Sunday 23 December 2012


Having been glued to the Danish detective series The Killing with its morose heroine detective Sarah Lund I've been wanting to dip my toe into the genre of Scandi-crime novels.

Radio 4 recently adapted the classic Swedish crime novel Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo who famously wrote the Martin Beck series after putting their children to bed.  Roseanna was so riveting on the radio I knew I had to read the book.

The body of a young woman is spotted in the scoop of a dredger clearing a Swedish lake.  Detective Martin Beck is bought in to investigate and he begins the painstaking process of identification which takes several weeks as no missing person has been reported.  After discovering her identity he then attempts to unravel the events which resulted in her death.

Before internet, mobile phones and sophisticated forensics the process is time-consuming with long periods of inactivity and boredom.  Beck, however is tenacious and assisted by his able colleagues he finally makes a breakthrough.

Published in the 1960's this classic police procedure novel has barely dated.  Although you may wince at a couple of the expressions used to describe women it is not gory or excessively violent.  I now want to read more in the Martin Beck series and I'm also going to try Liza Marklund.

Any Scandi-crime recommendations would be very welcome.  Season's Greetings to all bloggers and readers!

Sunday 2 December 2012

Penguin Classics

Every now and again I like to read outside of my comfort zone and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad was certainly that. A perceptive examination of the music industry with its drug casualties, sell-outs, passion and punks.  At times it's brilliant, at others uneven but I did like the kleptomaniac Sasha.  If you've ever sat through a 'death by Powerpoint' presentation at work you will appreciate Egan's creativity with one whole chapter relayed by Powerpoint slides.

I blame Anbolyn and this lovely post for my inability to resist the new clothbound Penguin Classics editions of Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park . I do like the embossed covers and best of all Sense and Sensibility has the original Penguin introduction by that most perceptive of Austen critics Tony Tanner.

Talking of Austen critics The Sky Arts Book Show which seems to have been renamed Mariella's Book Show featured a highly enjoyable interview with John Mullan talking about his excellent book What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved.  Much as I like Mariella (and I always like to check out what she is wearing!) she seemed a bit lukewarm about Austen.  No accounting for taste I suppose.

I like the fact that Jane Austen is down-to-earth about money.  In a letter to her brother she wrote of her pride in receiving royalties for Sense and Sensibility "I have now written myself into £250 and it only makes me long for more."  She knew that women - particularly single women - needed money to survive and thrive. 

The novel is dominated by money.  Mrs Dashwood and her daughters are forced to live in reduced circumstances because of the selfishness of their brother and his appalling wife.  Willoughby marries an heiress rather than Marianne to clear the debts caused by his extravagance.  Mrs Dashwood continually imagines she can live beyond her income and her optimistic speech about her financial outlook is one of the most amusing in the novel.

"I could wish that the stairs were handsome. But one must not expect everything; though I suppose it would be no difficult matter to widen them.  I shall see how much I am beforehand with the world in the spring, and we will plan our improvements accordingly."  In the mean time, till all these alterations could be made from the savings of an income of five hundred a year by a woman who never saved in her life, they were wise enough to be contented with the house as it was ...
Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility,1811

Sunday 11 November 2012

Truth and Beauty

'Lucy was writing, but it came in short bursts and the bursts weren't coming often enough to bring her up to the number of pages she needed.  In February she threw a congratulations, You've Wasted Half Your Fellowship party and everyone came and danced in her apartment and had a wonderful time.'
I've been absorbed in this poignant memoir about the friendship between Ann Patchett and the poet and writer Lucy Grealy which lasted from their meeting as aspiring young writers at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1985, throughout the publication of their respective books to Lucy's death in 2002.

Lucy suffered from cancer as a child which damaged her mouth and jaw and continually undergoes surgery to reshape her face.  Constantly in pain she suffers from depression and finds it difficult to sustain relationships with men.  She blames all of her problems on her face and although she is adored by her many friends who provide her with constant moral and financial support she is needy and demanding.

