Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Post 61: If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need!

Off on holiday tomorrow (I know, far too decadent a summer this year!), I really wanted to finish my current read and blog about it before I slammed the car boot down on my suitcases.  This is the 27th read of the year and so I might just squeeze in the magic number 40 by Christmas.  I've packed optimistically, taking 4 books with me, but I don't imagine I'll be so antisocial as to read them all! But we are staying in an apartment overlooking a lake with mountain maybe sitting still and reading is exactly what we'll all want to do.

Recommended by hubby and child 2, I picked up the first of the roman trilogy by Robert Harris,  As you will remember, I read and enjoyed Conclave relatively recently and I have also read Pompeii  in the past. I like Robert Harris.  He is erudite without being pretentious and he can weave a good story. He is also very personable.  He spoke at Henley Literary Festival last year and he came across as friendly, open and modest. (By the way, ticket sales are now open for the 2017 event. It is a well-organised and varied programme; I highly recommend it, even though I am defecting to the North Cornwall Book Festival this year instead...more of that craziness in a later blog!)
I struggled with this novel to begin with.  Based on highly factual content, it didn't have enough story to grip me at first. The narrative voice however, is endearing.  Written from the point of view of Tiro, Cicero's private secretary (slave), his characterisation is convincing.  He conveys his own lack of freedom ably, but without resentment.  It is clear that he is loyal and trustworthy and highly intelligent.  Indeed, he is famous in his own right as being the forefather of modern shorthand. Envied by other lawyers and aristocrats for his slave who could write as                                                            fast as anyone spoke, Cicero refused all offers to sell Tiro.

The novel opens with a contextual introduction to Tiro and Cicero and quickly develops to centre on a legal case where Cicero is prosecuting a notorious but well-connected Roman aristocrat, Verres. Charged with many cases of corruption and bribery, only Cicero is brave enough to put him through the Roman courts.

Despite my slow start with the novel, I became absorbed in this case.  Harris writes succinctly, which I like, but I was a little wrong-footed when part one ended at the close of the Verres court case.  It seemed as though that marked the natural end to the novel.  I felt as though I had to take a deep breath to enter part 2 where Cicero campaigns to become consul and we follow the progress of his career through two further prominent plots and cases.  In fact, there are three identifiable story arcs. Cicero's career development is the key factor that holds the book as a single story, but it was not as cohesive as I would have liked.

This is largely because the book is written from evidence of Cicero's speeches and other Roman scholarly texts.  I loved the way Harris used this primary evidence.  The authenticity of Cicero's words are undoubted, as the author weaves the Roman statesman's phrases and language seamlessly with his own narration.  As the author states in his afterword, "Although Imperium  is a novel, the majority of the events it describes did actually happen; the remainder at least could have happened."  He goes onto state that it is widely acknowledged that Tiro did write a biography of Cicero which has long since been lost. This gives the novel a sniff of romanticism amongst the realism as Harris creates a voice and temperament for this master of shorthand.

As an introduction to the great Roman families and politics of the time, this is excellent.
I am certainly interested enough in Cicero and Tiro to read the other books in the trilogy, but not yet. Don't judge the book harshly by this decision; I rarely read all the way through a series, preferring to read other titles in between for greater breadth and variety. And I am certainly enamoured of Cicero,as you can see from the quote opposite, he really did have his priorities right!

I do think that this is more of a history than a novel; but it is a palatably written history that gives insight into the players and fleshes them out as characters.  Further titles are described as thrillers, so perhaps the storytelling will dominate the history in the rest of the series.  I will wait and see.

So, suitcases are full and I've been optimistic about shorts and sunglasses!  I've packed re-reads of Patrick Gale's, Notes from an Exhibition and Anna Funder's All That I Am and new to me are Ian McEwan's Black Dogs and the non-fiction text, Zoo Station, the story of Christiane F.  There are some back-ups on my Kindle if I want them, and I always like to see the selection in a holiday cottage before I fully make up my reading mind.

Thanks for reading. I'll update you again once term is under way.  My challenge this autumn is to enthuse 16-17 years olds with Macbeth and Hamlet.  I have a feeling David Tennant might come in handy!

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Post 60: Where the Place?

