An odd hybrid -- a novel in the form of diaries, with an introduction in which Forster describes how she came by the diaries of Millicent King, a womaAn odd hybrid -- a novel in the form of diaries, with an introduction in which Forster describes how she came by the diaries of Millicent King, a woman as old as the century (she was born in 1901). I imagine Forster is recycling some of the research she did for the joint biography she wrote of her grandmother, her mother, and herself (which I haven't read).
Millicent's life is resolutely ordinary (apart from its length -- she lives to the age of 98) -- but I found her story curiously involving. Millicent isn't always very likeable -- she can be stubborn and selfish, and finds it hard to make friends -- but she's also determined to "stand on her own two feet" and has a strong sense of right and wrong. Forster really draws you into her life. As a 13 year-old, Millicent longs to "do something" with her life, but it's arguable whether she really does. After a spell as a teacher, she becomes a social worker, drives ambulances during the Blitz, and then goes back to teaching while bringing up her sister's twins, orphaned by a bomb in 1943, finding none of this truly fulfilling. Just as in real life, there are false starts, friendships and love affairs that don't work out, and loose ends (for example Millicent's younger sister Grace returns traumatised from occupied France in 1944, with a 4-year old daughter in tow, and although she has clearly suffered greatly, Millicent never finds out what happened to her). Like many women of her generation, Millicent sets great store by duty and respectability, is reluctant to discuss money or sex, but is also fiercely determined to be independent. Forster handles the change in tone as Millicent grows older really well, and although things become less interesting towards the end, with the elderly Millicent increasingly confined to the house, it's always compelling.
I'd previously read and liked Forster's Lady's Maid (a novel told from the point of view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's maid), and I'll be looking out for more of her books....more
Rachel Joyce can certainly write (albeit with some rather purple prose at times), but wow, this is a depressing read! I had to keep putting it down beRachel Joyce can certainly write (albeit with some rather purple prose at times), but wow, this is a depressing read! I had to keep putting it down because reading it was making me feel tense and twitchy. Every character, when faced with a decision to make, is guaranteed to make what is plainly the wrong one, each person digging him- or herself into a deeper hole. That said, Joyce deals sensitively with OCD -- I've no idea what it's like living with this but she makes it ring true. The portrait of Byron's mother is also terribly touching. And she has some clever ideas for linking the two stories, including the use of two minor car accidents as the impetus for a new direction.
On the other hand, the young Byron didn't make sense to me as a character. He keeps coming out with maudlin little homilies that just don't seem appropriate for a 12-year old boy, even a seriously disturbed one. And the social context he lives in seems more 50s or early 60s than 1972. It's difficult to discuss further without spoilers, but I worked out early on what the connection between Jim and Byron must be -- there are enough clues for only one outcome to be possible. After everything that happens in this book, and the many setbacks the characters face, the "happy ending" is a bit too abrupt. So I didn't enjoy it as much as The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. A good one for a book group I'm sure as reactions are bound to be varied....more
The flyleaf blurb for this book makes it seem like modern social history -- "a compelling investigation of collective memory ... Jeremy Treglown talksThe flyleaf blurb for this book makes it seem like modern social history -- "a compelling investigation of collective memory ... Jeremy Treglown talks to the descendants of men and women killed during the civil war and ensuing dictatorship and stands on a hillside with them as remains are excavated ...". In fact these scenes comprise only a tiny part of the book. The majority of it is a fairly academic overview of art, films, and literature during the civil war and Franco's dictatorship. I found it hard going, and don't even think of reading it if you don't have a good grounding in modern Spanish history. Not what it says on the tin.
