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DEATH OF A SHE DEVIL by Fay Weldon

Ruth Patchett is back. She’s 84 and living in the High Tower, one time love nest of her rival Mary Fisher who now haunts the tower. A senile Bobbo (whom Ruth plotted to send to prison in THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL) is ensconced in the uppermost Lantern Room and the rest of the tower complex is home to the staff and supporters of IGP, the Institute for Gender Parity, set up when Ruth realised the opportunities for pretty and plain girls would never be the same so decided to focus on goals such as closing the pay gap instead.

One of the residents is Valerie Valeria, young, ambitious and an altogether different kind of feminist from Ruth.Valerie’s plans for IGP include glossy catalogues, a bullet proof Mercedes and much spectacle and expense reuniting Ruth with her estranged children and a surprise grandson, Tyler.

This isn’t nearly as good as THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL, which I remember devouring when I first discovered it, but Weldon has written another funny and smart reflection on gender politics and how it affects our every day lives. Especially interesting is how she integrates new debates about gender and sexual identity – albeit not as thoroughly or as deeply as they deserve. Valerie persuades Ruth’s grandson Tyler to transition, a story line which affords plenty of opportunities to reflect on the impact of testosterone and oestrogen, but leads the she devil to some rather suspect conclusions. Other characters  touch on the way feminism has evolved and the differences between various struggles for equality. Weldon’s satire is genuinely non discriminatory and she directs it with equal savagery at all, and especially at those who seek to use feminism to pursue their own goals. As one of the older women in the tower, Dr Simmins, remark at one point: “So whatever changed, except perhaps, these days, gender? There were nice people and nasty people and some of them were M and some of them were F: and a whole lot in between.” Despite these themes, Weldon’s wit and story telling powers mean there’s nothing worthy or overly earnest about what is a gutsy, gleeful if somewhat less radical novel than is predecessor, and one that builds beautifully to the most fitting of deaths for the ultimate she devil.

 

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THE LAST 3 MONTHS

So since I lasted posted, there has been a general election, and the aftermath, and then I had to go to New York for work, so I’ve not managed to blog about all the books I’ve read. Rather than do a proper catch up, I’m going to cheat a bit and cover them all in this one post, with just a few lines about each.

INTO THE WATER by Paula Hawkins: in the village of Beckford there’s a long history of women drowning themselves or being drowned. When a local teenager and her best friend’s mum both end up dead within months of one another and seemingly drowned, the police investigation unearths all kinds of mysteries about the past and secrets about the present. Not bad but not brilliant either.

THE THIRST by Joe Nesbo: what can I say? I love Harry Hole books and this one is just as good as all the others. Perfect reading for a stressful election campaign when very little holds my attention.

THE HATE YOU GIVE by Angie Thomas: Easily the best thing I’ve read during this period of time. A teenage girl and her best friend are pulled over by the police. The advice drummed into them since they could walk – “Keep your hands visible. No sudden moves. Only speak when spoken to” – doesn’t keep them safe and she witnesses him being shot by a police officer. This is the story of her community’s reaction and her decision to speak out and fight for justice.

THE BALTIMORE BOYS by Joel Dicker: I was looking forward to this as I really enjoyed THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR. It’s not a patch on that though Dicker definitely knows how to tell a story. Three best friends and a girl they all love. Two are caught up in a tragedy, the details of which aren’t revealed until close to the end, and the third writes this book to ensure they are not forgotten by history, whilst at the same time rekindling his relationship with the girl that divided them.

THE HEART GOES LAST by Margaret Atwood: as usual, Atwood’s searing analysis of modern day life is spot on. Here she has created a world in which people choose to enter a closed community called Positron, dreamt up by some bright spark to make prisons and the prison population generate a profit. Two of the newest residents, Charmaine and Stan, sign up for life but soon discover that perfection is not all it’s cracked up to be. Wickedly funny and deeply disturbing.

EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN by Chris Cleave: “The first problem of was was that no one was any good at it yet”. Mary wants to teach the children left behind in London. She falls in love with Tom, who has chosen to stay behind whilst his flatmate Alistair signs up. Desperately sad, incredibly moving and utterly gripping. Almost on a par with the glorious Kate Atkinson’s LIFE AFTER LIFE and A GOD IN RUINS for the way it captures the enormity and the smallness of the Second World War.