I'm going to start with moments of pride.  Since I last blogged, child 1
has graduated and is in the process of renting her first house in readiness for the job that starts in September.  Although it doesn't have quite the same Seuss-like ring to it, I suppose this means she is now adult 1! Graduation day was uncharacteristically warm and sunny for Sheffield and it was a wonderful way to celebrate her achievements.

We have also completed our Macmillan Marathon Cotswold Challenge.  That was not a day of unadulterated sunshine!  Hubby taught me the delights of being a middle-aged baseball cap wearer. Despite our slightly questionable fashion sense, the ability to shield one's specs from the torrents of rain was very welcome.  We made it the 26 miles and we are proud owners of a challenge medal. We've raised £845 for Macmillan and the JustGiving page is still open if you have a last-minute desire to boost our total. All I need now is a new right hip and I'd do it all again tomorrow!

But this is a reading blog, not a what-have-I-been-doing-with-my-life blog, so let's get down to business.  I have finished The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, The House on Bellevue Gardens by Rachel Hore and This Must Be The Place by Maggie O'Farrell.  I am going to dismiss the middle read quite quickly.  It is an easy read with a good central premise.  The house is a large London property surrounded by its contemporaries which have all been converted into modern apartments. Resisting such change and still in its original state, the Bellevue House is home to a number of folk, all brought under the wing of the resident landlady.  Everyone there is a bit lost, a bit of an outsider and the plot revolves around revelation of their individual stories and how each occupant finds contentment.  It is a simple book, and somewhat predictable, but an easy holiday read for anyone who doesn't want to have to think too hard about what they are reading.

Image result for The Shipping NewsThe Shipping News is far more complex.  It was the Pulitzer Prize winner in 1994 and it was the association with Radio 4's shipping forecast that drew me to the copy I picked up in a charity bookshop. It is however, nothing to do with the strange-sounding shipping areas intoned on a regular basis on the radio, (but maybe there is a novel idea in there somewhere!). It is about a man named Quoyle, who, on the death of his wife (plot device only, so no need to be too empathetic here), decides to leave New York and head to the remote Newfoundland peninsula where an old aunt still owned a long-neglected property.

Together with the Aunt and his two children, Quoyle re-starts his life in a hostile climate.  He gets a job as a journalist reporting the shipping news, hence the title, and succeeds in making the role more interesting than his predecessor.  The story is comic and intelligent. Each chapter begins with the definition of a shipping term and each episode can be seen to bear some relation to its epigraph. Unable to swim or navigate a boat, Quoyle nonetheless lives on a barely accessible point on the peninsula, making sea travel a necessity.  The track to his house becomes impassable in the winter and the family is forced to move out almost as soon as they have improved the place enough to move in.

The novel communicates naive optimism and real human hope.  It celebrates the human condition at the same time as exposing its folly.  I really enjoyed this book.  It is original, intelligent and quirky.

My favourite of the trio will probably come as no surprise to those of you who have been reading my blog for a while.  Maggie O'Farrell is my favourite author and This Must Be The Place did not disappoint. I had indulged in elongated delayed gratification with this title.  I heard the author discussing her new novel last year on radio 4 and I listened eagerly to the discussion of a story about a household celebrity who walked away from fame and constant media attention to live the life of a recluse on a remote Irish farmhouse.  I decided not to buy on Kindle, as I love to collect books, and especially those by my favourite writers.  I also decided to be patient and wait for the paperback.  I watched the hardback version in bookshops become the large paperback version (what is that all about?) and then I heard the hearty plop of a book-shaped package land on my doormat a few weeks ago. I kept it in its wrapping for a while as I didn't want to consume it as soon as it arrived.  Then I decided I would wait until my holiday to indulge.

Reading Maggie O'Farrell is a delight to be savoured.  She creates characters that are rounded and empathetic.  This novel is no exception.  Written in the third person, it is constructed in an ambitious structure where O'Farrell focalises on a specific character from her riotous cast. Daniel Sullivan is the protagonist; all the other characters have some bearing on his life at some point.  The novel sweeps time and place, and the title of the book is open to interpretation.  Donegal is the geographical location that roots the novel, but there is a deeper meaning to the sentiment. The use of the modal form, "must" has semantics of a need to have a place, a place where we feel that we can belong.  This is more than geography and O'Farrell explores family life and all its permutations in a tender and honest way.

