Disclaimer: I acquired this book via a Bookmooch virtual book box where you choose books based on the first sentence. That said, I have read another bDisclaimer: I acquired this book via a Bookmooch virtual book box where you choose books based on the first sentence. That said, I have read another book by Anya Seton (Avalon) and I remember enjoying it. This one, though, is a very hackneyed Gothic romance. It's hardly cunningly plotted -- as soon as Jeff appears on the scene you know exactly how it's going to end. Given that it is Gothic, I was surprised the haunting/witchy elements weren't more prominent -- Zelie and the ghostly haunting just seemed to be tacked on as local colour. And the denouement of the marriage could have been more dramatic/doom-laden.
On the plus side, the male characters were quite well drawn, Nicholas convincingly creepy and Jeff bluff and honest. The historical background was good too; I had no idea about the US having a feudal system in the mid-19th century. But not really worth even the limited time invested in reading it....more
Jill Dawson is a good writer, but I think you have to be interested in Rupert Brooke to find this novel worthwhile. She captures the pre-war world supJill Dawson is a good writer, but I think you have to be interested in Rupert Brooke to find this novel worthwhile. She captures the pre-war world superbly, and I really liked Nell as a character -- intelligent, independent, a mind of her own, yet suspicious of suffragettes and feminism in general. Brooke, on the other hand, seems to spend most of his time thinking about sex. Dawson cleverly weaves Brooke's own words into her reconstruction of his inner world and I was rather startled to find that a graphic description of his first male sexual encounter was lifted verbatim from one of his letters -- bearing in mind that this activity was illegal at the time. I hadn't realised quite how liberated the Bloomsbury set were.
On the basis of her writing and research skills, I might read another of her books, but this one wasn't really my cup of tea....more
Continuing my leisurely reading of the Hornblower series. Given that I first read these books over 40 years ago it's amazing how some scenes stick inContinuing my leisurely reading of the Hornblower series. Given that I first read these books over 40 years ago it's amazing how some scenes stick in the mind almost word-for-word: the canal boat journey, the sinking funeral barge, the diving for the wreck. This novel may seem rather "bitty", with a sea battle quickly tacked on at the end, but it's one of my favourites both for the above scenes and for its varied cast of characters, including the German princeling and his chancellor, and the crotchety dive master. Hornblower as ever is wracked by doubt and pessimism, and whenever he's optimistic it turns out to be misplaced....more
I can remember the delicious pleasure of wallowing in Hornblower books on rainy Sunday afternoons when I was a teenager. I'd never been on a sailing sI can remember the delicious pleasure of wallowing in Hornblower books on rainy Sunday afternoons when I was a teenager. I'd never been on a sailing ship and had no idea what many of the nautical terms referred to. But Forester had a talent for making this not matter. Either the precise detail was not important, or he provided enough context to enable you to understand what you needed to. And you read these novels not for the technical content (brilliantly researched though it is) but for the swashbuckling adventure, the evocation of daily life in the 18th-century Royal Navy, and above all for the ridiculously lovable figure of Hornblower himself -- shy, gauche, endlessly self-critical, but always finding moral courage and imagination when he needs them. After all these years they are still a cracking read. This one is a "prequel", a series of short episodes from Hornblower's midshipman days conveying what a varied life that of a junior officer could be....more
"Make the tone and writing style more consistent. Is this book a mystery, a love story, a satire, an art history lesson, an exposition on dysfunctiona"Make the tone and writing style more consistent. Is this book a mystery, a love story, a satire, an art history lesson, an exposition on dysfunctional families, a cooking tutorial, or a put down of the wealthy? Some of these stylistic elements can be combined in a single novel, but they need to be intertwined, not turned on and off like a series of light switches." -- Mac's review of this novel encapsulates the faults from which most of its failings flow.
I was disappointed with this mess of a novel. The prologue led me to expect Jonathan Coe-like satire, but Rothschild is no Jonathan Coe. She knows her art world though, so she could have shone if she'd been more organised (the brief section where a restorer examines Annie's junk-shop find is fascinating -- I'd have liked more of this forensic detail). Annie herself turns out to be a dim (in every sense of the word), flat character; impossible to imagine why Jesse falls for her. Rebecca develops into someone much more interesting and I think the sections where she explores her family history were my favourites. A good novel could have been made of these -- although it would need to be more subtle. The talking painting was a gimmick too far; a couple of times it worked, but mostly it didn't.
