Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be The Place

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Walking a sure tightly woven rope of many voices crossing times and continents

this-must-be-the-placeI had to stop, many times, in my reading of Maggie O’ Farrell’s stunning “This Must Be The Place”, because it ached my heart too much, and took me to the places, which we all have, where life and living seems so fragile, so caught on a pin-point of bliss or desolation, where the realisation of the wonder and despair of who we are, have been, might be, overwhelms.

Sorry for the purpling prose, but that is the overview of how the book spoke to me, particularly as I neared the ending, realising that whichever way that fell out, it would be hugely intense. I hoped so much that she would manage the balance point and not tip into something disappointing. She did, and walked that fine rope brilliantly, all through

So, to the more dispassionate, cooler ‘what is it about’ stuff

The overall theme is the trajectory of a relationship (aren’t most books, somewhere?)

There are many central characters in this book, and O’Farrell gives most of them narrative rights: the story is told over a long period of time, cutting backwards and forwards in different voices, at different times within a lifetime, and from different countries. Don’t expect linear narrative, but surrender to the cutting from voice to voice. This is not confusing, a link back to who the new voice is, how they might connect to a previous voice, will come quickly. What the structure gives us is a spider web of connection, fine, fragile and also with tensile strength.

I find myself unwilling, in this review, to name the most central characters even, because when they meet, they are not without history and the snarled tangles that come from their before. We are all shadowed by our prior selves, imprinting on the present. I feel lucky enough to have come to read this without really knowing much about it – except that I did know it was the story of a failing relationship, that it was a Costa shortlist, and that the author was O’Farrell, As I have read earlier books by her, I was willing to jump into the unknown. It was a real pleasure to read without the map of pre-conception, hence – no names, no pack-drill!!

Bolivian Salt Flats, a profound location at one point

 Bolivian Salt Flats, a profound location at one point

Some of the narrators are first met as children, at their own early stages in the story. I have a particular fondness for writers who can get inside child mind, and engage with the truth of those voices. The fact that O’Farrell does was the sure hook to keep me reading – particularly as it is not just the child voice she manages – but individual children, finely differentiated.

A thousand teenagers are pouring out of the school. Once through the bottleneck of the doors, they break, regroup, and bond as groups of three of four. They call to each other in their particular argot: pure Home Counties cut with Teen American. A lot of yips, heys, elongated vowels. They swing bags through the air. Hair is flicked, stroked, tossed. Trousers are worn tight but low; shoes unlaced. The females link arms with their chosen peers; the males perform mock-violence upon those they recognise as their tribe. Most, if not all, display what I think of as ‘the screen hunch’: head bent, eyes down, one hand engaged in fondling, stroking, manipulating a phone

She took me inside the mind of every narrating character, the why of them, the who of them. And it is to her credit that with each voice and chapter change I was loath to leave the chapter I was leaving, wanting to stay with that story, but, instantly was inside fascination with the next voice.

And all the while they continue a conversation above her head:
– He was like, whoah, and I was like, yeah
– Totally, totally out of it. And I mean. Out. Of. It.
– Because she gave me this look and I was just, you know, hey

Lest this all sound not just ridiculously woolly, but also far too intense for words, she is well attuned, as a writer, to the needs of variation, light, shade, humour. Here is a lovely excerpt, inside the mind of a minor character, a counsellor for ‘problem children’ because of their behaviour in school. He is waiting to meet a new, referred pupil for the first time, and skim reading their background notes. The assured blasé professional’s assumptions are, the reader knows, in for a wonderful puncture, and I was giggling all the way. This is no spoiler, as, by the time you get to this point, you, reader, will be in on the joke, waiting for the banana skin (No names, no pack drill, remember!)

He grabbed the file from his in-tray, swallowing an unchewed hunk of hummus-clogged bread, and flipped open the cover…..He let his eye travel down the page as he took a swig from his water bottle. Lives in Ireland….attended this school for a year…..the counsellor’s ey was caught by one particular detail: Previous schools attended – none. He sighed and his head gave a single shake. He took a dim view of home-schooling. He turned his swivel chair and stood up. A child – he opined, to an audience comprising his bookshelf, a watercolour of a Scandinavian lake, a Newton’s cradle, his effigy of a Yoruba deity picked up a long time ago on a gap-year placement – is a social being….The counsellor crossed the room, pausing only to light a candle on the mantelpiece. He had a handle on the session to come now. He felt inspiration, confidence, assurance surge through him. He loved this job, he loved it……He pictured the child who would be waiting beyond the door, in all probability, nervously, fearfully, perhaps covering these emotions with the rough façade of teenage bravura. Ireland the file had said, so the counsellor imagined the offspring of some Celtic hippie types. Auburn dreadlocks, a whispery Irish inflection, dressed in hand-felt and hemp, that particular brand of drivelly, directionless, formless home-schooling written all over him. Couldn’t read until he was eleven, could barely count, even now. He, the counsellor, would bring him out of himself, give him that direction, inspire him to exert himself in more mainstream educational channels, show him that there are other ways to live, besides weaving one’s own clothes, straining one’s own cheese, splitting one’s own logs.

The counsellor flung open the door to welcome this waif, this refugee, this victim of over-parenting…….

I hope this excerpt shows how O’Farrell can construct and build and shape – and clearly has a fine sense of the narrative, the dramatic voice. As well as all the wonderful psychology, dialogue, fine writing, playing with time, place, voice, she remains that wondrous thing – a storytellermaggie-ofarrell

I received this as a digital review copy from the publisher, via NetGalley. And how I enjoyed carefully unwrapping it to follow its treasure journey!

