talking about books
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Sweet Caress by William Boyd
I chose William Boyd’s book Sweet Caress because I had enjoyed Ordinary Thunderstorms. This was very different, and I kept having to remind myself that it was fiction and not a biography of a real photographer. The inclusion of the photographs taken by Amory Clay, the subject of the story, made it even more convincing as do the references to several real women – Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Martha Gellhorn, Diane Arbus and Rebecca West. Having been born in 1908, her career as a photojournalist takes her to some dangerous places; from London to Berlin, New York, France during the war and finally Vietnam. She does not marry, though she has several intense relationships. She isn’t an easy character, but is even more believable because of the flaws. Boyd’s writing is absolutely convincing, and I found this a great pleasure to read.
A Sea of Troubles by Donna Leon
Because the weather was so depressingly wet and grey, I turned to Donna Leon to cheer me up. A Sea of Troubles is set in Venice and follows Commissario Brunetti’s investigation of the murder of two fishermen who lived on the island of Pellestrina. Rivalries and vendettas are revealed as the plot develops, but solving the case is made far more difficult because the community is so suspicious of outsiders. Unravelling the clues is fun, but the real pleasure of all the Brunetti stories is the wonderful descriptions of the place and the details of the fabulous meals – the next best thing when you can’t travel there yourself.
Swann’s Way by Proust
I mentioned last month that I was embarking on Proust. It is, and will continue to be, work in progress but I have now read the first section of Swann’s Way, the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu in the acclaimed translation by Moncrieff and Kilmartin, revised by D J Enright. I can’t comment on the original, as my French wouldn’t be good enough but this English version is wonderful! The first instalment of about 200 pages is Combray, the village where the author spent much of his childhood in the family home. The writing is beautiful; you just immerse yourself in the long, languorous sentences which paint a picture of a childhood in a particular place, in a particular class, in a particular period of time. It’s a book to be taken slowly, and relished. More next month.
Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K Jerome
I first read this years ago and downloaded it for free. Like The Diary of a Nobodywhich was written around the same time, it has similar late-Victorian humour which was reflected rather better in Gilbert and Sullivan. Amusing, light and very much of its time, it’s an easy read to fritter away a couple of hours.
Airhead by Emily Maitlis
Another download, this time for 99p! Emily Maitlis is regarded by some as one of our best broadcast journalists; I love her Americast podcast with Jon Sopel and Anthony Zurcher which has seen us through the US drama over the last year. Another easy read, with pieces on her career, interviews and politics. Probably best read as a ‘dip into’ book.
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
I first read this book when I was about 12 or 13 at secondary school. It was one of the few I remember enjoying from a list of ‘Home Readers’ which we had to read and write a report on. I still enjoyed my second reading.
It is a story narrated by an elderly solicitor about a young woman, Jean Paget, who inherits a considerable amount of money from her uncle a few years after the second world war. The money is left in trust for Jean with the solicitor as trustee and so she has to ask for any money she needs apart from interest payments. Gradually the solicitor hears the story of what she experienced when she was captured by the Japanese during the war in Malaya along with other English women and children and marched around supposedly to reach non-existent prisoner of war camps. On hearing of her inheritance Jean decides to go back to Malaya to visit where she had eventually lived with the prisoner of war group until the end of the war. She also decides to track down an Australian prisoner of war who had helped the group during their march by stealing food and medicines for them. The second part of the book is set in a small town in the Australian outback in Queensland where she finds the Australian man who is the manager of a cattle station. The town has almost no facilities other than what is needed for the men working the cattle stations. It is difficult to attract workers because of the lack of decent town facilities. Jean then works hard to use her inheritance to start businesses that allow her to build ‘A Town Like Alice’ where people will be happy to live. The prose is spare – very much this happened, that happened, the next thing happened – but it really illustrates the way they had to live in Malaya with all the deprivations of war and also the conditions on the cattle stations and in the small outback towns where facilities were poor and basic.
Some of the attitudes in the book are somewhat dated. The idea that young women were not capable of looking after their money (the inheritance was to be in trust until Jean was 35 because she did not have a father or husband to look after the money) was probably typical of the 1950s. However, having written of this method of not trusting young women with their own money, Nevil Shute then goes on to create a young woman who was brave and determined enough to lead the group of prisoners and imaginative enough to work out how they could live safely until the end of the war. In Jean, Shute has created a very strong lead character. Jean’s work using her inheritance to build several businesses in the town in the outback was also not something that many people of the 1950s would imagine a young woman doing. Other dated points I noticed were about nationality and race. Early in the book the solicitor comments about the uncle who was Scottish and living in Ayr ‘He seemed to be an educated man though he spoke with a marked Scots accent’ as if you could not possibly be educated with anything other than an English accent. I laughed rather than took offence! Finally there is the vocabulary used to describe the indigenous Australian workers on the cattle station which would now be regarded as racist and completely unacceptable. Mention was also made of building a separate ice cream parlour for the indigenous Australians and some disapproval of one white cattle station manager who had married an indigenous woman. Thank goodness our attitudes have changed.