 

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FOOL ME ONCE by Harlan Coben

fool me once by harlan coben

Sometimes I need books like this – addictive, straight forward and a bit dark. For times when escapism comes a little less easily because I am travelling or my mind is buzzing or the world is weighing heavily. I picked this up because all of those things were going on. It is got me through some restless nights, tough days and long train journeys. It is a ridiculous story about a former special-ops soldier, Maya Stern, who has just buried her husband and then sees him on the “nanny cam”. Cue sinister wealthy in laws, army flashbacks, improbable connections to the death of Maya’s sister, an Edward Snowden type character and suspiciously loyal best friends. Harlan Coben is a master of this stuff and I loved and lived every moment of it. Job done.

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HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing by yaa gyasi

I picked this up because it’s set in Ghana and my ex spent a year working there recently so I was interested in learning a little about the country’s relatively recent history. As expected it was painful, scarred with exploitation and full of suffering.

Gyasi starts in an Asante village in the 18th century with two half sisters, Efia and Esi. Effia, abandoned by her mother in the bush at birth is sold by her father to James, a British slave trader, to be his wife, and the couple live at cape Coast Castle. Esi, the valuable daughter of an important chief, is seized by local boys working for the slave traders during a raid on her village and also ends up at the castle – in the dungeons, where she’s held until she can be sold and transported to the Americas. HOMEGOING then uses a series of interconnecting stories that picks up and traces each woman’s family over the ensuing years, finishing at the turn of the 21st century.

The individual stories are powerful in and of themselves, so much so that each time one finished to move on to the next I was disappointed to leave them behind, then soon captivated anew by the next. And the stories combine together to make an incredibly rich, moving and well researched whole.

Each of Effia’s descendants inherits a stone that she was given by her mother and that tangibly connects them with family and history. Esi was given a similar stone but lost it in the filth and squalor of the West African dungeons. Nonetheless she too carries the weight of her past and it is passed to her children, and their children and so on. The stories that make up HOMEGOING aren’t just linked by Esi and Effia, they are bound too by the thread of slavery and how its impact continues to resonate, generation after generation. This thread, inevitably, becomes a little looser as we move through time, but whilst on many levels HOMEGOING is about the redemptive nature of love, it also leaves the reader in no doubt whatsoever that nothing can heal the scars Effia and Esi and their descendants continue to bear.

It’s the compelling and credible characters that really make this book, that give it both dark and light, even if at times the historical span means they have to embody a particular stereotype too restrictively – whether that’s the Harlem jazz musician or the missionary scholar. There’s Quey, James and Effia’s mixed race son, who refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps as a slave trader. Then there’s Esi’s child, Ness, born on a plantation in the American South,  who with husband, Sam, later flees the captivity and slavery they’ve known all their lives in one of the most heart wrenching sections of the novel. Decades later there’s Marcus and Marjorie, who meet in the US, unaware that their ancestors were half sisters and who travel together to Ghana.

Marcus is involved in a research project there and as the pair wander on the beach, he yearns to tell Marjorie how overwhelmed he feels with wanting his work to capture “the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else existed in it – not apart from it, but inside of it.”  Any flaws in HOMEGOING seem to arise from the fact that Gyasi’s task is just as enormous, especially when her subject matter throbs with such importance. Yet rather than get lost in this vastness of scale, it looks for roots and finds them in the lives of individuals – and it’s that combination which I think makes the novel such an incredible success and HOMEGOING a book I am sure I will read again and again.

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THE LANTERN by Deborah Lawrenson

the lantern by deborah lawrenson

There’s something very captivating about this sensual, mysterious novel. It evokes its Provencal setting through some gorgeous (if at times over wrought) language that appealed to all my senses, and the way it moves between past and present is seamless and bewitching. Yet overall I felt a bit irritated reading THE LANTERN and in large part I suspect that was because it crossed over every so often into the supernatural. Now I love a bit of supernatural or magic or fantasy in a book. I love a lot of it too, as evidenced by my reading the Harry Potter series about once a year. But these things have their place and, although I have no hard and fast rules, I don’t much like it when ghosts, spells, visitors from other planets or whatever arrive unannounced in a book that I am expecting to be the kind of book where such things do not occur. As it turns out, there are rational explanations for all the supernatural events that take place but none of that is revealed until very close to the end and, by that time,  I am afraid the damage had been done.

At the heart of THE LANTERN is a house called Les Genevriers that has been home to immense happiness and terrible heartbreak. When Eve and Dom, in the midst of a whirlwind romance, buy the house and start the long process of rescuing it from neglect they stir up all sorts of secrets about the previous inhabitants. The random objects Dom and Eve find in the overgrown garden and wonder over are precious memories to Benedicte Lincel, who grew up at Les Genevriers at the time of the Second World War and who is struggling to let go of the past. The house and the events that take place there link Eve and Dom’s story with Benedicte’s, until eventually the two collide with the shocking discovery of a body in the grounds of Les Genevriers.