Lucy finds writing success before Ann, her book Autobiography of a Face becomes a bestseller and Lucy appears on Oprah and begins a round of book tours and interviews.  Adoring the high life she spends her next advance before the book is written and slowly descends into a spiral of missed deadlines, pain killers and continual operations to re-shape her face and teeth.

Ann's slow and steady approach to her writing career leads eventually to the huge success of Bel Canto in 2001.  Lucy dies of an overdose in 2002.

It must be said  that Lucy's sister opposed the portrayal of Lucy in Truth and Beauty.  Nevertheless I found this a haunting memoir about friendship, loss, art and literature. One of my favourite reads this year.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Alys, Always

You know I'm always looking for well-written contemporary fiction and most of the writers I like are American woman.  Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Strout, Curtis Sittenfeld, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver and Louise Erdrich to name but a few.  So I was delighted to discover this little gem of a novel set firmly in and around London by the English writer Harriet Lane.

With more than a nod to Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, this is the story of literary journalist Frances who happens upon a road accident where a dying woman exchanges a few words with her.  Frances can tell from the woman's 'cultured, expensive' voice that she is privileged and later discovers that she is the wife of a famous writer.

Frances then takes it upon herself to replace the dead wife and insert herself into the writer's life  although - as with all unreliable narrators - you can never be quite sure of her motives and whether she is really as cold-hearted as her actions convey.

There are wonderful descriptions of London and the gossipy, insular world of a literary magazine.  If you are looking for an autumnal read with a bit of a sting in the tale you may want to pick up a copy of Alys Always.

Sunday 21 October 2012


Courtney Sullivan's fabulous novel evokes the pine-scented, sea-salted air of Maine as four generations of the Irish-American Kelleher family spend every summer in the beach house originally won in a fifty-dollar bet.

The story has a female focus and shifts in perspective from Alice the matriarch, her bitter daughter Kathleen, 'perfect' daughter-in-law Anne Marie and adorable grand-daughter, 32-year old Maggie who is pregnant by her bad boy boyfriend, Gabe and determined to keep the baby and maintain her writing career.  There are wonderful descriptions of Brooklyn where Maggie lives with its 'streets of perfect brownstones' and 'the Sunday Farmer's market where she and Gabe had so often gone in early autumn to buy fresh vegetables and apple crisp and dahlias for the fire escape.'

As with all families there are tensions and bitterness and old scores to settle but Sullivan skillfully brings all the stories together at the beach house in Maine.  This book was heavily marketed as a beach read during the summer but I think it somehow suits the autumn season better.

Now that I'm back in this century I'm reading and very much enjoying Anne Tyler's first novel If Morning Ever Comes, I've got Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty on order and according to Barbara Kingsolver's website there is a new novel out in November.  Spoilt for choice! 

Sunday 30 September 2012

Agnes Grey

Nipped down to London last week to catch the last few days of the Writing Britain exhibition at the British Library which I first read about on Book Snob's blog (Thanks Rachel!)

I particularly wanted to see the Charlotte Bronte manuscript of Jane Eyre.  Her handwriting was exquisite and there was also a notebook with one of Emily's poems.  As usual poor old Anne didn't get a look in.  I don't understand why Anne Bronte is so often overlooked.  Agnes Grey is a little gem of a novel and Agnes has something of the wit of Austen and the spirit of Jane Eyre. 

The British Library has a very nice little bookshop.  Did the fact that I already own two editions of Agnes Grey in paperback stop me buying it again in hardback?  Nah.  When I retire I probably won't be able to afford hardbacks so I want a small collection of Austen and Bronte in the Everyman's Library editions on my bookshelf.

This edition has an introduction by Lucy Hughes-Hallett who is a perceptive Bronte critic and the cover is part of the portrait of the Bronte sisters painted by Branwell which can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery.  Doesn't Anne have soulful eyes?

Tuesday 11 September 2012

'There was no possiblity of taking a walk that day'.

... for as to elves, having sought them in vain among foxglove leaves and bells, under the mushrooms and beneath the ground ivy mantling old wall nooks, I had at length made up my mind to the sad fact that they were all gone out of England ...
There is a nip of autumn in the air and my thoughts are turning toward classic Victorian novels. I'm re-reading Jane Eyre. I'd forgotten how powerfully Charlotte Bronte uses the colour red in the early chapters to symbolise the oppression of Jane's unhappy childhood.

