Weekend Miscellany

It’s been a busy week – but now I have half term – although nothing planned, as my daughter is revising and has her Duke Of Edinburgh Bronze expedition next weekend. I ought to start work on the summer edition of the school magazine, but it’s also a time for catching up with blogging. So here’s a miscellany of my bookish week:

Firstly, a huge thanks to Vintage Books (and Will Rycroft) for picking my name out of the hat to win their latest newsletter competition. It was all about writers who have worked for the New Yorker and their links to another author who was editor of the magazine for a long while. My prize was a set of Vintage classics by that editor – William (Keepers) Maxwell.

Maxwell

I must admit I’ve never read Maxwell, and before I looked him up to enter the competition I had never heard of him! He had a long life, being born in 1908, dying in 2000, and appears to have had an equally long writing career. Will tells me I’m in for a treat, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in… But which to read first?

  • They Came Like Swallows (1937) is a family drama
  • All the Days and Nights (1965) is an anthology of short stories
  • The Folded Leaf (1945) is a coming of age tale set in 1920s Chicago
  • So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) is about jealous farmers in rural Illinois
  • Time Will Darken It (1948) turn of the century Illinois
  • The Chateau (1961) An American couple holiday in France.

I’m drawn to The Chateau or The Folded Leaf, but do tell me if you’d particularly recommend any of the others.

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Secondly, it’s time for a little non-fiction Shiny Linkiness…

All I Know Now by Carrie Hope Fletcher

All I Know NowThis book is part memoir, part advice guide from the young star of Les Miserables who is also a Youtube vlogger and younger sister of Tom from McFly.

Aimed squarely at the teenaged girl market, I snaffled a proof copy to write a ‘Mum’s-eye review’ of it for Shiny New Books – it’s stuffed full of relentlessly cheerful good advice from an obviously lovely girl who wants to be your ‘honorary big sister’. Unlike Zoella and co, Carrie has only herself to plug, and she makes it clear that hard work is required, but tells it with a lot of good humour whilst trying to be a comfort too. If you have a younger teenaged daughter, buy it for her and get in her good books!

Click here to read my full review.

Naked at the Albert Hall by Tracey Thorn

naked at the albert hall Tracey Thorn is back with another book which allows her to explore in detail one area which didn’t fit in the first book, specifically the art of singing.

She serves us up an enticing mixture which includes snatches of memoir, interviews with other singers, singers in literature, the mechanics of singing, ruminations on what it means and its power. She also talks frankly about her stage fright, which has prevented her singing live now for many years.

As with her brilliant memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, this volume is shot through with wit and wonder; she writes beautifully and I really enjoyed reading in her company again.

Click here to read my full review.

Shiny New Books now has an affiliate link to The Book Depository, so if you want to find out more you can click through at the bottom of my full reviews. SNBks remains totally independent though, the affiliate account is just to help pay for the webhosting.

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mostly_booksThirdly, I was shocked to find out this week that the owners of my favourite bookshop – the amazing Mostly Books in Abingdon – have put the business on the market, so they can concentrate on their kids and other things. The good news is that they’re not in a particular hurry and are hoping to sell to the right kind of person.  Could I?….

Despite having no experience of proper retail or bookselling, I do have ideas, and have always had a dream of owning a bookshop. I can’t afford to buy it outright without downsizing my house, which I wasn’t planning to do until my daughter goes to university. But, if I had a business partner, that would give half the financial risk, double the ideas, the ability to have holidays and not necessarily work six or seven days a week. Anyone interested?

Shiny Debuts – Love and Linkiness…

Today’s batch of Shiny linkiness from my reviews in issue 5 of Shiny New Books features three debut novels. All absolute crackers! Please click through to read the full reviews and join in the comments:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

eorj This is a quirky quest novel, wherein 80-year-old Etta decides to walk to the sea – 2000 miles from Saskatchewan to the Atlantic Ocean. She leaves behind two men who love her, husband Otto and neighbour Russell, and we’ll find out all about the three of them as her journey goes on. And no, it’s not the Canadian Harold Fry – it’s totally different.

This novel was a quirky yet understated pleasure to read – I loved it.

Click here to read my full review (and see a clip of Emma talking about her grandparents who inspired the book).