The slightly oppressive nature of Les Genevriers once the summer has passed, feeds suspicions that Eve has been harbouring about Dom, and these feelings are heightened by his repeated disappearances, news reports of missing local teenage girls, and her lover’s brooding, uncommunicative nature. As she tries to find out the story behind Dom’s break up with his wife, Eve becomes more and more unsure about the man she has followed to the South of France. A friendship with a local French woman who knew Dom’s wife prompts even more questions and when Eve discovers that his ex had been researching the history of former owners of Le Genevriers, the house starts to feel more like a prison that a retreat.

Benedicte’s older sister, Marthe, lost her sight as a young girl and as an adult was a world renowned parfumier. Like many of his generation, their brother Pierre decided that his future lay in getting rich as a factory worker rather than the back breaking work of rural life. Benedicte is the one who stayed at home, caring for her ageing mother and trying to keep Le Genevrier in one piece. When handsome Andre turns up one evening looking for board in return for work, Benedicte starts to feel she may have a future ahead of her and the two soon fall in love. But like everyone in this story, Andre has dark secrets and Benedicte’s heart gets broken – first by him, then by her sister, and finally by her prodigal, bitter and violent brother.

I definitely found Benedicte’s the most moving of the two narratives that make up the book – she’s a far stronger and interesting character than modern day Eve who is a bit too self obsessed and drippy for my liking. But it takes a while before her story really gets going and that also added to my frustration with THE LANTERN, as did the obvious but ultimately undeserved comparisons with Daphne DuMaurier’s REBECCA- a far superior book. There’s no doubt Lawrenson can write and the story is well plotted and richly told. She develops some interesting themes, most notably around blindness and passivity. So it’s a shame that I just didn’t get along with THE LANTERN as well as I might. If you do not have the same prejudices, you may well enjoy it – and at least you are forewarned.

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THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman

the-ocean-at-the-end-of-the-lane-by-neil-gaiman

I was in Brighton last week and unexpectedly given a copy of this book by someone who had come across my blog and was amazed that I’d made it to this point in my life without reading any Neil Gaiman. I didn’t have time to explain that this blog only covers the books I’ve read since turning 40, especially as he was correct – there has been a Neil Gaiman shaped hole in my life until now. He comes highly recommended and not just by my friend. Of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Joanne Harris declares “Some books you read. Some books you enjoy. But some books just swallow you up, heart and soul” and the novel won Book of the Year at the National Book Awards in 2013. So what’s all the fuss about?

A fairy take of the dark and dangerous kind, rather than the saccharine reinvention of the genre, Gaiman’s book captures the powerlessness, fear, beauty and trust of childhood. At it’s centre is an unhappy, lonely boy (nobody came to his 7th birthday party), whose name we never learn and who lives in the Sussex countryside next door to the remarkable Hempstock family, consisting of 3 generations of women. Lettie Hempstock, a few years older than him, offers to help out when an opal miner, who was lodging with the boy’s family, ends up dead, his kitten disappears and he has nightmare about a coin getting stuck in his throat that turns out to be real. Lettie explains these odd things are happening because a supernatural being has found its way into the world. But when the pair try to find the spirit and bind it, another force sneaks through the tear between two worlds via a worm hole that lodges itself in the narrator’s foot.

Enter Ursula Monkton, who takes up residence in the boy’s home as the new housekeeper. She seduces his father, deceives his mother and indulges his sister. It’s only our narrator who sees Ursula for the evil, destructive being she really is. Alienated from his family and locked in the attic by a vengeful Ursula, the boy flees to his neighbour’s one night, escaping via a window and down a drain pipe, surely what many a child dreams of doing though few wish for the horrors that require it. The Hempstocks come to the rescue and it involves some powerful magic. They remove the fragment of Ursula’s escape route that’s buried in his foot, confront Ursula and, when she refuses to leave voluntarily, call on “hunger birds” to devour her. These scavengers are ruthlessly efficient and once they’ve seen off Ursula, they turn their attention to the tiny bit of her that lives on in the boy’s heart, and will not return to their world unless they can fully complete their task. The Hempstocks try to keep him safe but the birds are angry at being thwarted and  start to destroy the surrounding world instead, devouring trees, sky and, our narrator fears, his own family and everything else besides. Unable to bear the weight of such responsibility, he runs out from the safety of the Hempstock’s farmhouse to offer himself up, but Lettie is on his heels and as the birds swoop in, she tries to protect him. Lettie’s grandmother finally sees the birds off but not before her granddaughter is badly hurt.