Just in case all the art stuff isn't enough to snare the reader, Rothschild throws in some truly ghastly food writing. As a cook, I love to read recipe books, but this detail-laden prose is awful, like those over-the-top menus in fancy restaurants. I want those minutes of my life I spent reading the three-page description of Annie making an omelette back. Sample:
'Go on,' Annie said as she placed pats of butter in a saucepan and waited for them to melt. Then she stirred two tablespoons of flour in to make a smooth paste. In a separate bowl she dissolved gelatine into some boiling water and combined it with her sauce.
Jesse expertly cracked the eggs with one hand into the bowl, added two twists of pepper and a generous pinch of salt and whisked them hard. Once they had turned into a frothy golden cloud he asked for the next job. "Can you layer that Gruyère and toast on top of the bowls of onion soup?" Annie asked, making sure that her clarified butter frothed up but didn't burn.
Agatha moaned slightly as she bit through the crispy outer layer of fish and felt the warm butter ooze into her mouth.
Argh -- I can't go on. I'll just add that Jesse and Annie must be the only people ever to use "meld" in conversation.
And as for the dénouement -- gah! This is where Annie reveals herself to be a complete idiot.(view spoiler)[Agatha has already hinted that the painting is genuine 18th-century and could be valuable. While Annie is musing, after her successful themed dinner, on how to raise capital to start a business, every single person she's met in the art world leaves messages on her phone begging her to get in touch urgently about the painting. Then she answers the phone, to find the police asking her to come and bail out her mother and the purloined painting. She promptly refuses. She really doesn't deserve to keep it. The way Annie is rescued is also full of holes (it's never explained how Abufel's account proves her innocence; Rothschild clearly hasn't figured it out herself, hence swiftly glosses over it). (hide spoiler)] And the final rushed account of the auction and the painting's ultimate fate is a real letdown.
I'm giving it two stars because of the Rebecca sections; otherwise it would be a solid one.
Oh-- and no copy-editing. Again. Riddled with errors....more
This was much more successful than Inés et la joie, because Grandes mostly eliminated the large chunks of historical narrative that so spoiled the earThis was much more successful than Inés et la joie, because Grandes mostly eliminated the large chunks of historical narrative that so spoiled the earlier book. She still showcases her penchant for sudden time-shifting and revisiting events from different viewpoints. It's slightly less confusing than Ines, but I'd still be hard-pushed to give an exact sequence of events. There are also an awful lot of similar characters to keep track of, making it hard work. But the main characters are sympathetic and well-drawn. As usual she draws heavily on the stories of real people, so the narrative feels real and engaging, as well as being very informative on the aftermath of the Civil War, and particularly on the oppression and punishment of left-wing activists. The parts set around the prison of Porlier and the Valle de los Caídos are really excellent, and the story of poor Isabel (based on the life of someone Grandes met) is compelling. It took me a long time to read!...more
This was a bit uneven; I suppose that's to be expected when the stories were written over a period of more than fifty years. Alice Munro-like, many ofThis was a bit uneven; I suppose that's to be expected when the stories were written over a period of more than fifty years. Alice Munro-like, many of Maxwell's stories are set in the same small Illinois town, with the occasional foray to Chicago, and involve the same family members. They surely must be based on his own family experiences, as Munro's stories are. The volume finishes with 21 "Improvisations", one of which gives its title to the collection. They are insubstantial and quirky; he gave them to his wife as presents, or told them to her in bed, which is rather sweet.
