Non-Fiction, Reviews

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel (1945), trans. Stephanie Smee

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image via goodreads.com

I came across Bookish Beck’s review of No Place to Lay One’s Head last month and knew I just had to read it. It is the memoir of Françoise Frenkel, a Jewish woman from Poland who opened the first French-language bookshop in Berlin, in 1921. She had studied in France, and when on a visit to Berlin, she realises that French books and newspapers are not available, she is convinced of the need for a French bookshop in the city. Frenkel was wedded to a career as a bookseller, and it is wonderful to read to about her passion for it and her obvious joy at being able to run a successful bookshop and have regular customers.

“However, starting in 1935, serious complications set in.”

As the National Socialist party gains power in Germany, gradually more and more restrictions are placed on Frenkel and her bookshop. Initially the problems arise from her selling French literature – she has to deal with new customs regulations, certain French authors being blacklisted, and eventually a ban on all French newspapers. She starts to receive Nazi propaganda in the post, as well as invitations to meetings and rallies – and attached to these are questionnaires relating to her race, and that of her grandparents and great-grandparents. She is even arrested and interviewed by the Gestapo about taking a trip to see friends in Belgium, but is mercifully set free on the same day.

Frenkel tells her story quite swiftly, and very soon we are told about the night of 10th November 1938, a night now referred to as Kristallnacht. She is awoken by the sound of a water pump, and goes out into the street to see firefighters trying to deal with several shops that are burning, and eventually the synagogue as well. Some men approach her bookshop as she stands outside it, but turn away when they realise it’s not on their list. The next day she does not open the shop, and decides to wind up the business and leave Germany. There is a poignant scene in which she walks around her shop, touching all the books and wondering if she will ever be able to return to them.

In July 1939 Frenkel makes her way to Paris, and leaves in Spring 1940 for the south of France – just days before the city is bombed by the Germans. She makes several fortuitous moves like this throughout the book, narrowly avoiding death or capture. In the south she lives in Avignon and Vichy, before settling for a time in Nice. She writes wonderfully about her faith in the French people, and her fears for the country as it is occupied by the Germans and the Vichy government comes increasingly under their influence.

One day in August 1942, she is coming back to the hotel where she lives when she sees one of her neighbours gesturing to her from the window. He points to a side street, and when she looks down it she sees people being herded onto buses. She asks someone what is happening and they tell her that “They’re picking up Jews.” She has observed the growing restrictions on Jewish people and has heard about concentration camps – ones in France that are more like holding camps, and the ones in the east. She looks around her for options and for a moment is tempted to run towards the crowd and get on one of the buses:

“A feeling of intense joy overwhelmed me at the thought of such solidarity, such sacrifice. But cold logic took over.

Who would benefit from such a sacrifice? What could it change? What good would come of it?

The instinct of self-preservation had won out.

The bitterness of this truth weighs on me still, and will to the end of my days.”

Eventually she realises she must go somewhere, and runs over to a hairdressers owned by her friends the Mariuses. They instantly understand her plight and agree to shelter her in their apartment, as it soon becomes clear that she cannot return to the hotel. From this point on, she is in hiding. 

I included the above passage as it is one of the few moments in the book where Frenkel really identifies herself with other Jewish people in the larger context, or expresses her sorrow for those that were arrested and deported. Most of the time she explains the restrictions placed on Jewish people, and their difficulty with the authorities, as if she were not one of them. Only now and again does she say ‘this happened to me too’, and always after she has outlined the wider situation. I wonder if this detachment is like a coping mechanism, a way to distance herself from the horror she sees around her, however mundane – and even though she’s telling the story in retrospect. Her storytelling moves along quite swiftly, as I mentioned, and she is very matter of fact. At certain points she expresses her sadness, horror, or fear, but always in a simple and plain manner. She does not dwell on her emotions for too long and does not get swept up in the drama of the situations and experiences. The above passage is a rare deviation from this.