Daniel is flawed. He can be selfish and self-absorbed. Claudette is vulnerable.  She has run away from celebrity, has absolute need for secrecy and she demands trust from those she chooses to let into her life.  She home-schools her children and lives in a house that is separated from the nearest road by numerous five-bar gates. No taxi will go up there.  It is isolated and isolating.

The novel turns around the relationship between Daniel and Claudette, but to understand them means that we have to understand their past.  Maggie O'Farrell creates this through multiple points of view. These voices are as intimate as their offspring and as random as a woman met on a weekend tour of salt flats in Bolivia.  If this isn't complex enough, she also uses disassociation at times.  She opens the novel with "There is a man.He is standing on the back steps... There is a man and that man is me."  I wasn't sure about this at first, but the technique is used sparingly and to good effect.  It explores moments when the characters are not entirely sure of their reactions or options and are a little outside of their own lives.

I loved the afterword to this novel when the author explains how she had organised the complex geographical and anachronistic structure by a myriad of post-it notes on her bedroom wall. A third of the way through, a toddling child decided to pull down all those within reach and force Maggie O'Farrell into further rethinking and planning.  Real life is complicated and this is fully communicated in this novel.

It is a story of love, of families, of siblings and of parenthood.  And like no other author I know, Maggie O'Farrell can communicate what is feels like to love, to belong and to need to belong.

I read This Must be The Place in Guernsey.  This is a special place
for us as we honeymooned there 25 years ago, returning only last week to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary.  It was fitting that the geography I was in as I read the novel was significant to our story.  It was also fitting that the book centres around what makes a marriage and what might threaten its stability. I am proud to have been alongside hubby for a quarter of a century.  Despite making me feel a tad past-it, it also gives security and time for contented reflection as we look forward to hiking our way into the next 25 years.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Post 59: Read this One, a new talent that needs to be shared

This is Nathan Filer's first novel.  It is compellingly brilliant.  Easy to read, it is also very well-constructed.  The characters are all well-imagined and convincing, even the peripheral ones such as Steve, the community worker who winks and Claire-or-maybe-Anna, a character so peripheral that Matthew can't quite recall her name.

You will know that I have occasionally pondered why we read.  Perhaps, when faced with the lethargy of some of my A-Level students, I should ask why many people don't read....but that is for another blog.  For now, I have a crystal-clear answer to my first question.  We read, because, every so often, we discover an absolute gem. We read something that makes us laugh out loud or weep alongside the characters.  We find ourselves living the book even when we should be marking essays, even as we chat about what we're having for dinner (thanks must go to hubby for cooking this evening, recognising my need to get my response to this book in blog form as soon as I have closed the final pages!); in other words, we read a book that makes life seem like a distraction from the real event!

That is why reading is addictive.  When Child 1 says that she can't understand why I am prepared to invest so many hours of my life into so many books (I know, I have failed), it is because she hasn't found that experience of totally escaping from the real world for a while and being drawn into another.  It is because you need to be patient with the books that are good or good enough, (or let's face it, sometimes not our cup of tea at all...) because you know that sometimes one will come along which has the absolute capacity to change your life, to alter your outlook or challenge your preconceptions. Fiction builds imagination, but more than that, it builds our capacity for human empathy.  It can teach us about humanity in all manner of circumstances.  Through fiction I have come to know about  historical and political fact that I didn't even know I was interested in!   Human beings need to tell stories.  Stories make sense of a sometimes bewildering world.  And sometimes stories leave you feeling raw and exposed as you are drawn so completely into the experience and feelings of another.

So it was with NATHAN FILER's Shock of the Fall.  I have had this book on my shelf since 2016, but for some reason have not picked it up to read. It needs to be picked up by all of you.  It demands to be read.

Image result for shock of the fallThe premise of the novel is set out in the blurb, "I'll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother.  His name's Simon.  I think you're going to like him.  I really do.   But in a couple of pages he'll be dead.  And he was never the same after that."
This hook is undoubtedly emotional, and the novel remains utterly human throughout.  The story is told through the first person narration of Matthew Homes. He is an unreliable narrator with some of his account told in fragments that do not reach full completion until later in the plot.  Some of the story is told in retrospect and other parts are in the present.  We are not necessarily told which is which, but the writing makes it easy to navigate. The compulsion created by the hook is retained by the gradual unfolding of a story.  It is not a thriller, but there are questions that need to be answered and there is just the right amount of tension and suspense to keep you turning those pages.

