A man of letters…

Dear Lupin… Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer

dear lupinMemoirs told in letters are an endangered species these days. Who still writes letters to their nearest and dearest?  We tend to send a quick e-mail instead, and then we tend not to archive them. Our e-mails tend to be less formal and less revealing. There’s something especially poignant and attractive about reading other people’s letters, getting a little glimpse into their lives.

A huge hit of recent times has been Love Nina, by Nina Stibbe (my review here). Nina’s letters, sent home to her sister when she was nannying in London in the 1980s are witty, youthful and full of enthusiasm – it was a great time to be in London in your early twenties. A couple of years before Nina’s epistles came another bestselling volume of letters …

Roger Mortimer, who died in 1991, was a WWII veteran serving in the Coldstream Guards and after that a racing correspondent for the Sunday Times for nearly thirty years. His son, Charlie was born in 1952 and somewhat surprisingly, he had kept all his father’s letters to him over the years. Those published in Dear Lupin cover around twenty-five years, starting in 1967 when Charlie was at Eton.

Before I go further, I should explain that the title of the book Dear Lupin, comes from George and Weedon Grossmith’s comic novel Diary of a Nobody published in 1892. Lupin is the preferred name of the son of Mr Pooter. Pooter, a clerk in the City, is a Captain Mainwaring type, rather self-important and he doesn’t approve of his son’s social life. One day I must read this book – such is Pooter’s literary fame. Mortimer père comes across as having a very dry sense of humour in allying himself with Mr Pooter and his son with Lupin.

The book begins with a foreword by Charlie telling us about his father, then a dramatis personae – for many mentioned in the letters seem to have at least one nickname. This was useful to refer back to on some occasions. The letters follow, most with a comment by Charlie afterwards explaining some of the circumstances therein. Charlie, as becomes clear, is mainly a fan of the telephone. The letters begin in 1967 as Charlie is shortly to leave Eton without any qualifications at all. A few years later in 1970, his plan is to join the army, but not until he’s had a final fling in Greece. Roger writes with a long list of advice:

5. Try not to look like some filthy student who has renouced personal hygiene completely. The unwashed with long hair are looked upon with great hostility in certain European countries and it would be silly to be stopped at a frontier because you like wearing your hair like a 1923 typist.
6. If you do get into trouble, Interpol will soon find out you have a police record and that could be awkward. …
8. Take a small medicine box and plenty of bromo. You are one of nature’s diarrhoea sufferers.
9. Make sure all your headlights are adapted to the rules of the country you are in. [and so on]

[Charlie comments]
This is a final fling before rather an impetuous decision to join the Coldstream Guards as a squaddie in October. Due to a conviction for possession of marijuana I am not able to join as a potential officer. As the Colonel in Chief remarks to me in an interview, ‘If you were merely an alcoholic we wouldn’t give a damn.’

His spell in the Army doesn’t last long! Soon Charlie is living in Devon and trying out lots of other jobs – paint salesman, farming ‘of sorts’ and being a second-hand car dealer. Roger writes:

Dear Charles,
I suppose that writing a serious letter to you is about as effective as trying to kick a thirty-ton block of concrete in bedroom slippers, but I am a glutton for punishment as far as you are concerned.

Roger really does worry about his aimless and rather feckless son. He is concerned too, that it could all be his fault. Charlie’s mother, Cynthia, nicknamed Nidnod for some reason, is always off hunting and seems to hit the bottle in the evenings a lot – however she is beyond reproach.  Charlie continues to drift along, trying this and that, and Roger keeps him going with generous contributions along with demands to pay the phone bill after the occasions Charlie had stayed with his parents. Roger’s last letter of 1977 is particularly brief …

Dear Little Mr Reliable,
Thanks a million for doing the wood baskets as promised. My word, your employer is going to be a very lucky man!
D

[Charlie] It takes real skill and irony to craft such an effective dressing down in so few words.

To quote more gems from these pages would be to over-egg things. The letters continue into Roger’s retirement and last years, his sense of humour and air of genteel frustration never dimming. Charlie is a commitment-phobe in all senses of the word, gamely going through life from one small crisis to another, being bailed out by his long-suffering Dad who obviously loves him to bits, and Charlie loves him back. Charlie doesn’t really change much over the decades – he’s now in his early 60s, describing himself as a ‘middle-aged, middle-class spiv (mostly retired).’

