A Sunday selection …

It’s been quite a week!

  • SNB logo tinyShiny Issue 4 has been published. If you haven’t been to have a look yet, please pop over. More on that below.
  • I finally got my laptop back from the repair shop after a fortnight of having to rely on my old Pentium (much to my daughter’s disgruntlement, as it’s hers now). Using a slow laptop has been good for my FB games habit – something to maintain methinks!!!
  • I went to a workshop on Disaster Emergency Planning for Schools in London – which was excellent and included tabletop exercises on fires and minibus crashes. A grim subject, but having good procedures in place helps you to deal with these awful incidents so much better (although naturally one hopes they’ll never happen).
  • The workshop venue was just up the road from Waterstones Piccadilly, and yes I did succumb to a quick visit afterwards, purchasing a handful of novellas for future reading after the TBR dare finishes at the end of March.
  • tbr-dare-2014Talking of the TBR dare, the face of the dare has always been Dakota, James’ beloved Basset Hound. Sadly Dakota died earlier this week. We’ll miss her antics on James’ blog, and send big hugs.
  • I was at my school’s quiznight on Friday evening. Our staff table had a disastrous first half but picked up in the second to finish midway on the league table.
  • We did manage to get the few bookish questions right though, which is a small rehearsal for the 6th Mostly Bookbrains quiznight this coming Friday. For a change this year, I’ve not done the questions, and will be on my Shiny Co-editor Simon’s team. They won last time, so I hope I won’t drag them down!
  • And I read lots – so plenty of reviews to come….

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marianne dreamsLittle White HorseOne interesting thing came out of a comment that Helen left on my review of Elizabeth Goudge’s children’s classic The Little White Horse – click here. Helen said: “I do think that the rule ‘If you didn’t read it as a child, you won’t enjoy it as much as an adult’ is almost universally true but Diana Wynne Jones is, I am finding, an exception to this.”  I can’t comment on the Diana Wynne Jones bit really, only having read one of her books pre-blog, but tend to strongly agree with the first half of Helen’s comment.

I offer the review of my adult re-read of Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr as proving the point. I loved that book all over again. However, I am sure that there are other children’s classics that also break the rule – do let me know, I’d like to read some of them…

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Now for a couple of links to a pair of my Shiny pieces:

Chinaski by Frances Vick

 

chinaskiChinaski by Frances Vick is the story of a rock band that so nearly made it, but were halted in their tracks when charismatic lead singer Carl dies. This happens right at the the start of this gripping novel which spares no punches about the hard work required to make it in those pre-Youtube days. The story of the band and what happened next is told through the eyes of Carl’s friends and colleagues – the band member, the ex-girlfriend and their manager.

For those that enjoy books about rock ‘n’ roll, this is a must, especially with the Marshall amp on the front.

Read my review here.

frances vick (533x800)Incidentally, some of you may twig where the band Chinaski got their name from … I only discovered this when researching for my review – it’s after a recurring character in Charles Bukowski’s novels – another author to add to my to read lists.

This was Frances’ first novel and I also interviewed her for our Shiny New author slot, and she proved to be as fascinating as her book.

Read the interview here.

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That’s it for today. Enjoy your Sundays and I’ll see you with some proper book reviews very soon.

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Chinaski source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Chinaski by Frances Vick, Cillian Press, 2014. Paperback original, 250 pages.
Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, pbk.

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Reprint reviews at Shiny…

It has been lovely to contribute to the section of Shiny that Simon edits – Reprints in our August inbetweeny – and not just one article, but two!

BonfiglioliFirstly I’d like to highlight Don’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli, the first in a series of cult classics from the 1970s reprinted this summer by Penguin – full review here.

The books feature Charlie Mortdecai – minor aristo, lover of wine, sex, art and having fun. Together with his manservant they have a sort of anti-Jeeves and Wooster relationship, and this book is very funny, very non-PC and is sort of Jeeves & Wooster crossed with Raffles and Lovejoy with a good dash of Ian Fleming thrown in. Loved it.

They’re making a film of one of the books out next year. The trailer is all over the internet. Please – read the books and ignore the film trailer – the film could be brilliant, but it will probably spoil the books for you!

aickmanNext – more cult classics reprinted from the 1960s onwards. I’d not heard of Robert Aickman and his ‘strange stories’ but loved the first two volumes of Faber reprints (with two more still to read).