There is of course the terrifying 'red room' with its deep-red damask curtains, red carpet, mahogany-red furniture and 'soft fawn walls with a blush of pink' to contrast with the dazzling white bed where ten-year-old Jane is locked as a punishment. Bronte uses the stark red and white contrast in the opening pages where Jane hides behind a red curtain as she sits on the window seat looking out over the winter landscape and tracing frost flowers on the glass and then again when Eliza and Georgiana wear white dresses with scarlet sashes to the winter festivities which Jane is excluded from.

It was good to pick up a powerfully written novel after enduring 50 Shades of Grey for book group. It wasn't the sex that shocked me - just the bad writing!

Sunday 19 August 2012

More summer reading

I sat up very late at the weekend to finish The Hunger Games which I couldn't put down. I've also finished three volumes of Helen Simpson's short stories and ordered another one.

From Hey Yeah Right Get a Life I particularly enjoyed Cheers where Lois goes into London to do some Christmas shopping and lunch with a friend, passing the afternoon in a flurry of 'packed shops and glitter and cash.' Despite her friend's near emotional breakdown over lunch and the abusive drunk on the train and the bus escapade on the way home which leaves her walking the frosty streets at midnight. Despite all that, she sees the Christmas trees lit up in the windows she passes and thinks of the rooms 'balmy with spice, evergreen and zest' and feels a surge of happiness.

Caput Apri is a magical story from the Dear George collection where an overbearing father relentlessly bullies his family one Christmas until his son slips a 'Discobiscuit' into his coffee. The hallucinogen seems to have the reverse effect and the father turns into a wild boar raging and hollering around the house until rescued by his long-suffering wife he is restored to humanity and becomes a loving father and husband. This is a clever tale within a tale told in the pub over mulled wine by three woman escaping a family Christmas.

There is a story in In-Flight Entertainment set in 2040 which is not so far from The Hunger Games. Diary of an Interesting Year is a nightmare vision of a dystopia where humans have to kill each other to survive. The story is relayed in diary form by a thirty year old female. In a post-capitalist world with the environment destroyed, sick of foraging and bartering for food, she dreams of soap and water, fresh air, condoms (there is a perpetual fear of pregnancy) and the days when she could order a pair of patent leather boots with a single click on the internet.

Anyone read the second volume of The Hunger Games trilogy? Do I need to steal borrow it from my daughter?

Friday 3 August 2012

Summer reading

Very much enjoying the summer sunshine and London 2012. Did you see the tribute to children's literature lead by J K Rowling at the opening ceremony? I'm reading Helen Simpson's collection of her best short stories A Bunch of Fives. Something immensely satisfying about reading a perfect short story in one sitting. I've managed to squeeze in two or three stories every day amidst the coverage of the women's artistic gymnastics which I've avidly followed since Nadia Comeneci won gold at Montreal in 1976.

I've followed Helen Simpson's career since she published Hey Yeah Right Get a Life in 2001. This collection includes my favourite story Burns and the Bankers about a career woman at the top of her game who is seething with irritation at having to attend a banking federation dinner on Burns Night which drags on forever when she would rather be spending time with the four children she rarely sees. Initially bored with all the toasts to Rabbie Burns as her male colleagues get steadily drunk she becomes interested when an academic makes a speech about the life and loves of Burns.

Heavy Weather is a highly amusing yet wretched account of the toll of bringing up small children:
In life before the children, she had read books on the bus, in the bathroom, while eating, through television, under radio noise, in cafes. Now, if she picked one up, Lorna shouted 'Stop reading, Mummy,' and pulled her by the nose until she was looking into her small cross face.
I loved this account of a family holiday in Dorset with Frances trying to cope with a baby, a deeply jealous two-year old and a husband who cannot understand why she can no longer be spontaneous. I'm hoping that the elegant Russian gymnast Kseniia Afanaseva will win a gold medal in the floor exercise next week and that I'll be squeezing in a few more of Helen Simpson's wonderful stories.