He has an amazing talent for conveying the texture of everyday life, small incidents accumulating to build up an atmosphere and a sense of being in a past world. A Game of Chess (1965) is one of the best short stories I've ever read. One or two others I didn't like at all; they often end abruptly, leaving a sense of incompleteness. It's best not to read too many at once; I read a few at a time, between other books. I liked his novel The Chateau better; the length allowed him time to build a complete world....more
What a refreshing change from the hectic melodrama of Haweswater! Maxwell's style is clipped and urbane, of its time (1961) with a hint of modernism (What a refreshing change from the hectic melodrama of Haweswater! Maxwell's style is clipped and urbane, of its time (1961) with a hint of modernism (talking furniture ...). Somehow what should be a mundane travel journal with no plot to speak of is endlessly captivating, as the naive young American couple Harold and Barbara fall in love with France but consistently struggle to grasp what's going on around them and understand all the subtle nuances of social interaction with the family they stay with and the people they meet. Maxwell beautifully conveys that constant sense of just missing something that you get in unfamiliar places, the inadvertent social faux pas, the anxiety. And the characters are brilliant, from moody Eugene to the totally baffling Mme Straus, who is probably making everything up in order to conceal her inconsequentiality. The explanatory dialogue in part 2 didn't quite work for me, but I'm happy to have discovered Maxwell, whom I'd never previously heard of....more
The right kind of nature writing; Atkins doesn't just wax lyrical about nature, but explores the effects that humans have on "wild" environments, in tThe right kind of nature writing; Atkins doesn't just wax lyrical about nature, but explores the effects that humans have on "wild" environments, in this case English moors from south-west to north-east. He may go a bit overboard on description at times, but it's full of interest. I particularly like the way he finds an individual historical character, such as a farmer, and uses documentary evidence such as journals and account books to bring a period to life. One strong theme is grouse-shooting, not surprisingly. He does a good job of exploring the issue from both sides, spending time with shooters, gamekeepers, and their opponents -- without going so far as to defend the indefensible (the elimination of hen harriers for example)....more
I just picked this up as a light beach read, and it served its purpose up to a point -- although I was expecting an Austen-like happy ending for at leI just picked this up as a light beach read, and it served its purpose up to a point -- although I was expecting an Austen-like happy ending for at least some of the characters and was rather shocked not to get one! Ultimately depressing, especially so regarding the doormat-like Mary who surely should have found some gumption by the end of the book....more
What is it for? That's the question that kept running through my head all the way through this 600-page tome. For the first couple of hundred pages thWhat is it for? That's the question that kept running through my head all the way through this 600-page tome. For the first couple of hundred pages the brainpower I had available after trying to keep the dozens of characters straight tried to figure out where the story was going. Some interesting family dynamics eventually showed up but as quickly disappeared, barely playing a part in the plot -- such as it was -- subsequently. Most characters lacked interest and became less interesting as they grew older. The only ones that really stick in my mind are Dorothy, Tom, and Philip, who are all well drawn, particularly when they are younger. Towards the end the book dissolved into a shambles of raw research. Why did we need the text of a letter from Keir Hardie to his lover? Or a long section from the point of view of Margot Asquith, including a letter from her to an unspecified trade-union leader? They did not advance the plot or shed light on the characters at all. Nor did the account of Emily Davison grabbing the King's horse on Derby Day. It seemed that Byatt made one character a suffragette purely so that she could throw in a lot of raw data about the suffragette movement. Around two thirds of the way through she seemed to have completely lost sight of where she was going; and the ending fell really flat for me. I couldn't see the point of it. It also seemed strange that one of Byatt's principal messages seems to be that mothers shouldn't become writers because they will neglect their children and cause them to fail.
Of course there's good writing here, and insights about art and artists, and in patches I enjoyed it. In one way it reminded me strongly of The Goldfinch -- Byatt's love of things matches Donna Tartt's. She loves describing objects, landscapes, house interiors, and goes to town on the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Clearly she loves the art of this period, and lets it go to her head. And why are there so many characters? As if Olive's own six (or seven -- I lost count) children weren't enough, she throws in a host of cousins and friends that the reader has to keep straight too. Half the number of characters and half the length would have made for a much better book. Disappointing -- I'm hoping for insights from the book group as to what I've missed!...more
Only one review of this on GR! I picked it up having finished Un Si Long Chemin; it's his first published novel, which promptly won a prize and alloweOnly one review of this on GR! I picked it up having finished Un Si Long Chemin; it's his first published novel, which promptly won a prize and allowed him to contemplate a career as a novelist. It was on my shelf, so I must have read it at some point, but to be honest I didn't remember it. Most of the novel plays on humour; young Jean's father Guillaume is an an incorrigible narcissist and fantasist (based on an uncle of Troyat). He constantly dreams up fantastic money-making schemes which come to nothing, casts off one inappropriate girlfriend after another, falls further and further into debt, dodges creditors with the help of equally impecunious friends. It is funny, but draws the reader skilfully into pathos within the last 10 pages. In this short piece Troyat already shows his talent for the character-based novels that were going to make him so popular....more
I know a lot of people find this book funny, moving, or both, and it does have its moments. I was curiously unengaged until the last fifty or so pagesI know a lot of people find this book funny, moving, or both, and it does have its moments. I was curiously unengaged until the last fifty or so pages, I think largely because of its perky, chick-lit tone, which felt out of place and alienated me from the characters. I also felt a bit voyeuristic (as I did with the rape in The Lovely Bones) because it's clearly very closely based on the author's own experiences. It did result in a good discussion at my book group though, and I think I probably just wasn't in the right frame of mind for it....more
It's really hard to say anything about this book. Delphine de Vigan discovered her mother's body when she had been dead for five days, and the book isIt's really hard to say anything about this book. Delphine de Vigan discovered her mother's body when she had been dead for five days, and the book is an account of her mother's life and Delphine's often difficult relationship with her (difficult for very good reasons). The story is interspersed with reflections by de Vigan on the process of researching and writing the book. It need hardly be said that there are bleak moments.
