Monthly Archives: August 2016

HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD by JK Rowling

harry potter and the cursed child

What to say, other than this is just what you might expect from Rowling and the wizarding world. Harry is married with 3 children and working at the Ministry of Magic, headed up by Hermione, also married – to Ron. Both couples’ children go to Hogwarts (of course!), where Professor McGonagall is  the Head Teacher. Lots has changed but plenty hasn’t and anyone who loved the Harry Potter series of books won’t be disappointed by this new adventure. Written as 2 plays designed to be seen back to back, it tells what happens when Harry’s misunderstood youngest son, Albus, and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, decide to go back in time to rescue Cedric Diggory, the “spare” Voldemort slayed when both he and Harry won the Triwizard Tournament in HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE. A time turner, polyjuice potion and the Hogwarts Express all play their part, and although the play format means some aspects of this story feel a little too sudden, it’s faithful to all we know so far and the wonderful world Rowling created. Not as dark as the later books but  definitely one to read and relish – and if you are lucky enough, to watch on stage

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THE MEMORY STONES by Caroline Brothers

the memory stones by caroline brothers

The last book of my idyllic summer holidays and one which I was only half way through before travelling back to England – a transition made all the more difficult by the latter half of the novel being set in part on a Greek island and evoking all that’s so beautiful about this part of the world. A place sorely missed now I am back in a London of which Brothers writes, people “seem to be permanently on the run” and where the pubs are “upholstered like old hookers in tat and ash pocked velvet”. The various locations she summons so effectively are merely backdrops though, for a deeply moving, painful and exquisitely written story about Argentina’s disappeared – and in particular one family, whose pregnant daughter, Graciela, is taken by the authorities one night, and whose lives thereafter are defined by that one event, that condemns them to an existence “in the half light of absence”.

Brother’s writing in the opening few pages is lyrical and laden with warnings, so much so that I found it a little inaccessible and nearly gave up. It’s worth the effort though and once the main story kicks in, this is a compelling read, in which the occasional passage of gorgeous poetry like prose add to the weight of history and power with which the book as a whole is infused.

There’s a strong plot, about which I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s the way that Brothers has captured the agony of waiting, of not knowing, that makes the book really stand out. At it’s heart are school teacher, Yolanda, and surgeon and occasional cartoonist, Osvaldo, who desperately search for any scrap of news about Graciela’s fate. The silence with which their quest is met is, as Yolanda reflects at one point, in relation to Jose, her daughter’s boyfriend, like being “plunged into a well so deep that it had swallowed even the echo of his fall”. She spends a lot of time in what she calls “a breadline for information”, alongside others also “queuing for a small ration of hope”. Both she and her husband long for nothing more than “ordinary life in all its insignificance” – the chance to be a normal family, where normal things happen instead of the most terrible and unbearable of losses; that of your child.

They do bear, it of course, but the emotional and physical price they pay is enormous. Brothers doesn’t shirk from the truth, and in particular we see how the parents’ relationship with their other child is damaged by the search for Graciela. In other characters we have an insight into the guilt of having survived or escaped, and the constant search to try to understand the randomness of it all. She gives us too the complexities of the positions each parent adopts during the novel. The pain and comfort of choosing to believe in disappearance rather than death. The twisted nature of hoping one’s child is in captivity enduring who knows what kind of torment and abuse, rather than in an unmarked grave. As Osvaldo writes “As long as there was doubt I could hold onto her; I could breathe life into the flame of her and keep that flickering alive.” It’s Yolanda’s actions though, in their simplicity, that really drove me to tears – each year she knits two garments for the grandchild she doesn’t even know exists. This passage from Osvaldo made the tears flow even more freely, in a book that I recommend reading in private unless you don’t mind openly weeping on the tube:

“So this is how it happens, how people disappear. It is a transformation in those who are left to wait and wonder, a clouding of the mind so gradual you do no notice until its surface has turned opaque. There is no shock, no sudden realisation. Instead, it happens like this, on a Tuesday afternoon in an empty apartment, with a pile of fading photographs and the rain. Graciela is alive in my memory, but my memory is starting to fade.”