As I hope is obvious, unreserved recommendation

This Must Be The Place Amazon UK
This Must Be The Place Amazon USA

Christopher Somerville – The January Man

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Walking the poetry of landscape, wildlife, relationship and music through the years

the-january-manI  have been waiting since last summer to post a review of this wonderful book here on the blog. I had received, and reviewed it, on Amazon UK, as it was offered to me on Amazon Vine, where I was bound to review it within a month. No point in sharing it here at that point, since it is not due to be published until mid January 2017. Shame, really as I think keen walkers, keen philosophers and reflective types (which must include serious readers, surely) keen engagers with the natural world, keen yearners-for-beautiful-writing-on-the-natural-world, keen lovers of music, of history, of good conversation, and, well, those with any kind of keen-ness to appreciate life-in-real connection would Have welcomed finding this book in their Christmas stockings Enough preamble:

What can I say to justifiably praise this deep, joyous and poignant book?

Christopher Somerville is a travel writer, specialising not in exotic tales of derring-do in sub tropical or polar Lonely Planet inaccessibility, but in travelling, on foot, through the hidden and not so hidden highways and byways of these isles.

This particular book, taking as its springing-off point a folk song entitled ‘The January Man’ recounts the months of the year, and some walks undertaken in those months in different parts of the British Isles.

From March:

Frogs are at risk. There are no wallflowers in the ranine ballrooms of romance. The opening notes of spring have stung all the sleepers into a conga of love. They singlemindedly pursue their search for partners across high roads and dual carriageways. Toads are at it, too, with just as much gusto as their froggy cousins. They teem recklessly out of the ponds and ditches along the old Roman road from Bristol to Wells. Randy toads and frogs with reproduction on their minds are run down and flattened by the dozen, martyrs of love on the B3134

Somerville writes most beautifully, evoking the landscape itself, painting the vegetation, illuminating the chatter of many birds, so that the armchair reader, feverishly polishing their boots and raring to get outside, can, in imagination pour themselves into the territory the author is describing. But he writes about so much more than this. Whilst walking in place, he also walks in time. Some of these, in fact most of these, are walks he has done decades before, so he is accompanied by his younger self, and, most poignantly, by his dead father John. John was a keen walker. The relationship between John and Christopher was at times a little estranged, difficult and distant, caused by the times and the great and rapid change in cultures and generations, post war. John had a reserve to do with that war, and also due to his occupation – he worked at GCHQ Cheltenham, so discussions of what he did were off-limits.

Fathers didn’t make mistakes. They knew what to do. They showed you how to ndope the tissue wings of a model glider and paint a bedside cupboard nwith smelly green gloss. They gave you a florin if you cleaned the car properly with a chamois leather, they spoke sternly to you about your school report, and they chastised you if you hit your sister or cheeked your mother. They were upright and dutiful, the object of everyone’s respect and admiration. They set the moral bar so high it daunted you

The reserved father and the child of the 50s and 60s found the beginning of meeting places in walks they took together.

Walking in the present, often meeting people who recount their lives and the lives of their parents in the specific regions he visits, he is also meditating on history, geography, culture and deepening his connection to his own family, whether his loved, now gone, father, or appreciating his present connections to his family and friends. Celebrations, often traditional and local of the  passing of the seasons are woven through this book; folk songs, folk music and dancing connect present with the past.

From May, walking before dawn  as a seasonal ritual on May Day morning, up May Hill in Gloucestershire

Every bird in these woods is silent. There’s only the sound of our breathing, the faint creak of boot leather and the glassy tinkle of the stones. Then ahead a dog barks, and a blackbird breaks out scolding. It turns to tentative notes, sweet and unsure. A wren whirrs briefly. A robin begins to chitter, and deeper in the wood a warbler produces some sweet, expressive phrases. By the time we leave the edge of the wood and enter the common land of May Hill top, the dawn chorus has got under way. There’s another musical sound, too, faint but growing louder, coming up behind us – the silver jingle of tiny bells, bound round the shins of three men who are walking the hill in ribbon coats and breeches

I wiped away tears, moved by descriptions of landscape and wildlife, not to mention the recounting of human connections to those landscapes as well as to each other, as I read

And, over and again, having found a most wondrous version of the song, The January Man, on YouTube, performed by Christy Moore, I played this, its plangent rendition revealing the layers in the deceptively simple lyrics about the months of the year, and the man who moves through them

The only thing I missed through being lucky enough to have this as an ARC for review, is that there will be maps and walkers notes when the book is published, not available here.

But what I did find is that Somerville has a blog, and a walking website, where he adds new walks, photos and descriptions and much more besides, each fortnight. I’m sure details of a terrific walk, somewhere near any of us, is either there already or will be, waiting to be explored……….Christopher Somerville’s website where you can gorge on links to many walks and more

Somerville is a rambler and a rover, all over this land, And, to be honest, his writing holds the benison of rambling and roving – not to lose or to fox you, but to surprise and stop you, making you draw breath and notice. This is far from a linear journey, this book. Rather it is a spiders web, suddenly sparkling, where every thread makes you notice the sure connections to every other thread, a woven whole.

I didn’t underline what I was reading – because it could and would have been everything, as almost everything I read made me glimpse words behind words, thoughts behind thoughts – or, the poignancy of the meaning of ‘June’ in that January Man song ‘the man inside the man’ – by which I loosened gender, because, what Somerville was revealing to me was something about who any of us, all of us, each of us is inside the passing external we show to the worldchristopher-somerville

As is obvious, I recommend it. It will be published on January 12th

The January Man Amazon UK
The January Man Amazon USA

Katherine Arden – The Bear and The Nightingale

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A perfect, darkly mythic tale of old Russia

the-bear-and-the-nightingaleKatherine Arden’s first book should grip anyone with a love for old folk/faerie tales, especially those who prefer their those tales to have more than a whiff of the darkly sinister about them – less Perrault, more Grimm, and. perhaps heavy with Pagan roots.