Roger has a unique almost stream of consciousness flow in his letter writing – going from admonishments, to advice, to who has died recently, to his wife’s riding exploits, to gossip about the neighbours, to more advice, to news about the family pets and so on… without stopping to start new paragraphs – just everything butting up to together. This butterfly approach to letter writing, full of these non-sequiturs, could be compared with Charlie’s career!

I loved being in Roger’s company hearing about his unique-sounding family. The good thing is that Charlie’s two sisters, one older, one younger have also kept their letters and two more volumes of epistles from the Mortimer family are now available to read – Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter  and Dearest Jane: My Father’s Life & Letters – I shall be reading them both. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):
Dear Lupin…: Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger & Charlie Mortimer. Constable, 2011, paperback 208 pages.
Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter by Roger & Louise Mortimer. Constable, 2013, paperback 208 pages.
Dearest Jane…: My Father’s Life and Letters by Roger & Jane Mortimer. Constable, 2014, hardback, 432 pages. (pbk in May 2015)

Loneliness and a life wasted?

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

the-twinTranslated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

It’s quite a feat to win a major prize with your first novel, but that’s what The Twin did, taking the prestigious IMPAC Award in Dublin back in 2010.

Henk and Helmer are twins – identical in features, but with very different characters. When they were 19 in 1967, Helmer was studying at university in Amsterdam while Henk, the younger twin, was learning to be a farmer. Henk had a fiancée, Riet, and she was driving in the accident that killed Henk. Helmer had to give up university to take on the farm.  The boys’ father never forgave Riet and she left. Helmer never forgave his father for making him come back or for preferring Henk.

It’s now 35 years later and Helmer is in his fifties. He subsists. Beyond food shopping, he doesn’t go out, he looks after their small flock of sheep, their few cows, chickens and his pair of beloved pet donkeys. His mother had died years ago, but his aged father lives on, bedridden, ‘breathing and talking. Even now, here, I can hear him muttering.’  As the novel starts, Helmer has decided to move his father upstairs into the bedroom there, out of the way, perchance to die. When a letter from Riet arrives, Helmer panics – he tells her his father is dead. She comes to visit.

‘Hello Riet,’ I say.

Very old fury, a fury I can’t remember having, whose existence I didn’t even suspect, rises up inside me. Riet isn’t troubled by fury. I can see that. She is moved and confused, that’s what’s troubling her. The longer Henk is dead, the more I look like him, simply because there is no longer any comparing.

No, fury is too big a word, outrage is closer.

The purpose of her visit is to ask if her teenaged son could come and stay with him for a while, to be a farm hand; he’s called Henk.  Helmer can’t refuse, he can manage on his own, but the help would be useful, and so Helmer finally gets a chance to be a father-figure to someone. Young Henk will soon be ready to go out into the world for himself and it percolates through to Helmer what he’s missed, if only his father would hurry up and die.

The relationship between Helmer and his father is a complex one – no love lost between them at one moment, then something there the next. The pair have essentially colluded in a sort of mutual neglect over the years with the father stubborn and Helmer quietly resentful, wondering why his father had preferred his brother when they were twins.  Thirty-five years of this!  You have to feel sorry for Helmer.

The cover is initially entrancing, evoking a rural farming idyll but it wraps around the back too and that’s all you see, the vast flat expanses of the Dutch polders reclaimed from the sea.  The novel, too, evokes this flat, almost featureless land. It could be a solitary life, farming here. Helmer is lucky to have one neighbour, Ada, who keeps an eye on him; her young sons love the donkeys.  Yet it seems that Helmer goes out of his way to be solitary – he doesn’t try to make friends with the regular milk lorry driver for instance. He’s grumpy about his whole existence here – you just long for him to be freed from it.

Although a little drawn out in the middle, this novel was a compelling read. I had to find out what happened to Helmer and what his future would hold, the ending when it comes is entirely appropriate.  The text is not all grim, there is a certain dry humour to the writing. In style it is spare, yet there is much to read between the lines as you get to know Helmer.  It’s a stunning debut novel in a wonderful translation from a writer to look out for. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, trans David Colmer. (2009, Vintage, paperback, 288 pages).

Life with the Hawkings

Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking

Travelling to InfinityI already posted about the wonderful film The Theory of Everything about the life of Stephen and Jane Hawking here. At that time I wasn’t far into the book, Jane Hawking’s memoir, which the film was based upon. It took me some time to finish the book, read between other fiction novels over a fortnight or so, for it is a bit of a chunkster at 490 densely packed pages.