One of Brothers’ characters, Ana, is interested in archaeology and through this, she explores “a fundamental fact about being human”: the need to commemorate past generations in some form and  “this need we have to lay the dead to rest.” What happened under the Argentinian Junta is relatively recent history but, the novelist reminds us, it’s part of a whole human history of suffering, of death and of remembering. Certainly THE MEMORY STONES  doesn’t avoid the torture and brutality of the Argentinian army, “the stupefying Pentothal injections; the night flights over the river that runs to the sea”. But this isn’t a book that is concerned with directly confronting the horrors inflicted on innocent civilians. Rather, it’s about the war waged indirectly on a whole population subjected to the torture of not knowing whether your loved ones have survived or what they have endured. It’s about the terrible cruelty of the imagination and  “how language fails us. How there is word like ‘widow’ or ‘orphan’ for the parent who loses a child.” And it’s about the extent to which we become what happens to us, and are ourselves whoever we turn out to be.

It’s difficult to do justice to THE MEMORY STONES without spoiling it for other readers, but this was easily the best book of my 10 days escape to the sunshine, and probably one of the most memorable I have read this year so far.

 

 

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THE THINGS WE WISH WERE TRUE by Marybeth Mayhew

the things we wish were true by marybeth mayhew

A young boy has an accident at a swimming pool and is whisked away by ambulance, leaving his sister in the care of Zell, lonely since her own children left home. Her neighbour Lance, pulled the child from the water and is the hero of the hour, attracting the attention of Jencey, former prom queen and hanging out at the pool to try to forget the events that have forced her back to the town where she grew up. Her childhood sweetheart, Everett, married her best friend, Bryte, and the two have a son, Christopher, just one of the many children playing in the water that day.

Thrown together by events at the pool, each of these characters have a life changing summer ahead of them that brings new meaning to the idea of family and friendship.

Harmless, untaxing, drivel.

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THE MUSE by Jessie Burton

the muse by jessie burton

Weaving between  1930s Spain on the brink of civil war and 1960s London, this is the story of what happens when a remarkable and previously undiscovered painting is left to a young man named Lawrie. The artist, Isaac Robles, is thought to have perished during the civil war after producing only a handful of works, and when Lawrie Scott brings the painting to small London art gallery, the Skelton, it has a profound effect on one of the gallery’s co-directors,  the eccentric and utterly compelling Marjorie Quick.

Lawrie’s girlfriend Odelle, a young typist and wannabe writer who also works at the Skelton,  is determined to unearth the story of the painting’s provenance, especially when it seems that Marjorie, who is also something of a mentor, is deliberately leaving Odelle clues and prompting her to question whether Lawrie knows more than he is letting on about his inheritance. Odelle’s investigation, together with the Spanish flashbacks, soon reveal that the painting has an even more complex and mysterious past far than the one publicly attributed to it.

 

Odelle is a particular triumph. Not long ago arrived in London from Trinidad, she writes “revenge poems about the English weather”; is defined by the pressure of her desire to be a writer; and lives by the idea that “to think you have a second path is to be a fool”. Odelle stands out, as a black woman – the other secretary at her workplace, Pam, wears “enough black eye shadow to feed five Pharaohs” whilst the only make-up Odelle can find is “bad face poetry” with names such as “Blonde Corn” and “Buttermilk Nude” – and more importantly for her focus and determination.

Equally striking is Isaac Roble’s sister Teresa; fierce, brave and in love with 19 year old Olivia, a condiments heiress and daughter of  Austrian art dealer father Harold and glamorous but depressive Sarah, who have rented a finca for the summer of 1936. Teresa and Isaac arrive clutching seeds and offering to work for the family.  Falling headlong for Isaac, Olivia relinquishes a place at art college opts to stay in Spain and paint, rather than study. Isaac, also a painter is commissioned by Sarah to paint a portrait of her and her daughter, It’s terrible.

Teresa’s strength of will and ability to keep secrets seems to hold this set of volatile and feverish individuals together but she also possesses the power to blow them all apart.  One afternoon, as the civil war encroaches, Isaac hangs a sack stuffed with flour from a branch to help teach them all to shoot a gun and defend themselves. Teresa, on her first shot, aims for the knot: “The packed earth spilled everywhere and the game was ruined”.

It’s clear Burton delights in creating strong, interesting women characters and it’s definitely part of what make this and THE MINIATURIST so readable. She really knows how to tell a story too, and I was reeled in hook line and sinker from the opening scene, which features a toe less woman and a branch of the shoe shop Dolcis, to the final words. I love her evocative and arresting use of language too – a wardrobe is empty apart from “a percussive clutch of hangers” for example, whilst Olivia’s mother is an “English nettle”. The passion and colour of the parts of the novel set in Spain throb from the page and add layering to the sense of danger that Burton builds incredibly effectively, alongside the climactic revelations about Isaac, Olivia and Teresa.