The middle of the book, when Frenkel is in hiding and has to move several times, reminded me of Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon, which details her life in hiding during the war, mostly in Berlin (and which I reviewed here along with A Woman in Berlin). Frenkel is incredibly lucky that the Mariuses are able to help her find places to stay, sometimes paying rent for her or sending supplies of food and clothes. It is clear that without them her situation would have been a lot worse. It soon becomes apparent that she cannot stay in France, and must try to get over to Switzerland.

Frenkel’s first attempt at getting over the border to Switzerland ends in her being arrested, and she spends several months in prison in Annecy before being acquitted. Again she is unbelievably lucky to have friends to help her, this time in Switzerland. They are able to send her a visa, which undoubtedly helps her case. She also has a very sympathetic lawyer who helps her greatly. It is clear that other Jewish people in the same situation are not so lucky, and some are deported to the east. Once released from prison she goes back into hiding, staying for a while in a convent, before trying again in June 1943 to cross the border. She is advised where might be a good place to get across, and that certain gates are unlocked and unguarded during the day. This time, in a panic, she makes it to Switzerland. Even though you know from the start that Frenkel survives the war, the tension is undeniable and you are almost as relieved as she is when she finally makes it over the border.

No Place to Lay One’s Head is a unique and fascinating book. We know very little about Frenkel’s life outside of what she includes in her memoir, and this is explored in Patrick Modiano’s preface. Aside from the intriguing fact that not once in the book does Frenkel mention her husband Simon Raichenstein (with whom she opened the bookshop in Berlin), Modiano points out that perhaps it doesn’t matter that we know so little about Frenkel outside of the book, especially her life after the war.

I did think about the absence of her husband from the story though. He left Berlin for Paris in 1933, and was still there when Frenkel arrived, though of course it’s unclear if they saw each other. Unlike Frenkel, Raichenstein stayed in Paris and was rounded up in July 1942; he died a month later in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s impossible to know, but given that Frenkel wrote and published her memoir just after the war, it may simply have been too painful for her to include him in the book.

As with A Woman in Berlin, all that matters is the story that that the writer chooses to tell.

*

First published in 1945 by Verlag Jehebe (Geneva, Switzerland). Published in France in 2015 by Editions Gallimard, in Australia (for the first time in English) in 2017 by Vintage, and in the UK by Pushkin Press in 2018. I read the Pushkin Press paperback edition, pictured above.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor (2011)

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image via goodreads.com

She-Wolves was one of those books that I had heard about for ages, and kept meaning to read, but for some reason never got around to – laziness, too many other books to read, a million reasons. So I decided to put it on my wish list for Christmas and birthday books last year, and luckily I received it for Christmas. I’d been meaning to read some more about Elizabeth I (I also asked for, and received, Helen Castor’s biography of her), so I particularly liked the idea of reading about some of the women who came before her, especially as I had little knowledge of that period of English history.

I had heard of some of the women covered in this book, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, so it was wonderful to actually learn some details about their lives and especially their roles in the politics and rule of England. Castor makes it clear throughout that what we know of these women comes largely through the fact that they were associated with famous and powerful men, as mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters. She makes it clear there are limited sources of information on these women and so you have to make the most out of what is available, and link it to the extensive sources on the men and the wider history in order to get the full picture. There are also plenty of gaps in the narrative when nothing ‘important’ was happening in these women’s lives. I loved this exploration of how we learn about historical figures, and women especially, and what the historian has to do to piece together a story. Castor readily acknowledges that it is particularly difficult to get a real picture of any of these women’s personalities as they left little or no writings of their own, especially nothing personal, and reports of their behaviour or actions might be tainted by opinions and hearsay. So while we can learn about the bigger picture, it is harder to dig down into the personal, smaller details of relationships and individual experiences.

This is true of a lot of history, especially of certain periods, but for me it became more of an issue with She-Wolves because because by the time I got to Isabella of France, all these women started to sound rather similar. I can appreciate the difficulty of getting a complete picture of personalities, as Castor explains, but I think this was compounded in She-Wolves by the fact that the book tells the stories of four different women – so the same problem occurs each time. The scant information means that while there are some small differences, each woman is described in much the same way, as ‘strong’ and ‘fierce’, protective over their children and homelands. The biggest changes between each story were the circumstances and the relationships with men. It is also inevitable that the men’s stories take the foreground sometimes, as they were the ones making the decisions and affecting change (with a few exceptions).