Fire Flowers by Ben Byrne

Fire Flowers Europa Editions’ first British novel is a story of lost siblings and romance set in Tokyo following the prolonged firestorm that moreorless destroyed the city, and starts on the day of the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII.

The story is told by four characters. Satsuko Takara and her younger brother Hiroshi have been orphaned and separated by the firestorm. Satsuko will never give up looking for her teenaged brother, whereas he assumes she is probably dead. Then there is Hal Lynch – an American who used to be an aerial photographer, now a photo journalist for the US press in Tokyo. Lastly we follow Osamu Maruki, a writer and Satsuko’s lover before he was sent to the South Pacific. The four have separate lives in the ruined city, and they will cross paths although not necessarily meeting.

Fire Flowers is the first novel I’ve read set during this time and place. It was a gripping historical story, heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure. A remarkable debut – I loved it too.

Click here to read my full review

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

fuller I’ll put my cards on the table – as of today, this is still the best book I have read so far this year!

It tells of a girl Peggy, daughter of Ute, a German concert pianist and James – a survivalist. In 1976, James takes little Peggy off to live in a hut in the woods in the Black Forest, telling her the rest of the world has gone. Nine years later she is back, naturally damaged by her experience. We tease out the story of what happened in the book’s present and in flashback. It is full of fairy-tale resonance, very dark, sometimes humorous, but always full of music. Absolutely fantastic!

Click here to read my full review.

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Source: Publishers – thank you all!

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

 

The bells, the bells …

A Musical Interlude

I’ve just finished reading Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, which I shall be reviewing for Shiny New Books. I’ll just say it’s the best book I’ve read so far this year …

In the novel, the narrator’s mother is a German concert pianist – and Liszt’s piano étude La Campanella (the little bell) is an idée fixe running throughout the novel.  I was shocked to find that I don’t own a CD of this amazing piece of music, which is based on a theme from Paganini’s second violin concerto.  So I set out to explore, and there are just so many recordings out there – the tune is now a complete earworm for me! On my travels I came across some other bloggers’ favourites:  Eric at Lonesome Reader picked Valentina Lisitsa, whereas Claire at Word by Word chose Yundi Li to illustrate her post.

I hurried off to Youtube. Top of the list comes Lang Lang – technically perfect, yet far too showy for me. Alice Sara Ott was too clean and measured. There are many clips of Lisitsa playing it – including one on an out of tune piano in a park – her left hand, accompanying the dextrous tinkling of the right, is particularly lovely. The one for me though turned out to a performance from the Proms in 1997 by Russian-born, British-Israeli Evgeny Kissin. His intensity is ferocious, you see the sweat pouring off him in the later stages yet, he just sparkles in the light passages – he really inhabits the piece.

Do you have a favourite?  Here’s Evgeny…

Trending: Tough Issue Lit for Teens

See, being an eternal optimist, I can’t even bring myself to say the word ‘suicide’ in my blog post title – yet as a subject of teen novels, I’m seeing it and mental health related illness cropping up more and more…

I was hereI bring the issue up as I’ve just read Gayle Forman’s new novel I Was Here, (which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here).

To cut a long story short, on page one, you read the suicide note of Cody’s best friend Meg. They’d grown up together and only just gone separate ways when Meg went off to uni. Everyone is grief-stricken in their small town in the US northwest. Asked by Meg’s parents to collect her things from uni, Cody is shocked to find that there was so much she didn’t know about, and that Meg had been visiting the wrong kind of internet forums – essentially being anonymously groomed towards suicide. I was shocked to find that Forman’s novel was based on a real case! Importantly, Cody’s investigations lead to an appropriate ending, and she is able to move on.

I was here though, is just the latest (bound to be) bestselling YA novel covering this territory – there seems to be more and more of them at the moment. To see just how many there are – a good sample of titles and some intelligent discussion around the subject can be found on the Stacked blog here and here.

Of course, there have always been books which include suicides and attempted suicides, many of which will be read by older teens – The Bell Jar being the classic (see my review here), but many of the suicidal protagonists fail in their attempts to end their lives, recovering to some level and overcoming their depression.  The gritty memoirs Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen and Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel sharing their experiences will be familiar to many too.

its-kind-of-a-funny-storyMoving to 2007 – Ned Vizzini wrote It’s Kind of a Funny Story about a suicidal high school student who gets over his depression (my review here); Vizzini himself tragically committed suicide in 2013. Plath of course committed suicide just months after finishing The Bell Jar. Knowing the authors’ fates makes for a doubly sad read. These two books both feature protagonists who overcame their depression to engage with life again.