But THE MUSE is more than a good story – it’s about life, love and  the power of the arts. As Odelle reflects at one point: “we studied men like him [Skelton’s Edmund Reede] at school – protected gentleman, rich gentleman, white gentleman, who picked up pens and wrote the world for the rest of us to read.” In both Odelle and Olivia we observe the importance of having a pure space in which to create, the role others can play in forcing talent into the open, and how being recognition or acclaim for a gift can inhibit it from flourishing.

Other reviewers have commented that these themes are rather apt, given the weight of expectation placed on any novelist to follow up a debut as successful as THE MINIATURIST and Burton’s openness about her fears and struggles in this respect. She seems to have overcome that though, and in THE MUSE has produced an impressive, authentic and expressive piece of work that I felt with my every fibre.

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VALENTINA by SE Lynes

valentina by se lynes

Shona has a new baby, a doting boyfriend who works on the oil rigs, a dream cottage in the outskirts of Aberdeen and a fun, irreverent best friend called Valentina. But one day she finds out Valentina is not who she thinks she is – and nor is anything else.

Perfect beach reading, this is a page turner that reeled me in from the outset and kept me hooked until the final word. It’s sassy and clever, though not too clever (I worked out pretty early on what was happening), and Shona’s combination of steeliness and vulnerability makes her a great central character.

With elements of Fatal Atraction  – even down to a sacrificial rabbit – and Gone Girl, VALENTINA isn’t exactly original but it is witty, thrilling and atmospheric. For maximum pleasure read with the Aegean Sea lapping at your feet and everyday life a million miles away.

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THE LOLA QUARTET by Emily St John Mandel  

the lola quartet by emily st john mandel

The cool eerie silence of swimming lengths underwater, the ecstasy of a drug induced numbness, hours lost in the belief that the next turn of the cards or spin of the wheel might make you a winner, the oblivion of immersion in a piece of music, or just taking to the road on a journey marked by one anonymous motel after another; everyone in this novel is running away from something in their own way.

Daniel was once in a jazz band but then went to New York to get the life he wanted. The life he wanted so badly that he took one risk too many and lost it all, only to learn there had been another life waiting for him all along, one he’d chosen not to see or run towards. As he goes in search of those previously unseen possibilities,  Daniel learns what happened to the other musicians from the Lola Quartet who have continued to shape his life whilst he’s been gone.

A story about lost children, a bag of bank notes and crocodile laden swamps but also one about how deeply and carelessly we change the lives we touch – at one point Daniel reflects that it’s “Unsettling to think of himself as someone else’s memory.”- THE LOLA QUARTET explores the meaning of connection in an ever more fragmented world.

The ending, heavy with the poignancy of a different kind of escape, is especially beautiful; a tribute to the power of sometimes doing nothing.

Not a patch on STATION ELEVEN but a good read nonetheless.

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TRY NOT TO BREATHE by Holly Seddon

try not to breathe by holly seddon

I was seduced once again by the posters at Westminster tube station that screamed about this “breathtaking psychological thriller.” It’s a relatively gripping story, that’s well paced, but on the sublime Greek island of Halki, it’s the turquoise waters and glimpses of perfect blue sky down narrow twisting cobbled streets that are taking my breath away.

The premise is an interesting one – a teenage girl named Amy is in a coma after being attacked some 15 years earlier.  Her story piques the interest of a washed up alcoholic journalist who sees uncovering the truth about what happened as a potential way out of both her personal and professional problems.

In Alex Dale, said journalist, Seddon has created a very likeable protagonist, whose  battle with demons both in a bottle and in the real world is moving and powerful.

Less convincing are the passages devoted to Amy’s perspective and which give us tantalising peeps into the past, as well as the confusion and memory loss of her present mental state.

Seddon would appear to have done her research into the medical likelihood of someone in this state being able to communicate, share information and process what has happened but it didn’t quite ring true, especially as Amy starts to remember the attack she suffered and to differentiate between dreams and reality.
There are some rather clumsy parallels between Alex and Amy, as well as a central theme concerned with parents and their children, but basically this is nothing more that an average thriller that didn’t really thrill.

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