So while I did enjoy She-Wolves, I found it a bit frustrating and almost wished that Castor had published four short books about each of the women rather than putting them all together in one volume. Nevertheless I very much appreciate that it’s an important book and it’s wonderful that that these women have been given the attention they deserve. Castor is an excellent writer and I will certainly be reading her biography of Elizabeth I, which I’m sure will be brilliant.

*

Published in 2011 by Faber & Faber (paperback edition pictured above). Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

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Comment, Personal

Back again for 2019!

Hello dear readers! As you may have noticed, I have been very quiet on here recently, but I am glad to say that I am now back for 2019.

My last posts in November 2018 were about the Young Writer of the Year Award, for which I was on the shadow panel. I kept meaning to write a ‘summing up’ post in December about the experience, but somehow that never happened. I have to say I was thrilled that Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth won the award. I loved reading it (my review is here). I was very flattered to be asked to be on the shadow panel, and it was a great experience. In the end I was too ill on the day to attend the actual prize giving, which was a shame as I was very keen to attend (especially since it was at the London Library) but I was very pleased to be able to meet up with the rest of the shadow panel to decide our shadow winner, particularly as it meant meeting some bloggers that I had followed online for some time. It was tough reading all the books on the shortlist in such a short amount of time, but it did bring back memories of tearing through books and making notes from my time at university, which was kind of nice. If you get asked to do the shadow panel in the future, I’d say go for it, as long as you have the time it requires (more than you think!). I was very pleased to be a part of it in 2018.

As usual I received some great books for Christmas and my birthday (which you can see on my Instagram here), including my current read She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor. I’m currently in the section about Isabella of France and am very glad I have finally got around to reading this fascinating book – it’s been on my list for ages! I’m also keen to read Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough and The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams, both of which I received for my birthday. I feel like I’ve read quite a bit of non-fiction recently, and I feel really ready to get back into fiction. I had a dream about Donna Tartt (not that uncommon for me) and it made me desperate to read fiction as perceptive and life-giving as hers. The last book I read like that was I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (my review here). Which reminds me, I obviously missed the window for doing a best of 2018, but that was definitely one of my favourite books of the year.

Life got in the way over the last couple of months, figuratively in that I was super busy in December at work, and super tired and January – and literally, as in December I discovered I’m pregnant, so that took up most of my time! Read: being constantly exhausted and incredibly nauseous. 24/7. Fun times. But now I am getting back into reading and have a handful of reviews planned – so watch this space!

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Events, Fiction, Reviews

Shadow winner for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick announced!

As you may have read on Twitter, on the award website, and my fellow shadow panel member’s blogs, our winner for the Young Writer of the Year Award has been announced! And the winner is… The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar! I reviewed the book here, and I have to say I really enjoyed it.

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image via penguin.co.uk

If you’ve read all our reviews of the four shortlisted books, you’ll know that there were a lot of different opinions in the mix, but meeting in person on 19th November at the FMcM offices was a brilliant opportunity to talk about the books in person. After a lot of debate we agreed that The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was the most deserving of the four books, and we are very pleased to choose it as our shadow winner.

shadow winner 2018

The official winner of the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018 will be announced on 6th December at the award event at The London Library. I’m planning to attend, as is my fellow shadow judge Lucy Pearson. I will be reporting back after the event!

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Fiction, Reviews

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (2017) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via hodder.co.uk

Elmet has been nominated for a lot of awards, most famously the Man Booker Prize in 2017, but I have to admit I hadn’t heard of it before it came to me as part of the shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018. Once I started reading I wasn’t surprised that it has garnered so much praise and attention, especially given that it’s a first novel. Elmet is a visceral and gritty story that is filled with intense emotion.

Initially I was wary of the young narrator, as Daniel is only in his mid-teens, but I could see why this choice was made. He and his sister Cathy live with their father – ‘Daddy’ – in a remote home in Yorkshire, where they live off the land and keep to themselves. They are isolated and you can see how this strange life has affected the young Daniel throughout his narrative. Their father is a bare-knuckle boxer, fighting for money, and there is a strong element of danger and the threat of violence running through the story.  Seeing the story from Daniel’s perspective means that we don’t always get the full picture, but as adult readers we can infer the rest, which is sometimes darker than Daniel realises.