See my review of them here. Aickman turned out to be a fascinating chap, so I compiled a Five Fascinating Facts article for the BookBuzz section too, see that here.

That’s my plugs for Shiny New Books done now.  I can promise you a book review or two very soon, meanwhile tomorrow evening I’m off to London for a Hesperus do to see Cilla and Rolf Borjlind, scriptwriters for the Swedish Wallander series and authors of a great thriller called Spring Tide.

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Source: Publishers – Thank you!

To explore titles mentioned further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Don’t point that thing at me: The First Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 1) by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Penguin paperbacks.
Dark Entries and Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman, Faber paperbacks.
Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Borjlind, Hesperus paperback, March 2014.

 

Some more Shiny linkiness …

Two great summer reads for you today from my reviews over at Issue 2 of Shiny New Books. One fiction, and one non-fiction. Fiction first…

Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy

meetingI met Kate at an event a few weeks ago and she was lovely to talk to – she even knew about my little early blog review of her first non-poetry book Antigona and Me. I read this novel before I met her though, so wasn’t influenced by how nice she is!

Shortlisted for the Costa first novel award this year, and longlisted for the Desmond Eliott Award, Meeting the English is a delicious social comedy set in Hampstead, and chronicles the events of one summer when a young Scotsman comes down to London for a job in 1989. If you enjoy Fay Weldon or Allison Pearson’s novels, you’ll like this one too. Read it in the sunshine and have a good giggle – there is one scene that made me absolutely snort with laughter though, you have been warned… (9.5/10)

My review at Shiny is here.

A Curious Career by Lynn Barber

Curious CareerI’ve long enjoyed Barber’s celebrity interviews in the British press, and some of her best are included in full in this volume of memoir about her long career in journalism. Alongside the good, the bad and the ugly are a myriad of tips in the art of interviewing – the most important of which are do your research, always take two recording devices..

Read my full Shiny review here.

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To explore either of these titles on Amazon UK – please click below:
Meeting the Englishby Kate Clanchy, Picador 2013, paperback 320 pages.
A Curious Career by Lynn Barber, Bloomsbury 2014, hardback 224 pages.

 

Lost in a good map …

Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell

Variety in reading is usually my watchword, I try not to read books of a similar vein too close together, yet between Christmas and New Year I managed to read two about women running away from their existing life after life-changing events to sort themselves out. The first was The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson in which a new widow escapes London for the wide expanses of the Norfolk salt marshes, (reviewed here). Then a few days after, I read Call of the Undertow in which a woman from Oxford escapes to the expanses of cliff and sea in at Dunnet, in Caithness at the NE tip of Scotland.

CallOfTheUndertow_Cover_WEB.270

Maggie had rented ‘Flotsam Cottge’, a single-storey steading conversion on the outskirts of the village, without viewing it. On a peninsula, practically an island, at a latitude of 58º 37′ 21″N, as far north as places with ice-names like Anchorage and Stavanger, the cottage had seemed right when she found it online and she’d signed a six-month lease – a long enough horizon for her to aim for. …

‘You’re mad,’ her sister Carol said when Maggie showed her the final page of the road atlas, the expanses of black white paper, the few wiry roads and the tiny shaded areas indicating settlements. ‘Even I can read a map enough to see there’s nothing there. It’s not like you to be so remote.’ …

Maggie’s friend Helen was more polite. ‘I’ve never heard of it. Apart from that place of course.’ She poked a finger at John O’Groats, known as the most northerly point, even though the map clearly gave this role to Dunnet Head further to the west.
She bought a car, a second-hand Volvo.
‘You’re going to drive again?’ Carol’s tone now sweetened, sniffing her own agenda for Maggie of ‘getting back’ to something.
‘Easiest way to get there with my things,’ Maggie had said.
No-one tried to stop her, but she sensed the whispered conversations, the concern.

We immediately know that something had happened, serious enough that Maggie had stopped driving.  We also find out she’s now divorced from Frank. So her ties cut, Maggie sets off for the north and settles into the cottage.

