Fiction, Reviews

A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

As some readers may know, I don’t accept review copies very often, as I always have too many unread books already on my shelves – but I made an exception for A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes, as it seemed intriguing. A young woman named Robyn returns to her home town, along with her brother Kit, and tries to resolve things to do with their parents, and some mysteries from their childhood. So far, so intriguing…

I tend to have mixed feelings these days about first person narrators, and Robyn did nothing to allay my concerns. She is an engaging narrator, but also infuriating in her obsessions and self-centredness. On several occasions Kit tells her to let things go, but she just can’t, to a degree that goes beyond what seems reasonable. We deduce that their mother appears to be missing, or perhaps dead, and their stepfather has decided to absent himself from this particular trip down memory lane. Few people in their home town seem pleased to see Robyn and Kit, and there are lots of hints at something bad that happened in the past, some big secret that no one wants to talk about.

The story is well constructed, but I felt that there was a little too much teasing and hinting at the truth, beyond what was needed to keep the reader interested. I think the problem occurs because we only know what Robyn knows, and we are taken down all the paths of her thought process, all the leads she pursues to find the truth, and I found it hard to care just as much she did. Robyn’s narrative takes us on a heartrending emotional journey that was somewhat draining to read. I cared about the story and characters, but in general things were too overblown, too over-emotional, too intense – when really the story is not that intense, not that pressurised. It was just that it felt that way to Robyn, because it was so personal. But to the reader, this was hard to connect with, and I felt overwhelmed by Robyn’s intensity.

As Robyn learns more about her mother, and a strange man she knew when she was younger, and how things might all be connected, information is handed to the reader piece by piece. Many things we find out as Robyn does, and so we go through the emotions with her, and this creates much of the structure of the novel. Sometimes this works, and keeps us interested, drawing us in with more revelations; but at some point in the book I realised that there was something we didn’t know, that Robyn might – that was purposefully being held back from the reader. Once I realised this, and the information was revealed, I felt conflicted – surprised and intrigued by the revelation, but frustrated that something Robyn knew was not in her first person narrative. It was an odd trick to use on the part of the author, and I’m not sure how well it worked, given that we are supposed to be on this journey with Robyn. Why else choose to use a first person narrator, and involve the reader so deeply in her emotions, if to withhold information that the narrator already knew, for a big reveal?

Despite all this I did enjoy reading A Little Bird Told Me, even if at times I had to take a break when Robyn got too overwrought. I think the story would have benefitted from a little more introspection on Robyn’s part, and a little less focus on the drama of the whole thing. I felt like the story would make a better TV series than a book in that sense. So, a bit of a mixed bag, but undeniably entertaining and engaging. If you’re here for the high drama, then A Little Bird Told Me is for you.

*

Published by Agora Books in September 2018. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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Fiction, Reviews

Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

I still have two more Jane Austen novels to read but I have wanted to read Emma for the longest, and wanted to read it the most, if that makes sense. Ever since I learned that one of my favourite films, Clueless, was loosely based on it, Emma has loomed large on my TBR. After reading Lucy Worsley’s wonderful biography of Austen recently I was spurred on to get myself a lovely Penguin English Library edition and crack on. And I am so glad I did.

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Emma is such a well-read and well-reviewed book that I can’t really review it as such – but I can heap on the praise and say that it had everything that I love about Austen’s work. There is humour, drama, irony, sarcasm, free indirect speech (when characters’ voices are incorporated into the narrative voice), layered meanings, romantic intrigue, and wonderfully real characters and emotions. Emma herself felt like a real person, so fully realised and with some elements of character that clearly came from Jane herself.

Austen famously declared that she didn’t expect readers to like Emma, and she does have flaws, but of course these dissipate as she matures and becomes more self-aware throughout the novel, and you can see she is well-intentioned; her major flaw is perhaps naivety, or arrogance, or snobbishness. But as I grew to like her more and more, I forgave her these. In the end she accepts the truth of things and is able to be happy for others, and for herself.

I think Persuasion is still my favourite of Austen’s novels, though I’d like to reread it as I haven’t visited it in years – but I completely adore Emma now as well. I know there are several TV and movie adaptations of it out there, but if anyone could recommend one that would be amazing! It’s always lovely to see Austen’s novels brought to life (except for that movie of Pride and Prejudice, which is best forgotten). Which is your favourite?

I’ve been a bit Austen-mad recently, so I am looking forward to my next few books – though I have yet to choose what to read next. As always I have too much to choose from! The current contenders are Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell, and Thérèse Desqueyroux by  François Mauriac – how to choose??

*

Emma was originally published in 1816; I read the 2012 PEL paperback, pictured above.

 

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Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Half-year review: best books of 2018 so far!

I’m back! As you may have seen on my Instagram, I was recently on holiday (again) and so everything was a bit quiet… but I’m now back and ready to get back into blogging. I am right at the end of Emma by Jane Austen, so I will be writing about that soon, as well as my visit to the Jane Austen’s House Museum. But for now, as it’s July, it’s time to look back at the year in reading so far. Here are my favourite books that I have read since the start of the year (in no particular order) – have you read any of these?