The title comes from the old Celtic name for the section of northern England where the characters live, and there is a timeless element to the story, especially as everything seems to happen so far away from normal society. The family very much live in their own world, where there is a blend of folklore and modern life. As a reader you wonder why they are so isolated, what has happened to the children’s mother, and what drives the father to be so intense and scary, frankly. They do have some neighbours and it soon becomes clear that there may be issues over who actually owns the land on which they live, and from this there comes discussion of rights and class, as well as the importance of home and belonging. These themes run throughout the book, right through to the dramatic conclusion.

I quite liked the premise of Elmet, but for me the style and the setting was a little too affected, and I didn’t warm to any of the characters. Like their father, Cathy is tough and secretive, and Daniel clearly needs more from both of his relatives. Their situation is extreme and unhappy, and the reading experience is hard going. While I admired Mozley’s skill with scene setting and atmosphere, I found the novel quite hard to engage with. However, I think Elmet will still find a lot of fans who will enjoy the interesting family dynamics and the multi-layered issues and theme throughout the novel.

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Published in 2017 by John Murray, an imprint of Hodder. My copy was provided for review in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from FoylesBlackwell’sBlackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (2018) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via penguin.co.uk

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock continues the trend of historical novels that are filled with rich detail, the glamour and grunge of the city, and a vivid cast of characters. This novel also brings in a slightly fantastical element with the mermaid, which I think makes it a bit more original than some other novels in this vein. From the start the novel is very engaging and immersive, full of descriptive detail and a wide cast of characters. It is written in the present tense, which I wasn’t sure about at first as this can often be misused, but I was quickly convinced that it was the right choice for this novel.

We are introduced to Jonah Hancock, a merchant who has recently lost his wife and son. He owns several ships, and it is the captain of one of these ships who comes to him with the mermaid – a small creature caught from the sea. It appears to be dead by the time it makes its way to Mr Hancock, but it is a marvel nonetheless. They quickly come upon the idea of displaying it to the public for a fee. We then meet Angelica Neal, a courtesan striving for more independence. Her world is just as vividly drawn as that of Mr Hancock, if not more so, and we are drawn into her story from the start. These two characters are drawn together and it all goes from there…

There were times when I thought the language got a little too flowery or affected, especially with the use of the present tense, but I don’t think it went over the top – rather it served to create another world for the characters and the story. It is a very dense and developed world, filled with well-developed characters, both the central couple and those around them. Their relationship is very interesting, as they are drawn to each other but you’re not always sure how much of a game is also being played, on either side. As my fellow shadow panel members Susan and Amanda have pointed out in their reviews, this novel could be read as a morality tale and there are shades of ‘be careful what you wish for’, in terms of relationships but also the mermaid itself and everything it brings with it.

I’m not sure I would have got around to picking up this book if it were not for the Young Writer of the Year shortlist, but I’m glad I did. I have observed several other novels in this trope, but I’m glad I haven’t actually read too many of them, so it didn’t feel tired to me. Imogen Hermes Gowar obviously researched the time period thoroughly, and she does well with the world building. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is an engaging and intriguing novel that I can just see being made into a BBC drama – no lack of visual and atmospheric details! I think anyone who enjoys historical fiction of this type will love it.

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Published in 2018 by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Penguin. My copy was provided for review in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth (2018) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via penguin.co.uk

I had not heard of this book when it was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read it – I have always liked travel writing, and I love to read about places and things I know nothing about, but still find interesting. Kings of the Yukon is based around Adam Weymouth’s journey along the Yukon river (crossing the Canada/Alaska border) in a canoe at the same time of year as the salmon are making their way along the river in the opposite direction, back inland. He writes about the salmon themselves quite a bit, their different species and habits, their life span and their habitat; and he writes about the places he visits and the people he finds there.