Shortly after she gets there she visits the Bird Sanctuary at Dunnet Point where she meets Graham the Ranger who will become a good friend.  Whilst there, she also bumps into Year 5 from the local primary school on a trip – and their headmistress soon gets an agreement out of her to come and talk to them for their geography project about maps when she hears that Maggie is a cartographer.

It is at the school that she meets a strange young boy called Trothan, named after the ruined church nearby. Trothan is rather androgynous young boy, long-haired and quiet, yet with an intensity of gaze that causes her to falter momentarily. When she asks the class what you need to be a good cartographer, the others say Google Earth, a computer and so on – he says, ‘Your eyes‘.

The kids finish their projects, yet Trothan seems fascinated by map-making, and ere-long Maggie lets him come to the cottage to work on his own project, a multi-layered map of the whole area, annotated with mythological references and local legend, and more… They form a strong bond, the consequences of which will force Maggie to examine what she was running away from.

Despite seeming to be at the ends of the earth, there is a strong sense of community in this remote part of Scotland. Those from outside the area are generally welcomed once they prove they’re stopping – which was refreshing – they all need each other.

Trothan remains an enigma, an independent spirit at home with nature on cliff and shore – and always watching.  Maggie is encouraged by him to loosen up, and she is able to continue her freelance work beguiled by his interest.  Nora, Trothan’s mother is even harder for Maggie to get to grips with, until they find they have much in common.

Despite the outward similarities with The Widow’s Tale, this novel not being narrated by Maggie, had a very different feel to it.  Call of the Undertow is instead dominated by the beautiful but rugged landscape and a haunting sense of mystery. I enjoyed this novel a lot. (9/10)

I don’t know what I’d do if I went to Caithness, not being a golfer, bird-watcher, or even much of a rambler, but I was drawn by the feel of the place in this novel to check out that you can rent a cottage with sea views on the Castle of Mey estate where the late Queen Mother used to have picnics for £600 per week in high season, you can fly up to Wick, or train it to Thurso …

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell, pub Oct 2013 by Freight Books, paperback, 245 pages.

The answers are in Africa in this novel …

The Coincidence Authority by J W Ironmonger

the-coincidence-authority

At first glance this novel may seem like a quirky romance between two unlikely would-be lovers, Azalea and Thomas, who having found each other, get mixed up in Azalea’s quest to analyse what she believes are coincidences that happened to her family, and many father figures.

Underneath this gentle and humorous exterior, however, is a mass of violence.  The frustrations of modern life in London give way to child soldiers toting guns in deepest Uganda as all the tragedies in Azalea’s childhood which are gradually unravelled and we hear about her childhood.

How Thomas, a university professor who specialises in analysing coincidences, and Azalea, who lectures at a different London college meet, could be construed as a coincidence in itself or is it just serendipitous that they are involved in a pile-up on an escalator in the Underground?  Soon after, they meet properly when she comes to him to ask about her own life’s events.

 ‘I’m getting used to the universe springing surprises.’
‘Would it help if I were to explain why coincidences happen? Why it is that we frail humans have to find patterns in nature?’
‘It might help.’

Azalea was adopted after she was found wandering in a fairground in Devon, aged 3. Her mother had disappeared, she was unable to tell the police where any of the three men who might have been her father were. Azalea is adopted by Luke and Rebecca Folley, and soon taken to Uganda – to a charitable mission and orphanage founded by Luke’s grandfather. There she has an idyllic childhood until the day that Joseph Kony (a very real guerilla leader who led the LRA – the Lord’s Resistance Army – in Uganda, and abducted children to become sex-slaves and child soldiers, and is still at large), came up the mission drive.

‘Are you familiar with the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers marching off to war”? asked the soldier of Rebecca.
Rebecca shrank slightly. ‘It’s marching as to war.’
The mission bell began to ring.
As to war,’ she said, ‘not off to war. It has a completely differnt meaning.’
Dingdingdingdingdingdingding
‘It is a command for Christian Soldiers to fight,’ said the man, ‘to go off to war and fight.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ Rebecca said. ‘It’s a metaphor. The hymn is telling us that we must face up to evil – but not with violence.’
‘”With the cross of Jesus going on before”,’ said the soldier triumphantly. ‘”Onward into battle, see his banners go.'”
Dingdingdingdingdingdingding
The LRA man’s attention began to turn towards Luke and his urgent ringing of the bell.