Gaiman’s story starts and ends in the present when our narrator is a grown man who occasionally visits his childhood home. When he’s there he recalls what happened to him as a boy, but those memories don’t get carried into his future, and nor does he tend to remember that he’s made previous visits. On each occasion he sees the Hempstock family, who feed him the wonderful meals that nourished him as a child, let him gaze upon the two moons that appear on different sides of their house, and reassure him that Lettie is safe and well, travelling in Australia. They also let him sit by the ocean at the end of the lane, which may only look like a small pond but which contains universe upon universe and whose waters contain knowledge about the nature of everything.

This is a beautifully written book in which the monsters and horrors of magical realism are nothing like as frightening as those the boy encounters in the real world. I was especially struck by how he tackles the idea that damage done to our hearts as children translates into emptiness and loneliness when we reach adulthood; by how big everything is, and how small we are in comparison, doesn’t have to be frightening and can be quite comforting; and by how a childhood where you realise adults are not invincible can feel like the most terrifying place on earth. Mythical, poignant and utterly convincing, Gaiman’s tale did indeed swallow me up.

 

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LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-by-kate-atkinson

A Christmas present from the friend who introduced me to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series – CASE HISTORIES, ONE GOOD TURN, WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS, and STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG. Like that friendship, Atkinson’s books just seem to get better and better and LIFE AFTER LIFE is no exception.

Ursula Todd, born February 11th 1910, lives different versions of her life. In one she falls from a window as a child, in another she lives. In one rendition she succumbs to the Spanish flu brought home by the family’s maid, in another she pushes the maid down the stairs to prevent a trip into London for the end of the First World War celebrations and her coming into contact the with flu. One teenage Ursula is raped by an arrogant American friend of her brother’s named Howie and dies following an abortion. An alternative  survives the abortion but  goes on to marry a mild mannered man who turns out to be a bully that beats her to death. In another life she simply enjoys a delicious innocent kiss with Howie and in a further version again she avoids him completely and instead encounters a neighbour’s son upon whom she is rather sweet. She dies in a Nazi bombing raid on London and on another occasion is part the rescue team pulling bodies out of the same rubble. In some narratives she ends up in Germany, and in some of those is friends with Eva Braun. At times, Ursula seems aware of the points at which her lives diverge, whilst deja vu and thinking one is seeing ghosts take on new meaning in this context. Some versions of herself are clearly less attuned to what’s going on, “We only have one [life] after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” But in one thread she actively chooses to die and follow a particular path that sees her attempt to stop her treasured younger brother, Teddy, being shot down from his plane with an assassination attempt on Hitler that she hopes will avert the whole Second World War.

Amidst all this change, some things remain constant. The housekeeper Mrs Glover’s piccalilli; the haven that is her childhood home, Fox Corner; being her father Hugh’s favourite child and nicknamed Little Bear; the wallpaper on the stairs, trips to the seaside and, in this very English of novels, the weather. The essence of each characters remains true too, from Ursula’s incorrigible aunt Izzie’s flightiness to her older brother Maurice’s pomposity. History is haphazard, and whilst its remembering is important for the way it shapes our lives, who we are and what we choose to do seems far more interesting and impactful in Atkinson’s hands.

When I first began reading the book, I feared that the groundhog day element of it would prove tedious but nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst details and people recur, the stories are sufficiently different at each telling to captivate anew. And, of course, there’s the humour which Atkinson does so well. Ursula’s mother, Sylvie has the best one liners. From bemoaning the messiness of childbirth and asserting that if she’d been in charge of designing the human race she’d have opted for “a well fitting hatch somewhere modest for escape”, to declaring drily and with wonderful timing “sometimes…one can mistake gratitude for love.” When she attends a Third Reich rally with her daughter, Sylvie has little to say other than that the colours of the flag and banner bedecked street are rather dull “as though she were considering asking the national Socialists to decorate her living room.” Somehow this lightness helps ground what could be the rather fanciful notion at the heart of the novel in a reality that is gritty, banal and full of magic.  Atkinson’s ability to capture time and place like few others writers plays a similar role – from velvet hair ribbons to the smell of boiled cabbage, each detail is perfectly chosen to ground her novel and make it sing.

Funny, sad, unusual, startling and as comfortable as a well worn pair of pjyamas this is the kind of writing, story telling and characterisation that I love, especially on a cold winter night, curled up on the sofa. Roll on the sequel,…A GOD IN RUINS.

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