Talking about books
~ at home
books we read in July
Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton
This is a story about a school siege at a small rural school (pupils aged 4-18) near the coast of Somerset. The school has been attacked by masked gunmen and the children and staff are trapped at various locations in several different school buildings. There are older children in the library with the injured headmaster, children of a wide range of ages in the theatre where they are rehearsing Macbeth, some younger children in the pottery shed deep in the woods and younger children in a new building set a distance from the old building. The tension builds up through the book, with chapters covering the children and staff at the various locations, the police response to the siege and then parents of the trapped children. It is a good page-turner.
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
I did not watch the new television production of the Pursuit of Love but reading reviews of it made me realise that I had never read it and I managed to find a copy at the library. I enjoyed this story of an eccentric aristocratic family between the wars whose oldest daughter, Linda, is so determined to find ‘love’. The very odd upbringing of the children, especially the idea of the father hunting the children with hounds when there were no foxes around, made me laugh.
A Theatre For Dreamers by Polly Samson
This is about Hydra, the Greek island, where there was a thriving community of authors, poets and artists in the nineteen sixties including Leonard Cohen, Axel Jensen and his wife Marianne Ihlen, Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnstone. The first chapter starts with Erica, the main protagonist, climbing the hill on the island thinking about Leonard Cohen, whose death had just been announced and then the rest of the book is back in the sixties when she arrived on Hydra as a seventeen year old with her boyfriend and brother, getting there by using the car that her brother had inherited and the cash that she had inherited on the recent death of their mother. The mother had been friendly with Charmian and the girl is looking for a mother substitute and also information about her mother’s past. The story is about the dysfunctional relationships between virtually all the characters which could be depressing but the backdrop is lovely and I found it an enjoyable read.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This was our book group choice this month and I opened it with great expectations as so many of my friends had loved it. Another book about a small girl all alone, this time in the swamps of South Carolina. I found the writing beautiful and evocative, conjuring up the nature and the world in which Kya lived. It was also gripping as there is an accusation of murder and the story builds to the climax of the trial. At our book group discussion there was not agreement however as some found it “implausible” and “inaccurate” including one member who has lived in South Carolina and so knows it well. This led to us debating whether a work of fiction has to be true to life – no conclusion was reached!
The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding
The author travels to a part of former East Germany to find a house once lived in by his great grandparents. He then chronicles the story of the house from its construction in 1928, through the 1930s when its Jewish owners were persecuted, to the impact of the Second World War and then the division of Germany when the house ended up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. It could have been grim but it’s the story of a family and also of the house told in a fascinating and engaging way and with a happy ending as, due to his intervention, the house was saved and has become a community centre and museum. History but from a different angle.
Little White Lies by Philippa East
Lent to me by a neighbour who had enjoyed it, this is a story told from two perspectives, Anne, the mother of Abigail, a teenage girl who is found after being missing for 7 years and also the girl’s cousin, Jess, who is a similar age. On the one hand there is the police investigation and capture of the man who has held her captive but, at the same time, the reader knows that Abigail’s mother is withholding information about how she came to be taken. While I wanted to get to the truth I found it somewhat tedious and longwinded, a good idea but, I felt it might work better as a short story.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet
The issues in this book are important and interesting but, although I had looked forward to reading it, I was disappointed overall. It seemed to tackle a story that needed many more pages to tell really well. For me, the characters were not developed enough so I was not drawn into their stories. There were unanswered questions as to motivation and some incredible co-incidences. A lack of balance between the stories of the two sisters. I found the introduction of a trans character as, presumably, a comparison to being black/pretending white did not work for me. They were treated as a kind of add-on. Also, the back and forth of ‘time’ in the book was a distraction. I felt frustrated because I thought it had the makings of a much better book.
Having said that I am glad I read it and enjoyed, particularly, the character of Early, the description of a middle-class suburban ‘black’ housewife passing herself off as white, the description of downtown theatre in LA and many others passages in the book. I suppose I am saying it was good, even memorable, in parts but just did not hang together for me.
Passing by Nella Larsen
So I sought out Nella Larsen’s Passing, which apparently inspired The Vanishing Half‘, and I have to say I admire it a great deal more! Unfair to compare since they are such different books but Passing is beautifully written, has fully developed characters who completely drew me in and a plot that left me questioning but in a good way. A short book but with depth. A real evocation of a time, place and society that I found very relevant. Thoroughly recommend.