The current crop, including I Was Here, often feature successful (that’s so the wrong word, but you know what I mean) suicides though. This does change the emphasis towards what happens next and the effects on their friends and familes, but the act of the suicide always hangs heavily over the whole stories.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskyAgain this isn’t new, Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel was The Virgin Suicides about a family of teenaged sisters who all committed suicide, told after the events from the girls’ boyfriends PoVs; that wasn’t targeted at a YA audience although many older teens will read it. (I’ve yet to read it, but did see the film). Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is particularly well-written in its sensitivity and wonderful young hero Charlie – I highly recommend it.

Despite their sad themes, if you look around the blogosphere you’ll find many YA bloggers who are welcoming these books for giving their teenaged readers a way into discussing their own problems, and explaining to them what being depressed in particular is like – a kind of reading therapy perhaps. For them, it’s all about overcoming the old taboos and fostering a kinder, non-judgmental and more supportive atmosphere in which it’s good to talk. I applaud that wholeheartedly, because I see the pressure to achieve being put on teenagers today and I worry for them.

These days there are also hundreds of books for children and teens about grief, coming to terms with terminal illness, or the death of a parent or loved one. These range from Patrick Ness’ exceptional A Monster Calls about a boy whose mum is dying from cancer, to Sally Nicholl’s heartwarming but sad Ways to Live Forever about a boy with terminal illness, Clare Furniss’ bestselling novel Year of the Rat about a girl whose mum dies in childbirth, and not forgetting Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece which has to win the prize for most elegiac title.  These novels, many of which are eminently suitable for older children and younger teens, are perhaps the natural precursor to those above, but, they are also totally different in that no-one wants to die in them…

So, I also worry because these latest suicide lit books are so real. Where is the escapism and mystery?  I remember escaping into books as a teenager, never reading books that were so close to real life. Admittedly, the thrillers I read were terribly violent (Alastair MacLean and his ilk), but they were not ‘real’ – you engage with them differently. With the exception of The Bell Jar I can’t remember any similar titles around when I was a teenager, but then you didn’t talk about any mental health issues either.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought that all the novels I’ve mentioned and read above were good, they nearly all made me cry too, but so much teen fiction these days is so bleak and seems to want to shock. Given that many of the protagonists are on verge of becoming young adults, it’s such a brutal way to come of age too!

That’s why one of my favourite recent YA novels is Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone. No-one dies, there’s a mystery to be solved, and it still has lots to say about modern life and families. From those I’ve read so far on the longlist I’d be very happy if it won the Carnegie Medal. But, I also fear that to stick one’s head in the sand over this YA trend would be the mark of becoming a sentimental old fool – I’m not ready for that yet!

… and those that disappointed

All in all, I’ve had a marvellous reading year, but there were a few disappointments along the way. Of course a book that was meh or a DNF for me, may be just the ticket for another reader, but I hope I’ve explained in the full posts on these titles what I didn’t like about the books. You are very welcome to disagree!

ferrisI’m finally starting to overcome my compulsion to finish every book I read, posting about three DNF titles which I abandoned a way in but merited a mention here.  They were:

I found it quite liberating to abandon these books – especially the Ferris which had all the Booker interest…  I won’t be revisiting any of them in the future.

But there are another couple of novels that I read all the way through and posted about which were just about okay…

frog musichow-to-build-a-girlThe main character in Frog Music by Emma Donoghue just wore me out with her fussing and cussing.

Similarly, Johanna in Caitlin Moran’s first novel How to Build a Girl, despite Moran’s insistence that Johanna is not based on her own life, appears too close to be not her. Apparently aimed at older teens, this novel is full of swearing, wanking, sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. You have been warned.

The Mindless Thriller Award

nemesis… goes to The Nemesis Program by Scott Mariani.

I was lured into reading this book by the mention of the genius Szerbian scientist Nikola Tesla, who in his later years developed an oscillator that he reckoned could be scaled up to knock buildings down etc.