At the beginning, it seems to be a story of a large, happy family, but de Vigan skilfully reveals the cracks one devastating revelation at a time. I was impressed by how she uses the information given her by aunts, uncles, and her own sister, without invading their privacy or presuming to tell their stories, and also by the sympathetic insights into living with mental illness. A powerful and moving book about a courageous woman who lived her life as best she could....more
I'm about halfway through this and on the verge of giving up. Since I started reading it, I've picked up and finished three other books. I like booksI'm about halfway through this and on the verge of giving up. Since I started reading it, I've picked up and finished three other books. I like books about Roman/post-Roman Britain, but I don't think Ishiguro does. It's dull, dull, dull. The flat characters and stilted prose are clearly intended to stand for something deeply meaningful, but what? I don't think I can be bothered to find out. Ursula le Guin skewered it here; I think she's probably right that Ishiguro despises the fantasy genre and doesn't want his "literary" tome to be seen as part of it. For good measure, he thinks readers are probably too stupid to understand his genius: "I don’t know what’s going to happen. Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?" Last word to Ms le Guin:
No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”
Mixed feelings about this one. McIlvanney is a powerful writer; you can tell he's a poet from his rich use of language and metaphor (as bit too rich sMixed feelings about this one. McIlvanney is a powerful writer; you can tell he's a poet from his rich use of language and metaphor (as bit too rich sometimes). I feel sure his picture of working-class life in western Scotland is accurate, and it is vividly drawn. It treads the same terrain as Zola's Germinal. But there's no plot to speak of and not even that much drama. McIlvanney covers events from the point of view of various members of the Docherty family, but the book is really about paterfamilias Tam, an old-style working class hero and hard man. The action starts in 1903 with the birth of his youngest son Conn, and ends in the 1920s. At the end, McIlvanney is clearly evoking a generational change between the (over) idealised noble worker Tam, and his cynical, capitalist son Angus, so it's essentially a melancholy story. It's also old-fashioned in style -- no "show, don't tell" here. The authorial voice is determined to tell readers what to think, rather than letting them interpret characters' actions on their own. So a lot of it is description of what's going on in the characters' heads, and what it means in the context of their lives.
I was disappointed that McIlvanney is really only interested in the men. Tam's wife Jenny gets a bit part, but only in the stereotypical female role of holding the family together. Daughter Kathleen marries a man both parents consider to be a "good boy" and disappears for a hundred pages or so to re-emerge as a battered wife, her only appearances from then on being confined to melancholy visits to her mum, and a single conversation with her father in which neither can say what they feel. I'd have been interested to follow her story rather than have yet more squaring up between hard men. Having said that, McIlvanney is evidently steeped in this culture, and the banter between men on the street corner, at family wakes and weddings, and on poaching trips was entertaining. I think the most successful part though was the understated account of son Mick's experiences in the trenches during WWI. Very moving, without resorting to a lot of gory details. So although I didn't love it, it definitely has its merits....more
The third (and possibly final?) volume of extracts from Nella's millions of words written over more than thirty years. I loved Nella from her first voThe third (and possibly final?) volume of extracts from Nella's millions of words written over more than thirty years. I loved Nella from her first volume. This one certainly has less going on than the wartime diaries but it's still quite fascinating and thought-provoking. Nella is intelligent, observant, and critical, and uses her diary to mull over all sorts of topics from the personal to the political. She tells you so much about social norms and day-to-day life in the 1950s, sometimes surprising you. I knew that rationing was still going on of course, but I was still quite surprised that scheduled power cuts were a weekly occurrence accepted with resignation and "making do", and there were desperate shortages of essentials like coal. Elsewhere, Nella talks about some black nurses at the hospital whom she has happily chatted with, complimenting them on their work; an unusually enlightened attitude for the time. But then she describes recoiling in horror on seeing the young children of a black doctor and his white wife: she's fine with black people, but "miscegenation" makes her shudder!
I did feel sorry for her having to deal for so long and so thanklessly with her husband's mental health problems. It's not clear what caused them, but he appears to be suffering from severe depression and also separation anxiety. She has the patience of a saint.
