When Margaret Forster is good, she's very good (Lady's Maid). But she can also be underwhelming (The Memory Box. This final book falls into the latterWhen Margaret Forster is good, she's very good (Lady's Maid). But she can also be underwhelming (The Memory Box. This final book falls into the latter category I'm afraid. It was OK, but I never really felt involved in Tara/Sarah's life or her dilemma. The best character by far was her neighbour Nancy, beautifully drawn based on Forster's intimate knowledge of north-west England, so the three stars are for her....more
I'd read some positive reviews of this book, so I picked it up from one of those "Buy one, get one half price" tables at the airport, along with the bI'd read some positive reviews of this book, so I picked it up from one of those "Buy one, get one half price" tables at the airport, along with the book I actually wanted. I was ultimately disappointed. Yes, great writing and an amazing evocation of 18th-century New York, but by halfway through the book I was finding excuses to do other things rather than read it. Mr Richard Smith is so obnoxious I could not have any sympathy for the scrapes he found himself in. Quite the opposite in fact; I was longing for him to get his comeuppance, particularly the second time he was arrested. Evidently we are supposed to feel sympathy with him, but it just didn't work for me. Three stars for the quality of the writing and a less than predictable ending, but I'd rather not have spent my time on this....more
I know I read Any Human Heart some years ago, and it was a fictional autobiography, but nothing about it especially stuck in my mind. Sweet Caress felI know I read Any Human Heart some years ago, and it was a fictional autobiography, but nothing about it especially stuck in my mind. Sweet Caress fell into my hands as it was lent to me by someone in my book group who thought I would enjoy it. Boyd seems to specialise in these "autofictions". Yes, I did enjoy this in an easy-reading way, and he did a pretty good job of writing as a woman (even if I belong to the group who don't believe that most women obsessively study and compare their lovers' penises). It's a little like Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet series in that it spans much of the 20th century, but somehow it was much less engaging, perhaps because everything is seen from Amory's viewpoint.
I guess the most striking feature is that it brings home just how much Amory's generation (born 1908) was affected by war throughout the century. Her father returned psychologically damaged from WWI; she loses her brother in WWII as well as experiencing action herself as a photo journalist; her husband is as damaged as her father was by his experiences in WWII, and for good measure Amory goes to Vietnam in 1966 (this section was the one I found the least convincing). The photos were an odd touch, especially as most of them cannot be considered great photos by any means -- Boyd specifically said he didn't pick ones that were "too good". Amory is obviously intended to be a jobbing photographer, not a genius. At the same time, her determination and independence were well conveyed.
There's good writing here and I especially liked the final chapter, but at the same time I kind of wonder what the point is. I could read the autobiography of a real person, such as Martha Gellhorn, and it would be at least as fascinating. ...more
I picked this up at a bookswap. It was OK for dipping into between other things. My favourite story by far was Allan Weisbecker's The Calling, a shortI picked this up at a bookswap. It was OK for dipping into between other things. My favourite story by far was Allan Weisbecker's The Calling, a short, sharp piece about commercial fishermen. I wondered what else he might have written and found from his website that he now seems to be obsessed with loony conspiracy theories, and his writing consists of rambling blog posts. Oh well....more
A dark, magic-realist cross between Cold Comfort Farm and Barbara Pym, revolving around dark goings-on in a Derbyshire village. It's very short and thA dark, magic-realist cross between Cold Comfort Farm and Barbara Pym, revolving around dark goings-on in a Derbyshire village. It's very short and the first two-thirds are delightfully funny. Like CCF, the ending is a bit of a disappointment, focusing on the least interesting character. But it's worth it for the sheer pleasure of Mantel's flights of fancy. Here are the local kids returning from school:
They were few but conspicuous; their maroon school uniform, bought large so that they could grow into them, stood out from their bodies like the dark capes of Crusaders. There was a wary, darting-eyed expression on the faces of the gawky lads of eighteen, their little caps on their heads, satchels like postage stamps slung over their great bony shoulders. Some of the girls carried cake tins, held against their bodies like shields, and others had bags of knitting, from which metal needles poked; the boys carried wood-working tools which they did not trouble to hide. The outriders of the group, grim-faced girls of twelve and thirteen, bore their hockey sticks at a vigilant, offensive angle.
There are smaller pleasures too: "In recent years, her face had fallen softly, like a piece of light cotton folding into a box."...more
An appropriate title for this third volume as Polly, Clary, and Louise grow up through late teens and into their twenties, struggling to define who thAn appropriate title for this third volume as Polly, Clary, and Louise grow up through late teens and into their twenties, struggling to define who they are and what they want from life. They make believably awful mistakes. But their parents' generation isn't spared either -- all of them are struggling with relationships in one way or another. The war in terms of bombs and battles is strangely far away; the Cazalets' money seems to isolate them from many of the material hardships. Heck, they even manage to hang onto many of their servants, continue to go out for meals and buy fancy clothes, and their numerous houses in London are not destroyed. I still love all the everyday detail of clothes and food.