Jane Hawking first published her memoir in 1999 and the story ended in 1990 after the separation between her and Stephen was made official – this happened after the ending of the film which (started and) finished with Stephen being made a Companion of Honour by the Queen in 1989. In this new abridged version, a postscript brings us up to date.

It takes a special kind of strong woman to fall in love with a man who has been given just two years to live, but that’s what happened to Jane Hawking. Stephen was diagnosed with motor-neuron disease before they married – there is no cure, but amazingly Stephen is still living over fifty years later – a medical phenomenon, even amongst those who contract the rarer, more creeping form of the disease. They didn’t know that would happen then though, and were determined to live life to the full.

Jane looks after Stephen through thick and thin, through the vagaries of university life going from one post to another, relocations around Cambridge, and always the gradual decline of Stephen’s mobility. A fiercely proud man, he totally relied on Jane, and to a lesser extent his research students, to help him get about between home and college. At first Jane was managing to keep her own studies in medieval languages up alongside, but once they had a baby it started to get really difficult. Stephen was very reluctant to start using a wheelchair – but the day came, as did two more children. Stephen’s condition goes up and down – he is prone to frequent choking fits. Gradually the decline results in him needing a tracheostomy to breathe and not choke and in time Stephen meets the computer generated voice that has spoken for him ever since.

Jane has had many battles throughout, and proved to be a tough cookie. She was never really accepted by Stephen’s own family though. Atheists through and through, they could never understand her own needs as a practising Christian. This competition between God and science is one theme that runs through her memoir.

During the middle decades of their marriage, with Stephen on the conference circuit earning his keep at the college, and the demands of motherhood and running the household, it’s not wonder that she was exhausted. Her sense of frustration comes off the page, yet she never says she regrets putting her own life on the back-burner for Stephen. This middle part of the book is undeniably less exciting than the beginning or the end, and the endless detail over every conference and each little obstacle for Jane and Stephen does wear a little thin here.

Relief comes in Jane meeting Jonathan – the local choirmaster who begins to give their son Robert piano lessons, and soon becomes indispensable. Jonathan will eventually become Jane’s second husband, but there is much heartache to come before their developing relationship can be acknowledged. Indeed by the time it was obvious that Stephen now needed wrap-round nursing care, Jonathan had had to go.

It was the arrival of the nursing team that opened the rift between Jane and Stephen. Freed from looking after him round the clock, Jane is momentarily at a loss – and eventually one nurse in particular, Elaine, will edge her out of their marriage for good. It is enough to say that Stephen’s short marriage to his nurse didn’t work out either, there is a sense of schadenfreude about that, but due to having three children together, the Hawkings became friends again.

This is primarily a memoir about a remarkable family and Jane doesn’t let the fact that Stephen is arguably the greatest living scientist get in the way of that. He does come across as pig-headed and proud sometimes – but he is also a loving husband and father, one with his head often in the clouds thinking though. I got a distinct sense that he has used his disability to his advantage – freeing his mind to think.

The fullness of this memoir is, in its way, commendable – it really brings home to us how difficult life was living with someone disabled in this way through decades which weren’t sensitive to such needs. Whether such quantity was needed, I’m not so sure, but Jane Hawking has written a fascinating memoir, and shows us how much she cares for her former husband on (nearly) every page. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind the Theory of Everything by Jane Hawking. Abridged edition pub Dec 2014 by Alma Books, paperback 490 pages.

 

 

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):

 

Poor but mostly happy …

This Boy by Alan Johnson

this boyPoliticians’ memoirs are not the norm for me to read when I choose non-fiction. Alan Johnson may be a fine politician, (and many think that Labour would be in a much better place if he had stood to become leader) but this volume doesn’t cover his later career, just his childhood, and what a childhood it was.

The book starts by Johnson looking back at the only photograph of his parents on their wedding day – neither look entirely happy. His father in uniform with a hint of swagger, his mother smiling somewhat strainedly beside him, her arm linked around his, almost clinging but also restraining.

Johnson grew up in the slums of Notting Hill – you’d never recognise it now. The buildings were due for demolition and they had just a couple of rooms with a cooker on the landing and outside loo. It can’t have been what his mother Lily, a Liverpudlian, was expecting when she moved to London but she was determined to make it her home. Steve wouldn’t even contemplate moving anywhere else. Alan, who was born in 1950, and his older sister Linda were born into this deprivation and like all children who don’t know anything different did their best to get the most out of this life.

