Saturday 25 November 2023

Restless Dolly Maunder - Kate Grenville

 As I began this novel it seemed like a competent piece of historical fiction set in Australia shortly before the end of the nineteenth century. And as I read I marvelled at the research, how thorough and detailed it all was and how much depth it gave to Dolly's story and how it highlighted the lack of equality between men and women at that time in history. As I continued with my reading I was impressed by how Dolly made the best of her situation and tried to overcome gender restraints as far as was possible without distorting society's rules too dramatically.  On one level I admired her but it did seem to come at a price and I was often left feeling that her children were victims of a degree of neglect emotionally. But you also feel that there's an element of history repeating itself as Dolly's relationship with her parents was not warm to say the least.  It wasn't until I reached the end and read the author's additional notes that I realised this was a fiction that had been constructed around some basic family facts in particular a single incident that happened to the author when she was a child. It's powerful. Dolly Maunder was a real person and she did all of the things described in the book. Somehow that revelation added another dimension to the story. 

Ms. Grenville has a proven track record - Commonwealth Writers' Prize, shortlisted for the Man Booker and Miles Franklin Literary Award snd winner of the Orange Prize. The writing is assured and the prose steps just beyond that of linear story telling. But above all Kate Grenville gives a voice to one, ordinary woman unwilling to be defined by the expectations of the age.

My thanks to Canongate Book for a gifted copy.On oneOneOn oneOn one

Crow Dark Dawn - David Greygoose

If you were worrying that we have no legacy of fairy stories to pass on to future generations, then fret not, for David Greygoose seems to have it covered. Although this collection of stories has several recurring characters there is such a sense of the traditional fairy tale about them that it is hard not to conjure Rumpelstiltskin and The Pied Piper. I was also reminded of Oscar Wilde's Fairy Tales in some instances.

There's a whole other worldly feel to this mesmerising collection; tales that aren't quite gothic, not quite magical realism but more rooted in the manner of folk and fairytale. One story kind of meanders into another with similar descriptions of the streets and environments, the rats and the birds. I had to keep reminding myself of the different characters as they wove their way in and out of the various stories, disappearing for a few tales and then popping up again. 

I felt the collection had a curious dreamlike quality to it that was unnerving in some ways. The sense of being pushed a little off balance. The writing is confident and assertive with a sense of the poetic and  lyrical cadences that seem intrinsic to the fairy and folk tale style of writing.

It's unusual fiction which seems consistent with Hawkwood Books mission. I can see it being a Marmite book requiring an expansive imagination with which to plunder its depths. Fortunately I adore Marmite. 

I won a copy in Librarything's Early Reviewers Draw.

Thursday 23 November 2023

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow - Gabrielle Zevin

Not a lot of people know this about me but I love playing video games! I probably play every day even if  it's a just one level of Candy Crush! I can't explain it because in many ways it seems out of character but as long as they've been around I've played them. There, now I've said it and it's out there and my intellectual credibility is probably compromised! 😱 

I'd seen Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow splayed across social media and wondered if it was another of those books that was all over the place one minute and gone the next. I had a vague idea it was about gamers and gaming but that was all. But I found a copy in my local library and settled down to read. Wow!

The sense of nostalgia was immense. I recognised the names of the older games (I still retain such affection for Mario) and I found the references to The Oregon Trail so funny because......... it's a game I'm currently playing! How weird is that? But as I read my way through the levels of the book it became so much more than a book about gaming. It's deceptively multi layered and erudite with references to Shakespeare, Homer and Emily Dickinson for starters. Life as a game is a much used, and some might say abused metaphor, but when it's used in the right hands it works. It does here. So it broadens the novel beyond a story about gamers and gaming. 

Sam and Sadie's friendship begins in more unusual circumstances than many friendships and it's an association that endures throughout the book and throughout their lives. It's not always harmonious and there were times when I could have slapped the pair of them but it's real. It's not really romance but it is love. Thus it becomes very moving.

The book implicitly acknowledges the reason so many of us play games - to escape the real world for a place of infinite possibilities. Where you can have infinite lives and start over when everything goes tits up. But here Sam and Sadie create games commercially. Best selling games at that. That part of the book I felt like I'd read before in similar stories but it didn't jar for long because there's so much more. They also create games to help them understand their lives and their relationships with others.Some things were unexpected and I didn't expect to be heartbroken which I was at one point in the story.

My favourite character was Marx because he's the kind of person I would love to have in my life, the kind of friend I'd love to have. Sam and Sadie are flawed but real but I was rooting for them even though I got annoyed with them sometimes. 