As the blurb suggests, the key event that causes this story is the death of Matthew's brother Simon. Matthew was only 6 at the time, and so it is understandable that his memories of the death of his brother maybe blurred.  He writes from the point of view of a 19 year old, attempting to comprehend the effect of this tragedy on his family.

I love the title of this book. It has connotations of sin and guilt when considered against the biblical fall into sin; it also suggests aftershock following trauma and has implications of shock-waves that resound long after the initial disturbance has taken place.  All of these have a place in the interpretation of this novel.

However, the book is not bleak.  At times you will laugh.  At times you will be moved to tears.  But this book is hopeful.  It gives insight into grief, into love and into mental health.  It ends well, though in some ways it doesn't end at all.  Anyone who has ever lost someone, especially out of the natural order, will know that grief is always there; it just becomes a bit easier to hold with time.

Matthew's family are beautifully crafted.  We get to know his Mum, Dad and Nanny-Noo intimately, despite their relatively little page space. And I think this is the genius of Nathan Filer.  He gets people.  He knows what we need to know about them to make them real.  Mum's little yellow pills, Dad's special handshake and Nanny Noo's desire to feed everyone make them into familiar characters from our own lives.  An inconsequential event on a family holiday that leads to Dad calling Matthew "mon ami" forevermore will ring true with so many other family traditions that begin out of seemingly nothing.  And it is these seemingly nothing things that make up a happy, thriving family.

This book celebrates family whilst examining one that has been torn apart,  It celebrates life in the midst of death and it celebrates triumph over adversity without ever becoming trite.  The latter triumph is even one that is celebrated with caution, recognising that further adversity will inevitably follow and that life is never ever plain sailing.

This book won Costa Book of the Year in 2013,along with The National Book Award for Popular Fiction, The Betty Trask Prize and The Writer's Guild Award for Best First Novel.  It certainly gets my award for being the best book I have read this year.

So, keep reading...and if you haven't found your book of the year, start with this one.  Who knows, even Child 1 might be inspired......

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Post 58: A World of Dystopia

How many of you are watching or have seen the new dramatisation of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood?  I love this book, not least because it gifted me my favourite word, “palimpsest,” now taught to all my students as a matter of course.  It is a rich, beautiful word and is surprisingly useful!

Its dystopian genre is sinister in its credibility and perhaps rings even more true in the world in which
we now live than in the time it was written.  However it is the characterisation of Offred the protagonist that moved me the most.  She repeats a single phrase throughout the novel, “This is just a story I am telling,” or sometimes embellishing it, “I have to believe this is just a story I’m telling.”  I believe human beings have a deep, visceral need for narratives. We seek stories to both escape and make sense of reality.  In this case, Offred yearns to believe that what she is experiencing is not truth.  If it is just a story then it will end, and none of the terrible things will be true.

The other phrase that has become a mantra for my teaching, and I would even argue for life per se is “context is everything.”  In linguistics we have a word for this; pragmatics.  Pragmatics make up the part of meaning and interpretation that can only be derived from the context in which the language is used.  Thus, reading our world with understanding and emotional intelligence is entirely dependent on comprehension of context.

So for these reasons, the book has snaked its way into my consciousness.  It is a well-written, graphic and disturbing tale where empathy for Offred is demanded.  The first person narrative is commanding and her situation is revealed gradually.  Just one warning…when you get to the Historical Notes section at the back of the novel, keep reading.  This isn’t a bibliography or research acknowledgements, it is a fundamental part of the novel.  Stick with it.

My lengthy discussion of everything Handmaid’s Tale was prompted in part by my watching the TV dramatisation, but also owes a debt to the fact that I have recently completed The Power by Naomi Alderman.  Indeed, the two books could be read in tandem, though that might be an overdose of dystopia!

The Power has recently won the Baileys Women's Prize for fiction 2017. Alderman cites Atwood as both an inspiration and a practical support to her whilst writing the novel, and it is clear why the seasoned Canadian author would be the mentor of choice for this book.

It is written in contemporary times with more than a nod to worldwide politics.  Its focus, like Handmaid’s Tale, is on women.  Early in the novel it is clear that women are discovering an ability to unlock power, literally, through their fingertips.  A physical electricity, this power can be used to tease and tantalise others or it can be used for a defensive or destructive force.  The imagery makes comparison with historical patriarchal dominance impossible to miss.  The women soon realise that they can overpower men, and in some disturbing scenes, they force their power on unwilling or unwitting subjects.  Its parallel to rape is unmistakable.