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada (1932)

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My copy of this had been hanging around on my shelves for a while, and I finally got around to reading it this year – and I loved it. As I expected from Fallada, the writing and story are both incredibly true to life, and make the ordinary into the extraordinary. My review is here.

The Bridesmaid’s Daughter by Nyna Giles (2018)

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This was a random find on GoodReads recommendations, and I couldn’t resist it. The author’s mother was a model in the 50s and 60s, was a bridesmaid for Grace Kelly, and ended up living in a homeless shelter. It’s a fascinating story of mothers and daughters, growing up, and being a woman. My review is here.

The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor (2014)

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I came across this book in my professional life in academic publishing, and was so pleased I decided to read it earlier this year. It’s a bit heavy-going and very detailed, but if you have the interest in women in the ancient world, it’s definitely worth it! My review is here.

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)

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The striking cover of this book caught my eye on social media, and I bought it soon after. It’s short and easy to read, and is one of the most engaging and moving novels I have ever read. Highly recommended! My review is here.

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

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I reviewed this really recently, so I won’t go on too long, but if you love Jane Austen and haven’t read any other biography of her, this is a MUST. My review is here.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2018)

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This book got a lot of attention when it came out earlier this year, partly because it is genuinely brilliant, despite the author passing away before finishing it; and partly because the subject of the book, the Golden State Killer, was identified and arrested a couple of months after publication. Highly recommended to anyone interested in crime and investigative journalism. My review is here.

I’d love to hear if anyone has read any of these, and your opinions on them! Any related recommendations would also be awesome sauce.

Happy reading!

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Fiction, Reviews

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (2017)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I had vaguely heard of this book before I saw it in Waterstones – probably because it was shortlisted for the Booker in 2017. I was in Barnstaple and wandering around the bookshop, having stupidly taken only one book away on holiday with me (perhaps the first time I have ever done that), and have inevitably finished in the first two days. So we drove to the nearest Waterstones. History of Wolves was on one of the front tables, and both the the cover and the title caught my eye. I don’t pay much attention to book prizes, but the front and back of the book was also covered in praise, so I thought I’d give it a go. The premise of a lonely teenage girl, living with her parents on an ex-commune next to a lake in Minnesota appealed to me.

The girl is Linda – we learn her real name is Madeleine or Mattie, though an explanation for why she is sometimes called Linda is never given – and she is lonely and isolated, both at home and at school. You quickly realise she is incredibly independent for her age, and only relies on her parents for her home and food. She seems to do everything by and for herself. I adored this early phase of the book, as author Emily Fridlund is wonderful at setting the scene and conjuring up the Minnesota woods and countryside. There is a deep sense of place, and lovely descriptions throughout. We also get a decent sense of Linda’s character through her narration, though you feel that she is still always holding something back. She always retains an element of mystery.

Likewise there is a degree of mystery about the commune that she grew up in, and her parents involvement in it. We learn that it eventually ended when relationships broke down, but Linda seems to have happy memories of her childhood there – though she doesn’t talk about it much. She also doesn’t provide that much detail or characterisation about her parents, and this adds to the opaqueness of certain areas of her character and experience. At first I found this a little frustrating, but I think it was an intentional choice on the part of the author, to add to the isolated feeling, and Linda’s un-anchored sense of family and belonging.

Perhaps for this reason, she becomes fascinated with the family that build a house across the lake. They seem perfect at first – two parents and a little boy. In such a quiet area it is perhaps inevitable that she eventually meets the mother, Patra, while she is out with Paul, the little boy. For much of the novel that father, Leo, is away and Linda and Patra become friends. Linda takes Paul out for long walks in the woods, the place where she seems to feel most at home, and she teaches him about the plants and animals. She has a fascination with wolves that she tries to pass on to him, unsuccessfully. This all goes along for a while until we start to realise, as does Linda, that there’s something off about the way Patra talks about Leo. He seems to have all the power in the relationship, and this becomes even more clear when he returns and meets Linda. They never really get on, and Linda is oddly protective of Patra and Paul when he is around. He asks her lots of questions about belief and sense of self that she finds odd. As she spends more time with the family and becomes more invested in them, she sees that something is bubbling under the surface, something that isn’t discussed explicitly, but something that makes her uneasy. Eventually Paul seems to become ill, and Linda is concerned, but both Patra and Leo brush her off and say that he’ll be fine once he rests. They both seem on edge, and as if they aren’t telling her something.

In the background behind this main story there is also Linda’s fascination with her teacher Mr Grierson, and with Lily, one of her fellow students. We find out early on that Mr Grierson was eventually fired from the school when they discovered that in his last job he had been accused of paedophilia, and a lot of indecent images were found in his home. Despite this Linda never seems to judge or hate him, and even sends him a letter at one point. She is oddly obsessed with him, and discovers that his status as a registered sex offender means that she can see his movements around the country in the years after he leaves the school. Somewhat connected to him is her obsession with Lily, a student who accuses him of sexual harassment. For this she loses her social status and becomes something of a pariah at school. At first I couldn’t work out why Linda was so fixated on these two people, but I think it is because she feels some vague connection to them as outsiders, as people who are judged and who do not fit in. She tries to help them both in her own way, and perhaps this enables her to feel like she is doing some good, and preventing someone else from feeling as lonely and isolated as she does.