They hadn’t reckoned on their father Steve though. By the end of the first chapter, he’s already had an affair – pretending to be visiting his mother every Sunday morning, instead having it away with the wife of a friend. Linda uncovered some of what was happening and it all came out. Steve left Lily for Elsie – but, as Johnson tells us, ‘Unfortunately, he came back.’

Johnson is unsparing in his depiction of his father:

There are no surrogate fathers in this story. The lack of any meaningful relationship with Steve did not spur me to see an alternative father figure. In fact it had the opposite effect: it made me mistrustful of men in general and uncomfortable in their presence. I much preferred being with women. But if I had been inclined to fantasize about the ideal father, as Linda was (she idolized her teacher at Bevington, Mr Freeman, and often voiced her wish that he was our dad), Albert Cox [father of his best friend Tony] would have been my choice.

Steve was a charmer who got most of his money from playing the piano in pubs, or occasionally getting lucky on the horses. He drank and gambled most of it away, and it was difficult for Lily to get any housekeeping out of him even before he eventually left, when that became nigh-on impossible. Lily always had to work to put food on the table, and her health suffered. There were many spells in hospital and she died when Alan was 12. Linda was just turning sixteen, and having brought up Alan all those times her mother was ill, was able to persuade the Council that they could survive on their own. They finally got a flat to share south of the river with that indoor bathroom they’d always craved.

The post-war poverty was appalling, yet Johnson is rarely maudlin about it. Luckily he was bright and caught the reading bug at a young age, later getting to Grammar school. Amongst the few treasured family possessions were his guitar and Linda’s Dansette record player, bought when Lily had a small win on the football pools one week. Books, football and music were his passions, but unfulfilled at school, he left at 15, ending up as a postman at 18 via shelf-stacking at Tesco; a good guitarist by then, he was also in a couple of bands. That is where this memoir ends (the second volume, Please, Mr Postman is now out, chronicling his pre-parliament working years).

There were many good times in Johnson’s childhood, usually short-lived, which he recounts with wit and a candour that is present throughout. Only once or twice does he ever credit his father with any visible parenting – one time when his father actually played trains with him is fondly remembered, but little else.

Alan Linda, and Lily when she was well, just got on with life. The real heroine of this story is Linda, the big sister who always looked out for the family. She was a remarkable young woman and thoroughly deserves our praise.

There is little sign in this volume of the politician that Johnson would eventually become except perhaps in his tolerance of things. Notting Hill was an area that would change rapidly with the influx of immigrant workers in the 1950s, one of Johnson’s best friends was a black lad, but Johnson doesn’t stray away from telling just his own story.

Despite not being a political memoir in the true sense, This Boy won the Orwell Prize (for political writing) and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, both in 2014. The Ondaatje prize is given for a book that evokes the “spirit of a place” and post-war Notting Hill certainly leaps off the pages.

Johnson’s childhood was terribly poor and marred by tragedy – you can’t help but be deeply moved by his account yet, it is also funny and equally uplifting. Johnson tells it how it was but remains chipper throughout, and staunch in his belief in his wonderful sister Linda. He has done his best to hide the misery which must lie underneath this marvellous book.  I’m so glad I read it. (10/10)

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This Boy by Alan Johnson. Corgi books 2013, paperback, 304 pages.
Please, Mister Postman by Alan Johnson. Bantam 2014, hardback.

Mothers and Daughters again…

Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel

Layout 1The relationships between mothers and daughters, or daughters and their mothers – whichever way around you want to put it, is obviously something that fascinates Meike Ziervogel.

Her first novella, published away from her own Peirene publishing house was also about a mother and daughter, and the daughter’s own daughter. Magda, based on the life of that Magda – Goebbels that is – is an immensely powerful novella that looked hard at the dysfunctional relationship between the Nazi wife and her own mother, (read my review here).

Ziervogel’s second novella, Clara’s Daughter is a contemporary story set in leafy North London and may not have a famous protagonist, but is none the less powerful for that. Michele is a successful businesswoman, yet feels defined by her relationship with her ageing mother as Clara’s Daughter. Michele’s own children are grown-up and have flown the nest and now her job and her mother taking over again from her childrens’ needs have put Michele’s marriage under a terrible strain. Michele feels increasingly trapped – something will have to give, but Michele can’t let it be her.