All in all, although the book has dated, it was a very enjoyable read. I looked up Nevil Shute online and found that he had based the book on a true story of a group of Dutch women who had been captured by the Japanese during the war and marched around Sumatra in a similar way. Shute emigrated to Australia in 1950 and this was the first book he wrote after he and his family were living there.
Home Going by Yaa Gyasi
This book starts with one woman from Ghana (then called the Gold Coast) who had two daughters (half sisters), one in each of two different tribes. It then goes on to describe the half-sisters’ descendants over several centuries from the late eighteenth century to almost present day. One side of the story stays in Ghana where one of the sisters marries a white slave-trader while the second sister is sold as a slave and shipped to the US. The terrible aspects of colonialism and wars between the tribes are shown in the part of the story which takes place in Ghana, including the African tribesmen who sell Africans from other tribes to the slavers for shipping to America. The dreadful treatment of slaves in the southern states of the US and then later, even when the slaves are freed, is also well described. Each chapter tells of one of the descendants until eventually a young woman from one side of the family tree meets a man from the other side. It was difficult sometimes to work out all the relationships but luckily there was a family tree on the first page which I could look back at. There is quite a lot of imagery in the book, particularly black stones, water and fire but I found I needed to look on-line to understand the meaning of these fully (the black stones represented the connection to his/her heritage, fire represented the guilt caused by the family’s participation in the slave trade in the past and water represented the pain and suffering of slavery particularly in uprooting people from their homes). It is a disturbing read but well worth reading. I can definitely recommend it.
Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon
After the previous two books this was some light relief. This is the first Commissario Brunetti novel, set in Venice and investigating the sudden death of the conductor of the orchestra at the interval of an opera being performed at La Fenice. The conductor turns out to be a rather nasty man and so there are many suspects who had reason to hate him and who may have had the opportunity to commit his murder. I always enjoy Donna Leon, as much for her descriptions of Venice, the food and the wine, as for the detective story. Well worth a read if you enjoy a mystery and like Venice.
Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee
“When it is no longer safe to be a witch, they call themselves cunning.”
Spring of 1620 in a Lancashire fishing community and the memory of the slaughter at Pendle is tight around the neck of Sarah Haworth. A birthmark reveals that Sarah, like her mother, is a witch. Torn between yearning for an ordinary life and desire to discover what dark power she might possess, Sarah’s one hope is that her young sister Annie will be spared this fate. When Sarah meets lonely farmer’s son Daniel, she begins to dream of a better future. Daniel is in thrall to the wild girl with storms in her eyes, but their bond is tested when a zealous new magistrate vows to root out sins and sinners. In a frenzy of fear and fury, the community begins to turn on one another, and it’s not long before they direct their gaze towards the old plague village … and does Daniel trust that the power Sarah wields over him is truly love, or could it be mere sorcery?
Women living on the edges of God-fearing communities, condemned as witches and unfairly persecuted. Sounds like a story you’ve heard before, right? But, trust me, you’ve never heard it told this way. From the first page to the last, you’re never certain whether Sarah and her mother really do have powers or what the source of those powers might be. Certainly, they believe they do and the potency of their curses seems real enough. But must such power come from Satan, or could it be some deeper, feminine power?
The pleasure of the novel lies in the tension between the familiar story of patriarchal injustice and a more complex investigation of supernatural belief and disbelief. It’s a thrilling read. But, beyond the thrill, is the beauty of the language. Lancashire dialect and vocabulary are used to immense poetic affect, disarmingly evocative of time and place. The characters too, are well drawn and multi-faceted and its closure is both deeply satisfying and truly sad. A pleasure to read – with an undercurrent of genuine fear.
Cunning Women is published by Windmill Books on 22 April.