And yet the novel isn’t entirely dark. Women use their new discovery to escape abusive situations and to gain control over their lives.  As more women worldwide, (and the scope of this novel is astonishing as political fears fuel strategic responses from the US, Europe, the Middle East and Africa) learn to utilise their power, they unite.  Such unity brings fear, and an influential faction of men seeks to regain their dominance through force and aggression.  To resist the electric currents used by the women in battle, they wear protective suits and wield weapons.

But this is not a trite feminist novel where women seize power and the men are reduced.  Granted, it seems that Naomi Alderman wanted to show how centuries of subjugation and abuse have diminished women, and it is evident that she relishes her story-telling of emancipation. There is, at the heart of the novel, a recognition that power corrupts. 

The narrative method is stories told through the experiences of several women and one man.  Each chapter is dedicated to one of the key characters, and their stories, contexts and motivations are gradually revealed as the novel progresses.  The two central female characters, Allie (also known as the Mother Eve) and Roxy come to polarise the struggle to use power wisely.  Cited as an historical novel, the book has pace from the start. The opening section is entitled, Ten Years to Go and so expectation that a crisis will shape the novel is created from the outset. 

Allie’s background is one of ritual sexual abuse.  As a child she suffered much and discovery of her power enabled first escape and then realisation that she could influence others.  A born leader, she recognises how to manipulate power to gather a following.  After an initial escape to a house of nuns, she harnesses the power to create miracles that create a following.  She is revered by women everywhere as her power is seen to be a catalyst for change.  Hence, the name-change to Mother Eve as she leads girls to unite and fight for lasting shifts in gender politics.

Roxy is vastly different.  A child of a notorious gang member, she knows the underworld and has tasted death.  Indeed, in her opening chapter she witnesses the arranged killing of her own mother. She finds her way to Mother Eve’s base and the two become friends.  Allie sees immediately that Roxy has exceptional power.  She can control her electrical impulses with mastery (forgive the masculine description!) and Mother Eve recognises that if they worked together then they could achieve lasting change.

Such change will not go uncontested. The novel explores the morality of power, the responsibility of the individual, the globalisation and polarisation of gender politics and through it all, the base human need for relationship above all else.

The novel was not a comfortable read.  It is, as its prize-winning status suggests, well-written.  It is much more global than the popular teen dystopias like Hunger Games  and Divergent, but it is not as credible as The Handmaid’s Tale.  Atwood’s supremacy is created in the credibility of her plot.  Based around falling fertility rates, all the action in the latter novel is chillingly plausible.  The Power, though telling truths about control and subjugation through its storyline, remains reliant on a gimmick that never fully creates total suspension of disbelief. 

I would definitely recommend Atwood as the more intelligent read, Alderman the more quirky.  And if you are watching Handmaid on TV, I strongly advocate reading the book too.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Post 57: Castles and Lighthouses

It's been a month since I was here last.  I have been reading, but the blogging seems to have suffered under the dual delights of revision classes for my year 13 A Level class and a series of busy weekends.  I have packed off child 1 for a month-long tour of Europe; she is fulfilling a long-held dream in the vacuum between finishing uni and becoming a real adult!  Meanwhile child 2 is home for the summer.  I have challenged him to read a book a week and he is encouraging me to keep up my blog!

My reading has been eclectic over the last few weeks.  I have completed Castle Dor by Daphne du Maurier, The Light Between Oceans by MLStedman, Surprised by Grief by Janine Fair and today I have finished Naomi Alderman's The Power.  

 I can dust off Castle D'Or and Surprised by Grief  quite quickly.  The former I dug out in a charity shop in Stratford-Upon-Avon and it interested me as it was a title begun by the literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, "the legendary 'Q,'" (whom I have to admit, that I had never heard of ) but left
unfinished at his death.  His daughter then asked du Maurier if she would consider completing the project.  Knowing du Maurier to be an excellent teller of tales, this one, with Tristan and Iseult at its heart, appealed.  I also wanted to see if I could tell where Quiller-Couch had stopped and du Maurier had picked up. There is tacit acknowledgement of this point of deviation from one author to another,when "It is a curious coincidence that no poet, or shall we call him investigator, has ever lived to conclude this particular story.  His work has always been finished by another." It is also moot that that was the point when the reading became more enjoyable. Despite this, the novel never quite matches up to other works by du Maurier; it is evident that she is hemmed in by what had been drafted already and neither the story nor the characterisation is compelling. Unless you are interested in the dual authorship, then you can give this a miss with clear conscience.

