Monthly Archives: March 2016

THE CASUAL VACANCY by JK Rowling

the casual vacancy by jk rowling

I am sure I cannot be the only one to have spent the first few chapters of this book expecting Dementors, a flying motorbike or a Hippogriff to come hurtling round the corner but once I got over that I really enjoyed Rowling’s spot on portrayal of life in the fictional West Country town of Pagford. It opens with the demise of parish councillor Barry Fairbrother, whose championing of a closer relationship with the local council estate called the Fields where has was born, has won him both friends and enemies amongst the local great and good. As supporters and opponents line up to fill Barry’s shoes on the council and determine the future of Pagford, Rowling takes us behind the town’s front doors to reveal all kinds of scheming, secrets and skulduggery.

We know she can tell stories and THE CASUAL VACANCY is no less good in this respect than the Harry Potter books. But what’s thrown into the mix here – and is a pleasant surprise – is Rowling’s acute  eye for parody, her insight into people’s vices and a healthy dose of honesty. Very few of the residents of Pagford escape her satirical observation. I especially enjoyed the portrayal of over fed and sanctimonious local butcher, Howard Mollison, who is leader of the parish council and relentless in his sucking up to those richer and more powerful than him. Howard’s daughter in law, Samantha, obsessed with the sculpted abs of a singer in a boy band, is also a triumph. But it’s the characters on the estate that elicited most of my sympathy, especially Krystal Wheedon, who is battling to keep her much younger brother Robbie being taken away by social services from their drug addict mother, Terri. The petty troubles of the Mollison’s, for example, pale into insignificance beside the tragedies that befall the Wheedons but, whilst Rowling’s politics shines through, she doesn’t fall into any obvious traps – this is a multi dimensional book full of complex, real personalities that simultaneously reflect the best and worst of human nature.

Interestingly, it’s the teenagers that give the plot its momentum, hacking in to the council website and posing as the ghost of Barry Fairbrother to wield some rare power over the adults of Pagford. This works practically in that the older generations are perhaps less likely to have the appropriate IT skills, but it also suggests that Rowling is still fascinated by what goes on in young people’s heads.  This very definitely isn’t a book written for children though. Funny in parts, this is essentially a very dark book – drug taking, self harming, domestic abuse, rape, and suicide all happens behind Pagford’s closed doors. Rowling seems fascinated by the shortsightedness and hypocrisy of the town’s residents, returning time and again to the crushing impact of poverty and inequality, to the damaging decisions of people unable – or unwilling – to open their minds to difference and disadvantage. In doing so, and whilst exploring the modern tendency to judge others from positions of relative anonymity, Rowling has herself very publicly, passed judgement on the snobbery and smugness that infects Pagford. Thank goodness, frankly, because it’s this which elevates THE CASUAL VACANCY from something that might otherwise have been little more than an updated Joanna Trollope novel.

In the interviews which accompanied the publication of her first book for adults, Rowling was suitable sanguine about its likely reception –  “The worst that can happen is everyone says, That’s shockingly bad.” It isn’t. It’s not shockingly good either. She’s not suddenly developed overnight into a poet or a modern day George Eliot. But this book does give us what we might reasonably expect of a Rowling novel – a good read, a smart plot and characters we can root for. And that is plenty to recommend it, in my book.

 

 

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DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY by Bill Clegg

did you ever have a family by bill clegg

“Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part.”

June Reid has a younger boyfriend named Luke, a daughter named Lolly with whom she has a difficult relationship, and a whole lot of guilt weighing her down. Lydia Morey has a brutal husband, an affair which results in a son named Luke with whom she has a difficult relationship, and a whole lot of guilt to contend with. On the night before her wedding, Lolly, her fiancee, her father and Luke are killed when the gas stove in their house explodes. DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY traces the events leading up to the tragedy and the destruction left in its wake. It’s told by various different narrators – some in the first person, some in third – with various different connections to the central events – the two women who survive their children’s deaths, as well as the wedding florist and the owners of a hotel near where Lolly’s fiancee grew up. For the first third of the book I was struggling to keep track of who was who and their relevance to what was going in. It got better but the similarity between all the voices was part of the problem, and this didn’t go away. Nor did the sprawling cast, many of whom were more interesting to me than the characters Clegg chose to focus on in his novel. There’s also a ridiculous embroilment in a lottery scandal that drags on far longer than is necessary to deliver the jolt of common sense for which it’s presumably introduced.

Loss is the stand out theme of the book – and from it arises a powerful sense of our interconnectedness, of the importance of loving and living as if each day was the last. Clegg conveys this without being cloying or maudlin – his writing is tender, sensitive and uplifting. Clegg got shortlisted for the Man Booker prize with this book and it does have something about it that’s immensely moving. But lyricism and profundity do not alone a brilliant book make and there’s also something missing from DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY (and I don’t just mean the question mark that really ought to be in the title…) that meant, despite losing myself in its poignancy, only hours after I’d turned the final page I’d virtually forgotten all about it. What’s more that final page crept up on me (blame the Kindle) spoiling what’s actually a very good ending. If I was giving stars, overall this would get 3 out of 5 and a special mention for some flashes of unexpected brilliance shooting through it.

 

 

 

 

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THE STORY OF A NEW NAME by Elena Ferrante

the story of a new name by elene ferrante

The second installment in this series is even better than the first. And turns on its head much of what I took from MY BRILLIANT FRIEND about the nature of friendship. Love, passion and ambition are the big themes here and Ferrante truly does them justice. Can’t wait to read – and no doubt be challenged anew by –  THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY.

