January 2015

Started but not finished:

  • Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss – a sparely but powerfully written period novel, I was nonetheless lacking the compulsion to continue reading after several chapters. Will probably return to it at a later time.
  • Gingerbread by Robert Dinsdale – A boy journeys with his grandfather through the harsh winter of the Belarusian forests to bury the ashes of his mother.  Another of those bleak novels suffused with fairytale elements, I was quite enjoying this but not completely captivated (it could go either way) and have put aside to continue later.

Read:

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey – 3.5 

An elderly lady’s friend is missing, and nobody seems to care.  But Maud’s memory is increasingly patchy, and recollections of her sister’s equally mysterious disappearance in their childhood confuses matters further (the stories of the two different disappearances are told in alternating chapters).

This is a very likeable, ultimately uplifting story about age, family and friendship, but with a healthy dose of mystery mixed in for good measure. There are moments of humour, moments that are genuinely touching, and enough suspense to keep the pages turning.  But ultimately, it was just a middle-of-the-road, light read with no great surprises in store. It has some themes in common with War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen, but WCH is much sharper, more cleverly constructed and – for my money – far superior in every way. But possibly less to the mainstream taste…

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville - 3.5

Two connected tales are told in alternating chapters: the story of a mysterious girl at the turn of the 20th century who is found in the garden of a psychoanalyst, and the story of a spoilt brat several decades later who is being raised by her father (a concentration camp ‘doctor’) and a housekeeper full of dark tales – but whose world is turned upside down by her father’s untimely death.  As the title would suggest, parts of the story are quite dark: there is (non-graphic) sexual abuse, Krysta alongside her father’s dead body, twisted fairytales, and of course the Holocaust theme – but this is marketed as a young adult as well as adult book, and I think is probably suitable for age 16+.

Certain elements in the construction of the story seemed a little too well signposted (although probably no more than in your average mainstream novel), but the way the two stories interlinked, when revealed toward the end, was not quite as straightforward as I had supposed, which was a bit of a relief.  I felt like the depictions of the concentration camp were actually not as dark as they would/could have been in an adult novel, and perhaps suffered for a slight lack of grit. My biggest disappointment, though, was the ending, which is where I felt the novel really pandered to its young adult market with a determinedly positive perspective.  Overall, it was a decent read which held my interest, but was far from a great read.

The Ladies of the House by Molly McGrann – 4 

Arthur Gillies is a man with a double life – a stolid middle class wife and daughter in the suburbs balanced by high class brothels, a mistress and a son in the city.  Arthur has his cake and he eats it, too.  The novel, however, does not so much tell Arthur’s story as the people around him: how Rita, Annetta and Sal end up living in one of his houses, the sorry state of his grown-up son, and the smothered lives of his wife and daughter.

It’s ultimately a sad story, yet not bleak or depressing – it’s alive with vivid characters and the positive energies that surround Arthur.  While the very ending is somewhat contrived, it is a surprisingly enjoyable read overall, told in strong, non-flowery prose.  Some of the themes combined with style of writing reminded me a little of Burning Bright by Helen Dunmore, but this was a far more satisfying read.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue – 4 

Blanche, a burlesque dancer, is content with her ‘bohemian’ lot in life until the day her cross-dressing female friend is shot dead by a bullet intended for her. Blanche is convinced her ex was behind the trigger, but he has disappeared – along with their infant son. In the midst of a stifling, pox-ridden, San Francisco heatwave she tries to get to the bottom of Jenny’s murder, to find her baby, and to find a way to escape her old life…

Based on a true unsolved murder case, this novel successfully brings to life the stifling heat and squalor of the new city of San Francisco, and the horror of such institutions as Doctress Hoffmann’s baby farm. The story begins with the murder then flicks back and forth between the two weeks leading up to it, and the days following. It can be a little hard to empathise with Blanche, who has the wherewithal to keep a tight grip on her finances, but is otherwise, predominantly, led through life by her libido. However, the scenes with the baby P’tit temper this somewhat. Jenny is the enigmatic, carefree character who keeps her past behind a closed door but asks the questions that set in motion the whole chain of events. To me, she seems to be represented a little superficially, almost a caricature.

Although in some instances I feel as though Donoghue has been constrained by the true facts and people involved with the case, I enjoyed her solution to the mystery, and overall, my criticisms are minor. An enjoyable read that will appeal to fans of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet. It also reminded me of the very entertaining A Factory of Cunning by Philippa Stockley.

Turning the Stones by Debra Daley – 3.5

A girl comes to in the dressing room of a house she doesn’t recognise, with the dead body of a man she does know nearby.  She has no idea what has happened, but she knows she must escape before the blame is cast upon her.  Thus begins a frantic journey, while Em recollects the years she has spent as a foundling brought up as a lady’s maid (leading up to this point), and a woman she does not know calls her ‘home’ to Ireland.