Arden, in transpires, is a Russophile, and spent some time in Russia as a student, steeping herself in its Medieval past. The Bear and The Nightingale is, by all accounts, the first volume of a trilogy. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I requested it from NetGallley, as I’m not wildly enamoured of the fantasy/fantasy YA genre, particularly where sequels are concerned, as my prejudices tell me this may all be too marketing driven and not enough driven by creative integrity.

However….prejudice is so often there to be exposed and exploded, and, after a slow start, Arden hooked me up and tied me tight into her wonderful tale of a family, minor relatives by marriage of the tsar of the time, living far away from Moscow. The central character is a wild, witchen child – or, at least one who sees more than others, and is aware of the myriad domestic and nature deities which are well established in the pantheon of pre-Christian (and even post-Christian) myths and legends from classical times. And Slavic folk lore has many of these.

Vasya’s mother Marina, who died giving birth to her, (they always seem to) had a kind of second sight, and could see those nature and hearth deities. She is happily and passionately married to Pyotr, a heroic, but ordinarily mortal man. Most of her children are four square without other powers, but Vasya and her older brother Sasha ‘see beyond’

The old religion and a mystical Christianity have to sit side by side with each other, sometimes easily, and sometimes….not. Some of those with additional powers, like Marina, and like Vasya, juggle a more universal sense of holy and sacred better than others.

16th century Icon, Kremlin Only Begotten of the Father and the Word of God

16th century Icon, Kremlin : Only Begotten of the Father and the Word of God

When a highly devout and charismatic priest with dreams of leadership and glory is banished from Moscow to Pyotr’s domaine, a deadly clash between faiths and practices is set in place. And compounded by the fact that Pyotr has had a new wife foisted on him, by the Tsar – for political reasons. The new wife, Vasya’s stepmother, is not much older than Vasya, who is standing on the edge of moving from girl to woman. There are the usual folk tale tropes of wicked – or at least, spiteful, stepmother and far nobler, braver stepdaughter, but there are also darker forces around, as stepmother Anna, who also has powers to see the native deities of the house, the woods and the forests, fears and hates them as demons. She wishes not to be a wife, not to be a mother, and longs to be a Christian nun. Vasya, the most wonderfully spirited, passionate child and woman wishes to be curtailed by wifedom, motherhood nor a Bride of Christ. She is akin to elementals and wishes for a life of adventure, which her sex denies her

There are wonderfully dark forces abroad in this, satisfyingly archetypal battles between Good and Evil – except, which is which, is not always so simplistically obvious. The dark Marozko, Frost King, demon of winter is simultaneously a less malevolent figure, Jack Frost.

Ivan Bilibin, artist and stage designer 1902: The Heroine Vasilisa outside the hut of Baba Yaga

Ivan Bilibin, artist and stage designer 1902: The Heroine Vasilisa outside the hut of Baba Yaga

And saint-like beautiful priest Konstantin, who paints fabulous icons, and seeks to lead the people away from worshipping older gods, is desperate to hear the voice of God

Suffice it to say, the story started a little slowly, but I kept reading with some interest until the hooks took hold, as Vasya became old enough to show her heroic qualities

The marketing of the book is falling between several stools – because the writing itself is quite complex, it has an adult, fantasy marketing but the age of the central character mark it as Young Adult. I requested it from NetGalley on its General Fiction (ie NOT YA) marketing, and only as I neared the end wondered whether it would ALSO appeal to that market.

Lacquer box illustration of Morozko folk tale

Lacquer box illustration of Morozko folk tale

Definitely a read for short days and long midwinter nights though………..

And, yes, I WILL be looking out for the sequel………katherine-arden

The Bear and The Nightingale will be published on the 12th January in the UK and two days earlier in the States. The young author, one to watch, surprisingly has not grown up in the far North – she is a Texan, but I was convinced she dwelt in frozen, evergreen forests, and gambolled with the wolves……

The Bear and The Nightingale Amazon UK
The Bear and The Nightingale Amazon USA

Jeanette Winterson – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

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All the mythological fruits a reader might yearn for

Original cover

Original cover

I came to Jeanette Winterson quite late, and have no idea what took me so long. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, her first book, is the fourth Winterson I’ve read in as many months.

It’s probably because, knowing the one-word ‘what is this book about?’ preconception subject matter of ‘Oranges’ I mistakenly assumed it was a book devoted to lesbian erotica. Or, perhaps as Winterson amusingly suggests in her prologue to my 2009 digitised edition or perhaps truthfully suggests – she is, after all clear to remind us she is a writer of fiction, of novels -:

When Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was first published in 1985 it was often stocked in the cookbooks section with the marmalade manuals.

As is known Jeanette Winterson had a harsh beginning. Adopted by an extraordinarily eccentric couple (particularly the dominating Mrs Winterson), fervent Pentacostalists, Mrs W’s life-plan for the adopted baby was to raise her to be a missionary. The extraordinary creative, imaginative, hugely intelligent child Jeanette turned out to be was never quite going to fit into classic missionary mode. Though close acquaintance with the Bible and the English Hymnals did bring her into early contact with a rich, lustrous, poetic language.

Le Douanier Rousseau's last painting : The Dream. 1910

Le Douanier Rousseau’s last painting : The Dream. 1910

Best of all, she had a collage of Noah’s Ark. It showed the two parent Noah’s leaning out looking at the flood while the other Noah’s tried to catch one of the rabbits. But for me, the delight was a detachable chimpanzee, made out of a Brillo pad,; at the end of my visit she let me play with it for five minutes. I had all kinds of variations, but usually I drowned it

Sex was not really part of Mrs Winterson’s mission statement for the little girl, but when Jeanette showed herself to have, along with all her other qualities, a passionate nature, that was itself challenge enough for Mrs W – who abjured sex. The fact that Jeanette’s passions were directed towards other women proved to be several steps too far.