A Wonder Woman – by Kuli Kohli
(The second collection of poems by Kuli Kohli, published this year by Offa’s Press.)
Kuli truly is a wonder woman and this collection illustrates her determination to survive, indeed thrive. She is a creative writer, poet, mother, wife and full time worker with Wolverhampton City Council. She was born with mild cerebral palsy in Northern India and came to Britain when young as part of a Working Class Punjabi family.
Her poems describe and investigate all aspects of her life, as well as the Black Country, with regular dipping into her native language and culture. Where she deems it necessary, the meanings of Punjabi words are explained.
Many of the poems I have read over and over and one that through its succinctness and power, I keep returning to is this:
As I walked down the street,
old Asian women began to think –
they stared at me: head to feet,
“She’s had too much to drink!”
Babbling nonsense, I wasn’t torn,
“Yes,” I said, “God sent me tipsy,
drunk; a party before I was born,
desperate for oxygen but drank whisky.”
(reprinted with kind permission of Simon Fletcher, Offas Press.)
The Black Dress by Deborah Moggach
Just out, and if you’re a Deborah Moggach fan like me, by page 3 you will be back in that familiar cardigan and those long worn slippers. As always I was torn, wanting to make it last, but didn’t have the courage to put it down.
Ms Moggach never pads, avoids volume for the sake of it or to please a publisher, so we romp along in a contemporary world of both events as well as our heroine. The story terminates in current time, as if she put down her pen the day before yesterday.
We are treated to her humour, her opinions on current life and politics in Britain as well as sufficient fiction to keep us entertained and interested. She also surprises, particularly at the end of some of the chapters.
If you’re not a regular Deborah Moggach reader, her 278 pages will entrance, entertain and shock you in equal measure.
The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher – How handwriting made us who we are
Most of our writing these days is on a keyboard and we are in danger of losing the practice of handwriting. This delightful book takes us back to the invention of handwriting and its history through the centuries, language, style, teaching and to our own early days when we learned to write and later to choose what sort of pen to use – Parker, Conway Stewart, Platignum and so on. There are wonderful and hilarious chapters on graphology as well as the ballpoint, with Mr Biro and Monsieur Bic. I found myself washing out and filling my Parker 51 which I have had since I was 21 and which I used for my professional qualifications all those years ago. Highly recommended.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
I can’t think for the life of me why this book won the 2020 Booker Prize. I am not an insensitive person but I just couldn’t feel the emotions apparently felt by the judges and reviewers of this fictional misery memoir. This description of working-class poverty and lives destroyed by alcohol didn’t do it for me. Certain dialect words, apparently common in Glasgow, sent me to Google and for me, the writing did not come up to the standard I expect from a modern literary novel. Perhaps it’s just me?
It’s not just you, Philip, Jenny also didn’t enjoy it, but Hilary and I loved it! Please comment, other readers, if you’d like to weigh in! Anna
Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre
As well as being an excellent columnist for The Times, Ben Macintyre is a brilliant historian, writer and presenter of books and documentaries about war and spying. I have heard him in person a couple of times and his presentations are superb. This latest of his books is the astonishing story of a young anti-Nazi German woman who became a spy for the Soviet Union serving in China, Manchuria, Poland, Switzerland and finally becoming an English citizen where she was instrumental in helping the USSR develop its own nuclear bomb by stealing the details of the Manhattan Project in the United States. Perhaps occasionally over-detailed, the book reads like a thriller and will have you hooked.
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
Born in London to Bengali parents Pulitzer prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, at the age of 40, decided to move from New York to Rome with her family and to write in Italian. I’d loved her novels, ‘The Namesake’ and ‘The Lowland’, and was curious to read this memoir. She writes of her experience of immersion in Italian to a level where she now only writes in that language. Even this memoir is translated into English, her second language, by someone else. You can see the Italian on the left and the English on the right hand page of the book. It almost makes you think you speak Italian yourself as your eyes jump from one side to the other. I was reminded of ‘The Eighth Life’ where the Georgian writer decides to write in German to get a wider audience. However Lahiri’s motivation is fascinatingly different.