A mix of landed gentry and bankruptcy, smugglers and curses, this is quite a readable story with just enough intrigue to keep me turning the pages but somehow fell a little short of really engaging me.  Not as good as but along the right lines for fans of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton – 3.5

A young wife arrives at her new home in Amsterdam to find life is not to be as she had anticipated.  Her husband is mostly absent, and his austere sister rules the house.  An unexpected wedding gift of a cabinet-house provides some diversion for Nella, but when the miniaturist she commissions to make its contents begins sending (uncannily perceptive) unsolicited additional items, Nella is unsettled.  As the truth about Johannes’ disinterest in his new wife becomes apparent, Nella’s obsession with the elusive miniaturist grows, as does a secret kept by her sister-in-law…

But really, there’s not much more to it than that: nothing took me by surprise, and overall, I was underwhelmed.  I’m really not sure why it has received quite as much hype and praise as it has…  It’s not a bad read, but is a fairly indifferent one which pales alongside the strong prose and plots of other historical novels I’ve read.

What Was Promised by Tobias Hill – 4

A pleasure to read after the uninspired prose of most of the above!  This is the story of three young families in post-Blitz London.  In spare, uncomplicated prose, Hill vividly evokes the period and the unique characters driving his story, in which one incident has repercussions for all of them over the years to come.

The first half has echoes of Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island'; the chance encounters of the second half are perhaps slightly less believable, but still held my attention. Beautifully drawn and quietly, respectfully emotive, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

Top 5, 2014

2014 was a thin year of reading for me, but of those I managed this is my top 5:

  1. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (mini review here)
  2. Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann (mini review here)
  3. Andrew’s Brain by E. L. Doctorow (mini review here)
  4. The Confabulist by Steven Galloway (mini review here)
  5. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (mini review here)

September update

Started but not finished:

  • Wreaking by James Scudamoremay go back to this later
  • The New Countess by Fay WeldonI enjoyed the first in this series; the second was a little sillier; the third failed to engage me at all
  • The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dickerhated the style of writing, ridden with cliches, and without any sense of flow. I hope it was just badly translated. Really wanted to read & enjoy this but could not face the thought of sitting through so much unexceptional prose.

Read:

Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann – 4.5

Wonderful characters and sense of period/place. Thoroughly enjoyed this tale of revenge and redemption beneath the facade of respectability.  The very end didn’t quite work for me, but in retrospect did give further food for thought.  Very similar in style/feel to Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

The Coincidence Authority by John Ironmonger – 3

On one level, this reminded me of Barbara Trapido, with the far-flung relations, and coincidences which overlap their lives.  But the overt focus on the natural coincidences lessened the impact of the story for me, and the central love story didn’t convince me. Not a bad read, but not the best, either.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault – 3.5

Another book in which I felt the translation lessened my enjoyment, but as it is only a short novel, I was able to read through it.  I love the concept of the relationship built through haiku but did not feel empathy for any of the characters.  The plot was a little contrived and unbelievable, but I was glad I read to the end, which added a different perspective (still a contrivance, but one I felt worked, within the context).

Oct edit:

The Confabulist by Steven Galloway – 4/5

I’ve read a lot of fiction about magicians (The Prestige, Carter Beats the Devil, The Manual of Darkness, to name but a few) so a lot of the background knowledge of the genre wasn’t new to me, but I still found plenty to enjoy.  Although the ‘twist’ (if it was supposed to be such) could be seen coming a mile off, the story is nonetheless far subtler than I first imagined; and the conspiracy theories which emerge are not a ‘selling out’ to mass market thrillerdom but merely a symptom/embodiment of the title’s confabulism.  The author keeps the style of writing simple, so that it does not intrude on the story being told.  All in all, a very good read.

Since my last post…

Isabel’s Skin by Peter Benson (unfinished) 

- some nicely written prose hooked me to begin with, but the storyline was too unconvincing to keep me reading.  If you like sci-fi/speculative fiction, you might be more inclined to give it more of a chance…

Frog Music by Emma Donohue (put aside to return to later)

- I think I will enjoy this; just picked up at the wrong moment.

The Watchtower by Elizabeth Harrower – 4/5

- a strong story of marriage, dependence & independence; not quite what I expected but a good read.

Shall We Gather at the River by Peter Murphy – 2.5/5

- a boy hears a ghostly evangelist on his father’s forbidden radio equipment, and spends the rest of his life trying to recapture that moment (and discovering his father’s secrets).  I really wanted to like it, but despite being a fairly quick read, the story dragged and lacked both wit to enliven the storytelling and emotional engagement to care about the characters.