I think the book also gave a palpable depiction of two different US coasts. I am British but I have travelled to both sides of the US in particular Boston and New York so I did enjoy that aspect of the book too. I haven't been to California but just above it if that counts!

Yep, it was an enjoyable read. Now if you'll excuse me I need to get back to the Oregon Trail - before anyone dies of dysentery


Friday 10 November 2023

My Father's House - Joseph O'Connor


I read this book because Sinead O'Connor died. I loved Sinead O'Connor. I loved her music. I loved her openness and honesty. I loved how articulate and intelligent she was. I was heartbroken when I learned of her death. I watched her funeral on my tablet. Later when reading accounts of the occasion I came across a poem her brother had written for her funeral - Blackbird in Dun Laoghaire. He didn't mention her by name I guess he didn't need to. It is a beautiful poem and I had never realised that  her brother was a novelist. And then I saw someone on social media who had read a novel by Jospeh O'Connor and spoke highly of it. I respect this person's opinion so I reserved a copy of the story at my local library. 

It's an historical novel, a war story, about the German occupation of Rome. It's about an Irish priest in Rome who helps numerous people escape the clutches of the Nazi's. It's based on facts and a real life person but it is a fictional imagining of the events. 

It's very much a thriller with plenty of action but it is a poetic and literary thriller. The language is very much in the Irish tradition. I found myself reading it with an Irish accent if that makes any sense. There was a sense of flowing cadences and a rhythm to the narrative. Some of it is very quotable even, which isn't something you expect from a WW2 thriller usually!

'A book rather gets its hands around your throat and shakes you until your fillings fall out. Some writers are skilled with words, but all of us are skilled with procrastination.'

The characterisations are adept. Hugh O' Flaherty leaps off the page at you with his strength, wisdom, humour and compassion. But the other characters are all complete people too and the dynamic between them is to be savoured.

Structurally the story offers a third person narrative interspersed with first person transcripts of written or recorded interviews so you are given a balanced view of the events from all those involved. As with any good thriller the novel is not without its twists.  But I'm not going to reveal them here!

I really enjoyed this book and I wasn't sure if I would because my reasons for reading it may not have been the purest in a literary sense. But I was mightily impressed and hope to seek out some more of Mr. O'Connor's work.

Thursday 9 November 2023

The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou

 Featuring on BBC 2’s Between the Covers,  (if you watched this weeks episode, you would have  seen a copy on the shelf behind Sarah Cox! )The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou is an historical crime novel based on a true crime from the 1950s. It’s dark reading.

Zina, a  Greek Cypriot, has very limited English, so when she is accused of murder she requires an interpreter and translator in the form of Eva Georgiou who works for the Met police. Eva’s job really was to merely interpret and translate, but she becomes deeply involved with the case and forms an attachment with Zina. This offers a compelling story that covers prejudice, immigration, the media, the place of women in different cultures and questions of morality.

 What I found particularly fascinating was the nature of Eva’s attachment with Zina. Knowing that it was almost certain that the older woman had committed murder Eva still felt concern and compassion for her fellow country woman and in the novel we see her becoming increasingly obsessed. To her credit she wants to see Zina get a fair hearing even if she is guilty, and she works tirelessly to try and make sure that no stone is unturned. But it takes its toll on her and her marriage to the ever patient Jimmy, who is one of the most endearing characters in the book. The characterizations are strong, and we get a very clear picture of Zina and Eva. We also get a very clear idea of the legal system and the prison system in the 1950s. I found the courtroom sequences utterly gripping. And I also think it highlights the fact that nothing is ever completely clear cut. On the one hand you can argue that Zina murdered so she must be punished, but the novel seeks to look at the mitigating factors that might have led to Zina’s unspeakable acts and whether, some leniency might be appropriate. And so doing the book also offers the reader much food for thought. I’ve often wondered what it is that drives people to commit acts of unspeakable violence. Up to a point I can see where crimes of passion could occur, but to take the life of another in a premeditated way is beyond my comprehension.

Historically it creates a very palpable picture of 1950s London, both socially and the penal and legal system of the time. Some thorough and excellent research has been undertaken. There are moments of tension within the well paced narrative and cleanly structured story. We care about the characters including Zina

It’s not a feel good read by any means, but it is an extremely absorbing one. My thanks to Tandem Collective for a copy of this book.