Then Jim betrays her with a younger woman, and she starts to snap…

I take a pencil and snap it in half, just because I have to do something. I can’t sit here and do nothing. Then I am still, and the house is still, and I know it wasn’t enough simply to break a pencil. I want to do more. So I take the metal pen holder, turn slightly on my chair and throw it straight through the open door across the balcony and into the garden. The clattering noise as it hits the patio tells me I have achieved my aim. I get to my feet and pick up the two cushions from the chair and fling them into the garden too.

Having bagged up his clothes and got the need to throw things out of her system, Michele retaliates by phoning the builder and commissioning the conversion of their basement into a granny flat, something Jim hadn’t wanted (after having a fall, they had planned to move her mother into a retirement home). Her sister Hilary will be delighted with Michele taking on their mother…

This all unfolds within the first twenty pages of this novella. We really do get to feel Michele’s anger. Later we’ll see other sides of her, especially once her mother is installed. Clara, naturally enough, resents being moved out of her own home and her growing confusion with having to face new things is scarily real.  I have to say that the author absolutely nails it again – they all love each other, but find living together even more of a strain.

Reading about this unhappy family does make you stop and think about your own situation. It’s not an easy read; there are many elements in this story that undoubtedly will have happened, or may happen later to any of us. Meike successfully makes us sympathise with and understand both mother and daughter’s points of view right through to the story’s moving conclusion.

If mothers and daughters are something of an obsession for the author, the novella form is another. As many of you will know, Ziervogel is the founder of Peirene Press which publishes novellas in translation, in addition to those she writes herself. I’m a big fan of novellas and short novels, they allow a story to be told in full without diversions getting in the way of the arc and, for me, they are more satisfying than short stories. I’ll stick my neck out and christen Meike ‘Queen of the Novella’. I hope to read many more, whether written by her or published by her. Meanwhile I’d highly recommend that you get your hands on Clara’s Daughter. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel. Salt Publishing, September 15th 2014, paperback original.

We followed our men to Los Alamos …

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

wives of los alamosThis is not a novel about the development of the atom bomb, but rather the development of the community surrounding the laboratory which produced the bomb. Most of the scientists who worked at Los Alamos were seconded to the military from all over the country in 1943 for the Manhattan Project under its director Robert Oppenheimer, who had chosen the location for the new top secret facility.

Many of these scientists were family men and TaraShea Nesbit’s novel tells the story through the eyes of their wives. The need for secrecy was such that the scientists’ families followed them to Santa Fe, and on to Los Alamos on the mesa – much easier to keep a lid on things with them all there. Their wives, and children if they already had them, were installed in a fenced compound of pre-fabs outside the ‘technical area’, and she tells how they established new lives for themselves during the later years of WWII.

Nesbit’s style is experimental. Each paragraph is a little vignette set within a collection of paragraphs on a theme. Each paragraph is written using ‘we’, the first person plural – but makes it clear that within the collective ‘we’ are the many different individuals that made up the community – they all have a voice, so both sides of the story are usually expressed within each paragraph…

We were round-faced, athletic, boisterous, austere, thin-boned, catlike, and awkward. When we challenged people’s political views we were described as stubborn or outspoken. Our fathers were academics – we knew the academic world. We married men just like our fathers, or nothing like them, or maybe only the best parts. As the wives of scientists in college towns we gave tea parties and gossiped, or we lived in the city and hosted cocktail hours. We served cigarettes on tin trays. We leaned in close to the other wives, pretending we were  good friends, cupping our hands and whispering into their ears. And, most importantly, we found out how to get our husbands tenure.

The themed collections of paragraphs built up to present the chronological story from arrival to departure. Many of the families had a hard time settling into the army way of doing things, not forgetting the weather – from snow and mud to blinding, never-ending sunshine. They also had to get used to not seeing as much of their husbands…

Many of us hated the women scientists. And the women scientists hated us, or they had better things to worry about. We tried to be their friends. We invited one of them to lunch but she was busy. We despised what she knew and how she laughed at our questions.