Deuteronomy had its drawbacks; it’s full of Abominations and Unmentionables. Whenever we read about a bastard, or someone with crushed testicles, my mother turned over the page and said ‘Leave that to the Lord,’ but when she’d gone I’d sneak a look. I was glad I didn’t have testicles. They sounded like intestines only on the outside, and the men in the Bible were always having them cut off and not be able to go to church. Horrid

The facts of Jeanette’s life – of course subjectively experienced as well as observed by her writerly sense – are expressed in another book (wonderful) Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Winterson’s autobiography.

THIS book, by contrast, though it uses ‘what she knows’ – herself, and her own life in this case, as springboard, is NOT autobiography, it is a novel, genre literary fiction, even though the central character is called ‘Jeanette’ and her mother is Mrs Winterson.

The Judgment Of Paris Joachim Wtewael, 1615

The Judgment Of Paris Joachim Wtewael, 1615

Winterson rather tartly (and quite probably correctly) wonders if, had she been a young man using his dysfunctional background as springboard, the critics would have been quicker to realise the work as fiction, literary fiction, and indeed fiction where the novel’s form is being explored. It shouldn’t have been too much of a stretch to ascertain this, as woven into the twentieth century Lancashire working class Pentecostal narrative, are various myths and legends, Arthurian, Grail, and the chapter titles are Old Testament biblical, and allude to the overall feel and flavour of particular books of the bible

Perceval?Grail : Dante Gabriel Rossetti - 1864

 Perceval/ Grail : Dante Gabriel Rossetti – 1864

The priest has a book with the words set out. Old words, known words, words of power. Words that are always on the surface. Words for every occasion. The words work. They do what they’re supposed to do; comfort and discipline. The prophet has no book. The prophet is a voice that cries in the wilderness, full of sounds that do not always set into meaning. The prophets cry out because they are troubled by demons.

The book is a journey towards individuation and authenticity : the Heroic Quest, that deep myth which underpins much literature. And literature itself provides many of the magical tools which help the hero – another version of Excalibur, in fact

fruit_stall_in_barcelona_market

Jeanette Winterson is a wonderful writer – inventive, rich in imagery, playful, dark, heart-breaking, shocking and more than a touch shamanic. And how she demonstrates this in her introduction:

Reading is an adventure. Adventures are about the unknown. When I started to read seriously I was excited and comforted all at the same time. Literature is a mix of unfamiliarity and recognition……as we travel deeper into the strange world of the story, the feeling we get is of being understood…..it is the story (or the poem) that is understanding us

Books read us back to ourselves

Yes. That was a hairs up on the back of the neck moment, for this reader. It came from the Introduction Winterson wrote to a later editionjeanette-winterson-006

Oranges works absolutely brilliantly as a fine, quirky, comedic page turning roman a clef, a girl’s journey to young woman. And is also something of depth and richness as well as brilliant sparkle

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit Amazon UK
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit Amazon USA

Anthony Berkeley – The Poisoned Chocolates Case

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Beware of the man bearing chocolates, no matter how tempting and soft-centred they seem…..

the-poisoned-chocolates-case-anthony-berkeley-coverI was nudged forcefully towards this by a fellow blogger, Karen from Kaggsy’sBookish Ramblings, and surrendered without too much resistance. A book about chocolates! Even if they were advertised as being poisonous. I gently nibbled at chocolates I had bought myself, randomly plucked from hither and thither on the frequently re-stocked shelves of my favourite chocolatiers, as I settled into this delicious Golden Age Crime, with updates

The Poisoned Chocolates Case is part of the British Library Crime Classics series, edited by Martin Edwards – who provides a delectable coda to the case (more later)

Anthony Berkeley – one of the pen names of Anthony Berkeley Cox – wrote a series of books with his central character Roger Sheringham, a classic ‘amateur detective’. In real life Berkeley, a journalist as well as detective story writer, was one of the founder members of the Detection Club, along with several major crime writers of the interwar years, including Agatha Christie.

Berkeley plays with that idea in Poisoned Chocolates, and, in fact, predates it as Roger Sheringham is the founder member of the Crimes Circle club, a select group of 6 with an interest in criminology who meet together to discuss crimes and crime writing

hotel-choc

A Murder has been committed by Chocolate. Sir Eustace Pennefather, unpleasant, irascible lecher and seducer, is sent a box of chocolates by one of the major confectionery firms catering to the sophisticated and wealthy. The confectioners are asking for his patronage, wanting him to ‘test and review’ a new range. Pennefather is clearly no chocolate aficionado as the solicitation infuriates him and he is on the verge of binning the box. (Question: why has no purveyor of only the very best, dark chocolates not contacted me to ask if I would like a steady supply of Advance Review chocolates??) By chance, another member of Pennefather’s club is present when the chocolates arrive. Graham Bendix had lost a bet he had made with his wife Joan, on the solution of a murder mystery play. Joan had guessed correctly and Bendix’s forfeit is a box of chocolates. Sir Eustace gives Bendix the box, and Bendix takes them home to Joan. Unfortunately, the chocolates which were intended for Sir Eustace were poisoned. Greedy Joan eats several, despite the fact that they taste a bit odd,  and painfully dies.

Joan Bendix was not so serious-minded as not to have a healthy interest in good chocolates

As is almost always the case in these Golden Age cosies, the police are stumped. Chief Inspector Moresby comes, vaguely helmet in hand, to Roger Sheringham. The Crimes Circle, wonderfully delineated, one and all,  decide to solve the murder. Each of them, on successive nights, will present their conclusions to the rest of the club, who will assess the solution for its possible integrity.