Linda is a fascinating character. As I said we never find out why she gets called Linda, and though it was a bit annoying at first I actually liked that she remains a bit of a mystery to the reader. Likewise her parents are not fully realised characters, and I came to see that this is largely because she isn’t really close to either of them, and actually questions whether they are her real parents because all the children in the commune were raised together. The failed commune is a like a symbol of how trying too hard to create an idyllic family is almost doomed to fail and implode; and Linda and her parents are what is left behind. She is obviously starved for love, affection, and a real connection with someone, and this influences her actions and her views of others. She gets fixated on people and tries to connect with them, but doesn’t really know how. When we see parts of her later adult life, she is still isolated and lonely, even when she is with other people.

History of Wolves is an odd sort of coming-of-age novel, in that Linda is trying to figure things out and make her way in the world, but I’m not sure if she is ever really successful. There isn’t any sort of satisfying conclusion to the book, and that seems to fit with Linda’s independent and uncommitted way of living, her connection only to nature and herself, and her isolation from conventional society and relationships. It’s an odd little book that I think some readers might find unsatisfying or frustrating, but I enjoyed it for the character of Linda, the beautiful and evocative settings, and the wonderful writing. An unconventional but intriguing story, like Linda herself.

*

Published in 2017 by Grove Atlantic. I read the Weidenfeld & Nicolson paperback, pictured above.

 

 

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Fiction, Reviews

Her Hidden Life by V.S. Alexander (2018)

I bought this novel on a whim in the supermarket (something I hardly ever do) because I was just in the mood to buy a book. It happens. Almost all of the novels on sale were sensational crime, romances, or what was once called ‘chick lit’ and this was the only one that appealed to me. The unusual setting and female protagonist of Her Hidden Life convinced me to buy it.

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Magda Ritter is a young Berliner who ends up working as a ‘taster’ for Hitler – tasting all his food before it is served to him to see if it’s poisoned. Fun times. From the start she states that she is not a supporter of Hitler, and she only ends up working for him because the Reichsbund is the only place where she can get a job, as she has no skills beyond basic housekeeping. Despite not being a Party member, Magda’s well-connected Nazi uncle means that she is accepted for a job, though she has no idea what it is. One day she is picked up in car, and taken to the Berghof, one of Hitler’s countryside retreats.

Here she works as a taster in the kitchen with several other women doing the same job. Her life among the Nazi elite is surprisingly humdrum, despite her random yet frequent chance meetings with Eva Braun and her attraction to SS Captain Karl Weber. This is something I noticed throughout the novel – Magda describes everything rather flatly and in a matter of fact way, even when she describes her feelings of love for Karl, and her feelings of hate for Hitler. Her hatred of Hitler only develops once Karl shows her photographs of killing squads and concentration camps; up until that point she expresses little feeling either way and even states that the plight of the Jewish people does not affect her as she doesn’t know anyone who’s Jewish, so she has never thought about. Magda admits she is naive, but that’s an understatement.

Personally I think that while Magda is genuinely horrified by what she learns, most of the impetus for her hatred of Hitler comes from the fact that Karl hates him, and she loves Karl. He is a fictional character inserted into the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler, and is alarmingly quick to tell Magda all about it once they get together. Magda then dedicates herself to his cause and develops fantasies of killing Hitler herself, to the point of obsession. From this point on that is all Magda thinks about, in a totally unbelievable way – she doesn’t seem to accept how impossible it would be to murder him without being caught, and she doesn’t depict how he would have always been surrounded by security as well as his most senior ministers and officers. She makes the situation all about her and her love for Karl.

One review I came across on GoodReads made the very good point that everything seems to happen to Magda in the course of the novel, and this sometimes makes it all a bit hard to believe. I have to agree that way too much is crammed into this novel, and its only 384 pages. Not only does Magda meet Hitler on more than one occasion, she also develops a tenuous friendship with Eva Braun, and just happens to meet Claus von Stauffenberg in the woods at the Wolf’s Lair headquarters., which of course would happen in real life! Magda’s experiences are like if you thought of all the key things a person could have gone through in the war, and then made them all happen to one person – working with the Reich elite, meeting Hitler, living in two of his residences, experiencing bombing in Berlin, losing a parent, being sent to a concentration camp (really), being in Berlin again and being raped by Russian soldiers, oh and then ending up in Hitler’s bunker in April 1945. By that point I was incredulous.

I think when I realised that Magda was being sent to a camp did I give up believing in any of it. After the 20th July plot Karl flees and Magda is suspected of being involved. An anonymous Colonel seems to hate her for some reason, and so he accuses her and gets her shipped off to Bromberg-Ost. Luckily Magda only has to endure two days of work before she gets an officer to believe that she worked for Hitler, and he gets her out, and she returns to her work at the Berghof. Lucky girl! If only it was that easy!