The sub-Bondian baddie in this thriller has developed such a weapon and ex-SAS soldier turned vicar(!) Ben Hope, in his tenth outing, is the man to stop him.

Just too absurd and too long, and the sense of humour bypass made this a bit of a slog.

 

Reading Flop of the Year

seth macf
The biggest disappointment in my reading year however was Seth MacFarlane’s comedy Western A Million Ways to Die in the West – which with passing time I recall as ever more puerile and just full of toilet jokes.

Originally, I had thought to go and see the film – but it absolutely tanked! I’m glad I didn’t get to waste my money. I even managed to resell my copy of the book too, so only ended up a couple of quid out of pocket.

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I was in two minds whether to write this post or not, but given that I have written a post about each of the books mentioned, saying what I thought about them thought it fair enough.

Am I being too snarky?
What do you think?
Have you read any of these books?

Tomorrow I’ll be back with some of the best
new to me authors I’ve discovered this year.

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part Two – The Blog edit

Yesterday I shared my best reads of 2014 as reviewed for Shiny New Books. Today, I turn my attention to titles reviewed here. The links will return you to my full reviews:

Best Retro-Subversive Laugh-Out-Loud Book

scarfolkDiscovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

So nearly my book of the year, Discovering Scarfolk is just hilarious! Stuck firmly in the 1970s world of public information films and Cold War paranoia, every page of this little book which is designed from front to back yields gems of parody and references in its tale of a missing man who got stuck in the unique town of Scarfolk.

There is also an comic twist to each illustration too, which ironically does make you look again to see if you missed anything…

For more information please reread this poster.

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Best Illustrations

sleeper spindle 1The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

sleeper spindle 2Gaiman’s reworked fairy tale is fabulous on its own, but with Chris Riddell’s illustrations it reaches a new height.

Inked in black and white with gold highlights, Riddell’s characteristic strong-browed young women, cheerful groteseques and skull-like gargoyles are simply gorgeous.

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Horrorstor_final_300dpiBest Cover Art

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

And whilst we’re on the subject of illustration, I must mention the best cover concept of the year – in this horror spoof of the IKEA catalogue.

The graphic design extends to the inside of the novel too with lots of attention to detail, but the story itself, although entertaining, is standard horror fare.

Best in Translation

my brilliant friendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein)

Like many this year, I too have caught ‘Ferrante Fever’. The first in a sequence of four novels by the elusive Italian author captures growing up in backstreet Naples in the 1950s perfectly for two young girls. Volumes two and three are now available, with the fourth to come. I’m so looking forward to catching up with Elena and Lila’s lives.

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Best Medical Drama

Dirty WorkDirty Work by Gabriel Weston

The second book by Weston, a surgeon herself,  is a novel that looks at one of the toughest things that obs & gynae surgeons may ever have to do – provide abortions.  It was not an easy book given its subject matter, but it was completely compelling to read and gives a profound insight into this difficult area.

 

Best Sequel

echoThe Echo by James Smythe

My book group will disagree with this choice for they hated the first book (The Explorer) in this planned quartet. However, I loved the utter claustrophobia of outer space in these books, and The Echo takes the central premise of the first book and keeps twisting it further with great effect. Roll on the third volume I say.

 

Best Book-Group Choice?

all-quiet-on-the-western-frontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maris Remarque

Arguably, we read some great books this year including Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but the added poignancy of reading this novel of WWI during the centenary month of August was very fitting and moving too. Our discussions were wide-ranging and everyone enjoyed the book, proving you don’t always need a voice of dissent to have a good book group meeting.

Best YA Shocker

BunkerThe Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

I am glad to have read the controversial Carnegie Medal winner to see for myself what it was all about. I can honestly say it is the bleakest novel I have ever read and it is for younger teens and upwards. If it had been written for adults, we wouldn’t find it so shocking at all, but despite its subject, I wouldn’t stop any child from reading it – I would encourage discussion afterwards though!

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… And Finally, My ‘Blog’ Book of the Year

hangover squareHangover Square
by Patrick Hamilton

I read this back in January it is still, frankly, the best book I’ve read all year.

Set in 1938 pre-war Earls Court in London, this is the story of George Harvey Bone and his unrequited love for the teasing Netta. This tragic novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I shall be reading more Hamilton in 2015.