Mrs Fielder-Fleming, a short, round, homely-looking woman who wrote surprisingly improper and most successful plays and looked exactly like a rather superior cook on her Sunday out…….Mr Ambrose Chitterwick blinked his mild blue eyes and assumed the appearance of an intelligent nanny-goat

This offers a marvellous selection of 6 possible solutions, with each member coming up with different motives, different suspects, different important clues and methods of investigation and analysis. Much fun is had, and this might almost be a kind of workshop for aspiring crime writers, except that Berkeley has great fun in playing with the various tropes of the genre, creating some fabulous characters, and writing with verve and dry humour.

You don’t want to sell anything?” asked the maiden suspiciously. Impregnated with all that is best in the go-ahead spirit of English business methods, she naturally looked with the deepest distrust on anybody who might possibly wish to do such an unbusinesslike thing as sell her firm something

It is also a reflection of quite an insular upper class society, where everyone knows everyone – they all go to the same plays, hotels, dinners, restaurants,  use the same ‘purveyors of fine whatever’ as each other.

I ‘m definitely going to investigate more by Berkeley, his writing is sophisticated and playful, and each individual voice was well-delineated. It was good fun to have each plausible sounding conclusion roundly debunked by rival members of the circle pressing their own better solution. Of course, the reader very quickly gets themselves in on the joke as they can’t help but try to solve the mystery themselves. The book ends with a rather pleasing question mark, which has allowed for a further ‘solution’ A later crime writer from the seventies Christianna Brand had provided another interpretation for an American reprint. To be honest, I found Brand’s ‘solution’ heavy-handed and lacking in the light-touch sophisticated sly wit of Berkeley’s six stories. And the particular ‘voice’ she chose to take further, one of Berkeley’s characters, did not even sound remotely like the character he had created,

chocolate-icing-gif

martin-edwardsFortunately, Martin Edwards, editor of the whole series was invited by the publisher to provide an additional solution of his own. And, Bravo, Mr Edwards, not only does he provide yet another wonderful trope of the genre, but he holds Berkeley’s writing voice excellently, and each of the characters whom we have already met continue with the voices and style Berkeley created for each of them. Edward’s tale is like the cherry on the perfectly made, perfectly iced cake, or the star on top of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. An Olé! moment, for sure. I felt like clapping.anthony-berkeley-cox

A most enjoyable read for the festive season, a real divertissement. Perfact accompaniment……..a plate of lightly steamed spiniach…(look, this is a crime book review, so its not going to be the most obvious suspect, now, is it?? Pay attention!

The Poisoned Chocolates Case Amazon UK
The Poisoned Chocolates Case Amazon USA

Best of this funny old year’s reads: Reads of, if not from, 2016

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A strangely old best of the reading year: Top reads of 2016

It has been a very weird year, both ‘out there’ within the wider world – which, of course, paradoxically seems set on being a smaller, narrower, meaner world obsessively devoted to self-harm in a foolish attempt to numb its pain – and, reflected in my reading world

cat-on-books-gif

I have read (though in some cases, abandoned in disgust) 113 books. Now some of them are still to be reviewed on here : I am regrettably behind on my reviews. But I haven’t posted anywhere near treble figures on reviews. My ‘won’t make the blog unless it is at least a CLEAR (not rounded up) 4 star’ tells its own story. And a goodly number of the books read have not been reviewed anywhere. Books so drearily derivative or, just so abysmal, that I abandoned time spent with them as soon as indecently possible. And that included any time spent explaining their dreariness. Better to head off quickly to time spent with a wonderful book.

I note that a goodly proportion of my ‘best ofs’ were not just reads, but re-reads: books so good half a life-time ago, that it was a treat to dust them off and say hello again. And also, books by authors never read at their time of writing: older writers, discovered.

dusty-book-pile

I think what has, in some ways, sadly, impressed me about those mainly dead and gone older writers is their discipline and craft with language, character, setting, style and narrative. Writers with things to say, and the ability to say what they said memorably and with authenticity. We have a fast-book culture, and sometimes I think, that like fast-food, we have surrendered ourselves to ersatz, sitting heavy in the gut, and with little memorability or feeding much at all.

Now I HAVE read some most enjoyable new books this year, and a small number have crept into my ‘best of’ but, in the main those older reads were more powerful at keeping me thinking and admiring, weeks after closing their final pages.

But I’m still quite shocked to discover (getting into the stats thing) that despite reading 41 books published this year, only 1 of the 2016 novels got into my top fiction reads. Though I race to also say I read some very very good new fictions indeed. It’s just those earlier writers took centre stage

I also had to leave it at top 9 and top 8, as they were clear, and having spent several days agonising over which titles should get the final places, particularly the fictions, as some 5 or 6 were together at the finishing line, I thought I’d podium place the smaller number. If I had to rank, I’d still be here by midsummer 2017, constantly rejigging!

cartoon-disney-books

So In no ranking order, just in the order they were read :

Non-Fiction – I had a great NF year, including, inevitably some NF standout re-reads (Oh, Virginia! Oh, George! You delighted me a lifetime ago and you delight me more, and still)

First Bite How We learn To EatBee Wilson is an utterly engaging writer on matters historical and foodie – together. I love the history of the domestic, but with First Bite, she soared to new heights, as she wove other passions of mine together – the psychology of food, the relationship we have with food, the politics of the food industry, childhood and the development of tasteThe Lonely City

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City as ever, with her reflective, soulful writing about the arts and her relationship with them, delighted me. This book explores mainly American artists, some known to me, some not, and the role of solitariness, alienation and the ability to observe both one-self, and the society one inhabits, in artistic creation. It was also a book which had me blessing the internet as I could search for every artwork she was describing so eloquently