Mini-rant: in the first couple of pages, the word "cemetery" is misspelt half a dozen times, as "cemetrey". Careless copy-editing I thought. Then later on I came across "collabourative" and "cemetreies" and realised that there actually was no copy-editor -- the once respectable UK publishers Chatto & Windus use a barely competent robot to convert US spellings to English, and don't bother to pay a proof reader to check the unfortunate results. Not impressed....more
By the time I got to page 70, I was already skim-reading. A bad sign. Ghastly mannered style, skipping from past to present tense in the same paragrapBy the time I got to page 70, I was already skim-reading. A bad sign. Ghastly mannered style, skipping from past to present tense in the same paragraph, an omniscient narrator using the royal We ... then I came across this on page 129 (of 389), after the inexplicable marriage of two of the characters:
If this story were merely a fiction, it would be possible to fill in these gaps with plausible incidents, but the narrator here has to admit to considerable difficulty, indeed to failure. I have tried -- and I apologise for that intrusive authorial "I", which I have done my best to avoid -- I have tried to understand why Joe and Bessie married, and I have tried to invent some plausible dialogue for them that might explain it.
Well, as a reader, I slammed the book shut at this point.
I confess I always used to get Margaret Drabble and Margaret Forster confused -- similar names, ages, background, and subject matter. But now I won't. Forster is a good novelist and Drabble isn't....more
A definite step up from Summer Half -- this is another family romp from Angela Thirkell, with a few familiar characters playing bit parts, notably theA definite step up from Summer Half -- this is another family romp from Angela Thirkell, with a few familiar characters playing bit parts, notably the irrepressible Tony Morland and his mother, Lydia Keith (my favourite character in Summer Half), and the urbane Noel Merton. This time the very vague plot is built around the rich maiden aunt and her inheritance, but it really doesn't matter -- it's all about the relationships. How lovely that in the grimness of 1939 Thirkell could write such a fluffy book. Lots of fun, and yes, I nearly cried with laughter at Lydia's antics on the merry-go-round at the church fete. "I say, someone's on my cock!" she bellows as she approaches.
Mr Grant, really quite glad of an excuse to dismount, offered his cock to Lydia, who immediately flung a leg over it, explaining that she had put on a frock with pleats on purpose, as she always felt sick if she rode sideways ... "Hurry up and get into the swan!" "We'd better," said Mr Merton to Mr Grant, "or Lydia is capable of riding all over the field after us on the cock."
And so on. In the end the people who should get together duly do, and it all ends happily ever after. Wonderful escapism. I'm hooked now, luckily there are plenty more in the series....more
This book is adorable. It would be easy for characters in this type of comic novel to be caricatures, but Thirkell never falls into that trap; her chaThis book is adorable. It would be easy for characters in this type of comic novel to be caricatures, but Thirkell never falls into that trap; her characters have dark sides as well as surface sillinesses. Like Jane Austen she has a waspish humour which is well deployed in this book, particularly on the male characters ("Mr Fanshawe, who like most of his sex would enthusiastically neglect any woman, however charming, to talk to any man, however dull" is worthy of Austen herself).
Yet you can feel sympathy for even the less likable characters such as Richard -- she takes care to give them some more noble features too, and allows them to develop in the course of the story. Her casual sketching of the family dynamics of the Tebbens, and the difficulty of being gentry but much poorer than the neighbours, is both funny and perceptive. The conversations between cat and donkey were a touch of whimsy too far, but this novel is a short, entertaining read -- great as padding between more serious works....more
This is my least liked of the Thirkell novels I've read so far. It's set largely in a boy's school, which is less congenial than the family settings oThis is my least liked of the Thirkell novels I've read so far. It's set largely in a boy's school, which is less congenial than the family settings of the others, and the characters are less rounded. Colin and Rose are particularly one-dimensional, and young Tony Morland is a lot less obnoxious than he was in High Rising. I liked Lydia though, and as ever there are some entertaining moments.
PS the GR book summary is full of spoilers! I know Thirkell's plots are predictable, but still ......more
I'd read rave reviews of this book, and I enjoy "unreliable narrator" novels, so when I saw it half price in a sale, I snapped it up. What a disappoinI'd read rave reviews of this book, and I enjoy "unreliable narrator" novels, so when I saw it half price in a sale, I snapped it up. What a disappointment. It fell very flat and was certainly not gripping or unputdownable. I never felt any concern for any of the characters, because most of them are just shadowy background figures whose names meant nothing -- I couldn't remember who was who beyond Grace, Hannah, Mr Hardie, and Mrs Grant. Grace is not likeable -- that's fine, I don't need to like the "heroine" of a novel to enjoy it. She's manipulative and self-centred. I didn't care whether she was acquitted or not, so there was no suspense.
