Monthly Archives: September 2011

THE NO.1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY by Alexander McCall Smith

I was a bit emotionally wrung out after WHERE ARE THE SNOWS, so needed something light and easy to pass a couple of days. The No.1 Detective Agency stories are just the thing when that mood hits me – I rarely do your standard airport best seller trash but this is my equivalent. Anthony Minghella’s TV adaptation lingers in my mind as I read this first installment of the popular series and certainly does it justice, capturing the interior and exterior landscapes of the novel. I do worry sometimes that  Alexander McCall Smith’s  love for Africa, which certainly shines through, might be a touch colonialist in outlook but it’s only a vague sense and in Precious Ramotswe he has created something very special – a woman who is good without being worthy – so I willingly suspend any misgivings just to enjoy her wisdom, wit and plain common sense.

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WHERE ARE THE SNOWS by Maggie Gee

I think Maggie Gee is one of my favourite writers and this book gripped me from the moment we meet Christopher and Alexandra, who are so in love with one another that they abandon his teenage children in order to travel the world enjoying one eternal honeymoon. There’s lots of themes running through the book including the idea of guilt and how that differs from taking responsibility for your actions. I am a firm believer in guilt being a waste of time – if you have done something wrong you should simply learn from it, try not to repeat the mistake and where possible put right any hurt. Here we see the characters indulge in a great deal of hand wringing over their essentially selfish behaviour, yet failing to act differently when faced with similar choices – thus hurting people again. I say essentially selfish, but I guess that depends on whether you think that the love between Alexandra and Christopher – in the light and heat of which, everything else pales into insignificance – is a “get out of jail free” card, excusing their endless acts of self absorption. There are moments in the book when each are tormented by guilt – the refrain “What have I done?” is repeated throughout the story – yet more often than not this is in the context of their own wishes and desires being thwarted. We get guilt by the bucket load, in other words, but very little learning as a result.

Motherhood is another key theme in WHERE ARE THE SNOWS. Considering Alexandra is in many ways the archetypal wicked stepmother, it is inevitable that we question her motives when she wants to get pregnant.  Of course, motherhood is about much more than just conceiving, something that becomes clear to Alexandra as her efforts to buy a child go wrong and she experiences a rare moment of insight into how others feel. As a woman accustomed to twisting men around her little finger, Alexandra finds it very difficult to cope when her body – 0nce her most powerful asset – lets her down time and again. For both her and Christopher growing old is a terrifying experience, and the framework imposed by the physical body is a feature in the stories of all the other characters in the book to a greater or lesser degree. 

Maggie Gee also  explores the extent to which our personalities are shaped by the way we look . Plain neighbour Mary Brown is reliable, kind and a surrogate mother to Christopher’s abandoned children, yet is never one dimensional. Her intrinsic goodness does not protect her from feeling pain or being unfaithful, for example. In fact this is what I think I love most about Maggie Gee – her ability to create characters from whom I always learn something about the way individuals think and behave, even if I dislike them enormously!

 

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AFTERWARDS by Rosamund Lupton

I chose this book because I was away at the weekend for a conference and wanted something to hold my attention on a long train journey and help me switch off at night – without being too challenging. It was a good choice. This is Rosamund Lupton’s second book (she also wrote Sister) and I really like the way she combines the elements of a thriller with what the Guardian calls ‘a devastating emotional punch’ on the back cover. Grace and Jenny are both in hopsital after an arson attack on the school where Jenny works. The story is told by her mother, Grace, and centres round discovering who started the fire and why. But as Jenny and Grace have both left their damaged and dying bodies they cannot share what they learn with the other characters in the story, who they follow and try to guide as the investigation into the fire unfolds. It’s difficult to say too much without giving away what happens but I was not expecting this story to end the way it did, nor was I expecting the identity of the arsonist to be such a surprise. Definitely a great book for a long journey – as long as you don’t mind people seeing your eyes well up with tears every so often!

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A SPELL OF WINTER by Helen Dunmore

My neighbour and friend bought me a bundle of Helen Dunmore books for my birthday. This one took a while to grab me  but, as it won the Orange Prize in 1996, I decided to persist. In lots of ways it is a typical Orange prize winner – very gentle and beautiful, with the language and subtlety shining through, but a plot that never really takes off.  The Siege or Zennor in Darkness are much better in my view. That said there are some powerful bits to this novel. The house where the main characters spend most of their time is oppressive and heavy with the past – when they escape it’s a chance to look to the future but not all of them take it. I also enjoyed the part where because of the war self sufficiency takes centre stage. Overall a bit disappointing though.

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