This section of the book really got to me. By this point Magda has heard about the camps, but still has very limited knowledge and doesn’t know about the gas chambers. She describes her arrival and processing, and that she is told “All work was to be completed in the name of the Reich, for ‘work makes you free’.” This is of course a heavy handed reference to the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ emblazoned over the gate to Auschwitz and several other camps, and I found it in very poor taste and completely inappropriate and disrespectful; even if Magda is supposed to be ignorant of the use of the slogan. I found lots of small moments like this throughout the book that were just not appropriate. Like the fact that Magda is sent to a camp, but manages to get out by dropping the fact that she works for Hitler. While there she befriends two women, one of whom disappears during her stay, and another who is Jewish. She worries about them as she leaves but doesn’t think about them again. Similarly she abandons her friend and her friend’s family, after they have been raped by Russian soldiers in Berlin, so that she can seek the safety of Hitler’s bunker – she had been invited but up until that point refused to go. Again she briefly worries about the women she has left behind, but then they disappear from her thoughts.

After reading a bit about the author V.S. Alexander, and particularly this blog post about writing the book, I realised that while he made a point of researching the historical material, he clearly has no idea how to write about these subjects. I’m no historian but I felt like even I could write about these things with a little more sensitivity and understanding. Alexander also states that he was inspired by the story of Margot Woelk, a woman who actually was a taster for Hitler, and decided to tell her story finally in her 90s. I read this article about Margot Woelk and realised just how much of her story is used in Her Hidden Life – but also how the point was missed, and the novel is made into some kind of sweeping romance about Magda fulfilling Karl’s dream and then trying to redeem herself by telling her story. In fact, the back cover copy asks the reader to “lose yourself in this sweeping, heroic love story fraught with danger.” Because that was what life was like during World War II.

Perhaps worst of all is Magda’s time spent in Hitler’s bunker at the end of the war. This setting is unique and nuanced, and should be handled carefully, and V.S. Alexander is frankly not qualified to do this. I cringed at the scenes where Magda encounters Magda Goebbels and her children – she even goes into the room after the children are dead. I don’t what the author was thinking. He even portrays Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries who has written about her experiences, and makes it seem like she is dedicated to the Fuhrer. And then misspells her name when he credits her book at the end (a book which in part inspired the incredible film Downfall, which will give you a much more accurate look at life in the bunker).

The point is that many of the events depicted in this novel happened to real people, and so you can’t just write about them as if they are juicy drama. Even though Magda experiences a camp and being raped, the writing never conveys how awful things are. After the failed assassination attempt she is arrested because the Colonel has a vendetta against her – and then when this is reversed she is able to return to her work in the Berghof. But in reality, as the wife of a conspirator she would have either been sent to a camp and kept there, or would have been executed immediately. Instead, in this novel, she just carries on working for Hitler. There is only a fleeting mention of Von Stauffenberg and the other conspirators, even though they would have been imprisoned and executed. My point is that even though Magda sees the camps firsthand, and sees how people are suffering in Berlin, the cold ruthlessness of Hitler and the Nazis is never really conveyed. Their obsessive hatred of Jewish people and all the others they persecuted is never shown. Instead the author uses them as pantomime villains for his dramatic heroine to dance around.

I have had a rant at my husband about this book and I think I could probably rant here even more – but I’m going to stop there for fear of driving away any readers who are still here… I hope I have managed to convey my issues with this book without just rambling.

If you do want to read novels about World War II, there are so many others that do a much better job than Her Hidden Life – novels that respect the tragedy and the people who suffered, who appropriately explore what really happened. This is not one of those novels unfortunately.

*

Published as The Taster by Kensington Publishing in the US; and by Avon, an imprint of Harper Collins, in the UK. I read the Avon paperback, pictured above.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada (1932)

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(image: goodreads.com)

As some regular readers may know, I absolutely love Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin, and re-read it in 2017 (post here). For some reason this remained the only book of his I had read for some time. I bought a copy of Little Man, What Now? a while ago, I actually can’t remember when, but it sat on my shelf unread. I don’t know why. Luckily, I recently decided to actually look at my unread books instead of buying new ones – and I landed on this novel. I have a lovely Melville House paperback and I was pleased with myself for finally choosing to read it.

One of the things I love about Fallada’s writing is his uncanny realism. Even though I read his work in translation and the language can sometimes sound a little stilted, Fallada just seems to have a knack for making everything in his work seem utterly true to life and utterly real. He makes of a point of making his characters believable, of making their lives ring true. Little Man, What Now? was published in 1932, at the height (or perhaps the depths) of a recession, precipitated by the Wall Street crash of 1929. As Philip Brady discusses in the Afterword to the Melville House edition I read, unemployment was at a record high in Germany, and Fallada, like many others, felt the strain of the recession on himself and his family. Like his main character, the ‘little man’ Johannes Pinneberg, Fallada had a wife and young son. The novel is a sort of statement of protest, an examination of the daily hardships of living with just enough money to get by, but never really enough, and knowing that what little you do have could be so easily lost. The fact that the novel was so hugely successful on publication shows just how much it struck a chord with people – it showed them their own lives, their own suffering, and exposed the deep injustices of life ‘just above the bread line’, as Brady puts it in the Afterword.