Later by Stephen King
Rated as 5* in the Dutch Thriller guide, this was a very easy read. The trashy cover does it no favours. It’s a classic style Stephen King thriller with an emerging supernatural undercurrent. The narrator is 22 and looking back on events that happened when he was 9 onwards. He sees and communicates with the recently dead. His mother’s ex-girlfriend is a failing corrupt NYPD cop and exploits this to save her sorry skin in solving a crime. The title ‘Later’ refers to hindsight and explains what he did not realise at the time. I really enjoyed it.
Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Yet another tale of the over moneyed miserable in Manhattan. A senior consultant doctor at a NY hospital and his entrepreneurial wife make each other inexplicably unhappy. They decide to divorce. She dumps the kids at his place and disappears. He embarks on a spree of sex dating apps. Having initiated this train of events he, and we, are mystified as to how it will end. A parallel narrator, in the form of an old friend of his, unsuccessfully aims to help us understand.
Assembly by Natasha Brown
Only 100 pages of loosely connected short episodes tell of a highly educated black woman with a white upper middle class boyfriend in the time of the 2008 financial crisis. I found myself thinking ‘Queenie’ meets the film ‘Get Out’
Very well written and definitely worth a reread after the two hour first pass.
Motherwell by Deborah Orr
Despite numerous recommendations I did not like this much. Indisputably high quality writing but Deborah Orr is an unreliable narrator recounting her upbringing in Lanarkshire during the demise of the steel industry in the town in the 70s. She tells of her parents; Her English mother whose ‘wife and mother’ duty turned her into an unsympathetic character and her father who she initially adored is repeatedly dismissed, with little proof, as a narcissist. Her tale of an escape to university in St Andrews and to work in Edinburgh & London does not ring true. I can only think that as this was written just prior to her own early death and that this coloured her view of a childhood that was probably not so untypical of the time.
The Feast by Margaret Kennedy
I picked this up in Burway Books as I loved the cover – how shallow am I! It was originally published in 1950 and looked like a perfect golden age summer read. It is so much more. When a hotel on a Cornish cliff collapses at the begininning of the book we are taken back through the preceding days of all the residents who may or may not have perished. Each has their own faults and problems. We are kept guessing to the end as to who lives and who dies. Clever and original. Skip the introduction as it contains plot spoilers.
The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
I saw the 2002 adaptation of this starring Damian Lewis a few years ago and loved it. I’ve meant to read the book ever since and have finally done so. According to Wikipedia, it was first published under the title of The Forsyte Saga in 1922, formed from a series of three novels and two interludes published between 1906 and 1921. It won its author the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932.
I gather many of the adaptations in assorted media are considered quite loose. My memory of the one I saw is that it focused on the frustrated-romance angle. The books feel to me to be primarily about ownership, encompassing property, colonisation and romantic affairs. Wikipedia picks out as the themes ‘duty versus desire’ and ‘generations and change’, which are certainly present.
I find myself somewhat sympathetic to Soames; he’s a man who lives by the standards he was taught and can’t see what he’s done wrong to deserve his cousin ending up with his former wife and house (illustrating the sense of ownership at the heart of the tale). Young Jolyon, more clearly a sympathetic character, has left an unhappy marriage for his children’s governess before the saga starts. I gather Galsworthy was contrasting an all-for-love approach to Soames’ Victorian standards. Reading online reviews, I see that many readers note the same mix of good and bad, sympathetic and unsympathetic, making the characters more than just heroes and villains.
Irene is an intriguing character. The author acknowledges that we never see her point of view; we only see her as she is perceived by other characters. Her beauty disrupts the lives of those around her, driving men to ridiculous lengths and causing great hurt to one woman. She’s frustrating in a way, passive by modern standards, but there’s a distant elegance that I can imagine being fascinating.
The casting in the adaptation gave me pause for thought. Few of the actors much resemble the physical descriptions in the books and yet I felt they had captured the essence of their characters. I’ll bear that in mind next time an old favourite is cast against the type in my mind!
It could just be me but I’d had the impression that the saga was an entertaining bodice-ripper rather than a serious piece of work that evokes a immense cast of characters over an extended period that incorporated huge social change, with the end of the Victorian era and then the First World War (although the Boer War is perhaps more pivotal for the family).