I loved the way that Weymouth let the people along the Yukon tell their own stories, and sort of sat back and let them talk on the page. He does not try to impose his own opinions or narrative on things, and this book is much more about the journey, places, and people than about the author. A lot of travel writing is about a personal journey, some sort of self-discovery, but that doesn’t really happen here, and it was actually quite refreshing. I do like reading those more personal travel books, but Kings of the Yukon is about how people interact with nature, and how that impacts the animals, the land, and in the end the people themselves. Weymouth writes about the impact of overfishing and the bureaucracy that is put in place to control it, successful or otherwise. I felt I was learning new things right from the start of the book, which was wonderful.

I also loved Weymouth’s writing style. It is simple and understated, descriptive and yet never overblown or too complex. He is clearly a keen observer, and adds marvellous details in just the right places. His fascination with his subject comes through in his writing, and you can feel that this was a journey, and a book, that came from a passion for nature and this particular area, as well as the people who live there. Stories are told of both the native First Nations people as well as those who came later; we learn about why these people came to the area – the gold rush, farming, and of course the fishing. The history of the place still seems to be present in the lives of the people that Weymouth speaks to, alive in their memories. As a British person who has never visited either Canada or Alaska, it was fascinating to learn this history and the ways in which it has influenced the lives of those in the area.

Reading Kings of the Yukon was a wonderful experience outside of normal life, off to this remote place up near the arctic circle that I now really want to visit. I also loved the hand drawn map at the start of the book that shows the Yukon river and the places mentioned in the book. I very much look forward to whatever Adam Weymouth publishes next!

adam weymouth shortlist 2018

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Published in 2018 by Particular Books (UK), Little Brown (US), and Knopf (Canada). My copy was provided for review in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Comment, Fiction, Reviews

The Haunting of Hill House (2018) on Netflix

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image via IMDb.com

Regular readers will know that I love the work of Shirley Jackson. In 2015 I read and loved her novel The Haunting of Hill House, so I was very intrigued when I heard that there would be a Netflix series based on it. It’s been adapted into a film before, in 1963 and 1999, so I thought perhaps a series would actually be a good way to get deeper into the story and the characters. I really must watch the films (though I know the 1999 version is supposed to be terrible, but it’s got Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones so I’m sure it’s entertaining).

But as I read a bit more about the new series I quickly realised that rather than an adaptation it was more of a… re-imagining. The showrunner is Mike Flanagan, who has made some really great films like Hush and Oculus, both of which I really enjoyed (especially Hush, it’s really clever and brilliant), so I had quite high expectations, as did my husband who is a big horror fan. Though he hasn’t read The Haunting of Hill House. Anyway. I was still on board, even though Flanagan changed the group of strangers brought to Hill House by a researcher into an actual family, the Crains, who lived in the house. Interesting, but could still work…

But of course as anyone who has seen the show knows, it just becomes its own thing from there really. There are callbacks to the book, and there are several characters based on or named after characters from the book, but really the links are pretty tenuous. I did like that Eleanor was named after the central character of the novel, and both of them have the deepest connection to the house (except perhaps the mother in the series?), and I think that worked ok. There is also Theodora (Theo) who is a bit mysterious in both, and I liked that the series actually made her gay where the novel just implied she was (although that is kind of a can of worms as discussed in this brilliant article). Then there is Luke, who in the novel is part of the family that own the house, though I have to say I don’t remember him being super connected to it, but feel free to correct me. In the series he and Eleanor are twins, and so I think he gets drawn into the house with/through her. I think they also randomly named Eleanor’s therapist in the series Dr Montague, which is the name of the researcher in the novel that brings them all to the house, but that just seemed so weird I’m not going to try and analyse it. One of the sisters is also called Shirley but that is a WHOLE OTHER THING, grouped in with the character of Steven.