Really good unreliable narrator novels give the reader enough information to judge just how unreliable the narrator's version of events is. For example in Elizabeth Is Missing, the other characters are cleverly used to shed more light on situations Maud herself doesn't understand. I don't want everything spelt out -- there need to be grey areas -- but we never really get a chance to see Grace through others' eyes in any meaningful way. I'd have liked to read the story through Hannah's eyes -- she seemed a more intriguing character. Many loose ends were introduced for no apparent reason: the box in Hardie's pocket, the chest full of gold. The other lifeboats for that matter. Were all of them lost? If not, why were none of their occupants present at the trial?
Finally, it's derivative. Hitchcock's Lifeboat springs to mind, but the basic premise of the choices to be made in this situation (sacrificing individuals to save others) is fairly obvious. And then -- I think it's no accident that the heroine is called Grace. It irritates me to even write this, but Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace is about an unreliable narrator called Grace facing trial for murder, telling her story in flashback to an outside male observer. At the end of the novel you still aren't sure what to believe (whereas in The Lifeboat you very quickly get the idea that in every difficult situation she's encountered, Grace has ensured her own survival at the expense of others). If Charlotte Rogan thinks her book can stand comparison to what is arguably Atwood's best novel, well, she is sadly mistaken. Hmm, must re-read the Atwood!...more
These stories remind me of Alan Garner's work -- rooted in a loved place and drawing heavily on local custom and mythology. Mackay Brown isn't as accoThese stories remind me of Alan Garner's work -- rooted in a loved place and drawing heavily on local custom and mythology. Mackay Brown isn't as accomplished as Garner, but it's a worthwhile read, especially if you have been to Orkney. The stories are short enough to make good bedtime reading....more
The final volume of Peter Ransley's trilogy -- worth the longer than expected wait. It's the best of the three I think. Atmospheric and edgy, with greThe final volume of Peter Ransley's trilogy -- worth the longer than expected wait. It's the best of the three I think. Atmospheric and edgy, with great scene setting evoking the smells, sounds, and sights of London in 1660. The relationships Tom has with his family and others are nicely ambiguous and uneasy. Yes, there are one or two rather ludicrous escapes, especially towards the end, and the epilogue is out of place, but it's not as muddled and implausible as volume 2. I enjoyed reading it....more
I liked the idea of this book. The execution, not so much. It was just a bit dull. nothing really surprising or thought-provoking here; just a coupleI liked the idea of this book. The execution, not so much. It was just a bit dull. nothing really surprising or thought-provoking here; just a couple of poets rambling about stuff that was of interest to them but not making much effort to make them interesting to anyone else -- pallets, golf driving ranges, scrapyards, that kind of thing. Meh. I finished by skim reading....more
I seem to be having a bit of a theme with books about memory (Before I Go To Sleep) and ageing (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry); this book combI seem to be having a bit of a theme with books about memory (Before I Go To Sleep) and ageing (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry); this book combines both. It's another "unreliable narrator", in this case 82-year old Maud, who is suffering from dementia. It's quite an achievement, especially for a first novel. I wonder if the fact that Emma Healey was only in her mid-20s when she wrote it actually helped? She mentions in an afterword how she drew on her experiences with both her grandmothers (to whom the book is dedicated) -- especially her maternal one, to whom she was very close. The character of Maud clearly draws on close and loving observation of an elderly woman's behaviour. You can imagine that having dementia could well feel like this, so it's a painful read at times. Maybe Healey was able to empathise in this way precisely because she wasn't the primary carer for her grandmothers. Some reviewers seem to think Helen, Maud's daughter, is uncaring and impatient, but I thought Healey was very sympathetic in showing that Helen does love her mother, but inevitably gets stressed and frustrated trying to care for her. Katy, Helen's daughter, is much more laid back; she can have fun with her grandmother, without feeling responsible for her.