Never argue with a man with a gun.  However, the conversation buys time for some of the children to escape.  Soon, Azalea’s adoptive mother is murdered, her father presumed too, Azalea is captured, but (obviously) escapes.

Back in the present day, Azalea and Thomas slip into a relationship that neither is quite ready to make solid. Azalea is still bound to explore all her coincidences, and Thomas feels beholden to explain them, to explain them away if necessary. This situation reminds me very much of the wonderful and hilarious comedy novel The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, where a quest for fathers also gets in the way of romance. Ironmonger’s book is no comedy though, despite having moments of gentle humour.

All the threads will finally get resolved, and there is a rather predictable ending – no coincidence there! I enjoyed reading it a lot, but did find Thomas rather wet, and the older Azalea is a tad irritating. The sections set in Azalea’s childhood are where it all comes alive – growing up happily at the mission, marred forever by violence.

By necessity perhaps, there is quite a lot of explanation in this novel – my geeky side enjoyed thinking about the statistics of coincidence, but please don’t worry – there are no equations or complex maths, just discussions about coin-flipping, lottery numbers, birthdays etc.  Yes, it slows things up a little, but the course of true love never did run smooth, as Shakespeare said.

Less necessary to the plot, but making the situation clear that this corner of Uganda, close to borders with Congo, Kenya and especially Sudan, is a haven for guerilla groups, was a lengthy description of the political situation and the evolution of the different warring factions.  Serious as this is, I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but think of the People’s Front of Judea crying ‘Splitters‘ at the Judean People’s Front and the Popular Front of Judea et al in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when seeing how the factions named themselves.

Mimicking Thomas’s website in the book, you can also visit The Coincidence Authority.com, where you are invited to share your own coincidences. This is, of course, a marketing exercise, but contains some entertaining stories. For anyone interested in the subject, I’d recommend reading Paul Auster’s essays in The Red Notebook (my review here), for some eloquently described examples, and you may be interested in finding out more about influencing luck in Richard Wiseman’s The Luck Factor, (my review here).

This novel may not be perfect, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. (7.5/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Coincidence Authority by J W Ironmonger, pub Sept 2013 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, hardback, 277 pages.
The Red Notebook by Paul Auster
The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind by Richard Wiseman

How to add to your wishlists …

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

Hornby spree 1

One of the easiest ways of adding lots of books to your wishlists, (apart from the recommendations of other bloggers of course), is to read a book about books.  Even better if said book is a reading diary by an author you enjoy and respect.

Nick Hornby is definitely that, and (football aside) his writing always resonates with me.  We’re of the same generation, home-counties bred, live/lived in London, like a lot of the same music and stuff – so I crossed my fingers and hoped that I’d like a lot of what he read too.

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of Hornby’s ‘Stuff I’ve been reading’ columns from 2003 to mid 2007 for The Believer, an American literary magazine founded by Dave Eggers of McSweeneys fame. Hornby is given one commandment by the editors for his columns: “Thou shalt not slag anyone off.” which does give Hornby a dilemma in how to write about books he didn’t enjoy… “My solution was to try to choose books I knew I would like.” but he adds “I’m not sure this idea is as blindingly obvious as it seems.”

polyphonic-spree3The Polysyllabic Spree by the way is the name he comes up with to refer to the Believer’s editorial staff – a literary pastiche of The Polyphonic Spree (right), a large pop group of the early noughties onwards who have a habit of wearing white choir robes and having ’60s hip sensibilities.  This becomes a rather sweet running joke from column to column throughout the book, and their numbers are never the same.

But on to the books themselves… At the front of each column, Hornby lists the books he has bought, and the books he has read. Each list is interesting, however he says in an aside, “When I’m arguing with St Peter at the Pearly Gates, I’m going to tell him to ignore the Books Read column, and focus on the Books Bought instead. ‘This is really who I am, I’ll tell him.”  Something I can identify with!

He reads a huge variety of books – including quite a lot of non-fiction, biographies, reportage etc.  I was very pleased to see we’re in tune about Bob Dylan’s 2004 memoir: “Chronicles ends up managing to inform without damaging the mystique, which is some feat.”  I couldn’t have put it better myself.