At the opening of the novel Pinneberg and Lammchen (a pet name meaning something like ‘little lamb’) find themselves expecting a child, unexpectedly, and quickly get married. They must find their own place to live, and from there we follow their ups and downs as a married couple. They have several different flats, and eventually move to Berlin, where Pinneberg gets a job as a salesman in a department store. As with his previous job as a clerk at a grain company, at the department store we see the competitiveness and pettiness of the employees and management, the desperation for success – or at least to keep the job – and the bureaucracy with which the white collar workers must contend. Pinneberg and Lammchen must count every pfennig and every mark, and make his salary stretch as far as they can. Their discussions about their minimal finances, and Lammchen’s very precise shopping list, should not be interesting, but Fallada fills them with such a sense of urgency, of desire and desperation, that as a reader you are completely engaged and entertained, and you care so, so much about these two characters. I think that is Fallada’s gift – to make the most ordinary, ‘little’, people seem like the most important people in the world, to make the reader care about the minutiae of their lives. The fact that Lammchen is pregnant makes their situation all the more desperate, and your emotions are increasingly ravaged as she nears the birth. Pinneberg’s anxiety, fear, and joy are all rolled together in a wonderfully vivid sequence in which he waits to hear of the birth of his child – he is not allowed to go with Lammchen into the ward and must ring the hospital for an update. It is yet another area of his life where he has almost no control over anything, and he switches between excitement, fear, and intrusive thoughts of what might happen if something goes wrong and he never sees Lammchen again. The fragility of their lives is palpable.

It’s funny – the plot of Little Man, What Now? is in some ways riveting, with the couple’s ups and downs; but it is also completely mundane and ordinary. And yet when you are reading the novel, you are never bored, you never wish for ‘something’ to happen. You are right there in the moment with Pinneberg and Lammchen, observing their hardships and struggles, and their little moments of happiness. Fallada goes between straight narration and a kind of free indirect speech, and then into moments where the narration speaks to the characters, in such a way that you are completely wrapped up in the story and feel like you know exactly what the characters are going through. It is simply masterful.

I can’t say I know a huge amount about Germany in 1932 beyond the basics, but I feel like Little Man, What Now? has given me a sort of snapshot. There are creeping shadows of what is to come throughout the novel, as Pinneberg encounters Nazis and casual anti-Semitism, and I couldn’t help but wonder what becomes of him and Lammchen, and their son, when the war comes. In theory they could remain in Berlin, or at least in Germany, as they are not Jewish or a member of any other group that the Nazis persecuted. But they would have even less money, even fewer prospects. The novel ends on a small hopeful note, but overall the picture is far from rosy. I can’t help thinking about the time after the end of the novel. The Epilogue is entitled ‘Life Goes On’, and it certainly does, but one would hope things improve for Pinneberg, Lammchen, and the little Shrimp – their affectionate nickname for their son.

I personally don’t know anyone else who has read and loved Fallada, and I worry that he might be an acquired taste, but I will certainly be reading more of his work – in fact I have a copy of his monster novel Wolf Among Wolves on my shelf. All 905 pages of it.

*

First published by Rowohlt in Germany in 1932. I read the 2009 US Melville House edition, pictured above.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda (1986)

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image: goodreads.com

I adored Rodoreda’s novel A Broken Mirror (my review here) and so when I saw that Penguin had brought out a new edition of her novel Death in Spring, I had to get myself a copy. And what a beautiful cover!

Ostensibly the novel tells the coming-of-age story of a teenage boy in a small Spanish village, but, of course, it is so much more than that. Our unnamed narrator takes us on a weaving and sometimes surreal journey through this period in his life. We learn that his village is remote, somewhat cut off from the rest of the world, and full of its own strange, unique traditions. Many of these are ritualistic and cruel, such as blindfolding pregnant women so that they don’t fall in love with other men, and pouring cement into people’s mouths as they die, so that their souls do not escape. There is also the oddity of ‘Senyor’, a man who lives above the village on a mountain, looking out over the people. He is a remote figure both literally and figuratively, and seems like some sort of de facto leader, though in name only. Like many characters in the village, he seems to wield some sort of power, but it is not clear where this power comes from.

Power seems to be a key theme in this novel. The husbands have power over their pregnant wives, blindfolding them and making them totally dependent and isolated. The blacksmith seems to have some sort of power and authority over the whole village, and often leads the people in their group actions. I thought that the traditions in the village seem to have the most power over the people, these unwritten rules that everyone has to obey. At one point our narrator and his stepmother rebel and prevent the people from following the tradition of house-painting each year by destroying the source of the paint, and the brushes. This is a deeply symbolic action and you can feel their delight in undermining the rigidity of the routine, in their own small way. It doesn’t matter that more paint and brushes are made, and the houses are painted. They made their small act of defiance.