Cheats and DeceitsMartin Stevens’ Cheats and Deceits was a fabulous book about the evolutionary ploy of Cheating and Deceiving, and the myriad ways in which it manifests and works. In a year where cheating, deceiving political figures appear to be on the brink of taking us to regrettably dangerous places, it has been quite salutary to think of Trump, Farage et al as particularly obnoxious blister bug larvae, and the populace as a sadly duped Habropoda pallida, taking (to mangle a metaphor beyond recognition) these vipers to the bosom of their children’s nests. Whaaa? Habropoda Pallida is a bee species, and the obnoxious blister bugs hop onto the duped HP, so that they will get carried back to bee nest. Their favourite food is young bee grubs – i.e. they destroy the next generation and its worldHomage to Catalonia

On the heels of my snucking in the politics of the present, came a re-read of the wonderful George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Orwell, like many in his generation with a sense of idealism enlisted for the left in the Spanish Civil War. This was part of Kaggsysbookishramblings 1938 Club. I have loved Orwell’s writing since first discovering him in my teens. And I loved what his writing revealed to me of the man. He still seems an unusually honourable figure

Chernobyl PrayerSvetlana Alexievich’s harrowing Chernobyl Prayer allows those most directly affected by the blowing of the nuclear reactor, ordinary Belarusians, to tell their own stories and the land’s story. This is compassionate journalism as witnessing.

I needed some non-fictional joy, following a couple of painful Why We Love Musicrecognitions of what our worst can lead to, and I got it in John Powell’s enthusiastic, playful, erudite Why We Love Music. Another read outrageously enhanced by the benefits of the internet, as I could roam around listening to snippets of illustrative sound

the-january-manThe January Man, which I read in the summer as an ARC from Amazon Vine has not yet been reviewed on here, as there seemed little point to whet appetites when its publication day is the 12th January 2017. The link therefore is to my Amazon UK review. Suffice it to say Christopher Somerville’s wondrous book is much more than a book about walking through the landscape of these isles, it’s a journey through time, through relationship, through music, and it made my heart sing even whilst it made me weep. Curiously, it also reminded me, in the compassionate tenderness of Somerville’s writing, of the very first Olivia Laing book I read, To The River. It will be appearing here closer to publication date with some entrancing mediawhy-be-happy-when-you-could-be-normal

Jeanette Winterson was my big find of the year. How could I have missed her, how? Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is the autobiographical story which provided much of the material which formed the narrative of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Here is a woman with a childhood start which is unbearable to contemplate, but whose fierce, fierce, glittering intelligence, and whose capacity for joy sing out. She had me laughing so hard through my tears and anger

a-room-of-ones-ownAnd my non-fictions end with Virginia. It’s easy to think of Woolf through knowing her end, and the mental illness she suffered. But she was another who burned with intelligence, humour, joy. A Room of One’s Own takes to the barricades of feminism; singing, wit, creativity and incisive argument its weapons. Again, one I devoured in my twenties, and though much has been achieved since its writing unfortunately it still has relevance, and is not a purely historical read

So to the fictionals – and, as you will see, Virginia and Jeanette take their places on this podium tooTo The Lighthouse

It seems kind of fitting that Virginia Woolf should have been my last top non-fiction, and turn out to be, late in February, the first of my top fictions. I re-read – or probably re-re-re-re read To The Lighthouse, as part of Ali’s Brilliant Woolfalong. What can I say? Any time I re-read this one its going to make a best of list. Is it possible (yes!) that it continues to get better, that I continue to find more, with each read. Looks like it,

Le Grand MeaulnesAlain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, first read, most potently, in my adolescence, was another re-read. I approached it slightly nervously, as with any book which had glowed out, and been remembered, for decades. Could it speak to a much older reader, or would its delights be limited to youth. Well, good heavens, there was again so much to discover and to re-discover. A shifting focus, a little more ability to stand outside so that, on this read, Fournier’s extraordinary craft and magic delighted my more critical, intellectual appreciation.The French Lieutenant's Woman

Meaulnes led me to another favourite, more modern author – John Fowles, whose The Magus owed a deep (and expressed) debt to Fournier. The French Lieutenant’s Woman plays majestically with the novel’s structure. He was using ‘meta-fiction’ devices quite early. Everyone does it now, but it was a wonderfully playful, sly thing, when I encountered it first (yes, another re-read)

To The Bright Edge of The WorldFinally we get to a fiction published this year, Eowyn Ivey’s To The Bright Edge of The World. In part, her inclusion is because her first, The Snow Child, was such an extraordinary first novel that she had set herself a dangerous peak to attain with her second. So I was delighted to find that this book was both very different from her first, but had elements of the strengths of her first – the potency of myth and magic, and, oh yes, the wonderful, cold, mysterious setting of the frozen NorthLove for Lydia

H.E.Bates was an author I thought I had read but in fact, never had. Love for Lydia (which had been a TV adaptation which I never saw) was a sheer delight. Luscious writing, restrained writing, in this story of the interwar years.