I enjoyed the continuing character development, especially Zoe -- she is what Rosamond Vincey in Middlemarch could have become if she had ever grown up. I can hardly wait to see what happens to her in the next volume, although I truly am going to have a short break now. And Louise is so very obviously EJH herself; the insight into an unhappy marriage and motherhood is piercing. Thinking Michael a cad, I liked the way she introduced a brief section from his point of view too, making him a little more human.
I was also interested, given Hilary Mantel's admiration for EJH, in the way she will often start a scene with a dialogue that gives no indication of which of the many characters are involved. You have to read on and figure it out from the context; very similar to the "he" device in Wolf Hall....more
I found the first third of this rather plodding, even though it was set at York University in the early 1970s, the same time period that I was at univI found the first third of this rather plodding, even though it was set at York University in the early 1970s, the same time period that I was at university. Having been at LSE I definitely recognised the earnest lefty student politics, although York seems to have missed out on the Maoists who regularly entertained us. The climax of the story was pretty predictable.
I found the last two thirds of the book more interesting and better written, with a good build-up of tension towards the end. The trajectories the characters' lives took were believable. The end itself was a damp squib though, and the secondary female characters, especially Dora and Rose, were so formless that I kept getting them confused. Even Evie didn't seem fascinating enough to keep everyone obsessed forty years later.
I've been meaning to read Linda Grant for a while, as she sounds like the kind of author I would like. So I'm a bit disappointed by this. I might read something else of hers but I'm not in any rush....more
This isn't great literature, but sometimes all you need is some easy entertainment. This was perfect for a couple of days on the sofa nursing a cold.This isn't great literature, but sometimes all you need is some easy entertainment. This was perfect for a couple of days on the sofa nursing a cold. It's a collaboration between seven authors, most of whom I haven't read before, and each of the seven chapters recounts part of the story from a different point of view (or sometimes more than one). It's remarkable how well it has worked; the collaboration must have been very effective. For the most part, the different styles work well, allowing different nuances of character to come out, and I liked some of the twists they'd put on familiar characters. Apparently Kate Quinn was the coordinator and her initial story -- the wedding of Odysseus and Penelope -- works well to establish the setting, tone, and many of the main characters, who are invited to the wedding. Note that this is the type of retelling where the Olympians are not directly meddling, but the fact that the characters believe that they are is important.
I'd read Stephanie Thornton's novel about Empress Theodosia and been underwhelmed, but her story here was my favourite of the lot. I really liked the way she conveyed Cassandra's madness from the inside, and making the twins Helenus and Cassandra illegitimate and black was an excellent idea for making them outsiders who still have privileged access.
Russell Whitfield achieves the remarkable task of making us feel sympathy for Agamemnon, struggling with guilt over his daughter's death; and the nature of his relationship with Chryseis was entirely unexpected. I'd happily read more of his work; this was a close second to the Cassandra chapter.
Christian Cameron's chapter was a surprise too; narrated by a Briseis who is far more than a simple chattel. He managed to retain the tension in the great duel between Hector and Achilles, even though most readers will know the outcome. And I liked Briseis as a character. Another I'd read more of.
Libbie Hawker's chapter provided a nice change of pace and an opportunity for a completely different viewpoint -- that of Philoctetes, who hadn't been involved in the war up till now. But somehow, although it had its moments, I didn't find it completely convincing.
Vicky Alvear Shechter had the challenge of writing from Odysseus' point of view. He's always been my favourite character in Homer, and I think she did a a good job -- if not as good as Richard Powell in Whom The Gods Would Destroy. I particularly liked the part where Odysseus is creeping around in the city, and the moment when he resigns himself to the fact that clumsy, brutish Diomedes is going to take all the credit for his achievements.
It's a pity that the final chapter in which Troy actually falls wasn't up to the standard of the rest. I've disliked pious Aeneas ever since I had to study Book IV of the Aeneid for Latin A-Level. Turney does make him the self-righteous, vain prig that he is, but I found the chapter tiresomely shallow and swashbuckling in comparison with the preceding chapters. Still, four stars for the whole, on its own terms as light historical fiction, and special mentions for Thornton and Whitfield....more
Oh, I just love this series! I thought I might get bored with it, but somehow I find myself fascinated with the everyday details of family life duringOh, I just love this series! I thought I might get bored with it, but somehow I find myself fascinated with the everyday details of family life during the early years of WWII. I can't write a rational, considered review because it is sheer pleasure. All the characters are captivating and real, even the unlikeable ones. I am going to have to ration myself and not gallop through the rest. Difficult as this one ends on a cliffhanger.
Oh, but one more thing: I especially loved the character development of Zoe and Louise -- so believable and well done....more
Hilary Mantel is a fan of Elizabeth Jane Howard apparently -- and rightly so. I was not too impressed with Love All, a slight later work that I pickedHilary Mantel is a fan of Elizabeth Jane Howard apparently -- and rightly so. I was not too impressed with Love All, a slight later work that I picked up by chance on holiday, but the Cazalets promise to be a different kettle of fish altogether. It's one of those deep, rich family sagas that you can wallow in for hours or even days. The large cast of characters are all such distinct individuals that you soon don't need to refer to the helpful family tree, and their differences help Howard to explore all kinds of different angles on class, gender relations, the raising of children, and family life in general.