Friday 13 July 2012

Old favourite

"I see hula-hula once on TV, hip go 'round like wash machine, wavy hands like flying bird ..." Amy Tan The Hundred Secret Senses
Olivia Yee is Chinese-American. Smart, amusing and prickly she is initially delighted to discover she has a half-sister in China who is coming to live with her family in America.  She is less than thrilled with the reality of Kwan who is short, unglamorous and so exuberant she virtually bounces off the walls. Kwan adores her little sister and insists on calling her 'Libby-ah' (the Chinese equivalent of  Hey Libby!) to Olivia's eternal annoyance.
I asked Kwan once how she'd like it if I introduced her to everyone as "Hey Kwan."  She slapped my arm, went breathless with laughter, then said hoarsely "I like, I like." Amy Tan The Hundred Secret Senses
The skewed dialogue between Libby and Kwan is so warm and funny that I've read this book many times just to spend time in their company.  Such is the power of good writing.

Caustic Cover Critic had an interesting post about cover art for novels with a Chinese theme.  Have fans, lanterns and cherry blossom become cliched?  What do you think?

Monday 25 June 2012

What Matters in Jane Austen?

I've been getting a bit restless lately.  Keep looking at the MA in Eighteenth Century Studies on the Southampton University website even though it's too expensive, too far away, I work full-time and my daughters are about to enter sixth form.  I would like to study again though and the Unknown Jane Austen module sounds very tempting.  Daren't even mention it to my husband!

I very much enjoyed John Mullan's What Matters in Jane Austen - Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved.  The 'crucial puzzles' are answered in chapters on the significance of blushing, which characters speak and which remain silent, who dies in the course of the novels and the significance of the weather to name but a few.

Mullan is excellent on Austen's technical genius, her pioneering of the 'free indirect style' of modern novels where the authorial voice takes on the characteristics of a character.  He also provides lots of interesting facts that Austen fans will relish.  For example, we learn that the importance of the weather in Emma prompted an earth scientist to make a meteorological study of it.  In a chapter on blundering we learn that Mary Crawford, the self-styled psychologist of Mansfield Park, blunders again and again and ultimately loses the man she loves. 

In a perceptive chapter on death he notes that very few characters die in the course of the novels but they are all overshadowed by it.  I was particularly interested in the fact that Austen revealed to her family that the highly strung Jane Fairfax from Emma would enjoy 'nine or ten years marital felicity' with Frank Churchill before she died.  Fascinating to consider that Austen's plans for her characters extended beyond the end of the novels.

Monday 4 June 2012

There's none like us ...

In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Alexandra Fuller relays the story of her mother or 'Nicola Fuller of Central Africa' as she sometimes refers to herself.  Born on the Isle of Skye, Nicola Fuller moved to Kenya with her parents at the age of two.  Having lived in Africa pretty much all of her life she still considers herself 'one million per cent Scottish.'  She spends her Kenyan childhood show-jumping, attending convent school and playing with her pet chimpanzee.  She has unhappy stint at a secretarial college for young ladies in Kensington and then returns to the longed for equatorial light of Kenya.

Disembarking from the plane at Nairobi with newly blonde hair and wearing a blue linen suit she is spotted by the young Tim Fuller recently arrived in East Africa to work on a tree farm.  He falls in love with her and as a handsome couple 'there's none like us' they settle in Kenya and later manage a farm in Rhodesia. Alexandra Fuller intersperses the story of her parents with her own memories of a Rhodesian childhood, her mother driving her daughters to a fancy dress party in the land rover, checking her hair and lipstick in the rear-view mirror and positioning her gun out of the window.  Fuller writes beautifully of the 'sepia light' of Kenya and the wind 'red with dust' blowing from Uganda.