The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper
Sold by her mother. Enslaved in Pompeii’s brothel. Determined to survive. Her name is Amara. Welcome to the Wolf Den …
This is a visceral, no holds barred account of what life might have been like in ancient Pompeii before disaster struck. Amara is one of a group of women working in the town’s infamous brothel – enslaved but clearly not yet defeated! As an evocation of a time long gone, The Wolf Den is very convincing and has clearly been meticulously researched. We have a real sense of the cosmopolitan nature of the city, its location close to the heart of empire and its dependency on slavery and trade. The women of the Wolf Den represent a mix of races and cultures, levelled by their shared fate and experience of oppression. Tough and believable, they struggle for survival and, in the case of Amara in particular, are faced to confront their own nature and all they are prepared to give up in order to secure freedom. I read it too with a very clear sense (ah, the advantage of historical hindsight!) that this complex, flawed society – its masters and its slaves – were all standing on the very brink of ruin. I recommend The Wolf Den to all lovers of realistic and thought-provoking historical fiction.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson
I heard Mary Lawson talk on the radio. She now lives in the UK but grew up in Canada. Coming to writing later in life, she only writes about people and places she knows, and this is set in a small Northern Ontario town in the 1970s. The story is told from the viewpoint of three people. A child of seven whose elder sister has run away from home, the elderly neighbour who lives next door at the end of her life and the newly divorced man who inherits her house when she dies. Full of insight and wisdom, my favourite book of 2021 … so far.
Slough House by Mick Herron
The latest in Mick Herron’s series about MI5 misfits (slow horses) is set in a political climate that is recognisable and prescient. Their leader despite being a repellent individual, is not short on brainpower and takes care of his ‘Joes’ – not because he cares about them but it is just what he does. These characters only ever wanted to be James Bond. However they are exiled to a dingy building near the Barbican by Regents Park head office that is consumed by infighting and power struggles. Start with Slow Horses to get the drift. Although he is running low on new plot lines here, the dialogue is better than ever, laugh out loud terrific.
Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley
There are six books (the 7th is due this year) in this series, each 500 pages, that each deal with one of the sisters adopted by a Swiss enigmatic recluse. My daughters and book-reading friends urged me not to be sniffy about the sentimental covers.
I finally read this in one day flat when it was raining non-stop in Shrewsbury. Wonderful page-turning escapism if a quite unbelievable story. It is rescued from being one of those books you dump and forget as soon as you’ve finished by that same very improbable set-up and glorious locations. Shall I be reading the second (The Storm Sister) next time I need a duvet day? Yes, I am afraid I shall.
A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago
I struggled with this one. It is set in the reign of James I – some 60 years after the end of The Mirror and the Light. The Howard family are still going strong and Court has a strong Scottish influence with underlying religious tension. The main characters are close friends Frances Howard (who has an abusive if high-born husband) and Anne Turner (a doctor’s widow with financial worries who has a talent for fashion). It is quite dark and you know from the beginning that it won’t end well. Unlike the Mantel it is not quite redeemed by the wonderful language.
The Survivors by Jane Harper
An Australian thriller which is set in Tasmania where time runs very slowly compared with Sydney. Tragedy from the past haunts the main characters (as in her previous excellent novels The Dry & The Lost Man) and returns when a murder occurs in the small seasonal coast community near Hobart. Highly atmospheric.
Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens
I like to read memoirs by people who write of current events that I have lived through including some that, shamefully seemed to have passed me by. They don’t come better than this. Christopher Hitchens (who died in 2011) was a journalist and intellectual who wrote in a style that carries you along like your favourite newspaper columnist. His turn of phrase makes you feel as clever as he was if you pick up a reference. You don’t have to be of his political persuasion, which when he was younger was of the extreme left, to be filled with admiration for the way he captures the mood and leading personalties of the times.
A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh
A surprisingly prescient book set in a time of the ‘sweats’ contagion when people are dying swiftly from a severe pandemic. The heroine, Stevie, has found her boyfriend, a doctor, dead but he has left instructions on what she must and only do with his computer. She has no idea why but then goes through the trials and tribulations of fulfilling his request, meeting many hazards in the process. Most of all she wants to find out how he died as his symptoms seem suspicious. The tale is more to do with this search with the contagion situation just the backdrop. This is the first volume in her Plague Trilogy and I will certainly be reading the rest. Some of the inspiration for the book came from the Terry Nation TV series shown the 1970s called Survivors and beautifully filmed in the area around north Herefordshire. If you liked that then this series could be for you too.
Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller
The third book I’ve read of her series of biographies. This one is focused on her mother’s life and, in much detail, her approach to it. It starts with her birth on the isle of Skye (her mother being a Macdonald of Clanranald which makes her, in her own opinion, 1000% Scottish) and quickly to her predilection for life in central Africa. Naturally the book involves the whole family but it does have the author’s amazing but troubled mother, Nicola, as its irrepressible centre. Life in Africa is far from relaxed as her mother’s life appears to be predominately located in areas of extreme unrest if not warfare. Some of the exploits were described in previous books but here there is generally much more detail such as the impact on Nicola of losing two children. A very interesting and fascinating read but I have some bias as we were in Lusaka during the Rhodesian war and suffered some of the consequences of the retaliations described though not as extreme as the effect on their lives. It does however help with knowing how to pronounce some of the names.