One of the big changes that I read a lot about is the fact that the writing side of the story is given to a male character, Steven. The famous opening paragraph of the novel is a masterclass in Jackson’s spare and beautiful prose, and it gets hold of you straight away. In the series, this paragraph is used in a voice-over at the opening of the first episode, read by Steven, and it’s revealed that in the series this is from his book on Hill House, called The Haunting of Hill House, that he wrote about his family’s experience living there. I mean. There are several things here. I’m not sure why they felt the need for his book to have the same title, though I get that his writing about their life is a big plot device used throughout. But the main issue is that he is the writer. Why should Jackson’s brilliant words be given to a man? Especially when there is a character named Shirley? Who is a woman? It just makes no sense to me. It also doesn’t help that Steven is a terrible character who is awful to everyone and should just go away.

There are a lot of good things about the series. The plotting and storytelling is excellent, as is the use of the two timelines and how they are edited together. The actual house and the sets are all excellent and brilliantly used, with just the right amount of creepiness and atmosphere. Mrs and Mrs Dudley, the house’s caretakers, are also well used, apart from the weird story line with their children but that’s another issue… I loved the character of Eleanor and her story really resonated with me. My husband and I were bawling our eyes out by the end of the episode focused on her (episode 5, The Bent-Neck Lady), and the actress who played her, Victoria Pedretti, was wonderful and very well cast. I was also really impressed with episode 6, Two Storms, which brilliantly explored the family’s issues and relationships while also looking incredible with a couple of really long tracking shots that were just amazing.

Regardless of the connections and differences to the novel, The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliantly made but flawed show. It is unrelentingly grim and utterly sad, and watching more than two episodes in a row would be overwhelming. It is a bit overblown. Also I wish they had explored the story of the Hill family a bit more, whose ghosts appear to the Crains in the house and who would clearly be interesting if further investigated. I also had very mixed feelings about most of the Crain family as characters. While they all had good moments (apart from Steven, just blanket awfulness) I think I only actually liked Eleanor and Luke. I think I found them the most interesting, along with the father, Hugh. He has different memories, and actual knowledge, about the house from his children, so their dynamic was very interesting, and I think his character was well constructed and well used.

So, a very mixed bag. My main thought on the show now is that while I appreciate that Jackson’s novel is obviously great source material, I just don’t get why Flanagan didn’t just make a series with an original story about a family and a haunted house. I couldn’t help but thin that maybe he missed something about the novel when I read that he didn’t think a straight adaptation was possible. That doesn’t seem to make sense to me.

It’s been a week or so since my husband and I finished watching the series and I’m glad I left a bit of time to digest it before I wrote this post – right afterwards I had so many thoughts about it that if I had written about it then I would have rambled on even longer than I have here. So I thank you if you have stayed with me this far! I’m experimenting with writing about things other than book reviews, so I’ll see how this post lands and go from there. Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this adaptation.

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The Haunting of Hill House is on Netflix worldwide now. The novel is available from Foyles, Blackwell’s, Wordery, and I’m sure plenty of other retailers.

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman (2018) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

isbn9781409182450

image via orionbooks.co.uk

I’d had The Reading Cure on my GoodReads TBR for a while, so I was pleased to see that it was shortlisted for The Young Writer Of The Year Award, and I would have a reason to actually hurry up and read it. It is a memoir that blends together the personal and the literary, as writer Laura Freeman takes us through her struggles with anorexia and her deep love of reading.

Despite the word ‘cure’ being in the title, and the subtitle being How Books Restored My Appetite, Freeman acknowledges that anorexia is a much more complicated thing than that, and she muses on the fact that it will never completely leave her. I admired her candidness throughout the book, and found her discussions about mental health issues refreshing and down to earth, especially the lasting effects of it both on her and those closest to her. More than once she writes about how isolated she was during the worst points of her illness, whether that was in a literal sense when she was confined to bed, or in a more personal sense when she felt different and weird for having these issues around food.

Her discussions of the possible causes of her anorexia are insightful and fascinating as she takes us through her happy and thoughtless childhood eating through to her gradual realisation as a teenager that food could make her fat, something she didn’t want to be, and that the ideal form was obviously to be thin. Later in the book she also considers how women both in real life and in literature seem required to eat daintily, to prefer neater foods, while the man can glut themselves on pies and meat. This is something that I have observed too. It always seems to be seen as a virtue when a woman denies herself more food than she absolutely needs. Freeman considers this in light of the writers she reads throughout her illness, as she starts with male authors and eventually veers over to more women, such as M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Virginia Woolf.