The jacket blurb claims this is a "detective story"; it really isn't, so if you are expecting a mystery/whodunnit, you will be disappointed. The outcome of the modern-day "mystery" is obvious to the reader, if not to Maud, because the other characters repeatedly drop hints (part of the skill in this novel is relating events that Maud doesn't fully understand in a way that gives the reader enough information to realise what is happening). The situation with Elizabeth is primarily there as a prompt to get Maud thinking about her sister Sukey, who went missing in 1946. Gradually vivid memories of her past rise into the foreground (the post-war atmosphere is beautifully evoked). Even here there's not much of a mystery, because there are only two realistic candidates, and you soon figure out who is the most likely. The interest is in seeing how events in her daily life gradually bring the whole story and its conclusion out, finishing with a slightly melodramatic modern-day denouement.
Well worth reading, but perhaps not on a gloomy winter day!...more
Obviously, these are not really the 100 finest short stories ever written; they are one person's selection. Further, I note that David Miller works foObviously, these are not really the 100 finest short stories ever written; they are one person's selection. Further, I note that David Miller works for a literary agent, and according to the credits a suspiciously high proportion of the contemporary authors are represented by his agency. It's a global collection but inevitably biased towards the West.
But leaving those matters aside, there are some crackers here. There are the obvious choices, like Chekhov, Munro, and Pritchett (though I wouldn't have chosen the stories he did) -- but I most enjoyed discovering authors I hadn't read before. I was especially taken by Sean O'Faolain; his How to write a short story is witty and superb. Other more than honourable mentions go to John Cheever's The Swimmer, Palm Court by the unknown (to me) James Salter, the brilliant Live Bait by also unknown Frank Tuohy. I laughed aloud at Georgina Hammick's The Dying Room, which revolves around an argument between an upper class mother and her son about what to call specific rooms in the house -- the English class system meticulously skewered. Elsewhere I laughed at Wodehouse's consummate comic turns: "In the case of Angus McAllister, why, going a step further, have made hum a human being at all? All the ingredients of a first-class mule simply thrown away." Or, of a village fete: "There was only one man who could have coped adequately with the situation, and that was King Herod, who -- regrettably -- was not among those present."
Tim Winton's Boner McPharlin's Moll, Gita Mehta's Teacher's Story, Isaac Babel's My first fee -- there are more than I can mention here. Well worth having if you love short stories -- keep it handy to dip into -- and I'll be looking for more from the authors mentioned here....more
With nearly 10,000 reviews on Goodreads, I don't think there's any need for me to add to them. I liked the spare poetry of the writing here, but for tWith nearly 10,000 reviews on Goodreads, I don't think there's any need for me to add to them. I liked the spare poetry of the writing here, but for the first half I thought it was all going to be a bit too charming. But it really improved in the last third; the band of modern pilgrims was an unexpected and jarring touch, and the final encounter with Queenie is not what you would expect. Harold's journey is an evident metaphor for life and its purpose, and none the worse for it. The older you are, the more likely you are to enjoy it.
This was an enjoyable thriller. I love books with unreliable narrators, and Christine is more unreliable than most -- she loses her memory every nightThis was an enjoyable thriller. I love books with unreliable narrators, and Christine is more unreliable than most -- she loses her memory every night. Sure, her particular type of amnesia is implausible, but I was happy to suspend disbelief and give myself over to Christine "remembering" things and then thinking, "But what if it's not a memory? What if I imagined it? Who is telling me the truth?" The constant ruminating over the same events, the flashes of insight, and the short, choppy sentences worked well for her state of mind. It gives you a different perspective on "living in the moment".