One book I haven’t read but should do, is Truman Capote’s groundbreaking In Cold Blood. This book, Hornby says, “is one of the most influential books of the last fifty years, and as far as I can tell, just about every work of novelistic non-fiction published since the 1960s owes it something or another. But the trouble with influential books is that if you have absorbed the influence without ever reading the original, then it can sometimes be hard to appreciate the magnitude of its achievement.”  This is so true. Although I enjoyed Zamyatkin’s 1924 dystopian novel We, it is rather overshadowed by Orwell’s 1984 which it directly influenced.

Another author I’m very keen to read is Patrick Hamilton.  Hornby develops a passion for his books – “He’s a sort of urban Hardy: everyone is doomed, right from the first page.”  Time I dug out Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky – I know I own a copy.

Hornby has also (almost) persuaded me to give a novel I’ve given up on in frustration after a few pages (twice) another go. That book is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. “I had to reread passages from Gilead several times – beautiful, luminous passages about grace, and debt, and baptism – before I half-understood them, however: there are complicated and striking ideas on every single page.” He does acknowledge that he had to be in the right frame of mind to read it though – and read it over a period of several weeks.  I think I’m willing to give it another go thanks to Nick Hornby.

I really enjoyed this volume of Hornby’s thoughts in this volume, all the more so as in the majority of cases, he was reading the books discussed for pleasure. In the introduction he states: “Being paid to read a book and then write about it creates a dynamic which compromises the reviewer in all kinds of ways, very few of them helpful. So this column was going to be different. Yes, I would be paid for it, but I would be paid to write about what I would have done anyway, which was read the books I wanted to read. And if I felt that mood, morale, concentration levels, weather or family history had affected my relationship with a book, I could and would say so.”  He does go on to say it made him choose slightly differently, but I did that too once I started blogging, so I can understand it.

I thought he had some really interesting things to say, and his style is never to ram his opinions down our throats, but to elucidate with wit (and occasional references to Arsenal FC).  This is a friendly book about books, and I really enjoyed it.  (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please follow the links below:
The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, 2006, Penguin paperback, 288 pages.
Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

“The extraordinary happens every day”

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

Having wept like a baby during reading Ness’s last crossover novel, A Monster Calls (my review here) – a story about a young boy coming to terms with love, death and grief, and incorporating magical elements and fables, The Crane Wife – his first full adult novel seems a natural progression.

crane wifeThe Crane Wife is the story of George, a good man who inspires loyalty in those around him, but needs direction in his mid-life. One night he wakes to find an injured white crane in his garden. He breaks the arrow through its wing, rescuing it, and it flies away.

Amanda, George’s daughter is also struggling with life at the moment – she’s angry with everything and everyone, especially her boss Rachel – the only exceptions are her father and her young son JP.

George runs a print shop, assisted by Mehmet an out of work actor who is pretty useless but a good friend. George tends to leave the front of the shop to Mehmet so he can hide away in the back room where he makes pictures with cuttings from old books.

To take his blade and cut into the pages of a book felt like such a taboo, such a transgression against everything he held dea, George still half-expected them to bleed every time he did it.
He loved physical books with the same avidity other people loved horses or wine or prog rock. He’d never really warmed to e-books because they seemed to reduce a book to a computer file, and computer fies were disposable things, things you never really owned. He had no emails from ten years ago but still owned every book he bought that year. Besides, what was more perfect an object than a book?

When the mysterious Kumiko, an artist, appears at his print shop dressed in white, they start dating. She appears to be the answer to all that is missing in his life. What’s more, his paper cutting complements her intricate collages made from feathers. Put together onto one tile, their art attracts attention – and buyers.

George has never been happier, yet the arrival of Kumiko on the scene does complicate life for all around him.  She is an enigma, George knows nothing about her, he just accepts her for what she is…

Interwoven into the contemporary story is that of an old Japanese folk tale re-told by Ness, about an unlikely love story between a crane and a volcano. This parallel narrative worked well, Ness having found an entirely natural way to work it into the main story through Kumiko’s art; she is recreating the story in her tiles, now with added cuttings from George worked into them.