But this book is not just a story of Africa, it's the story of her mother who lived through the terrible violence of Rhodesia's struggle for independence and buried three babies on African soil.  Yet she retains a wonderful Nancy Mitford style humour.  When she sees predatory rich European women seeking sexual favours from young men she asks 'Why can't they just go to bed with a good book?'
This is no tale of the glamorous and foolish Happy Valley set.  Fuller's parents lived and worked on the land and still continue to run a fish and banana farm in the Zambezi valley today.

As a young woman Nicola Fuller hoped to inspire a classic African memoir such as West with the Night, The Flame Trees of Thikka or Out of Africa.  I'd say she has.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

At the Oxford Literary Festival last month Anne Tyler was asked which of her own novels she prefers. She said that Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is her favourite because of all her novels it most closely represents what she intended when she started it.  She also said that she was particularly fond of the character Ezra, and hinted that he may have re-surfaced in a disguised format in some of her other novels.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant begins with the dying Pearl reflecting back over her life, her courtship and marriage, her three children and her strength in raising them alone when her husband leaves the family home.  Pearl is a tough woman.  When the children were young she was not averse to violence and verbal abuse, but she bought home the bacon and the children survived and flourished.

Well not flourished exactly.  Cody, insanely jealous of Ezra since childhood, steals his girlfriend, marries her and wildly speculates that his son may be Ezra's.  Cody is the kind of person who not only has to win at Monopoly but is not happy unless everyone else is thousands of pounds in debt. Jenny trains as a doctor and after an unfortunate first marriage produces a large extended family.  Ezra takes over a local restaurant which he names The Homesick Restaurant and his dishes are somewhat experimental.  While Cody and Jenny have a fractious relationship with their mother, Ezra is genuinely sweet-natured and gets on with everybody
The recurring motif of the novel is Ezra attempting to get the whole family to eat together in The Homesick Restaurant without somebody bursting into tears or storming out.  You will have to read it to discover whether he ever manages it.  A fabulous novel, but oh so sad.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

More Mitford

As the Mitford industry continues to churn out memoirs, biographies and volumes of letters Nancy Mitford's great novel Love in a Cold Climate is sometimes over-shadowed. As Jane Smiley puts it in her excellent 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel:
There is much more to her work, technically and substantively, than meets the eye, but if only the reader can stop wallowing in pleasure long enough to notice it.
Relayed by the clear-sighted and adorable Fanny we share her agonies about being house guest at Hampton, acutely aware of her uncontrollable hair and ill-fitting tweed skirt and fending off questions about her infamous mother the Bolter. We share her delight in the luxuries of Hampton, the copies of the Tatler in the long gallery, Cooper's Oxford (marmalade) in the breakfast room and the fashionable Mrs Chaddesley Corbett with her diamond clips and scandalous gossip. And of course, we share her love of the Alconleigh crowd; mad Uncle Matthew, hyperchondriac Davey and outrageous Jassy and Victoria. I re-read Love in a Cold Climate every five years or so and, as with the best novels, I read more into it each time.

This time I was struck by the sadness of Polly and her strained relationship with her mother, Lady Montdore. I'm very fond of my copy with its frozen rose on the cover, but I love some of the vintage editions on pinterest.

Sunday 22 April 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye

Shoulda read a few reviews before purchasing Marilynne Robinson's When I Was a Child I Read Books. I thought it would be a novel like the wonderful Gilead but it was a collection of essays and unfortunately they didn't speak to me. If anyone would like my copy do let me know ... I ought to do a giveaway!

I've always hoped to find a pristine copy of Rumer Godden's Black Narcissus in a second-hand book store instead of numerous copies of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but I need search no more. Virago Modern Classics have acquired fifteen Rumer Godden titles including Black Narcissus . I am so pleased about this. The Greengage Summer is my favourite coming-of-age novel and Rumer Godden is long overdue for a popular revival.

Very much enjoyed Anne Tyler's latest novel The Beginner's Goodbye but I don't think it is quite on a par with her great novels Breathing Lessons or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Aaron Woolcott's wife is killed when an oak tree smashes into their house while she is sitting out on the sunporch. While he is struggling to cope with the grief and loss his wife revists him, suddenly reappearing when he is shopping for vegetables or falling into step beside him as he strolls along the pavement. Whenever she appears she looks wistful or unhappy.