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CASE HISTORIES by Kate Atkinson

case histories by kate atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s prose is the kind of prose I’d like to be able to write. Witty, seemingly effortless, crisp and, above all, real. She creates characters that are complex and interesting. She weaves plots that are engaging, profound and often unbearably sad, yet still make you smile. Frankly, she’s astonishing and I think CASE HISTORIES may well be my favourite book of hers that I’ve read so far.

In it we first meet Jackson Brodie, who becomes a recurring figure in other novels by Atkinson, including the only other one of the series that I have read, ONE GOOD TURN. When the story opens, Brodie, a former policeman turned private detective, is trailing the every move of air hostess Nicola Spencer, because her husband suspects she’s having an affair. His other regular client is Binky Rain, an eccentric 90 year old who believes the many stray cats she takes in are being stolen. Then he’s asked to investigate 3 new cases in close succession: the unsolved disappearance of a young girl, Olivia, from her back garden some 30 years ago, the apparently random murder of 18 year old Laura by a knife wielding man in a yellow golf sweater, and the whereabouts of the now adult daughter of a woman sent to jail for breaking open her husband’s head with an axe. As he unravels the events surrounding each case, Brodie must also navigate and juggle increasingly tense relations with his ex wife and her new partner, toothache (he fancies the dentist), memories of his own sister who was sexually attacked and killed when he was a teenager, and frequent phone calls from an irate Binky. Connections abound but never too implausibly, with each thread deftly brought together and resolved – the only kind of ending I will tolerate in my crime fiction!

Like every good thriller, there’s pace, twists and the odd red herring. Unlike most good thrillers, CASE HISTORIES is essentially optimistic in outlook. Atkinson may well explore very dark subjects, including rape, abandonment and murder, but she does so by way of day to day human tragedy rather than hyperbole and gore. And by forensically examining what pain and loss does to those left behind, rather than putting the damaged corpses of women and children centre stage, she steadfastly ensures the focus is on survival, on life and love rather than death and suffering. Brodie, who is compassion and kindness personified,  likes to keep a balance sheet, with losses on one side and founds on the other. The irrepressible goodness of which we are all capable, Atkinson seems to be telling us, means we can help keep the darkness in check if we so choose. This perspective is all the more powerful for her wisecracking, for her tender, acutely observed, characterisation, which combine to ensure there’s nothing cloying or idealistic about CASE HISTORIES. Quite the contrary – it’s honest, thoughtful and unflinching.

I sobbed, I laughed (alot) and I relished every word of this novel. It’s for gems like this that I keep on reading, and huge thanks to the lovely Manchester friend who lent me her dog eared copy and promised it was worth the space in my already overloaded rucksack.

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MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by Elena Ferrante

my brilliant friend by elena ferrante

This is the first in a series of books and I am now reading book #2, so I’ll blog more fully about the series as a whole when I’ve finished them all. It’s narrated by Elena Greco, set in Naples, and the brilliant friend of the title is Lila Cerrullo, the shoemaker’s daughter. Both girls compete to be top of their class from early childhood, but the violent realities of life in a poor neighbourhood in 1950’s Italy often get in the way of school books – as do boyfriends, gang feuding and familial expectations of loyalty.

Ferrante is apparently a very well known writer in her home country and MY BRILLIANT FRIEND demonstrates why. It opens with a daring mission to rescue some dolls that have fallen into the wrong hands, and closes with an ostentatious wedding in which a pair of shoes signify the outbreak of war. Every episode in between is related with the kind of warmth and richness that characterises many women’s friendships yet is so rarely laid bare, analysed or honestly celebrated – and I am talking survival through rivalry, jealousy, periods of non communication and so forth, rather than some kind of idealised Hollywood manifestation. The sweetness of having found a book like this and knowing the last page is not the end….

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THE DANISH GIRL by David Ebershoff

the danish girl by david ebershoff

As is generally the case, I wanted to read this novel before going to watch its much acclaimed film adaptation. I’ve not yet watched it on the big screen but I suspect the film will be fascinating and, as is generally NOT the case in my experience, may well be better than the book. Not that the book is bad – far from it – but I think the main character’s transition from a man into a woman will be all the more powerful for the visual perspective gained by the film. Ebershoff’s novel conveys his protagonist’s emotional and psychological state of mind with sensitivity and great insight, but I want to see the woman he becomes, not least because external transformation is so closely tied up with the character’s internal identity.

Inspired by a true story, the character in question is actually a Danish painter, Einar Wegener, who becomes Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. What I found most interesting about the book though is less its account of groundbreaking surgery and Lili’s experiences, and more Ebershoff’s intimate portrait of an unconventional marriage – one in which love really does mean setting your partner free. It’s Einar’s wife, Greta, who first encourages him to dress as a woman, for one of her paintings, and Greta who finds a doctor who will operate on her husband. Although her character is less developed than that of Einar and Lili, Greta’s story was actually what held my attention the most and I’m interested to see whether this is the case in the film too.

The cast of the novel is small and there’s something very contained and delicate about it – much like Lili herself. It explores incredibly complex issues, including the way in which Lili and Einar are discrete identities rather than different facets of one person, but doesn’t labour them or seem to set out to make any kind of statement. Ebershoff gives us the mechanics – Lili putting avocado stones in the cups of her camisole, for example, as well as the surgical details of her reassignment – and he gives us detail, including the most exquisite descriptions of Lili’s clothes, and of the “black bread and smoked salmon sprinkled with dill” that she eats for breakfast. The language is often very deliberate and artistic – words are as carefully chosen as the garments, make up and jewellery Lili uses to create the self she presents to the world. The whole is a thing of beauty that allows us to see the pain beneath it – Ebershoff doesn’t shrink away from Einar’s agony, both physical and emotional, nor from the exhaustion caused” by the world failing to know who he was”.

A deeply touching and intelligent book and I dearly hope the film lives up to my expectations.

 

 

 

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