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So that’s it for my Books of the Year.
Have you read any of these from yesterday or today?
Do share yours too.

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part One – the Shiny Edit…

hollyThis year for the first time, I’ve split my best of list in two. Having read around 130 books this year, there are too many to feature in just one post and there is an obvious split – today’s first part will feature those books that I’ve reviewed over at Shiny New Books

Forgive me for continually banging the drum, but I’m inordinately proud of Shiny and I am immensely grateful to all the lovely bloggers, friends, authors, translators, publishers who have written reviews and features for us. Special thanks to my three co-editors: Victoria, Simon and Harriet.

Tomorrow’s list will feature my favourite books this year reviewed on this blog, which includes many titles not published this year. 

But first over to the Shiny Edit! The links will take you over to my full reviews:

Best (Auto)biography

bedsit disco queen

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop star by Tracey Thorn.

Tracey writes beautifully about life, love and the music business but does it quietly with warmth, wit and wonder at the good luck she’s had along the way. I loved this book so much, that sharing a maiden surname, I wish I was related to her!

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Best YA Read for Adults Too

picture me gonePicture me Gone by Meg Rosoff

This novel about a girl and her father who go on holiday to visit his best friend only to find him missing is an understated novel, with a teenager as its reliable narrator who discovers that it’s the adults who are unreliable. Gently told, there are no big shocks but it reveals a lot about how we learn to see the world in shades of grey rather than black and white.

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Best Coming of Age

american sycamoreAmerican Sycamore by Karen Fielding.

A tale of siblings growing up by the banks of the Suequehanna river in north-eastern USA. Billy Sycamore’s life may start off as a modern day Huck Finn but something terrible happens that affects his whole life and family. Narrated by his young sister, it is both funny and sad, and has some transcendant turns of phrase.  Loved it.

She was beautiful, our mother; an extrovert yet flammable, a walking can of gasoline just waiting for a match.

Best Woods

into the treesInto the Trees by Robert Williams

Forests play a huge part in mythology, yet can a modern family find their own enchanted life living in one?  The very first paragraph of this novel tells us that the forest may be a safe sanctuary one moment, a dangerous and lonely wild place the next. This is a powerful drama of families, finding a life-work balance, true friendship … and trees.

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Best Totally Un-PC Book

BonfiglioliDon’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli

Imagine a 1970s Jeeves and Wooster crossed with James Bond, an upped double-entendres quotient and totally un-PC and you’ve got the Charlie Mortdecai books, of which this is the first. Written in the late 1970s, these capers narrated by the art-dealing aristo are great fun.

 

A Quick Mention for These Two

Mother Island by Bethan Roberts and Tigerman by Nick Harkaway.

The former a drama about child abduction and growing up on Anglesey in Wales, the latter an eco-thriller set on an island paradise that is ‘full of win’. Totally different, but both fab.

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… And Finally, My ‘Shiny’ Book of the Year

StationelevenUKHCStation Eleven
by Emily St.John Mandel.

I loved this elegant dystopian novel that takes place in the aftermath of a flu pandemic and following the links from former lives that persist between some of its survivors.

Awful things happen, yet seen through the journey of the Travelling Symphony – a collective of musicians and actors who struggle to keep the canon alive – there is positivity instead of despair for the fate of mankind.

Speculative fiction is possibly my favourite sub-genre of reading and this book is superb.

Read my review at SNBks.

 

 

 

Three Slightly Shorter Reviews

I’ve got a series of posts lined up for the week in between Christmas and New Year with my hits, misses, finds and stats, so it’s time to catch up with my review pile backlog and some shorter reviews…

The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield

undertakers daughter For anyone who loved the TV series Six Feet Under, this is what it’s like in real life to grow up living in an American Funeral Home, and sometimes it’s not that different! Kate Mayfield’s family moved to the town of Jubilee in southern Kentucky in 1959 where her father could realise his dream of running his own funeral home. Kate was already used living in the same house:

Back in Lanesboro, I had been the first in our family to be carried as a newborn from the hospital directly into a funeral home. Birth and death in almost the same breath.