Mr NorrisChristopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains was another re-read. Once again, I think in part it is the lurch to the right which has made many of us think uneasily of those major conflagrations of the twentieth (and of course we are moving through the hundredth anniversary of the 1914-1918 War To End All Wars) Isherwood’s part autobiographical part-fictional narrative of his time in Berlin as the world of the 30s was doing its own inchings to the dark places, as dangerous demagogues were making their appeals to hatred, fear and castigation of ‘the other’Orlando

Oh, Virginia again! Her magnificent cross-gendering historical fiction Orlando was my very first Woolf, in my teens. And this romp from Elizabethan England to the twenties crossing geography and gender, mixing historical personages with invented ones stays so pleasurable – another book where I wasn’t only re-reading, but re-re-reading

Gut-Symmetries-finalI discovered Jeanette Winterson’s 1997 novel through some chance or other, this year. Gut Symmetries was my first Winterson, in late August. I am currently reading my fourth, so, perhaps, expect more Winterson’s to imperiously demand inclusions in best ofs, for 2017. A marriage of the story of an affair and the Grand Unified Theory of particle physics. Rarely does a writer make me think about maths and physics so delightfully, and force a mental work-out without making me whimper

And there, sadly I have to leave it. There were just too many books fighting really really hard for the final two places. I could briefly decide to place one or two, but the others started screaming ‘Me! Me! deservedly, so I would substitute, but the screaming never died down.

At least all the ones chosen meant that the unchosens stayed respectfully silent and stopped yelling at me that they deserved the podium instead.

Duelling Banjos were menacing enough, with or without the presence of Voight and Reynolds, without the nervousness of duelling books at dawn, fighting for places!

And, of course, I wish you all the very best for you, yours and all your books, in 2017. I hope we might have some chance of living in ‘less interesting times’ as far as ancient Chinese curses go. I wish you all a harmonious year, and excitement, derring do and much ‘interesting’ firmly within the pages of your books!

Delphine de Vigan – Nothing Holds Back The Night

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“Writing can do nothing….it allows you to ask questions and interrogate memory”

nothing-holds-back-the-nightDelphine de Vigan’s Nothing Holds Back The Night is a curious book to categorise. On one level, it should be easy : it is an account of the difficult, yet sometimes vibrantly experienced life of de Vigan’s mother. Lucile Poirier, born in 1946, was one of 9 children born to Georges and Liane Poirier. The family was extremely Bohemian. Lucile, remarkably beautiful, a rather introverted child in some ways, helped family finances through money earned as a child model. The family was beset by tragedy, and there was some history of mental and emotional fragility. There were also various family secrets, the nature of which can probably be surmised by the reader.

Delphine herself was born when Lucile was 19. She had fallen in love with the young brother of one of her father’s colleagues, and the two married in a hurry. Lucile was different from Delphine’s classmates’ mothers – more vibrant, more playful, more sophisticated, fun and glamorous. But she was also unstable and the instability took over. The marriage itself foundered quite quickly. Delphine had various love affairs which would buoy her up. Some of her partners were also unstable. Delphine and her younger sister Manon, sometimes with Lucile, sometimes with their father Gabriel and his new family, had a childhood far from ideal. There were periods where Lucile was institutionalised due to the severity of her bipolar disorder.

The book starts with Lucile’s shocking death in 2008, and Delphine’s discovery of her body. de Vigan at this point was an already published writer.

Lucile’s pain was part of our childhood and later part of our adult life. Lucile’s pain probably formed my sister and me. Yet every attempt to explain it is doomed to failure. And so I am forced to content myself with writing scraps, fragments and conjecture.

Writing can do nothing. At very best it allows you to ask questions and interrogate memory

She wrote Nothing Holds Back the Night because it was what she had to do, in part to understand her own story, and her mother’s. But she acknowledges it is not quite purely memoir. Much was underground, forgotten, hidden, denied, and different members of the Poirier family and others produced different memories. So, inevitably Delphine, in order to find the shape, pattern and sense of her mother’s life, acknowledges that what she is writing is part memoir, part fiction, the shaping of narrative to create pattern and story to events. Memory remembers some events and not others. And sometimes what is remembered is memory of someone else’s narrative of their memory. A memory of a story told, becomes an account of ‘this is the fact of what happened’. Sometimes, what gets forgotten is that memory is often as much interpretation as a laying out of moments taking place in time

De Vigan’s book won a couple of literary prizes. It is beautifully written, and here translated by George Miller. And I assume the translation is a sensitive and thoughtful one, as I lost awareness of the fact I was reading de Vigan’s words, images and thoughts through the filter of another persondelphine-de-vigan

I was brought to this difficult but strangely illuminating read, by a mention of it from another blogger, JacquiWine, which caused me to search out her earlier review, and then to read this myself

Nothing Holds Back The Night Amazon UK
Nothing Holds Back The Night Amazon USA

Beryl Bainbridge – Sweet William

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The implacable carnage wreaked by a charming seducer

sweet-williamBeryl Bainbridge’s Sweet William, here reissued as a digital version by Open Road Media, is a short tale of a foolishly naïve woman (or women) and a man sophisticated in deception – including self-deception

Published in 1975 there is, as often with Bainbridge, a degree of events in her real life acting as springboard to the story.

The William of the title is William McClusky an up-and-coming playwright. He has a fascinating mix of the fiercely wilful, creative and seemingly unworldly persona, theoretically tender and emotionally expressive manner and boyish appealing loucheness which can effectively set womanhood’s heart a-flutter. The springboard for Bainbridge was that this character was modelled on the novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp, with whom she had a daughter.

The central character of the book, into whose life William strolls like an out-of-control juggernaut, is Ann Walton, a naïve young woman working for the BBC. Ann comes from a determinedly ‘keeping up middle class values’ background, her mother implacably wanting Ann to fulfil some social dream of her own, and unable to embrace the daughter she really has. Ann is engaged to Gerald, an academic, off to America on a placement. Gerald is a selfish, bullish and rather cold man. Marrying an academic and one with prospects in America does however initially, theoretically, meet with the aspirational Mrs Walton’s approval.