Somehow, the village is built with a river flowing underneath it. The novel opens with the narrator swimming in the river, and it remains as a powerful symbol throughout. Each year a man is selected to swim under the village, to check its integrity, and many are wounded or killed in this endeavour, and become ‘the faceless men’ who seem to roam around in one big group, terrifying the people. It is as if the village and its people are killing or wounding these men in order to prove their strength and preserve themselves. The possibility of the village sinking into the river also adds a permanent sense of fragility and volatility, that the people seem to feel. While the village is held together by its traditions, it feels as if the slightest imbalance could destroy everything.

In Colm Tóibín’s introduction to the new Penguin edition, he highlights the fact that Death in Spring has sometimes been seen as a metaphor for life under the Franco dictatorship in Spain in the mid twentieth century. Even without knowing much about this particular history, the parallels with a dictatorship are clear in the way the village operates, and the authority of the rules and their enforcers like the blacksmith. I also considered Senyor in this context as a remote leader, almost nameless, but still a symbol of power. And our narrator is clearly an agitator, questioning the meaning of things and pushing against the restrictions. There is quite a lot of philosophising on the part of the narrator, but also from other characters he engages with, such as the blacksmith’s son, and the mysterious prisoner, kept in a cage as an example to others. These characters question the validity of the rules of the village and the rules of life, morals, traditions, and why they should act as others do. At times it becomes a bit too sweeping, but you can see what Rodoreda is trying to do – to get her readers to realise the value of questioning the norm, and the danger of just going along with things.

After having read A Broken Mirror, which is a family saga, I have to say that Death in Spring was not quite what I was expecting. It is intense and surreal, and at times hard to follow. A lot of it has a dreamlike quality that makes it seem like a fairy tale – but not a happy one. There are shades of magical realism in the way that the villagers engage with birth and death, and their connections to nature and the landscape. At several points I wondered whether events the narrator described were literal or figurative, or just imagined.

Death in Spring is not the easiest novel to get along with, depending on what you are used to, but I loved the language and imagery, and the explorations of what it means to have a family and a home, to belong somewhere or to someone. It is a short but very rich novel that I think could divide opinion from readers. I was intrigued and pleasantly surprised, and I will certainly be seeking out more of Rodoreda’s work.

*

Originally published in 1986. I read the 2018 Penguin/Viking edition, pictured above.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (1888)

I bought this book about three years ago in the lovely Persephone bookshop in London, and for some reason have only now got around to reading it. As a rule I love Persephone books and am keen to read more of them. I hadn’t heard anything about Amy Levy, or Reuben Sachs, when I found the book in the shop, but gave it a go based on the blurb and the first page. It is what I would describe as a quite gentle society novel about a young man and his extended family – and as the preface by Julia Neuberger points out, it is also about being Jewish, in London, at the end of the nineteenth century. Levy was Jewish and, has Neuberger explains, had somewhat mixed feelings about this, and was acutely aware of the snobbishness and hierarchy that she observed in the London community.  This is shown throughout the novel in the differing opinions of the Jewish characters, and their approach to life in ‘the Community’.

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While Reuben and the character of Judith Quixano are at the centre of the book, their extended families move around them throughout, organising dinners and parties, and having conversations that seem light-hearted but often underlie more serious issues. Each is given a general standpoint, a perspective from which to comment on their shared life and that of their Community. I have to admit that if I hadn’t read the preface first I’m not sure I would have been aware of the more nuanced social commentary throughout Reuben Sachs, so casually is it thrown into the dialogue. I did, however, appreciate Levy’s gentle sarcasm and irony in this novel, and her wit plays a great role in showing the reader the ridiculousness of some of her lesser characters, such as the Jewish convert Bertie Harrison-Lee. He holds a unique position among the characters of the novel and is seen as something of a curiosity, and a person about whom almost everyone feels the need to make a comment. He becomes a friend of Reuben and in that way ingratiates himself to the five intertwining families who make up the cast.

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And now to the character of Reuben himself: the novel starts with a sweeping introduction, telling us about his success in school and his early life, and the fact that bad health had taken him abroad for some time just before the start of the novel and he has now returned. We also learn that he is a lawyer with political aspirations; but beyond that, even in moments where free indirect speech allows us a glimpse into his mind, I did not feel that I got to know Reuben Sachs. He is a well-drawn character in that we see him from the viewpoints others and one can get a good overall impression, but I did not feel that his personality and character were really explored and developed all that much. Aside from his love for Judith we do not see much of his emotions. I feel like we see more of the emotions of even one of the lesser characters, Judith’s cousin Leo, than we do of Reuben’s.

Judith meanwhile is much more open to the reader. We spend a few scenes alone with her and go through various emotions and feelings, towards several different people and her own position in life. She is a ward of the Leunigers, her cousins, and her unusual social position is well explored – the Quixanos are higher up in the hierarchy of the Community, being Sephardic Jews, but they have fallen on hard times and are forced to send Judith to live with her more ordinary cousins. Personally I found Judith to the most interesting and well-rounded character in the novel, and I liked her a lot. She seems to see the faint ridiculousness of the Leunigers more than anyone else, with their obsessive materialism and dislike of books. We also see Reuben through her eyes quite often, which helps to round out his character – a little.