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
A lookalike attempts to impersonate a ‘dead’ family member and thereby assume the rights to the family fortune. A well-written book by the author recently voted as having written the best whodunnit last century. The usual rich country house grandeur and activities and sufficient intrigues as to the behaviours of the existing family and whether they truly accept this interloper to be whom he claims. As usual Josephine Tey describes a credible situation and provides plenty of sub-plots to carry the narrative and you to a satisfactory ending.
The Violins of St Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Not his famous travel writing but an interesting novel related to a traveller by an old Frenchwoman describing the period early in her life during which she lived on a tiny Caribbean island. As usual it is Fermor’s elegant descriptive passages that captivate and of course he throws the odd word in to challenge one’s vocabulary (‘orgulous’ – anyone?) along with some phrases in foreign that unhelpfully go untranslated – Google translate to the rescue, if required. Certainly, the tale told is extraordinary and the build up is impressive in its descriptions of the revelries and the eventual denouement of the island life. An unusual story with plenty of wonderful evocative pages.
Letters from a Lost Uncle by Mervyn Peake
A facsimile edition, complete with brilliant illustrations, of a humorous tale of a trip to the Arctic by a nephew’s one-legged uncle and his mutant turtle-like retainer, Jackson. These letters home (to a nephew he has never met) describe their adventures and various mishaps in search of the White Lion. As with much of Peake’s output it is all quite fantastic; such as their subtle exploitation of some vultures to cross a chasm. This comedic partnership has the mandatory buffoon and Jackson serves this role. Somewhat dim-witted and clumsy his failings are evident throughout the sequence of letters and indeed the illustrations. The scheming Uncle himself has many opportunities to exploit his peg-leg so he too contributes well another facet of the ridiculous pairing. A very entertaining book, albeit short, with plenty of humour and impressive illustration.
A Still Life by Josie George.
I came across the author on Twitter and was intrigued, so decided to buy the book when it was published. I’m not sure I can explain why it’s a good read but I would like to say that reading it made me happy! As its title implies it’s a quiet sort of book; it’s a memoir of a life that has been severely constrained by illness, a life that is necessarily lived in narrow confines, so it doesn’t seem as though it will be an uplifting read. And yet, it’s a testament to resilience and courage, the very opposite of self-pitying, and a reminder of the joy and sustenance to be had from focusing on the small things. I liked it a lot!
Hello Mum by Polly Dunbar
A sweet and lovely doodle memoir from children’s writer and illustrator, Polly Dunbar; this explores the highs and lows of mothering small children. Polly captures the mix of magical highs and desperate lows that living with little ones inevitably produces. It’s gorgeous and would make a perfect gift for new parents!
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
I really don’t know how I missed this first time around. It was published by the Women’s Press in 1988 ~ and I honestly thought I’d read all their books ~ and was the first book published by a black woman from Zimbabwe in English. Nervous Conditions won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989, and in 2018 was listed as one of the BBC’s top 100 books that changed the world. I’m so glad Faber have republished it this year for a new generation of readers (and for those of us playing catch up!). The main character is Tambudzai (Tambu) Sigauke ~ thirteen years old. The horrors of sexism, racism, cultural imperialism, poverty are powerfully and heart-breakingly explored from her perspective as a young girl in a family where all privilege (especially educational) goes to the eldest son. When her brother dies very young, a new world opens up for Tambu …
This is the first of a trilogy and is semi-autobiographical. (It reminds me in some ways of the Virago series, Frost in May, and has made me want to revisit Bucchi Emecheta, who I was reading back in the 1980s.)
Many Different Kinds of Love by Michael Rosen
This is the moving account of Michael’s experience with Covid. He very nearly died before finally being admitted to hospital, and he spent most of April and May 2020 in an induced coma. The disease and treatment has left him weakened, without the use of his left eye and ear, and he has had to learn how to walk again. The book is a mixture of poetry; diary accounts written by ITU staff at the end of their shifts; text messages written to Michael from his wife Emma, and Michael’s own reflections on his experience. It is sobering, shocking and deeply saddening. However, it is also a story of survival (though 42% of the ITU ward’s patients were not so lucky) and of Michael’s determination to learn how to live with the after-effects. Michael came to Wenlock Poetry Festival in 2015 where he gave an amazing performance to 200 children and parents ~ afterwards he chatted and signed books with every child who wanted to meet him.
CECILY by Annie Garthwaite
I gave this book a plug last month but hadn’t got my hands on a proof-copy at that stage. I’ve now read it, and you can see what I thought of it by clicking here! (It’s fabulous!)
Thank you to everyone for contributing ~ keep reading!
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