I just managed to figure out the twist before it was revealed, but I may be slower than habitual thriller readers. Sure, the ending is a bit corny and cliched, but it fits, and makes the structure of the novel perfect. Four stars for esacapist enjoyment!...more
A rather unpleasant little book which I skim-read. Polly Evans leaves her high-pressure job in Hong Kong to cycle 1,000 miles round Spain on her own.A rather unpleasant little book which I skim-read. Polly Evans leaves her high-pressure job in Hong Kong to cycle 1,000 miles round Spain on her own. It's admirable to achieve this, but unfortunately Polly's brand of "humour" relies on sneering at everyone she meets because they are not up to the exacting standards set by her and her well-off, sophisticated friends. Crowded places are sneered at because they are full of tourists. Worse still, elderly tourists, who despite being wrinkly, ill-clad and with dyed hair, appear to be having a good time. Tiny villages in the countryside are sneered at because the streets are not lined with bars and restaurants and there's nothing for Polly to do (her leisure activities appear to be highly dependent on shopping). Hence their inhabitants must all be snivelling feckless peasants. Given how much she dislikes the countryside, one wonders why she chose such an itinerary.
She shows no empathy with anyone, or any desire to talk to the people she meets other than to demand food, drink, and hotel rooms, and then be dissatisfied with the result. She doesn't even have the excuse of not speaking the language, because she had lived and studied in Spain some years before. She claims to speak the language "after a fashion", enough to order a beer, but she's clearly better than that as she can eavesdrop on conversations between strangers. If you don't like foreigners or discovering other cultures, perhaps a career as a travel writer is the wrong choice.
The one good point about this book is that she covers events in Spanish history in a brief and fairly entertaining way. But it's not worth ploughing through the rest for these bits....more
The only reason I have heard of Amanda Palmer is because of her hilarious riposte to the Daily Mail when it tried to make a scandal about her breast pThe only reason I have heard of Amanda Palmer is because of her hilarious riposte to the Daily Mail when it tried to make a scandal about her breast popping out of her bra (anyone familiar with AP knows it's not at all unusual for her to show more flesh than that). Someone recommended this book, based on her famous TED talk, so I thought it might be worth a read.
Well, if you are one of the many unconditional fans of Amanda Palmer, which many reviewers here appear to be, you'll love it. I found it interesting, but really the substance of what she says could be summed up in her 13-minute talk; at book length it gets very repetitive, and it's definitely All About Amanda Palmer. Don't treat it as a self-help book because what works for a famous, self-centred extrovert won't necessarily work for you.
It has its moments -- if you are thinking of launching a Kickstarter, you should definitely read it -- and she's a good writer, with wit and insight, especially about the future of digital content and how to fund it. I enjoyed it to start with, but then it just seemed like an endless repeated story of people falling over themselves to help her. It gets increasingly narcissistic; the part where she "leads" her Twitter followers in a minute of silence for the Boston marathon victims is particularly nauseating.
My feed exploded with a rousing “YES, please.” It was 8:55 p.m., so I set the minute of silence for nine o’clock exactly, and asked people to find a good spot, and do whatever they needed to do to get ready. I lit a few candles, counted down with the Twitter feed, set my iPhone timer, and at nine on the dot, closed my eyes.
As for That Poem (about Tsarnaev): I have no problem with her writing it, but again how selfish and egotistical to publish it online. How did she think the victims' families would feel?
Elsewhere: "It made me consider one of the reasons I loved my fanbase so much: they are wholly independent and have their own unassailable, discerning tastes." Well gosh, how generous of you to admit that other people might have their own opinions and are not entirely led by yours!
So by the end of the book I was a bit tired of her. Two and a half stars....more
I'm sad to have finished this trilogy, but there's a hint at the end of this that we haven't seen the last of Amaia and her spiritual guide.
This has tI'm sad to have finished this trilogy, but there's a hint at the end of this that we haven't seen the last of Amaia and her spiritual guide.
