Monthly Archives: January 2013

BURNING BRIGHT by Helen Dunmore

Sixteen year old Nadine has left home and hooked  up with an older man, Kai. They live together in a large neglected Victorian house with Kai’s business partner, Tony, and Edna, the sitting tenant. As Nadine gradually realises the nature of the business that is making the two men so rich and befriends Edna, who has her own story to tell, she leaves her childhood far behind and learns that love can be made up of many shades of dark as well as light. I started this book some time ago but didn’t make it past the first few pages – there’s a lot implied early on that is easy to miss and probably because it was late or I was tired, I struggled to follow what was happening. This time I made sure I took it all in and I was well rewarded. I love Helen Dunmore’s writing, her story telling, her strong women characters and her ability to bring the past alive in particular. Nadine is a glorious combination of worldliness and naivety. Edna both fragile and strong. Kai and Tony pale by comparison although a third male character, one of their clients, politician Paul Parrett, is fascinating and complex. It’s the characters that make this book burn so brightly and I am definitely pleased I returned to it a second time.

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SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY by Gary Shteyngart

The world Shteyngart has created is just like ours, only a bit more so. The population converse via Globalteen, an evolved version of live chat forums and Facebook. They all possess apparat that churn out data and have virtually destroyed the art of conversation as well as all but the most basic of literacy skills. America is in hock to China and as the latter flexes its muscles, the poor and disenfranchised, ie those without a media or a retail job or a degree in ‘assertiveness’, are rioting. Against this back drop, Lenny who likes and reads books, falls in love with Eunice, who doesn’t, taking them on a journey that forces both to decide what’s really important in their lives. Told in part through live chat type text and in part via Lenny’s diaries, this is much more than the super sad true love story the title promises. For starters there is some sublime satire that made me laugh out loud. And the love  story masks a much more fundamental one about the nature of our relationships with family, the past and future, and with money and status. Super Sad True Love Story is also about fulfillment – about whether being in love is enough or nothing more than a major distraction from the real business of living. Personally I found neither Lenny nor Eunice especially likeable, which makes it all the more incredible that I cared about their fate – or maybe it’s just that I cared about the fate of what each represents.

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SAPLINGS by Noel Sreatfeild

Ballet Shoes was one of my favourite books as child, so I was intrigued to see whether Streatfeild’s writing for adults is anything like as good. I think it comes pretty close.  The novel is very much of its time – 1940s England – and charts the pre war comfort, then war-time disintegration, of a middle class family with four children. The practical and social limits for women of the changes wrought by war are just as striking and signficant as the freedoms it brings, and this very much shapes the unfolding story. For example,  the mother of the family has a breakdown that, at one point, manifests itself in alcoholism and an affair, behaviour which is memorably described as “coarsening” and prompts her sisters in law to rally around to protect the children from the inevitable gossip and social consequences. There are a number of formidable women characters  in the novel, as you might expect from a Persephone Books publication, and it  stands as useful commentary on various aspects of class, as well as gender.   But it’s the psychological insight into the  way that children think, and how that leads them to behave, that I found most impressive and there are certainly bits of this I wish I’d read before raising my own daughter! The afterword to this edition points out a lack of emotional depth and maturity to Streatfeild’s writing but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment – the overall impression is charming and this looks set to become as well thumbed and loved as her books for children.

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THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perotta

The front cover of this book declares Tom Perotta is ‘An American Nick Hornby’ but this reminds me more of something from Douglas  Coupland – from the rapture type event that has resulted in hundreds of people disappearing without explanation, to the way that the lives of those left behind evolve to cope, espeically with the fact that the rapture has not conformed to its religious roots, taking people from different faiths and many who don’t seem deserving of salvation. The story focuses on the inhabitants of one US town and the various cults and civic activities that have sprung up to fill the gap left by the disappeared. But as people search for understanding and closure it becomes clear that facing up to the present is perhaps the only way to make sense of the past – and the future. Various threads interweave but it was the two teenageers stories that most captured my imagination –  Jill, who has remained at home with her father whilst her mother joins a local cult, and her brother Tom, a disillusioned disciple of the prophet Holy Wayne. Perotta does bitter sweet humour beautifully, whilst his depiction of the every day is acutely and touchingly observed. It’s a page turner but I did feel the end was rather abrupt and left me underwhelmed, which was a real shame as until that point the book held so much promise.

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PEACHES FOR MONSIER LE CURE by Joanne Harris

More Vianne Rocher, chocolate maker, white witch and one time inhabitant of small rural French village Lansquenet. It’s eight years since she first blew into town  (Chocolat), four since the last installment in her life (The Lollipop Shoes), and things have changed greatly. Rather than the river boat people, it’s now the growing Muslim population that are making waves in Lansquenet and Vianne is drawn back there by a letter from the grave, penned by her old friend Armande and forwarded on by Armande’s grandson. She returns to the village to harvest peaches from the tree in Armande’s garden but immediately finds herself tangled in the webs of lives she thought she had left behind, as well as some new ones. As in every Harris’ book, nothing is quite as it seems and Vianne delves into the secrets of both friends, former adversaries and her own self, revealing the various wars being fought in and between families, communities and religions.  I love Joanne Harris’ story telling. I love her use of magic, of food, and of satire. I love her conviction that people are essentially the same whatever the behaviours behind which they hide. And I love Vianne, her clarity, the way she makes connections with people, as well as her flaws. This book doesn’t disappoint and was the perfect read for some lazy days over the Christmas break.

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