We grow up with Kate in the business. We experience the competition between the rival businesses, and the favours and kindnesses that her father secretly does for the owner of the funeral home for the black population – for Jubilee in the 1960s was segregated. Kate’s father is a bit of a conundrum, totally professional and controlled, yet charismatic and a real dandy and, with his own hidden secrets of hard-drinking and womanising, no wonder Kate’s mother is brittle and desperate to fit into this community where they are initially outsiders. We learn a lot about the funeral business with Kate as she grows up, becoming a quietly rebellious teenager in the 1970s. We also see how the business of death can divide communities, cause family feuds and rattle a lot of skeletons in closets.

This memoir was absolutely fascinating, I heartily recommend it. Source: Publisher – Thank you, (9/10)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

kjfI’ve read this for book group – we’ll be discussing it in early January, but I won’t post about that discussion because I don’t want to spoil this novel for anyone that hasn’t read it yet – is there anyone?

The story is told by Rosemary who, at the start is at university, and still trying to come to terms with the disintegration of her family that started when she was five and her sister Fern disappeared from her life.

Rosemary takes us back and forwards through her life and the details gradually fall into place. However the big plot twist happens on page 77, early on in the novel.

As it happens, I knew the twist and I can honestly say it wouldn’t have taken me by surprise. The clues are all there (don’t read the tagline on the back cover for starters!). I’ve read several other books over the years that cover much of the same ground – without the twist.

After that it’s all a bit inevitable. That said, I did enjoy this book a lot, although I didn’t like the way the author continually signposts where we are in Rosemary’s story by referring to the beginning, middle, end and points inbetween.  I’m still confused too why the Booker judges thought so highly of it as literature, but it is a good read. Source: Own copy, (7.5/10).

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

murakamiI’ve had mixed success with Murakami, but loved this beautifully illustrated novella, translated by Ted Goossen.

A boy gets an urge to find out about Ottoman tax collection and stops off at the library on his way home. Directed to the basement and the stacks of withdrawn books, he finds himself in the weirdest of horror stories featuring a sheep man, a cage, doughnuts and a girl who talks with her hands amongst many other strange things. It’s a very weird story – sort of Alice in Wonderland meets The House of Leaves.

The beauty of this little volume is in the illustrations, many of which are pages from old catalogues and text books. The end-papers are marbled and on the front is a pocket to hold the book’s ticket – Harvill Secker, the publishers have done a lovely job. I must admit I pored over the illustrations, finding the story almost as secondary, but loved the whole. (If you need a late Christmas present for someone this would be ideal.)  Source: Own copy, (9/10).

murakami spread

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To explore any of these on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):

 

My first Penelope Fitzgerald read…

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

at freddies

Penelope Fitzgerald is yet another of those lauded middle-brow female novelists from the second half of the twentieth century that I had not yet tackled.

I’ve long been a champion of Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark; I’ve added Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Forster, Edna O’Brien, Penelope Mortimer and not forgetting Barbara Pym to my tried and loved list, but Anita Brookner was not so much to my taste.

Where would Penelope Fitzgerald fall? Given the love for her books around the web, the odds were in her favour.

I wanted a short novel as a palate cleanser between the two horror parodies I’ve recently read, and chose At Freddie’s over The Bookshop and The Blue Flower off my shelf as it was the shortest – possibly a risky thing to do, going for the least well-known of the three…

It’s the 1960s. Freddie’s, in the heart of London’s theatreland, is the familiar name of the Temple Stage School, a theatrical agency masquerading as a school that supplies child actors to the West-End stage in shows from Shakespeare to Peter Pan.

Freddie, the proprietor, is one of those old ladies who knows everyone and won’t take no for an answer – when a theatre manager rings up to complain about a prank one of her charges at played at the theatre – he gets ‘Freddied':

I’m afraid you’ll have to speak a little more clearly, dear. It comes with training … you can’t have rung me up to complain about a joke, an actor’s joke, nothing like them to bring a little good luck, why do you think Mr O’Toole put ice in the dressing-room showers at the Vic? That was for his Hamlet, dear, to bring good luck for his Hamlet. I’m not sure how old O’Toole would be, Mattie will be twelve at the end of November, if you want to record his voice, by the way, you’d better do it at once, I can detect just a little roughening, just the kind of thing that frightens choir-masters, scares them out of the organ-lofts, you know. I expect the child thought it would be fun to see someone fall over … two of them detained in Casualties, which of them would that be, John Wilkinson and Ronald Tate, yes, they were both of them here, dear, I’ll send Miss Blewett round to see then if they’re laid up, she can take them a few sweets, they’re fond of those … I suppose they’d be getting on for thirty now … well, dear, I’ve enjoyed our chat within its limits, but you must get the casting director for me now, or wait, I’ll speak to the senior house manager first … tell him that Freddie wants a word with him.