He has always had a curious way of hoarding up "slights" and "snubs", but since he has been ill it has grown worse. His mind acts like a stopped-up drain, slowly gathering odds and ends of tea leaves, and odd scraps of vegetables that putrefied slowly -- anything and everything that would tend to block a drain. Then when it's unstopped it's amazing what has gone to the accumulation! I know he hates me to talk to anyone unless he is there, but his rage took the form of "Fearing you will catch more cold -- you never think of the bother you give people" ... he raked up about me having been so lame and not able to go walking and he "Always had to trail about by himself if we went over Walney".
What a marvellous metaphor. This extract makes him sound almost psychologically abusive, but luckily Nella doesn't tamely buckle under and sometimes "gets on her top note" with him, making "fur and feathers fly". But she still generally goes to extreme lengths not to upset him.
As in previous volumes, one of her great solaces is their outings to the countryside nearby. She writes lyrically about nature. I loved the moment where she is tempted to pick a bunch of yellow coltsfoot but then pauses: "They were growing on a little heap of gravel-soil by the roadside, where passers-by couldn't fail to see them. It seemed greedy to take them for my own tea table in my little crystal vase when they could flaunt and shout their yellow joy to motorists passing."
She is endlessly open-hearted and generous, even with strangers and people she doesn't particularly like. It's a shame she never knew what pleasure her writing would give to others. I wonder what she could have done with her life if she'd had more freedom. Even as it was, she definitely improved the lives of her friends and family....more
What a very crafty writer! In both senses -- cunning, and a mistress of her craft. This novel is so well constructed. You know right at the beginningWhat a very crafty writer! In both senses -- cunning, and a mistress of her craft. This novel is so well constructed. You know right at the beginning that there was a murder, and who the murderer is; it's not a detective story by any means. You gradually realise who the victim must be, but the motive remains mysterious till very late on. Vine is very good at drip-feeding information. In the first couple of chapters the narrator refer to many people without explaining who they are, and I quickly found myself drawing a family tree to try to get things straight. At the same time, she drops ample clues and red herrings along the way -- it's difficult to be precise without spoilers. I did figure out what the twist must be eventually, but only because she'd been gradually giving little hints. It's important to pay attention to every detail in this story. It may seem slow-moving, but it draws you in with its atmosphere of encroaching doom.
The characters are so well drawn, believably imperfect. And I particularly appreciated her construction of the atmosphere of rural England and London during the war -- especially as I'd just been reading A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, a real-life account of the same period, by a single woman living in a cottage in the woods. It really brought home how accurate and detailed Vine's creation of this world was.
This is the second of her books I've read, and I'll certainly read more....more
Hmm, well I like his boisterous Joycean prose but it all got a bit much after a while. This was a present, so I started it with no idea that it was aHmm, well I like his boisterous Joycean prose but it all got a bit much after a while. This was a present, so I started it with no idea that it was a novel with John Lennon as the central character. I grew up with the Beatles (hey, I even saw them live in 1965), but I lost interest in pop music in my late teens, and instead got into Mozart, Vivaldi et al. I bet there are lots of references to John's work here that completely passed me by, which is probably why I didn't really get the point of it. There were amusing moments in John's conversations with Cornelius, and the descriptions of his trip around rural Ireland. Arriving at a run-down rural hotel: "Do you have a reservation?" "Severe ones, but I need a room." I liked the evening he spends in a pub in the middle of nowhere too. But I finished it feeling it had gone on for a bit too long....more
This isn't a bad book by any means, it just wasn't my cup of tea. I get the symbolism about borders and barriers, between wild and tame, past and presThis isn't a bad book by any means, it just wasn't my cup of tea. I get the symbolism about borders and barriers, between wild and tame, past and present, nations, and people. I just didn't really get any buzz from reading it, and was indifferent to the characters. Some parts were quite tedious. We really did not need to know every detail about Charlie's early life from birth onwards, up to and including the contents of his nappies. It was like no-one had ever had a baby before. The ending did have a bit of a surprise twist, but I'm not sure it was worth the previous 400 pages.
Oh, and I add my voice to the chorus of disapproval for dialogue without quotation marks. Why?? A fad that should be stamped out now....more
This is obviously rather dated now, and some parts are a bit dry. But the first chapter in particular is a tour de force, and in general it is a richThis is obviously rather dated now, and some parts are a bit dry. But the first chapter in particular is a tour de force, and in general it is a rich source of information about Spanish history and the effects of the past on the present. Ghosts of Spain is a lighter, easier read, but this book (or rather its later edition) is usefully complementary....more