But there must have been something in the water, for soon the community was awash with babies.  The Army General complained. The Director said, ‘I’m not going to interfere in the lives of adults.’ There is a sense of settling down, the women build their friendships and routines; some become friends with the local Tewa women who are hired to be helps. Naturally too, some friendships and marriages will founder and not all will last the course. Not being able to quiz their husbands about their work, the women try to make their often mundane life sound exciting. They just do their best to get on with things as their husbands work towards the big one. You know how that ends – but it’s still shocking to read about it in the novel.

It may be experimental, but the style worked for me. It does require more concentration to absorb all the strands than a straight-forward narrative, and consequently it took longer to read than a conventional novel. What was truly fascinating was the way that the style celebrates the differences in the women, they are all individuals and they each have a story to tell in the book. Having said that the middle section, once the wives were well established in situ, was not as riveting as the beginning or the end, but I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s a brave author that debuts with such an unconventional first novel, but Nesbit shows great promise and I shall look out for her name in the future. (8.5/10)

For another review of this book see Susan’s at A Life in Books here.

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit, pub April 2014 by Bloomsbury Circus, Hardback 240 pages.

P.S. Following Col’s comment below: here is a clip of Deacon Blue singing Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now from 2013. Thanks Col!

What is an accident anyway?

Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

accidents-happen-978033054501301

I used to work for one of the world’s major chemical companies whose mantra was that there is no such thing as an accident. After too many ‘accidents’ making explosives in the 1800s, the company became intensely safety focused, and remains so today. They believe, and naturally it rubbed off on me (I ended up as a H&S manager for them) that all incidents have a root cause, and that finding and engineering or training it out etc. if possible is the way to go.

Thus I was naturally intrigued by the title of this novel. Having recently seen Louise speak, I knew I was expecting a tightly plotted psychothriller with some issues of trust and family values at its core, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of those stories that crescendos gradually, dropping in little details and clues that will become clear later on in the final climaxes.

Kate and her young son Jack have arrived back from school. Kate is suspicious of everything and everyone – the tailgating driver on the way home, surely there was more in the casserole in the fridge?  She is constantly on edge, and Jack doesn’t know how to handle his mother. She’s in danger of losing it – and we soon find out that they have suffered a double dose of grief from which they’ve not yet recovered. First Kate’s parents died in a tragic car accident, then her husband Hugo was murdered, stabbed in a mugging gone wrong.  She’s all alone, and she feels that Hugo’s parents Helen and Richard think she’s incapable of looking after Jack properly, maybe Hugo’s sister Saskia who was always her ally feels that way too. For it all happened five years ago …

One of the things that Kate has started doing is to do sums… she researches the odds of things happening and calculates the statistics, so she can stop more bad things happening to her and Jack. Nagged by her in-laws, she finally goes to see a therapist and tells her about this:

‘OK, there was a lot of traffic tonight so I decided to cycle. But before I cycled, I did a sum. I worked out that because it’s May, my chances of having a bike accident are higher because it’s summer, and about 80% of accidents take place during daylight hours, but more than half of cycling fatalities happen at road junctions, so if I went off-road I could lower it drastically. So I did. And because I am thirty-five, I have more chance of having an accident than another woman in Oxfordshire in her twenties, but because I was wearing my helmet, I have – according to one American report I read, anyway – about an 85% chance of reducing my risk of head injury. Then when I was cycling I balanced my chances of having an accident with the fact that by doing half an hour of sustained cardio cycling, I can lower my risk of getting cancer. Of course, that meant I increased my chances of being sexually attacked by being alone on a quiet canal path, but as I have roughly a one in a thousand chance in Oxfordshire, I think it’s worth taking.’
She thought she saw Sylvia flinch.

She can’t bear it, so escapes from the therapist’s house and ends up in a cafe where she encounters Jago Martin, a visiting Oxford Professor. He just happens to have written a book about beating the odds. After meeting again, Kate is a bit besotted by Jago, and when he agrees to help her in her predicament she acquiesces with little thought. His methods are not conventional though, he wants to teach her to become a natural risk-taker…

There are many different facets to the drama of this novel – Kate’s relationship with her in-laws, with Saskia, and Saskia’s own relationship with her parents, poor Jack and his over-protective mother, the introduction of Jago, and not forgetting the weirdo student next door who always seems to be haning around.  Over all of them is the aura of Hugo, gone but never forgotten. Kate had always been prone to worrying, but Hugo with his big-hearted happy soul had made things all right, given her life the balance it now lacks.

Millar cleverly misdirects us; everyone has issues, no-one is straight-forward – it’s hard to get to grips with what is bound to happen – or is it more ‘accidents’? The suspense builds.