Surprised by Grief  is an autobiography of a vicar's wife who found herself suddenly widowed with two young children.  The book is an account of her sadness and desolation, but also her hope. The book covers the first three years following Richard's death.  I was most struck by how the emotions she expresses can be seen in others following trauma, family breakdown or other significant loss.  It speaks of accepting help and love at the beginning, but then feeling trapped by the perceived need to be seen to be coping. This need led her to turn away from offers of love and help and she, in turn felt isolated and rejected.  Such complex contradictions were part of the insight gained in this book.  It is told from a Christian perspective and she also draws on her dependence on God and the process of becoming stronger in her identity in Christ and in her identity as an individual as opposed to someone's wife.  This was an honest and insightful read, though the writing is not as finely tuned as a professional writer's might have been.

Hubby has just come over to the decking where I am typing this and he has reminded me that he is not a fan of my multiple book blog entries! Do leave feedback for me on this; if lots of you share his opinion, then I will stick to single title reviews where possible.

In the meantime, I will plough on with The Light Between Oceans,with a shout-out to cousin Lin who recommended this one for me. (And yes, the Elizabeth is Missing title on your shelves is indeed mine; I checked!) I was wary of this recommendation as my much-loved cousin purports A Prayer for Owen Meany to be her favourite book! Still, she challenged me to read this one without weeping, and I accepted.

The book is a compelling story, one I completed in two days.  The premise is that of a young veteran
who seeks a new life after the horrors of WW2. He finds balm in a solitary post as lighthouse-keeper off the remote and tiny community of Partageuse.  The writing is immediately evocative as Stedman describes the island of Janus, the ocean and the lights so sensuously.  Indeed, the lighthouse is almost a character in its own right.  Happy in his solitude, Tom is almost taken by surprise when,during shore leave, a younger woman makes known her affection for him.

What follows is a tender love story.  Tom is finely drawn and readers respond well to both his gentleness and his reason.  He embodies strength, both physical and emotional, and is a pillar of love for his new wife as he engages her with the rhythm of island life.

The book revolves around Izzy’s need for a baby.  Suffering two miscarriages, she becomes increasingly sad and thus when a boat is washed up with a dead man and a small baby on board, she puts Tom into a complex dilemma. His love for her overrides his sense of right and wrong and he allows himself to be persuaded to falsify the lighthouse records and keep the baby on the island. 

This becomes the central plot.  Even as he writes a false account of the day in his log book, you realise that such a deception cannot have longevity.  Tension is created between the couple at the same time as they unite in love around little Lucy.

The story develops around this point of tension. Izzy is so blinded by her love of the child and the intense need to mother that she becomes twisted in her logic and defiant in the face of moral reasoning.  But events find them out and the child is at the centre of a desperately sad situation as the community of Partageuse seeks to mete out justice.

The Light Between The Oceans is an easy read and well-crafted.  The plot is compelling, even if it isn’t always convincing.  I found it hard to marry Tom’s strength of character with his decision to keep the baby on the island. His love for Izzy is tangible and it is this that persuades him to listen to her arguments for nurturing the baby on the island.  I remained unconvinced, even though Stedman conveys his disquiet empathetically  throughout the playing out of the deception.

The book does however capture what it is like to love someone deeply. Despite my lack of suspension of disbelief in places, Tom is a finely drawn character who has lodged himself in my heart as one of my favourites.

And despite my best efforts to write about four titles, I am going to stop here.  Naomi Alderman, as winner of the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction with the book, The Power, deserves a full blog entry.

Keep an eye out for it; I’ll post it soon…before I get too engrossed in my next read! And in case you're wondering, I didn't cry at any point during my reading of The Light Between The Oceans!

Friday, 19 May 2017

Post 56: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

As promised in my last missive, I have been afforded more reading time this week.  Hubby did appear for an unexpected 24-hour pass after the cancellation of a meeting, but despite this interruption to my reading schedule (!) I have finished both The Miniaturist and The Jewel Garden. He's home tomorrow afternoon, so I may even be able to squeeze in another title before his key turns in the door!