The books she reads are the centre of this memoir. It is as much a reading diary as a book about Freeman’s experience with her illness. She takes us in great detail through her year of reading Dickens, her time reading Laurie Lee, Paddy Leigh Fermor, First World War poets, and then through Fisher, David, Woolf, and on to others. At times I felt like there was a little too much detail from the books (I was glad I actually hadn’t read most of them, otherwise it would be too repetitive), and not quite enough about how it related to Freeman’s life and experience. She is also very obviously influenced by her reading when it comes to her writing style, which is quite flowery and sometimes quite self-conscious. While she discusses her love of new words she learns from her reading, and this is great at the time, her later use of them can come across a bit heavy-handed.

The Reading Cure is a very charming book, filled with Freeman’s love of literature and her appreciation for food, despite her illness. At times I think things could have been delved into a little deeper, or explored from another perspective, but the book is very enjoyable and a great accomplishment nonetheless.

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Published in 2018 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of the Orion Group. My copy was kindly provided in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

House of Glass by Susan Fletcher (2018)

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(image via goodreads.com)

I loved Susan Fletcher’s last novel, Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew, so I was very happy to accept a review copy of House of Glass, which was published at the start of November. It’s another historical drama, this time centering on a woman named Clara Waterfield, who is employed to create a greenhouse at a mysterious country estate, Shadowbrook (doesn’t sound creepy at all…). Clara is born with weak bones and lives a very sheltered life until she finds a ‘gentle’ job in the greenhouses at Kew Gardens – and it is from there that she is employed at Shadowbrook.

From the start things are a bit weird, with the house’s owner, Mr Fox, being absent and everyone being a bit cagey about where he is. The housekeeper Mrs Bale is kind but seems fraught with some underlying fear or tension, and evades Clara’s questions; and the two maids at the house are likewise unable or unwilling to give her any more information. She must simply prepare the greenhouse for the plants that are to come, and when they arrive she must plant and look after them. While the house and its owner are a mystery to Clara, she in turn is something of a mystery to everyone she meets – her bones mean that she is short and walks with a cane, and she has unusually light hair, skin, and eyes. She constantly feels looked at wherever she goes, and it takes her a while to settle in. Throughout these introductory sections of the book, Fletcher’s beautiful writing really shines through, as Clara explores the house, grounds, and the local village, observing everything and always wanting to learn more. She also thinks and dreams of her dead mother almost all the time, haunted by her memories.

Soon, Clara starts to hear strange noises in the house, and wonders why there are no pictures on the walls. She learns that there were pictures, but they kept falling down for no apparent reason. So, not only do we have a mysterious house with a mysterious owner, we might also have ghosts. I wouldn’t say that House of Glass is a ghost story or a haunted house story, but it’s certainly Gothic. Clara herself is a great Gothic character with her unusual appearance and sheltered life. She moves about like a little creature, stared at, but still bold. She makes a point of talking to people and asking them about the house and its previous owners, the Pettigrews. Everyone seems to have an opinion about them and they obviously made quite an impact on the village – particularly the daughter, Veronique, who inherited the house and was the last Pettigrew to live there. Clara is fascinated by Veronique and endeavours to find out everything she can about her – while wondering if she is the ghost in the house.

I honestly can’t say too much more without giving things away, as there are several key things that slowly get revealed as the book goes on. An investigator is hired to come and see if there really is a ghost, and from this point Clara digs deeper and does manage to uncover some truths. The story is really well paced, and while things are revealed slowly to the reader, you don’t feel like things are held back, or given too fast. I found Clara to be a really engaging narrator and I loved her bold attitude and determination. As I expected Fletcher’s characterisation (of the whole cast) is excellent, and the world of the novel feels very real, as do the people in it. The novel starts a little slowly, but gets better as it goes on, and I have to say I was not expecting what was revealed towards the end – the truth about Mr Fox, Shadowbrook, and the Pettigrews. It is an ending well worth the time and effort it takes to get there.

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Published by Virago, an imprint of Little, Brown. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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