Saturday 4 November 2023

Western Lane - Chetna Maroo

 Shortlisted for this year‘s book a prize, Chetna Maroo’s debut novel, uses the sport of squash as an enduring metaphor for life. Gopi and her sisters lose their mother and the novel  looks at how a family deals with grief alongside trying to live an everyday life. It’s a delicate balance seen through the eyes of the 11 year old Gopi. 

Gopi is a delightful character and displays an intuitive sensitivity to those around her as she tries to make sense of life seeing the squash court as her panacea for her grief. There is innocence and there’s subtle humor. The other characters are also well drawn, and it’s easy to relate to them. The relationship between Gopi and her two sisters is beautifully explored and we feel so much for her father losing his wife and knowing he has to be both mother and father to his girls. Family interventions also provide some interestng characterizations as well for some interesting considerations.

The book is a fine example of how an author can take aspects of an everyday life without anything sensational happening and renders it into a meaningful and delicate exploration of growing up and grieving. It’s an even, accessible narrative. The writing is deceptive. Sometimes it’s only when you go back and reread and think again about what you’ve just read that you realize the depth of perception this author possesses.

As someone who has experienced grief all too often these days I found this sentiment expressed, regarding competitive squash, so metaphorically pertinent to grief.

You are supposed to find your own way out… No one can help you.’

I also thought it was one of those novels, like Elizabeth Lowry’s The Chosen, where the silences in between words, express as much as the words themselves.

Sometimes described as a family drama it’s more a slowly executed unraveling of layers like the skins of an onion, peeled away.

Religion makes its mark in the book too, where Gopi’s family are Jain and there comes across a degree of ethnic and social division but it all seems that this is part of Gopi’s growing up, her developing as we see how she deals with everything.

Tuesday 31 October 2023

The. Carhullan Army - Sarah Hall

 The Carhullan Army won the 2007 John Llewellyn-Rhys Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the 2008 Arthur C Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction. Described as dystopian which I would agree with more than science fiction, (although utopian and dystopian fiction are seen to be sub genres of science fiction) and compared with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which I feel is a tenuous comparison, Atwood preferred the term speculative fiction for her 1985 novel, I think The Carhullan Army fits this genre best of all.

Much dystopian fiction creates a stylised and futuristic landscape which seems far removed, though not impossible, from current regimes but there are those which present as just one step removed from the climate we are navigating currently. These are by far the most chilling because such a reality seems possible. Such is the case with Sarah Hall’s novel. 

What also seems to set Hall apart from other dystopian writers is her penchant for the literary. The prose is sublime. The atmosphere is sustained throughout and the bleak, harsh Cumbrian landscape can be felt and smelt almost, the writing is so tight. You sense that the evocative descriptions of the landscape serve as  metaphor for the regime being lived in.

Unashamedly feminist in its intent the story is offered in the form of a report and statement from an unnamed female prisoner ‘ Detained under Section 4 (b) of the Insurgency Prevention (Unrestricted Powers) Act’ from the English Authority Penal System archive. The sections of the book are described as Files that are partially or wholly recovered. 

The prisoner in question is never known by any name other than Sister. She leaves a dominating regime which includes the most horrifying, compulsory contraception and a crushing marriage to seek out a secluded  assembly of women in a distant farm in Cumbria which she learned of some years previously. She  seems to have put the leader of the group, Jackie Nixon, on an indestructible pedestal.

But her arrival at the encampment could be seen as less than welcoming! In an incredible paradox of her initial incarceration which is harrowing to read, she’s released into a kind of  Arcadia comparatively. It is these paradoxes that also render the novel so compelling;  paradoxes of nature, character, preference. 

There’s also much physical suffering throughout the book frequently described in painful detail. Emotional suffering, too, is never far from the surface. But the story is one of a journey for Sister. As she changes physically - the shaven head, the muscular body - you sense she’s changing cerebrally and emotionally too. Throughout, she never seems to lose her admiration and desire to impress Jackie Nixon. Nixon is a wonderful creation, so focused, so strong, but also so remorseless.

It’s not a feel good read by any means and that’s putting it mildly. And there’s a kind of hopelessness that pervades the latter stages of the book. Because you sense that what the Carhullan Army is up against is impenetrable. And yet the very fact that there are people, women, who are prepared to put up the fight, to say no we’re not putting up with this has a curious kind of hope all of its own. 

What is also impressive is that although published  in 2007 it presents as very current, very immediate,  very fresh. it’s a book that will stay with you long after you finish it. There’s plenty to think about and plenty to admire regarding its concept and execution.