Wikipedia says that Galsworthy went on to write two more trilogies (the three were republished under a collective title of The Forsyte Chronicles) and some further ‘footnotes’. He said in a foreword: ‘It is hard to part suddenly and finally from those with whom one has lived so long; and these footnotes do really, I think, help to fill in and round out the chronicles of the Forsyte family.’
Maybe one day I’ll read on…
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
Written as a novel but we are advised at the end that it reflects a number of tales told to the author by refugees when she was working as a volunteer in Greece so to some extent this story reflects their reality. The main characters are well defined and what goes on around them is both harrowing and amazing. They are richer than most and that enables them to avoid some traumas but far from all of them. Not sure I could relate with them, but maybe the beekeeping mistakes are the author’s fault. However I can appreciate the horrors of what goes on. It makes you realise just how lucky we are. It is a captivating read all the same.
Malice in the Cotswolds by Rebecca Tope
Not a novelist I had heard of but a whodunnit based in Snowshill caught my eye. The author turns out to be very prolific and even ghost-wrote a series of Rosemary and Thyme books. An easy read about a lady and her dog who house sit. The crimes are encountered in these various places and she has the usual rapport with the investigating officer so as to be much informed as to what is going on from their perspective even though she often knows more herself. I was kept guessing up to the end and at least the culprit was plausible and the whole book read quite smoothly. Even the significant number of characters were often reintroduced when they re-appeared which helped me remember who they were. It could still have benefitted from a descriptive cast list as is sometimes done. Very readable but I would suggest that reading her series in sequential order may improve the experience as there were references to earlier ‘cases’ although they were more scene setting than relevant to this volume.
Sweet Caress by William Boyd
A book recommended by Anna recently was sitting on my bookshelf so I was inspired to read it especially as I had greatly enjoyed an earlier book of his: Any Human Heart. The structure of the books are the same, taking us through the life of the main character spanning all decades of the 20th century. Amory Clay is the oldest of three children with a fairly remote father who was in the forces and not particularly influential in her upbringing. His replacement was her uncle who had been invalided out of the army. He was a keen photographer and gave Amory her first camera which was to become her passion and eventual career. It took her far and wide and she even was a war photographer as some stage. The book covers all aspects of Amory’s life and carries the story well, with interventions from her journal of a later period in her life when residing in Scotland. A beguiling feature of the book are the black and white photographs of characters and places from throughout Amory’s life which seem incredibly realistic and appropriate. I certainly enjoyed the book too.
A Little History of the English Country Church by Roy Strong
The former director of the V&A has a passion for English country churches and this book gives a lot of insight into their cultural development since their inception. An impressive analysis of the social and the remarkable cultural pressures especially during the Commonwealth era where there are significant differences between parishes. Many of these pressures and changes are explained even down to parishes rejecting authority. A lot of his examples are relatively local (he lives in Herefordshire) as there are historically important examples on our doorstep such as the pagan and Norman remains with Norse influences at Kilpeck Church. But his examples cover the whole country so, much to interest everyone. He quotes from an amazing poem by Philip Larkin reflecting the impact of visiting an old church and happily at the end of the book he includes an Epilogue where he ponders the future for these churches and his particular wishes which are other than preserving them in aspic.
I can’t pass by a reference to a poem, so you can read about the Larkin poem here. Anna
Nightingale by Marina Kemp
This was recommended by The Times newspaper and quite unusual it was. The story of a young woman leaving Paris to be hired as a nurse to a cantankerous old man living in the south of France. Quite tempestuous repartee develops between them. It became rather boring and implausible really and then went off the rails as other characters developed. I gave it up thankfully before 70 pages were consumed. Perhaps I should re-read the article to see what actually captivated the reviewer.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
This was a big read (I started it last month) and I loved it all, even though I’m not a follower of politics. Really interesting to begin to understand how the American political system works ~ and how frightening it is.
The Signature of all Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Previously recommended by Rad, this is one of my favourite books of the year! Excellently written and a completely fascinating ‘life scientific’ of a woman born in 1800 who lives to the end of the century. This woman, Anna, felt so real to me that I googled her at the end to find out more, only to realise (with huge disappointment!) that she wasn’t actually real. A real tour de force I can’t recommend it highly enough ~ and it’s a big read too, not quite as long as the Obama, but getting there! Don’t just take my word for it, this review is excellent. And this is what Rad said:
This was a lovely, lovely read and I am looking forward to a Book Club ‘Walk and Talk’ this afternoon to discuss it! It was such an unexpected find. Every time I opened the book, I was kind of delighted to be reading! I really enjoyed the writing, loved the story with all its twists and turns and the flawed, but real, characters. I loved the botanical backdrop and the scientific detail that was always enough and never too much. I highly recommend it.