Mar 2014 Retrospective

What I read in March 2014:

Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy ****
Thoroughly enjoyed this! Reminded me of ‘The Accidental’ by Ali Smith with the central character a catalyst for change within an utterly dysfunctional family unit, but told with a lighter touch, like Barbara Trapido (or Anne Fine/Fay Weldon, without the sharp edge).

Fremont by Elizabeth Reeder ***(3.5)
A pleasant, sweeping family saga with hints of ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ by Laura Esquivel.  The characters were too easily explained by their geography for my taste, but still interesting.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld ****
Two interlocking stories, present & past unravel.  The contemporary story was not very convincing to me, but the story of Jake Whyte’s past up to the present point was far more interesting, and cleverly constructed (unravelling backwards).

APRIL SO FAR…

  • Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay ***(3.5)
    Started well & nicely written, but tailed off significantly in the second half.  Two mysteries are presented but neither are resolved.  I don’t mind loose ends in a story but this one just wandered off in a completely different direction (which I didn’t find very interesting).

Feb 2014 Retrospective

What I read in February 2014:

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson *****
How life balances on pinpoint moments, and what happens when circumstances sway one way or the other; the ripple effect.  Wonderful evocation of period & sharp characterisation. My book of the year so far.

Andrew’s Brain by E.L.Doctorow ****
Not at all what I expected & I think not being targeted to the right market. Very readable, very accessible storyline (it’s a love story with a bit of a mystery) whereas the cover blurb makes it seem emotionally disengaged and academic/distant.

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy ***(3.5)
 A fairly entertaining read, but ultimately not quite as clever or amusing as I had hoped.

 

Jan 2014 Retrospective

What I read in January 2014:

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud ***(3.5)
Really enjoyed the back-story and characterisation but was a little disappointed when the carefully constructed, mounting tension tailed off to something of a damp squib.

Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell ****
Quiet, subtle, funny, unexpectedly touching.

Read but not reviewed (sorry!)

A list of all the books I’ve read since failing to return to blogging last summer:

2013

  • This House is Haunted by John Boyne ***
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton ***** (my book of the year)
  • Gor Saga: Firstborn by Maureen Duffy ****
  • Born Weird by Andrew Kaufman ***
  • Memory Palace by Hari Kunzru ***
  • Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa ****
  • Heft by Liz Moore ***
  • The Bear Boy by Cynthia Ozick ****
  • Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield ****
  • The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren ***

 

Tell Me Everything by Sarah Salway

tell me everything, sarah salwayDATE FINISHED: August 2nd, 2013 

RATED: ***

SYNOPSIS:  From an overweight girl collapsed in tears at a cafe table, Molly becomes a girl with a sparse bedroom above a stationery shop, where she works for Mr. Roberts who likes her to climb a ladder while he holds her ankles and she tells him inappropriate stories about her life (which she has to embellish, not having led quite the life he imagines). It’s an odd kind of deal, but at least she has a roof over her head, a ‘boyfriend’ who likes to think he is a secret agent, and the possibility of a future. But whatever stories she tells to re-shape it, will she ever leave her past behind?

THOUGHTS:  Molly is a curiously naïve character, surrounded by equally curious co-conspirators in her story: are they caricatures of the fat girl, the hairdresser, the librarian, the shopkeeper, the oddball in the park, or is there in fact more to all of them than first meets the eye? Molly tells and re-tells her own story, high on the transformative power of creation, but her new life is slowly building a momentum of its own, transformations occurring within and without her.

Of course there is more to each of the characters than there first seems…but none of them feel real even so. Each transformation seems a little too contrived, a little too much of a plot device. It’s a story about storytelling and how we can create our own narratives in life – at the same time I felt there wasn’t quite enough depth to sustain this as a novel, and might have worked better condensed into a short story. Although likeable, it didn’t quite dig deep enough or push far enough to be completely satisfying.

FOLLOWING ON:  Salway’s light touch worked better for me in her first novel, Something Beginning With. This reminded me strongly of something else I’ve read but is currently escaping me – will return to update, when I remember!

Habits of the House by Fay Weldon

habits of the house, fay weldonDATE FINISHED: August 1st, 2013 

RATED: **** 

SYNOPSIS:  During a stay in London’s Belgrave Square, the Hedleigh family suddenly find themselves on the brink of bankruptcy, due to an unfortunate investment gone awry, not to mention a variety of gambling debts courtesy of the Earl… The daughter of the house is an ardent feminist and has declared herself out of the marriage market, so the only thing for it is for the charming but ineffectual son of the family, Arthur, to pull himself together and marry money – quickly!  The Countess and her maid work both together and against each other to bring about a ‘happy’ union with a visiting heiress (with a scandal in her past); but will Arthur’s preference for laid-back living and his sister’s horror at his mildly amoral proclivities scupper the grand plan to save the family?

THOUGHTS:  A comedy of manners both above and below stairs, I thoroughly enjoyed this period romp. Read more of this post

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