Before I dive into The Miniaturist, I must say, that even as an English teacher, the spelling of Miniature is ridiculous!  If English spelling gives you amusement and/or despair, I must recommend the poem  I Take it You Already Know.

And so to the novel. The Miniaturist received a great deal of acclaim when it was published in 2014. It is one of those books that I have had on my shelves for a long time but never got around to picking up.  It was even downloaded on my Kindle, but something held me back. It was probably because I had heard a review on the radio that emphasised a mystical element to it, and I'm not really a fan of magical realism or portents...

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. (Have you ever noticed that low expectations sometimes garner the most satisfying experiences?  Shhh, don't tell school...that is not a growth mindset!)

Set in Amsterdam in the 17th century, the book gave a historically accurate glimpse of life as a merchant in a busy port.  Trade was largely controlled by Guilds and the Burgomasters and thus corruption was rife.  At a time when few black people were in Northern Europe, Johannes Brandt's domestic servant, Otto was looked upon with fear and derision in equal measure.  Hasty to point out that he was employed and not a slave, Otto forms an integral part of family life.  Loved by the house maid, Cornelia, she, along with Johannes and his sister Marin, is fiercely protective of him.

Into this tight household comes Petronella.  Married off to Johannes by her Mother as a good, wealthy match, 18 year old Nella finds herself as far removed from her rural upbringing as she could have imagined.  She is considered as a blessing and a miracle by Johannes and Marin, and yet, at the same time, she is both ignored and humiliated by them both.  She befriends Cornelia but even in this relationship there are secrets.  Nella feels alone and marginalised, despite her best efforts to be a wife.
Johannes sees this and seeks to make amends by buying her an extraordinary dolls house; a replica of their own home.

Given with good intent, Nella is insulted to have been presented with what she perceives to be little more than a toy.  She also has a blank cheque with which to furnish the house.  Marin insists that she does so and it is here that the story takes the turn towards the portentous.

The miniature furniture and dolls are exact replicas of those in the house.  The craftmanship is beyond compare, and Nella finds herself drawn to the figures.  Other commissions arrive at the house unannounced.  Their arrival is unpredictable, but it soon becomes apparent that the miniaturist seems to know everything about their lives, even things Nella did not know about herself.  Thus the packages become emblematic of the future and the novel creates intrigue by building on whether the talismans govern events or whether they are effigies that result from hands that can see into a future already mapped.

Nella becomes obsessed by the miniaturist, a woman she has never met, and this plot strand continues to the end.  But this is not the whole story.  The lives of Nella, Marin, Johannes and their household reveal much about trade and morality in Amsterdam at the time.  The church and the judiciary all play a part in making the novel exciting.

And it is exciting.  It is a gripping read.  Made up of short chapters, Jessie Burton ends each one with the desire to know more.  This structure makes for compulsive reading and it is a book that is easily consumed. For those of you who enjoy a detailed historical novel, this is not one of those.  It is a light read, a popular read. It is definitely a recommendation from me and I am certainly interested in reading her second title, The Muse.

And before I go, I must just give you a life update.  Child 1 has just heard that she has got her job of choice which will begin after university.  Very proud of her.  Indeed.  But... this also means that she will not be moving back into her own room and that the bank of Mum and Dad can look forward to closing pretty soon!

 Mmmm....perhaps I should start rearranging the furniture to give me more space for my library!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Post 55:Celebrations and Vigilantes

Dear Readers, I thank you!  In borrowing a little from Charlotte Bronte, I wanted to express my amazement and gratitude that my blog has now had over 10,000 hits. This counts as fame in my book, and yet I can still walk the streets without being beleaguered for an autograph! I have been reliably informed that my musings have influenced reading lists and present purchases.  This is incredible, and I get really very excited when I discover a new reader. The little map on my statistics page also suggests that I have readers in every continent except Antartica: if that is to be believed then the penguins are seriously missing out!

Now the nature of this business means that I don't know who most of you are, but I do know that I love being part of this bookish community.  As always, may I encourage you to comment and suggest other titles for me to read...though I confess my to-read shelf is committing the cardinal sin of having books led sideways to accommodate all my recent purchases....