 ‘… A story needs to be told. A story must be told. How else can we live in this world that makes no sense?’
‘How else can we live with the extraordinary?’ George murmured.
‘Yes,’ Kumiko said, seriously. ‘Exactly that. The extraordinary happens all the time. So much, we can’t take it. Life and happiness and heartache and love. If we couldn’t put it into a story – ‘
‘And explain it-‘
‘No!’ she said, suddenly sharp. ‘Not explain. Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flowers. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us.’ She sagged a little, as if exhausted by this speech. ‘As it surely, surely would.’

I love stories in which authors make magic a natural extension of life. I thought that Ness achieved this here with ease, weaving in the Japanese folk tale with the extraordinary real events.

He also made George and Amanda easy to love. Amanda in particular, is one those characters you can easily empathise with – we’ve all been there at different times in our lives. Her pent-up anger at her lot, keeps spilling over and alienating those around her – her husband left her, she has few if any friends, and a very sparky relationship with her work colleagues, it’s a good thing she has George and JP. George meanwhile is so good, he needs his edges rubbing off.  Kumiko is harder to fathom, but she is the cypher through whom the others will work out their problems.

Once again, Ness tugged at my heart-strings and although there are some light-hearted moments, I read large parts of the novel with a tear in my eye, sometimes sad, sometimes joyous.  (9/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness, pub April 2013, Canongate hardback or trade paperback, 305 pages.

A quiet novel with emotional depth

The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers

cleaner of chartresThe seventh novel by Salley Vickers, The Cleaner of Chartres is the story of orphan foundling Agnès Morel, and the people who come into her life.

Before introducing us to Agnès, the novel begins by telling us about the great cathedral, how it burned and was rebuilt by an army of unknown craftsmen …

Nor was anything known of Agnès Morel when she arrived in Chartres nearly eight hundred years after the building of the present cathedral commenced. Few, if asked, could have recalled when she first appeared. She must have seemed vaguely always to have been about. A tall, dark, slender woman – ‘a touch of the tar brush there’,  Madame Beck, who had more than a passing sympathy for the Front National, chose to comment – with eyes that the local artist, Robert Clément, likened to washed topaz, though, as the same Madame Beck remarked to her friend Madame Picot, being an artist he was give to these fanciful notions.

Right from the start, we are entranced by the mystery of Agnès with her topaz eyes.  She was found in a basket by a farmer, who left her with the nuns at Rouen to bring up. When she was a teenager, things happened, and she ended up in psychiatric care under the kind Dr Deman.  It will take most of the book for Agnès’ backstory to be teased out gently, only then reaching a climax when the past threatens to eclipse the present.

It is in the present, twenty years later, that we learn about Agnès’ nurturing nature as she cleans and babysits for the residents of Chartres, taking on the job of cleaning the cathedral itself when the old cleaner became too infirm.  It was Abbé Paul that had found her when she arrived in the city homeless those years ago, helping her to find lodgings and work.

She is a quiet woman, having a few good friends and she is trusted by those who use her services, yet her exotic appearance does attract the attention of the town busybody Madame Beck.  Meanwhile Agnès attracts some rather more welcome attention in Alain, a craftsman working on a restoration project – there is a mutual attraction there, which doesn’t get past Madame Beck’s eagle eyes.  Beck decides to employ Agnès, always looking for a way to disparage her, and when one of her antique dolls goes missing – she starts her campaign against Agnès in earnest.

As the author said herself when I saw her speak the other evening Agnès is very much a catalyst for action in those she meets, bringing out their latent qualities. From being painter Robert’s muse, or a shoulder to lean on for the increasingly bewildered Father Bernard, to becoming the focus of the bigoted Madame Beck’s attentions.  She inspires love though too: in Dr Deman, in a kind of reverse transference when a patient falls for their doctor; unrequited love in Professor Jones whom she works for; and fatherly love in Jean, the farmer who found her whom she looks after in his declining years.

There are moments of humour too, one notable segment concerns two of the nuns who brought her up, (one nice, one nasty) when they come on a visit to Chartres.

Sister Laurence had taken the opportunity to escape to the north aisle of the nave. When Mother Véronique tracked her down, Sister Laurence declared that she had decided that her favourite window was Noah and the flood. She particularly liked, she said, the pink elephants and striped pigs.
‘Boars,’ corrected Mother Véronique.
‘Oh yes, of course, “boars”,’ repeated Sister Laurence with seeming meekness but with enough of a treasonous glint in her voice for Mother Véronique to embark on a lengthy account of the life of St Lubin.