The Temple School is decrepit, damp, cold, run on a shoe-string with a skeleton staff on Freddie’s reputation alone it seems. Not a lot of teaching goes on. Woven into this short novel are three stories:

Freddie is taking on new staff to teach the children their lessons – the law demands a certain amount of education alongside their stage careers – Miss Hannah Graves and Mr Pierce Carroll are employed cheaply. Hannah has a love for the theatre, although no desire to be an actress – she wants to absorb it. Carroll, meanwhile has no qualifications to teach at all but is a practical sort and Freddie likes the lugubrious man, who will fall for Hannah – but will his love be requited?

We also follow the careers and antics of two of her young charges – Mattie and Jonathan. Mattie is playing Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John opposite a pernickety lead and an experienced older (and drunken) actor. Jonathan, a couple of years younger is Mattie’s friend and follower at Freddie’s – he’ll take over from Mattie in King John when his stint is over. Where Mattie is ebullient, Jonathan is thinking and quiet and only acts when he wants to – a method actor in the making.

The final strand is that of the school itself, its status – a rival school may be setting up, TV (an anathema to Freddie) needs child actors and as always there are financial worries.  Freddie is being courted by an investor, but is resisting, fearing a loss of control.

Things all come to a head around the first performances of King John:

Freddie herself did not go to the first night; she had not been out in the evening since the gala performance of Sleeping Beauty when Covent Garden was reopened after the war. On that occasion, it was remembered, she at looked round at the regal expanse of new Cecil Beaton crimson-striped wallpaper and asked whether there wasn’t a roll or two of it left over. Since then she had attended only matinées and previews.

The short note on the author at the front of my edition, said that Fitzgerald had worked in a theatrical school at one time, and she obviously put that experience into At Freddie’s. She declared that it would be her last autobiographical novel in the Guardian in 2000 Fitzgerald said that she “had finished writing about the things in my own life, which I wanted to write about.” She moved onto historical settings for subsequent novels.

First published in 1982, and set in 1963, At Freddie’s has a surprisingly Dickensian feel to it – the children have more than a hint of Fagin’s gang – with Mattie and Jonathan being the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist respectively. The courtship of Miss Graves by Carroll could almost be that of Pip for Estella – it really doesn’t feel like the 1960s!

Although it has a few poignant moments, it’s very much a broad comedy. I imagined Freddie herself as a rather wizened version of St Trinian’s Miss Fritton but with the chutzpah of Joey Tribbiani’s agent Estelle in Friends, (although Friends came later of course).  She’s an amazing character – totally eccentric and indomitable, Queen of her own little world, but with far-reaching tentacles of influence.  I was going to say apron-strings rather than tentacles, but Freddie doesn’t have a motherly bone in her body.

More than anything else though, this novel feels like a homage to Muriel Spark; the London setting, the backstage machinations, the characters and their dialogue – it’s all there. You could be mistaken for assuming you were reading one of Spark’s pithy black comedies like my favourite, The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

Giving us this double glimpse behind the scenes of life behind the scenes in the theatre with a delicious sting in the tail, Fitzgerald, like Spark takes no prisoners. I’m glad to be able to add P.Fitzgerald to the tried and loved list – whither next?  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

At Freddie’sby Penelope Fitzgerald, paperback, 160 pages.

 

 

 

The first in an Italian trilogy…

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein

my brilliant friendI came to reading this book, the first volume in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Trilogy, with more than a little trepidation. Firstly I have only heard good things about it, so I was hoping that it would live up to its reputation.