Imagine a Sophie Hannah novel without the police involved, and slightly more family oriented and you should get the measure of this book. I enjoyed it a lot. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Accidents Happen by Louise Millar, 2013, Pan paperback 426 pages.

 

Two *Five* Star Books for you …

One of the greatest pleasures of reading and blogging is to discover books that I adore, that few will have heard of, and then to bring them to a wider audience. Recently I read and reviewed two such novels for Shiny New Books. Below are tasters of my reviews with links to the full thing…

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding

american sycamore
It is lovely to be able to heartily recommend a début novel published by a smaller independent publisher – American Sycamore is exactly that and it deserves a wide readership.

Set in the 1970s, it’s a coming of age story of two siblings, Alice and Billy Sycamore who grow up in a small town by the Susquehanna River in north-eastern USA. I know that coming of age novels aren’t to everyone’s taste, but this one is very special. The descriptions of character, landscape and the river which runs through it are amazing and the meandering story is told by a narrator you warm to instantly. (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams

into the trees

Imagine a house in the middle of the forest, somewhere you feel safe, at home; somewhere to hide away perhaps? What springs to mind? One such place I instantly thought of was the seven dwarves’ cottage in Snow White. Then I thought of the gingerbread cottage in Hansel and Gretel – except that wasn’t exactly a safe house until they’d disposed of the wicked witch.

I hasten to add that Into the Trees is no fairy-tale. It is a thoroughly contemporary novel, not even a reworking of a fairy-tale and yet, you can’t help thinking of them all the time when reading it. Forests in themselves are potent symbols of nature, spirits and earth-magic, remember the forest of Fangorn, home of the Ents, and Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings for instance. Add a house in a clearing and you’re back in Grimm territory, or is it more like the Cullen’s modern glass sanctuary in the Twilight film? Whichever, you know that something bad happened when someone came knocking at the door looking for Snow White …

This novel isn’t a thriller – you encounter the key event in the prologue.  Instead it explores the effect of living in the forest before and after this event on a family.  Deep, complex and superb writing – dare one hope for a happy ending?  (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

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Source: Both courtesy of the publishers – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding. Published February 2014 by Seren Books, paperback original 200 pages.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Published April 2014 by Faber & Faber, Hardback 352 pages.

Psst! Want to know a secret?

Secret by Philippe Grimbert

Secret

This short novel contains within its 154 widely spaced pages a tale so compelling you will want to read the whole thing in one sitting as I did and still have time to savour the exquisite writing as translated from the French by Polly McLean.

The only problem that I have in writing this review is that I can’t tell you much about it without giving away the central secrets that lie in this family’s past. The narrator tells of his childhood growing up in post-war Paris in the 1950s, the sickly only child of supremely fit and glamorous parents. He wishes he had an older brother and invents one, but it is when he talks to an old family friend once he reaches fifteen that he begins to find out the truth about his heritage, something his parents had wanted to stay buried.

One day while still a child, he helps his mother tidy in the attic …

She had opened a trunk in which she expected to find fashion magazines that used to publish her designs. She jumped when she saw the little dog with Bakelite eyes, sleeping there on top of a pile of blankets. Threadbare and dusty-muzzled, he was wearing a knitted coat. I immediately grabbed him and hugged him to my chest, but had to abandon the idea of taking him to my room: I could feel my mother’s unease as she asked me to put him back in his place.  (page 5)

You should never hide things like that where people may find them – at the very least they should have ‘lost’ the key to the trunk. I shouldn’t be so glib though.  Grimbert himself is a psychoanalyst and he uses all the tricks of the trade to gradually tease out what happened. He also shares a his surname with his protagonist, which will lead you to all sorts of questions, not least the killer one – are there elements of autobiography in this story?  I have no idea of the answer to that by the way.

Published in 2004 in France as Un Secret, and 2007 in the UK dropping the ‘A’, this book was a bestseller in France and won a Prix Goncort. It was also filmed and I can certainly see it as a French drama. Please be aware that it is also available under the title ‘Memory‘.

The style is spare, yet full of the details that we need to get pulled into the story. I enjoyed this novel very much indeed. (9/10)

For another non-spoiler review see Vulpes Libris here

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Secretby Philippe Grimbert. Pub 2007 by Portobello Books, paperback 154 pages.