This is sensitive storytelling at its best with a cracking character-driven plot that gradually increases in tension as Agnès’ story is revealed.  We are all smitten by her, but also by the cathedral itself. Who wouldn’t want to visit it after reading this wonderful novel and maybe find themselves as Agnès does in its labyrinth. (10/10)

To find out more and see other views about this book, why not take a look at Salley’s own website, or Jane’s review at Fleur Fisher in her World.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers, Penguin paperback.

A tale of motherhood across generations…

The Confidantby Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson

The Confidant by Helen Gremillon

I got a letter one day, a long letter that wasn’t signed. This was quite an event, because I’ve never received much mail in my life. My letter box had never done anything more than inform me that the-sea-was-warm or that the-snow-was-good, so I didn’t open it very often. Once a week, maybe twice in a gloomy week, when I hoped that a letter would change my life completely and utterly, like a telephone call can, or a trip on the métro, or closing my eyes and counting to ten before opening them again.
And then my mother died. And that was plenty, as far as changing my life went: your mother’s death, you can’t get much better than that.

It is Paris, 1975 and Camille is sad; at the loss of her mother, and the fact that the baby growing inside her will not know its grandmother. She is doubly so at the demise of her relationship with Nicholas, who we’ll find out doesn’t want anything to do with the baby.

When this letter arrives in amongst all the condolence cards, she starts reading…  It tells how teenager Louis met Annie back in 1933, and fell in love with her from afar. It doesn’t give many clues to who they are and where it happened. Camille is confused – why has this letter been sent to her?

In the following days and weeks, more letters arrive. Camille, who works in publishing, half wonders if it is a bizarre pitch being made to her, but something about the letters makes it seem that they are intended for her, and that the story therein is true.

They tell of how a bourgeois couple Mr & Madame M move into the village, about how Madam M notices Annie’s painting and encourages her, and how Annie later found out about Madame M’s inability to have a baby and offered to be a surrogate for her.  War intervenes, and it all gets very complicated. Louis loses touch with Annie for several years, but is able to pick up the story later.

I hadn’t seen her for three years. For three years I’d had no news of her at all. At no time did I suspect she might be living in Paris like me. I looked at her fingernails, her peeling red varnish; in the village she never used to wear any. Seeing her again like this: It seemed too good to be true. Outside it was pitch black. I was suddenly overwhelmed by desire for her. She handed me a steaming hot cup.
‘So do you remember Monsieur and Madame M.?’
How could she ask me such a thing.

The story of Louis, Annie, Mr & Madam M is teased out over the course of the novel. It is complex, full of tragedy in many ways and multi-layered, with little revelations that keep Camille desperate to know what happened and full of questions still, not to mention her feeling an increasing bond of motherhood with Annie.

This novel uses two literary devices to tell its story – when most use just one.  The dual narrative combined with the epistolary approach may feel somewhat contrived, but actually serves the story well.  We have the same questions that Camille has about Annie’s life, we feel for Camille’s loss and Annie’s situation,  and end up caring for both women, whereas often in dual narratives, one will dominate. I will say that I didn’t get much of a feel for 1970s Paris in Camille’s timeline though. However, the clever reveal made this a rewarding read, and I’ve yet to read a novel from Gallic books, who specialise in English translations of the best contemporary French books that I didn’t enjoy.  (8/10)

For some other reviews see:  Fleur Fisher and Winstonsdad.

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My copy came via the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Confidantby Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson, Gallic Books 2012, paperback 267 pages.

Which side of the fence are you on?

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Everyone who encounters this book will have a point of view about it.

The author is a global phenomenon through the Harry Potter series: she’s worked her way up to being a multimillionaire from being a single mum, and does a lot for charity. Now she’s taken a risk, and moved on from Harry and his chums, to publish her first adult novel – for a different publisher too, (shame about the cover).

Opinion is polarised – on one hand, the knives are out, and on the other there are those who think she’s done a brave thing and are raving positively about the book.  So where does my own opinion sit?