Secondly, my only previous experience of Ferrante’s work – her early novel, Troubling Love, which I read back in the early days of this blog, was not entirely a success, particularly as I was thrown by the first sentence: “My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.” May 23rd was my wedding anniversary, and a new relative by marriage died of a heart attack on my wedding night. (I hasten to add that he was already in hospital, not at the wedding and it was his third heart attack, so while terribly sad, it was not sudden nor unexpected.) In fact, having read this book, I’m beginning to wonder if I have a psychic connection with Ferrante, because the major event which takes place at the end of My Brilliant Friend happens on my late mum’s birthday – it’s a happier date in both cases this time.

So, to the books … The Neapolitan Trilogy is the story of childhood friends, Elena and Lila. The first volume opens in the 1950s and follows the story of the girls up until Lila’s marriage while still a teenager. The second sees them mature into young women, and the third volume, which will be published in September, carries on their story.

The prologue to My Brilliant Friend is narrated by Elena, now in her mid-sixties. She is contacted by Lila’s son worried about his mother who appears to have done a disappearing act.

It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. […] she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world. […]

I was really angry.
We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.

We can immediately sense a rivalry between the two women, and that Elena is not necessarily the top dog in their relationship. Let’s go back to the start in the 1950s – and here I can’t help but think of the song Where do you go to (my lovely)? by Peter Sarstedt from 1969, which towards the end includes the lyric…

I remember the back streets of Naples,
Two children begging in rags,
Both touched with a burning ambition,
To shake off their lowly born tags, they tried.

A rough and tough neighbourhood in Naples is the scene. Everyone fights; including the women who fight between themselves. ‘Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.’ Don Achille is feared by all, and the tentative friendship between Elena and Lila is cemented by a series of dares, the most scary of which is to sneak up the back stairs into Don Achille’s house and the little girls hold hands to go together.

Lila’s family run a shoe-repair business. Her older brother aspires to craft handmade shoes rather than only repair them. They are poorer than Elena’s family, her father is a porter at the city hall. Both girls start school and both are clever. The teachers are amazed that Lila has already taught herself to read and write, but Elena soon catches up and the girls study together. Both could get into the senior school, but Lila’s family can’t afford it. This is the first point at which the girls’ lives could split, but Lila has an urge to keep learning – and after she finishes her work in the shop, she continues to study with Elena.

Becoming teenagers, their lives outside school and work begin to take a different emphasis. The arrival of puberty and their periods, Elena before Lila for once, brings boys to the forefront. Getting a good match is the key to elevation in Neapolitan society, and while the girls will get to know most of the boys of most of the local families, their paths are still set by circumstance. Elena, doing well at school, can’t now marry someone uneducated, and Lila has always had her eyes set on the son of Don Achille.

Ferrante brings this story of working class Neapolitans to life with an incredible eye for detail. We really get to see what life is like for these families in 1950s Naples. One eye-opening aspect that would never have occurred to me was that they don’t speak Italian as their first language, using a Neapolitan dialect instead. It soon starts to become a barrier for Elena as some childhood friends who don’t go on to the senior school can’t speak Italian, let alone read Latin as she will. This is one reason why Lila continues to teach herself and study with Elena.

They live in a close-knit community, full of feuds, the haves and the have-nots with a hierarchy of families. Every so often events will happen to shake things up a little – Lila will often be involved somewhere, yet as her wedding approaches, she begins to have occasional strange turns (are they symptoms of petit mal? I don’t know). It ends with Lila’s wedding – a mostly happy event, but for the cliff-hanger ending…

In making Elena her narrator writing from memory, Ferrante very cleverly builds the two girls’ characters, with Elena usually looking to Lila to take the lead, yet relishing those occasions when she came in first. We come to realise that Lila does need Elena as much as Elena needs Lila, yet there will be falling-outs aplenty along the way. As I found in Troubling Love, Ferrante is an author very concerned with the physiology of womanhood, there is a power in the coming of monthly blood, here it wasn’t overpowering – it just marked the transition.

Ferrante is famed for her elusiveness – yet in sharing her name with one of the characters, we do wonder how much the Elena on the page is based on Elena herself, or is there more of Lila in her?  We’ll probably never know, but I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the other volumes as soon as I can. (9/10)

I read this book for Women in Translation month. Finally, having mentioned it up the page, I shall leave you with Peter Sarstedt…

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Published by Europa editions, 2012. Paperback original 336 pages.
The Story of a New Name – Volume 2
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Volume 3, pub Sept 11.