100 Poems to Save the Earth selected by Zoe Brigley and Kristian Evans
The publisher, Seren, sent me this for the Poetry Breakfast we are doing in September. It’s a marvellous anthology that includes some of my favourite poets, like Kathleen Jamie; Owen Sheers; Gillian Clarke; Eavan Boland; Paul Henry; Sheenagh Pugh; Simon Armitage and Liz Berry among many others. The two editors address the question of how can poetry save the earth like this:
Poetry invites us to fine-tune our senses, to pay attention, to feel more carefully for the pulse of things. It asks us to slow down and notice what we have been missing, to remember what we have forgotten.
Poetry … calls us to stay awake, to find the words to describe how [anxiety, grief] feels, to sing to what hurts, to reach out, to attend more closely and with more care, to each other and to our fellow species, to see all things as our kin. In fact, it may be that poetry is exactly what we need to save the earth.
Zoe Brigley and Kristian Evans, from 100 Poems to Save the Earth, published by Seren, 2021.
The Long Field by Pam Petro
This gorgeous book will be published in September by Little Toller ~ when I was a bookseller they were right at the top of my list of much-loved publishers, and the only publisher from whom I consistently ordered multiple copies of all their titles! When the shop had to close they were kind and gracious and took precious time to generously guide me through awfulness of closure when I was traumatised by it. So anything that they publish is, for me, already head and shoulders above the rest.
I picked up Pam’s books from the pile that had arrived through my letterbox during the two weeks I was on Berneray. A day and a half later (during which I did little else!) This is what I wrote to Pam:
Pam ~ I loved it! Beautifully, exquisitely written, and so moving and honest. I loved everything about it. I love Wales anyway, having been going there since I was six years old, thanks to parents who loved it, and I too have my favourite woods, dripping with rain, full of moss and lichen and ancient rocks, and, in late spring, drenched with the scent and colour of bluebells. (It’s here: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/woods/coed-aber-artro/)I loved the poetry threaded through ~ I know Gillian Clarke well, and Menna a little. It made me smile to read again about the ‘danger’ of Menna: when she came to the Wenlock Poetry Festival I was very nervous, expecting someone strident, inflexible, difficult, but of course she is none of those things! All the other literary references too ~ I’ll have to make a list of all the ones I want to follow up.This is a spectacular book, and one I’ll be thinking about and talking about for a long time to come.Anna
Pam Petro will be in the UK this autumn, I’m hoping to meet her ~ I’ll let you know!
A Still Life by Josie George
Josie has spent most of her 37 years suffering from undiagnosed chronic pain. There are days when she can barely get out of bed. Days and weeks when she can hardly leave home. The local community centre, minutes away by mobility scooter from her small terraced house somewhere in the industrial West Midlands, is one of the few places she feels she can be accepted without judgement for how she looks and moves. Like the character Anna, in The Signature of all Things, she has to learn how to live within a very small frame of reference, and how to see and learn and live within those imposed parameters. Like Anna, what she does with that is immense and inspirational. One of her reviewers says something like ‘this book makes you a better person.’ I disagree! But it does make you want to be a better person. I loved it. Nicky read this, too. Here’s what she said:
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!
The Slough House series by Mick Herron
I’m halfway through this series about a motley crew of failed spies, who under the ‘guidance’ of Jackson Lamb are given Sisyphean tasks of soul-destroying boredom in the hope that it wiill push them towards resigning from the service in order that the service doesn’t have to go to the trouble of sacking them. It should be awful, with such a premise, but my goodness, they are fabulous ~ and such fun!
Here’s what Jenny had to say about 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.
Thank you so much to everyone who contributes to this book blog, and to all our readers.
August is traditionally a holiday month , so I don’t need anything from you now until 23rd September ~ but feel free to send your recommendations in sooner, if you prefer.
Enjoy what’s left of the summer ~ I’m already enjoying that very slight air of autumn that comes in the early morning ~ and I’ll see you in September!
(yes this is still the right email!)
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