It's evidently based on her own family and, born in 1923 herself, she excels at depicting the children, especially those just coming into adolescence (one of my favourites is young Neville though, sparky and sarcastic at eight; I look forward to seeing what he becomes). There's a strong thread of frustration among the wives of the three sons, who must devote themselves completely to the family. Being a beauty herself, she is also sharply perceptive about beautiful women. Zoe, the spoilt and discontented wife of Rupert, is the spitting image of Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch. A seemingly unsympathetic character, but Howard reveals her underlying insecurity and her belief that all she has to recommend her is her beauty, because that's all that people have ever valued.
I also enjoyed the insight into 1930s middle-class life: the sheer amount of labour and planning involved in providing for a large, well-off family in a country house. Despite having hordes of servants, Villy in particular is constantly harassed trying to organise vast quantities of shopping, cooking, meal organisation, and laundry, not to mention managing an outbreak of chicken pox with eight children in the house. I loved the descriptions of food and domestic work.
Anyway, having finished it in record time, I've ordered the next three volumes :) ...more
I finished it and then (skim) read it again before reviewing, to spot the hints and red herrings. It's difficult to review this in any detailed way beI finished it and then (skim) read it again before reviewing, to spot the hints and red herrings. It's difficult to review this in any detailed way because the whole thing hinges on not giving away any spoilers; (almost) all is revealed in the last 20 pages.
This is the third Barbara Vine I've read, and I've come to see they are a little bit formulaic: an introverted loner of a narrator, telling the story in the form of flashbacks interspersed with episodes set in the present. The murder is usually clearly signalled; in this case we know who the murderer is almost from the first page, but we won't know the victim or the motive till much later. An added element this time is the use of Henry James' The Wings of the Dove as a plot device. I haven't read it, so I googled a plot summary, which helped see where the plot was going -- although it's by no means a simple transposition. I felt one key aspect of the plot was a bit strained given what we know of the characters (view spoiler)[(would Cosette immediately believe something so bad of Elizabeth, her most devoted friend?) (hide spoiler)]
Vine is such a skilled writer and plotter; I enjoyed it, and the re-reading helped me to make more sense of the cliffhanger of an ending.(view spoiler)[ I now think that Elizabeth is experiencing the first signs of Huntington's Chorea -- but does the phone ringing spell her rescue from Bell's clutches? (hide spoiler)]...more
Hmm, I have been trying for years to find contemporary French/francophone authors I can enjoy, without much success so far (even Amélie Nothomb is a bHmm, I have been trying for years to find contemporary French/francophone authors I can enjoy, without much success so far (even Amélie Nothomb is a bit hit and miss). So I decided to join a French book group, and this first choice is a bit of an assault on the senses. Brutal, crude, revolving around explicit sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Definitely X-rated. It's also very slangy; even with fluent French I was reduced to Google more than once!
It's also difficult to review fairly because it's not a novel, but the first third of a novel (the publisher decided to improve profit margins by publishing it in three volumes). As such, there's no plot or resolution. Instead it's a series of scabrous character studies, ranging from the homeless to the extremely rich. Despentes' interior monologues are amazing -- full of rage and misanthropy. She invites the reader into the heads of some extremely unpleasant characters, including a wife-beater and a racist skinhead. But nothing really happens other than Vernon's descent from a marginal existence in a flat to homelessness on the streets. The slight intrigue of the video tapes of deceased rock star Alex Bleach doesn't go anywhere until the last few pages (which on their own caused me to upgrade the book by a star, making 3.5 rounded to 4).
I'm not sure if I'll read volume 2, but the discussion will be fascinating! I'm going to read something a little calmer now....more
Disclaimer: I was given this book by the author, whom I happened to meet one evening. Once more, it's not the type of book I would normally read: a spDisclaimer: I was given this book by the author, whom I happened to meet one evening. Once more, it's not the type of book I would normally read: a spy thriller?? Get away! But what a treat. Forget any preconceived ideas you may have of how spy thrillers work. This one features a cast of cynical, embittered MI5 failures who have been banished to a seedy office called Slough House, which I somehow feel must be in south London: Elephant and Castle maybe? And the entire convoluted plot takes place over the course of a single action-packed day.
It's the third in a trilogy, and obviously I hadn't read the first two. But this didn't seem to matter too much -- there were references to earlier incidents that weren't always clear, and it took a while to piece together the backstories of the characters. But above all it's the writing that delights -- crisply phrased, full of dark, sardonic humour and subtle digs. It needs to be read carefully to pick up the sly asides and cultural references, but there's slapstick and laugh-out-loud moments too. The "slow horses" themselves are brilliant creations, and even when you feel you know them they can still surprise you. I don't want to give away any of the plot, but a certain person turned out to be a true kick-ass agent, and swiftly became my favourite character. There's also a certain amount of realistically depicted violence; when someone is kicked in the balls or whacked on the head with a blunt instrument, he doesn't just get up again.
Anyway, to sum up: intelligent, spiky entertainment. I'll certainly read the other two volumes to find out more about the slow horses, and may well pick up some of his other novels too....more
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