At only 148 pages Reuben Sachs is quite a quick and unchallenging read, but I very much enjoyed it. It is ultimately a very pleasant book with pleasing social scenes and family drama, as well as an underlying love story, and the politics of the Jewish Community peppered throughout. It is a novel that deserves to be preserved by Persephone Books and to be discovered by a new readership. I think I shall have to go and read more of Amy Levy’s work.

*

Originally published in 1888; I read the 2007 Persephone Books edition (pictured above).

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Fiction, Reviews

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)

This gorgeous little book appeared somewhere on Twitter (or Instagram?) recently, and the yellow cover caught my eye. It intrigued me. The cover, the title, the fact that it was a debut novel – all things that interested me. I was in Blackwell’s in the Oxford the other day (the new branch!) buying Mother’s Day presents, and decided to treat myself to the signed edition I saw on one of the tables.

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I then did something that rarely happens – I started to read it very soon after I’d bought it. It’s not a long book, only 246 pages, and the type is quite big, and I read it in two evenings and a lunch break. I read it quickly because it’s short, but also because it is completely engaging and enthralling.

I Love You Too Much is narrated by 13-year-old Paul, navigating life after his parents’ unpleasant divorce. The book is set in Paris, and the city is beautifully described by Paul as he wanders around it, both loving and hating it at the same time. He complains about the uniformity, and the peer pressure of the affluent 6th arrondissement where he lives with his mother; but the city is his home and you can feel his affection for it. Drake brings the city to life through Paul.

Drake also perfectly portrays what it is like to be 13 years old, filled with the emotions of puberty, and dealing with post-divorce life in all its glory and pain. Paul reminded me a little of Theo from The Goldfinch – young and naive, and yet wise beyond his years; independent and ruminative; and caught up in the emotions and events of family and life that are beyond his control. They are even the same age.

Paul is a wonderful observer. He watches his mother most keenly, maman, as she obsesses over her looks, her hair, her career, her useless boyfriend Gabriel. The sharp pinpoint at the centre of all this is the fact that she has just had a baby, Lou, with Gabriel. At first Paul is resentful of his new half-sister, uninterested in her. Her presence is an undercurrent in his life throughout the book, reminding him that his mother’s life has continued without him, that she is no longer just his mother anymore.

I think Paul’s mother, Séverine, is one of the most brilliantly drawn characters. Paul adores her, and her pain only seems to make his worse. She is hard on the outside but he can see her vulnerability, and wishes she would spend more time at home and reach out to him. Their relationship is so brilliantly crafted that it feels utterly real, and they feel like real people. I was completely drawn into their world, felt almost like I was seeing too much, but did not want to turn away. For all the cool hardness and aloofness of Séverine, there are some really beautiful moments between mother and son, when you can see into the heart of their relationship. You can see that they really do want each other to be happier, and better.

Paul’s father Philippe is inevitably less present in his life, living separately, but he appears episodically to illustrate their sometimes strained relationship. Paul does not know why his parents divorced, and he doesn’t seem to blame either of them, but the fact that it was his father who moved out, who seems to live a separate life, means that he attracts some of Paul’s resentment towards the whole situation. Philippe often seems oddly unemotional, and you can feel Paul yearning for more from his father. Several scenes with Philippe’s family carefully show us more of his psyche, his emotional life.

Similarly there are key moments with Séverine’s mother that show us more of their relationship. We see how Paul’s mother has come to be as she is. And as the book goes on, these parts of the family come together in Paul, and we see how he was formed, and why he is who he is.

A key part of Paul’s experience in the novel is his burgeoning friendship with Scarlett, the girl at school that all the other boys want. They meet on holiday and recognise each other from school, bonding over their distant parents and general dissatisfaction with life. In some ways Scarlett is an archetype of a moody teenage girl rebelling against everything and constantly looking for ways to feel better, to escape her own pain. She complements Paul well throughout the story, and provides him with the emotional attention he needs – and in her neediness gives him something outside of himself and his family to care about.

I won’t say too much, in order not to give anything away. The plot moves at a mixed pace, flowing nicely so that it never moves too fast or two slow. Enough time passes that things change, but it still feels like the novel represents a certain period in Paul’s life. It is a period of intense change, of growth, for better or worse. The last chapter is a perfect summation, a brilliant, brilliant ending. It is one of about three or four books ever that have made me cry. I highly recommend it.

*

Published in the UK by Picador and in the US by Little Brown. I read the UK edition, pictured above.