I hope you won’t be disappointed, but I’m going to sit firmly on the fence.  You see, I really enjoyed parts of it, but I do recognise that it is far from perfect.

Before I go into detail, a little scene-setting… Pagford is a sleepy little West Country town that is thrown into turmoil when Barry Fairbrother, leader of one faction on the Parish Council drops dead at the Golf Club.  His demise causes a ‘Casual Vacancy’ on the Council, and its leader, Howard Mollison, sees his opportunity to take control and get rid of the Fields, the local council estate that stands in Pagford parish, but ought to belong to Yarvil, the neighbouring large town.

You see, Barry was a local boy done good – born and bred on the wrong side of town in the Fields, he devoted his life to helping local people, especially the Weedons, and particularly Krystal and her junkie single mother who is incapable of looking after her little brother (by a different father of course). He got Krystal into the posh Pagford school, where she stands out like a sore thumb being a chav, but becomes a key member of the girls rowing squad.

The town is full of dysfunctional families, each fitting an archetype that will be familiar to anyone who watches any soap opera, (or listens in the case of The Archers – I’m listening to the weekly omnibus as I write this). Apart from the Weedons, there are the Mollisons – the local bigwigs, shop owners at the centre of things in town; the Walls – Colin is deputy head at school, Tessa is school Councillor, their son Fats can’t wait to be shot of his father; the Jawindas – a professional Sikh family – Parminder is a GP, Vikram is a heart surgeon, and they live in the old vicarage, and their ugly duckling daughter Sukhvinder who has very low self esteem. There’s also the Prices, whose son Arf will set a rolling stone in motion that threatens to overwhelm the town; and finally, the Bawdens, moved from London – a social worker mother and her confident daughter – are the main families from a large cast of lesser characters.

Barry Fairbrother was dead. Snuffed out. Cut down. No event of national importance, no war, no stock-market collapse, no terrorist attack, could have sparked in Shirley (Mollison) the awe, the avid interest and feverish speculation that currently consumed her.
She had hated Barry Fairbrother. Shirley and her husband, usually as one in all their friendships and enmities, had been a little out of step in this. Howard  had sometimes  confessed himself entertained by the bearded little man who opposed him so relentlessly across the scratched tables of Pagford Church Hall; but Shirley made no distinction between the political and the personal. Barry had opposed Howard in the central quest of his life, and this made Barry Fairbrother her bitter enemy.

So we have the set up for a soap opera of class war between the richer and poorer of the Parish, and oneupmanship between the families jockeying for position in the town.  I liked the premise of the plot, and was hoping for a comedy with a biting edge.

You know the story is ultimately going to be a train wreck, but it took so long to build up a full head of steam.  It was around page three hundred before things really started happening, which left two hundred for the main events.  The novel is so character-driven, that the plot tended to get squeezed out.

We could have lost a third of the novel and got a funny and fast paced story, rather than a bloated character study in which everything is over-described and listy – viz the sentence in the quote above: ‘No event of national importance, no war, no stock-market collapse, no terrorist attack, could have sparked in Shirley the awe, the avid interest and feverish speculation that currently consumed her’.  Much has been made of Rowling’s robust modern language, but you don’t really notice it until the ‘c’ word appears – and you take a short sharp intake of breath, and carry on.

Almost all of the characters are unsympathetic too, the events bringing out the nasty side in virtually all of them, (mostly Slytherins then?).  All the little England stereotypes you can think of, except a male gay couple now I come to think of it, are present.

The other things that are all present (if the book hadn’t been 500 pages, I’d have said shoe-horned), are all the issues – obesity, self-harm, OCD, single mothers, rehab, spots, social workers, sex and drugs … there’s little room left for rock’n’roll.

If you think of it as a debut novel, there is often a tendency for authors to put all their initial good ideas into one book, and that’s what I feel Rowling has done here.  It was too long, too descriptive, and too full of everything. It attempted to be light-hearted, but wasn’t funny enough which meant I didn’t care about the characters, it tried too hard to be everything to everyone.

All the above sounds as if I didn’t enjoy the book, but that’s not true. It was an interesting read, seeing a writer in transition. Here’s to the next one. (6/10)

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I bought this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. Pub 27th Sept by Little, Brown. Hardback, 512 pages.