Things don’t quite go to plan when Ann is determinedly picked up by William, who sweeps her off her feet with his touchy feely passion and freely expressed need and desire for her. Unfortunately, William is married and he still maintains all sorts of connections with his wife Edna – including sexual. And it turns out that there is more than one significant earlier relationship in William’s life. And later ones too. He is incapable of resisting the desire to conquer the heart, not to mention the haunches, of any woman he meets. His deadly charm is that he is not a cold seducer, but believes himself to be a loving man, who just happens to love a lot of women at once and have them all meet his needs for love, care, affection and meals, all at once

When the doorbell rang Ann was amazed to see a messenger boy on the landing, holding a large white cake with pink ribbon, crowned with flaring candles of red and gold.

Mrs McClusky’ he said ‘Special delivery’

It was Edna’s birthday……’He said I was to expect a surprise’ she cried, her face glowing….She insisted they cut into the cake

Ann didn’t know what to say. It was such an extraordinary thing to do, sending your wife a cake to the flat of another woman. She couldn’t for the life of her wish Edna many happy returns of the day.

They sat opposite each other, mouths blocked with the birthday surprise, a faint lingering smell of wax in the room

Even those around Ann who can see William for the philanderer he is, and will warn Ann that he is not a man to be remotely trusted, will not be immune to his charms, though some of the other women are only interested in a bit of good time sex with him, and have no fond illusions of forever.

The reader (well this one) felt both sorry for the foolish Ann, but also thoroughly exasperated by her. And by the rest of William’s entourage. And by William himself. Sometimes, ‘Williams’ are usefully spotted a mile off, but sometimes they possess an ability to hide in plain sight…..

sweet-william-agutter-waterston

The book was turned into a film in 1980, with Jenny Agutter as Ann and Sam Waterston as William. It was directed by Claude Whatham, with the screenplay written by Bainbridge herself

I read this as a review copy published by the excellent Open Road Media as a digital versionberyl-bainbridge-580_44263a

Sweet William Amazon UK
Sweet William Amazon UK

Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata

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As rich, beguiling and satisfying as the best of sonatas should be

the-gustav-sonataRose Tremain is always a tender, subtle, rewarding writer, and so she is here. The Gustav Sonata starts shortly after the Second World War, in Matzlingen, a small, unremarkable town in Switzerland. It is 1947. Gustav Perle is a stoical little 5 year old, only son of Emilie, a repressed, joyless, depressed widow, whose ability to love seems non-existent.

Gustav’s father died during the war, and his death left his widow and child financially struggling. In the first ‘movement’ of the sonata, the outwardly phlegmatic little boy befriends a smaller, excitable, vulnerable little boy on his first day at kindergarten. Anton Zwiebel, it turns out, is everything which ordinary seeming Gustav is not.

‘I don’t want my heart stilled’ he said ‘ I want my heart to overflow with joy.’

Anton is an exceptional, privileged little boy, the son of doting, loving, wealthy parents. He is a musical prodigy, and great things are expected of him. The two boys become great friends, though Emilie has a kind of distaste for Anton, because he is Jewish. The Zwiebel family, particularly Anton’s warm-hearted mother take Gustav to their hearts, because of the initial kindness he showed to their son. The first section is the story of the two boys in childhood

He sipped the wine, which tasted sweetly of apples and of elderflowers, and he thought that this was how he was going to live life from now on, savouring small pleasures and not looking beyond them for happiness that was more complete

The second movement unpicks the story of Emilie and Erich, Gustav’s dead father, revealing how they met, how Erich made a clearly disastrous marriage to a small-minded woman, and how his own warm, compassionate, just nature led to him suffering disgrace. Erich had been in a position to behave nobly, in a time and place where society had made pragmatic, meaner choices.

Skating, and its joyousness, figures beautifully : Hence, Andre Rieu live at the Royal Albert Hall with Emile Waldteufel’s Skaters’ Waltz : Les Patineurs

In the third movement, Gustav is a quiet man, unambitious, in his 50s. He is a little man, an ordinary man, a moral man, doing the good he can, running a small hotel, endeavouring to make this a ‘home from home’. Anton has long since left the small town where Gustav still lives, though that childhood friendship keeps Gustav close to Anton’s ageing parents, disappointed in some ways by their brilliant, selfish son.

When he asked himself if he was unhappy, he discovered that he could find no deeper unhappiness in his own soul than he perceived in other people’s

On the surface, Tremain is not telling a huge, operatic story, merely the story of an ordinary person, one of the ‘little people, the ordinary, decent people’ . Unlike the trumpetings of divisive populist politicians, who seek to normalise small-mindedness, suspicion, fear and hatred in their appeals to the ordinary and decent, Tremain shows something very different in the ordinary. Gustav’s is indeed a story of the small and modestly heroic, the loving, the forgiving and the kind within ‘ordinary’ .

Friendship in all its complexities and contradictions, and love, with all its obligations and joys, surprising in the forms it may take are beautifully laid out here for the reader. Readers of Tremain’s earlier novels where music and flamboyant characters are beautifully woven, will not be surprised by the author’s ability to still weave what is rare, strange, and lovely, in more modest, contained, less obviously expressive characters.

Like a musical piece, Tremain has themes which appear again, as variations, reminding us of their earlier manifestations, in subtly transposed fashion, in later ‘movements’rose-tremain-for-gustav-sonata

As ever, this being Tremain, the writing is beautiful, truthful, the characters are rich and layered, and the plot is masterly. I was delighted to be ‘gifted’ this by the publishers, via NetGalley.

The Gustav Sonata Amazon UK
The Gustav Sonata Amazon USA

Aside

And, especially for the bookie bloggers amongst you…..

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book-christmas-tree

Very warm wishes for the season, and an eminently practical approach, at least till Twelfth Night, for your TBR pile. You might as well surrender, as you know that your rellies and besties are going to make that pile higher……….