press cuttings about the murder of her new son-in-law, for which two people have been jailed. It turns out that this former tutor’s newly-widowed daughter, has entered into a lesbian relationship with the woman who, the tutor is convinced, has already murdered three other people and is guilty of murdering her daughter’s husband. In the rambling investigation littered with half-baked coincidences and gross errors of judgement on Charlie’s part, she enters into a dalliance with yet another woman. To be frank, this seemed like an excuse to write a novel about lesbian romances with only a passing reference to the plot. I’d sussed the identity of the real murderer from about half way through and the remainder of the book was an embarrassment, to my mind, given Val McDiarmid’s undoubted abilities as a crime writer.
Until It’s Over – Nicci French ***
I’m a Nicci French (writing duo) fan. And this was another book I ‘discovered’ we had on the boat. It was compulsive – kept me up till quite late to finish it – but at the same time disappointing. Astrid, a cyclist courier, flits around London delivering packages. She shares a house with six other people, a situation which is shortly to come to an end as Miles, the owner of the house and a former lover of Astrid’s, is now planning to set up home there with his new love, an unwelcome development in everybody’s view. The story begins as Astrid is knocked off her cycle by a neighbour who is found dead hours later. A few days later Astrid, bruised but functioning once more, is asked to pick up a package. She turns up only to find the client slashed to pieces in the hallway. The suspense is carefully ramped up as every member of the household comes under suspicion. Weirdly, about two thirds of the way through, the narration switches to that of the real murderer, which not only defuses the tension but also seems to suspend belief somewhat. It’s not the best Nicci French book by any stretch of the imagination, and had it been the first I’d read, I probably wouldn’t have been persuaded to revisit their publications.
The Sunrise – Victoria Hislop ***
I was growing up at the time of Cyprus’s struggle for independence from British rule, so names like Famagusta, Limassol, Nicosia, Makarios, EOKA, Grivas were all too familiar. This book is set at the time of a later conflict, the time when partition of the island took place following a Greek coup in the early seventies. Up until then Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots had lived and worked together quite happily on the island, but this story charts the breakdown of both society, families and relationships in the weeks that followed the coup. In the run up to this final conflict, a rich hotelier and his beautiful wife are opening the ‘jewel in the crown’, so far as the island’s hotel industry is concerned – the Sunrise Hotel. After initial antipathy, the hotelier’s wife becomes embroiled in an affair with his hotel manager who eventually betrays her in his quest for riches – and ultimately – survival. That is one half of the story; the other is the story of a Turkish Cypriot family and a Greek Cypriot family (formerly hotel workers) who unite, despite the conflict, hiding in the now deserted and cordoned off town of Famagusta. I found the descriptions of life in the abandoned town quite gripping, and the fact that this beautiful holiday resort remains deserted, surrounded by barbed wire, to this day is quite chilling. I wouldn’t say it’s Hislop’s most brilliantly characterised novel, but it was still a fairly compulsive read.
Revival – Stephen King **
If anyone had told me I’d contemplate giving up on a Stephen King book, I wouldn’t have believed them. My husband gave up on this one, after complaining for several days that he couldn’t see where it was going, but I was sure, as a King enthusiast. I’d think differently. However, I’d probably reached page 164 of the 372 page book before I could say I was engaged with the story, so I could see how my husband would have lost patience long before then. Up until that point it had been a meandering, seemingly semi-autobiographic, self-indulgent account of a childhood in the sixties, and an adolescence in the seventies, heavily laced with life on the road as a musician and an addict. Sometimes, when I’m writing, I’ll start a story and see where it takes me. I got the impression that King did the same thing here and, lost in reminiscences, overlooked the length of time before any form of plot began to evolve. The main character, other than the narrator, appears from time to time, firstly as a good-guy pastor, then, after losing his wife and child, as a fallen preacher, a carnival huckster, and lastly transitioning into a mad villain, manipulating victims in his attempts to discover the nature of the afterlife. The character is unbelievable, in all of his subsequent manifestations, and the ending of the book is depressing beyond belief. Reading other reviews, I see that some people have not thought so, but I wonder if this isn’t something of the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ syndrome. If this had been the first Stephen King book I’d read, there’s a good chance it would have been the last.
Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri *****
What a delight this book was! I’m not normally a fan of short story collections, but I can make an exception for this one. This author’s debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and it must have been quite a masterpiece, if this book is anything to go by. As each story ended, there was an almost palpable sense of loss that the reader had to let go of the characters. There was nothing remarkable in the stories themselves, simple vignettes about various milestones in the lives of families and relationships, but oh, the telling! The setting is mostly in America, but the characters, are in the main, Bengali in origin. The reader isn’t bombarded with a different culture, but rather the sense of a different culture integrating into western life and occasionally mixed-race relationships in small town America. Beautifully observed – a lesson in consummate artistry and delicately balanced prose. This was another of my ‘back of the cupboard’ books. I should have discovered it sooner.
As ever, I’d be interested to hear about any of your recommendations, and your views on any of these books, if you’ve read them. We expect shortly to be back within reach of an English library, and I won’t be needing to ransack my cupboards for a while, searching for reading fodder. Having said that, I certainly made some brilliant discoveries on my last foray.