However, I do find myself home alone for a whole week.  Hubby is hobnobbing in various hotels and family stop-off points before heading into a long weekend jolly with friends from Church, Child 1 is revising for finals in Sheffield and Child 2 is enjoying a term without exams in Oxford, (he's done them already...don't worry, the bastion of learning has not given up on examining their students!) The upshot of all this abandonment is bound to be an increase in reading time.  My aim is to complete The Miniaturist which I am currently enjoying and then I might treat myself to the new Maggie O'Farrell. I've had it for a couple of weeks and it is still in its postal packaging.  Delayed gratification!

To kick-start my week, I'm going to fill you in on my latest completed read, which was Shelley Harris's Vigilante. Some of you may remember that Shelley was the tutor at a creative writing day I went on at Faber and Faber last year.  More surprising was that she knew me!  In her teaching days, we had crossed paths twice, and I was the (only ever-so-slightly) older, wiser one!! Her debut novel Jubilee is reviewed here. Vigilante is totally different.  The audience is the same; I would hazard at predominantly female and generally favouring a light read.  I hesitate to say chick-lit because that seems to me to be a derisive term...and I tend to agree with Marion Kaye that no equivalent term would ever be tagged onto popular fiction written by a man.....

But this is a book that is easy to read.  I purposely chose it after the dense and evocative Gardens of the Evening Mist  as I wanted a quicker, light-touch book.  This certainly achieved that aim.  The protagonist, Jenny Pepper is a middle-aged wife, mother and charity bookshop manager.  The book opens with the provocative statement, "Before I was a superhero...I'd have been tidying up." And there you have the plot in a nutshell.  She is an ordinary woman, feeling her age, feeling hemmed-in by her life, and significantly, being defined by what she is to everyone else.

In many ways it is a familiar story of middle age.  The kids are growing up, the career has dwindled as family life has superceded ambition and we wonder how we got here, and more importantly, how are we going to get out! This is not about me by the way! Nor is it about Shelley Harris she assures us in the author interview at the back of the book, but she does say that she relates to the feeling of dreams squandered and having to find the resources to cope when life stares back at you with no interest in who you are anymore.  I read an article in the Times Sunday Supplement whilst clearing out the newspapers collected by an elderly friend of mine, and there was a humorous column on the joys of middle this she declared that past a certain point, you realise that you become invisible, indistinguishable, unremarkable.

But middle age is not that depressing! Shelley Harris acknowledges this in her plot.  Jenny Pepper, whilst walking to a fancy dress evening dressed as a superhero, complete with high heels, cape and a mask, serendipitously comes across an actual crime taking place.  Staying in character, she swoops on the scene and protects the victim.  Comedic, yes. Plausible? Almost.  It is certainly within the realms of suspension of disbelief.  But she becomes entranced by the possibilities afforded to her by the anonymity of the costume.  It releases her from being just Jenny and empowers her to be somebody different, somebody who effects things around her.

And so the story unfolds.  From a street mugging, the small town of Bassetbury becomes a hotspot
for increasingly sinister crime.  Undeterred by potential danger, Jenny goes out at night in full costume, patrolling the streets and becoming embroiled in an unbelievable number of skirmishes. This was the point where I did begin to lose faith in my ability to hold onto the storyline and stay with the character.  I couldn't find a place to suspend my disbelief long enough to accept that she would have continued to go out, knowingly putting herself in danger and believing herself to be more useful than the police.

But I was impressed with the shift to a pseudo detective genre as the novel progressed.  I wanted to find out if my hunch on whodunnit was right, and whether I had correctly identified the red herring. It was satisfying to come to the end and feel smug about my own detective skills, but at this point I must reassure you that not once did I leave the house dressed as wonderwoman!

I loved being taught by Shelley.  She is fun and talented and her classes are both inspiring and down-to-earth. This is a good light read, but it is not my favourite genre.  It is quirky, and I laughed out loud at the Conversation with Shelley Harris section when she quotes, "Certainly, when I walked down the streets of High Wycombe dressed as a superhero, I found that I was horribly nervous right up to the point that I put on the mask. Once I was wearing it, I felt in control..."

Anyone who is prepared to research their central character with such passion deserves a wide readership!  So...going on a plane, sitting on a beach, or just feeling a bit uninspired by daily life, then escape to a life of vigilante crime-solving with Jenny Pepper.  She is no Emmilene Pankhurst, but she does her bit for standing up for the girls!