This has the same ingredients as the previous volumes, albeit with less emphasis on the supernatural. It pulls in many elements from the earlier novels and definitely can't be read as a standalone story. It's difficult to review without spoilers, but there is a really shocking and unexpected event in the middle, which draws out Redondo's best writing in the whole of the series -- you are there with Amaia, seeing through her eyes, and it racks up the tension in the rest of the book. For once I figured out who the baddie was quite soon after this, but that doesn't spoil the story, in fact it's rather satisfying (I'd actually had my suspicions of this person in book 2, but then dismissed them). The final scene is totally OTT and a bit hackneyed (view spoiler)[(the cavalry turns up at the last minute (hide spoiler)]), but I'll forgive her. She was clearly thinking of the cinema adaptation!
It's not without its faults. There are an awful lot of crime victims, and I recommend writing down their names as you go along, otherwise you'll get confused about who is who and who did what. Another review here says that the major characters haven't just developed, they've become totally different people, and I can see their point. A major theme in volume 2 was Amaia's fears about being a bad mother (understandable given her history). Yet in this volume she doesn't seem to give a damn. For plot reasons, Redondo packs James and Ibai off to the US, and after a tearful farewell, Amaia barely seems to notice they've gone. James is more of a cipher than ever here, but her feelings for Ibai seem to have disappeared too. The actions of some people didn't seem to fit with what we knew about them(view spoiler)[ (Jonan -- surely he would have shared his suspicions with Amaia earlier? (hide spoiler)]. I was also disappointed with the dénouement of the situation with her mother -- I found it a bit of an anti-climax (can't say more without spoilers). Of the three, I think Legado en los huesos is the best.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
A lyrical and occasionally erudite account of a solitary walk across France in (I think) the 1970s; considered a classic of French walking literature.A lyrical and occasionally erudite account of a solitary walk across France in (I think) the 1970s; considered a classic of French walking literature. He writes beautifully, poetically, but I found it got a bit samey if you read a lot of it, and it was best to read it in small doses. I have to say that it is extremely rare for me to need to look up words when reading in French, but he used quite a number of words I didn't know :)
Interesting contrast with the ghastly It's Not about the Tapas, a similarly solitary journey. Lacarrière engages with people he meets, relies on kindness and spontaneity to find beds for the night in barns, spare bedrooms, community centres, is happy to stop and chat for a whole morning with a chance-met shepherd or woodworker, because he's not in a hurry and for him the experience of the journey is what matters, not the destination....more
When these stories are good (The Pleasure of Her Company, The Age of Grief, Long Distance) they are almost up to Alice Munro standards -- wonderfullyWhen these stories are good (The Pleasure of Her Company, The Age of Grief, Long Distance) they are almost up to Alice Munro standards -- wonderfully perceptive, and full of telling detail. When they aren't (Jeffrey, Believe Me and Dynamite) they are -- well, like a creative writing teacher showing off. Still, the good ones outnumber the bad!...more
Well, I knew that this, Smiley's first novel, couldn't be as good as A Thousand Acres -- and it isn't. It's another dysfunctional family, this time ruWell, I knew that this, Smiley's first novel, couldn't be as good as A Thousand Acres -- and it isn't. It's another dysfunctional family, this time ruled by domineering, horse-mad matriarch Kate Karlson. The family keeps 40 horses on the farm, and quiet, long-suffering husband Axel meekly works long hours in the city in order to (barely) pay for it all. Kate is determined to be the best, and drives her four teenage children to succeed in her field of horse shows and competitions, to the exclusion of any maternal feelings. The four children react in different ways, and all of them are damaged by her relentless ambition. The story ends in inevitable tragedy -- but no catharsis, as it's evident that Kate will carry on regardless, just the way she always has. I see Smiley dedicated the book to her own mother -- a rather backhanded "compliment" given Kate's character!
The trouble with it really is that the characters don't seem well enough developed, and never seem real in the way that the characters in A Thousand Acres did -- you can't work out what makes any of them tick, especially Axel (and in fact Kate herself -- what made her so driven?). The story is about failures of communication within the family, but unfortunately Smiley doesn't really communicate any empathy to the reader here, so it's ultimately unsatisfying....more