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Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Recent reads roundup! Miss Jane (2016), Mindhunter (1995), and The Butcher’s Hook (2016)

As I wrote about in my last post, I had a bit of a reading slump at the end of 2017 (after a very mixed bag of reading throughout the year), and didn’t get to read much over the Christmas holidays as I had a cold, then the flu, then a chest infection. But now I am back in the swing of things and have just finished my second book of the year!

fullsizeoutput_1930My last book of 2017 was a bit of an impulse purchase on a last-minute present shopping trip to Waterstones – the 2016 novel Miss Jane by Brad Watson. It had been on my long-term TBR for while, so when I saw the paperback I went for it. I started reading it in the lovely Cafe W in the Oxford store, over a latte, and instantly liked it. Watson has an easy way of writing that draws you in straight away, and begins the novel with an account of Jane’s birth, in rural Mississippi in the early 20th century.

The character is apparently based on a great aunt of the author, and this comes through in the sensitive and empathetic approach to her life story. Jane is born with some sort of genital defect that means she suffers from incontinence, and is unable to have sex or have children. Her incontinence means that her time at school is short-lived, and her inability to procreate means that she is discouraged from pursuing romantic relationships – even when she does meet a boy she likes, and who likes her. I enjoyed the depiction of Jane’s simple rural life, and the ups and downs of her family – her older sister Grace feels trapped in their family and moves out as soon as she is able to; her father is good to Jane, but suffers from his own demons and does not nurture her; and her mother is detached, irritable, and intolerant. Jane lives an isolated life that is punctuated with meaningful moments, and sweetened by her friendship with the family doctor who always cared for her.

The first two thirds of the book are great, but as Jane gets older and her life doesn’t really change, the novel begins to flag a bit and I felt less and less engaged as the story petered out. I think if Watson had given his heroine a little more to do than just look after the family farm, even if that’s what his great aunt did, then the last third of the book would have been much more satisfying.

fullsizeoutput_192fMy next read was a Christmas present, and something completely different – Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. I wanted to read this as I loved the Netflix series based on it (also called Mindhunter) and have always been fascinated by true crime and psychology. It is the story of John Douglas’ career in the FBI and the development of psychological analysis and profiling in the FBI, something that has changed the way that we think about criminals, particularly serial killers (a phrase that was coined by Douglas’ department).

I am weird and therefore find serial killers really fascinating, so it was amazing to read about the interviews that were conducted with those that had already been captured and were in prison, such as Ed Kemper and Jerry Brudos (don’t google them if you’re squeamish). Douglas analyses them in detail and explains his work and process with several case studies of killers caught over the years. The book gets a little formulaic as he repeats the fact that his team at the FBI learnt to look at a killer’s ‘work’, or ‘art’, in order to work out what his personality was, but this was fascinating nonetheless, especially when Douglas points out that psychologists and psychiatrists work the other way around. I think you have to have a real interest in the genre to read this book, and I reckon it could have been a wee bit shorter, but I still enjoyed it.

fullsizeoutput_1929Most recently I read The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis, which was a birthday present. This was another one I’d had my eye on for a while, but hadn’t actually gotten around to buying, so it was a nice surprise to receive it for my birthday. It is set in London in the 1750s and follows a particularly frantic period in the life of nineteen-year-old Anne Jaccob, as she grieves her little brother and resentfully tolerates the arrival of a new little sister. She feels completely trapped between her cold, uncaring father and her dreamy bedridden mother, as well as the two servants of the house, for whom she has very little regard.

Anne is an oddball to say the least, fixated on the flaws of everyone around her. I was pleased by her independence and wilfulness, something you might not always find in a Georgian heroine, but I can’t say she was a very likeable character. As you might expect for a girl her age, she can be both intense and apathetic, and yearns to have more freedom. When her parents decide she should marry one of her father’s business associates, the off-putting Mr Simeon Onions (what a name), Anne is just getting caught up in an affair with the butcher’s boy, Fub (another winning name), and decides that she’s had enough. She becomes increasingly reckless, running about London having ill-advised trysts with Fub, and trying to work out how to extricate herself from her family and Mr Onions.

While there is some excellent characterisation in this novel, I was unmoved by Anne’s affair with Fub. I could see why he appealed to her as an attractive and unsuitable young man, but the intensity of their affair didn’t quite ring true, as well as the bizarre way in which they converse – a mixture of flirting, joking, and very unsubtle sexual innuendo. Really they do not know each other at all, but Anne goes in headfirst and fixates on their supposed love, as she does with everything else. It’s fair to say that she is desperate for a better life, and has deep-seated resentments against her family and her position, but she does not deal with any of it rationally. Once Fub gives her a small knife as a sort of keepsake, she begins to fixate on murder (after having seen a calf slaughtered at the butcher’s) and the story goes off the deep end. Anne becomes more and more angry and vengeful, and begins to delight in the idea of killing several people she knows. Unsurprisingly she does knock off a few by the end.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of The Butcher’s Hook, though I did enjoy it, and Janet Ellis is undoubtedly a good writer. It’s a bit of a mixed bag of good and not-so-good characterisation, wrapped in vivid and intense descriptions of Georgian London and Anne’s sensory experiences. I think it is the most interesting book I have read recently, and I’ll be curious to see what Ellis publishes next.

So there you have it – my most recent reads. I now need to decide what to read next, as I amassed quite a few books over Christmas and my birthday… so many to choose from!

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What are your most recent reads?

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