If you've read The Accidental Tourist you will remember that Macon writes travel books for people who don't like to travel. Tyler has some fun with a similar theme in this novel. Aaron works as an editor for his family publishing house which produces Beginner's Guides and 'vanity' titles. The office camaraderie and chitchat about the titles they publish is highly amusing.

You may have noticed some word links on my blog to very tacky ads. I didn't put them there - I've never wanted to monetise - and I think it is some kind of malware that I've reported to Blogger. Has anyone else had this problem?

Sunday 8 April 2012

Anne Tyler in Oxford

Chloe and Imogen at Christ Church

Just floated back down to earth after attending the literary event of the year - if not the decade - last Sunday. Anne Tyler's interview at the Sheldonian Theatre in beautiful Oxford.

The theatre was packed and the audience was quite jittery . Knowing that Tyler is notoriously reticent to be interviewed I think we were nervous on her behalf. In fact she was extremely composed and serene. The audience was apparently full of writers (although I didn't recognise anybody!) and she spoke a lot about the writing life, how she is happiest when writing, how she drafts and redrafts continuously and how she loves to be in the middle of writing a novel.

The audience were invited to ask questions and as a reader rather than a writer I was most interested in the question about what she likes to read. She said that she reads a lot of contemporary novels particularly first novels and that she came to Jane Austen late, reading Pride and Prejudice in her thirties when she was in bed with flu. She was warm and funny and throughout this week I've recalled different things she said. A podcast is available on The Sunday Times website but it is not free, unfortunately.

After the interview I bought a copy of the new book The Beginners Goodbye but the queue for signing stretched right around the theatre so I decided not to wait because I wanted to join my daughter Chloe and her friend Imogen to wander around Oxford, look at beautiful Christ Church college, browse Blackwell's enormous book store and visit the ice cream cafe in St Aldates. A very enjoyable day.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Bird Cloud

Above the snooty sink hung a mirror with high-wattage bulbs blazing straight into one's face rather like something John Gielgud might have had in his dressing room. For an aging woman it was frightening rather than useful. Annie Proulx
I like the fact that this book is a memoir rather than an autobiography. Annie Proulx focuses on a particular event in her life - the construction of her house at Bird Cloud near Medicine Bow in Wyoming. She wanted a house built to her specifications, using natural materials where possible, with plenty of space for her large collection of books. She wanted to be able to write without interruption, spread out old maps and photographs, view the cliff face in the changing light and watch the eagles from her window.

Unfortunately, things didn't go quite to plan. There were problems with builders, architects and sub-contractors, spiralling expenses and long, long waits for materials to arrive and work to be completed. Not to mention the fact that the area is isolated and exposed to high Wyoming winds. Bird Cloud is on the North Platte River near the town of Saratoga on the western slope of Medicine Bow. The wildlife is spectacular and Proulx weaves in details of a clever mountain lion, tagging elks for a conservation project and a whole chapter about pine cones. This book reminds me a little of The Blue Jay's Dance by Louise Erdrich and has reawakened my interest in Annie Proulx. A few years ago I read several of her novels back to back and then got a bit depressed with the grim realities of life for ranchers, cowboys and drifters. One can only stand so much reality!

Now I want to re-read her wonderful novel The Shipping News.
I also have Barbara Kingsolver's Homeland to read and my author of the month is that queen of American landscape writers Willa Cather. Fabulous picture of her, don't you think?

Saturday 10 March 2012

More Elizabeth Strout

Does anybody use Pinterest? I've become quite interested in its potential for book bloggers and I do like the wish list element to it. Very much enjoyed Anbolyn's recent post on American women writers and I've also been browsing interviews with Elizabeth Strout. I have her novel Abide with Me ready to start on Sunday night. I do like to start a new novel on a Sunday - kind of sets you up for the week!

I have to say that Olive Kitteridge is not exactly a laugh a minute. There is suicide, anorexia, adultery, murder and debilitating illness - but the sheer cussedness of Olive keeps you avidly turning the pages. I loved the story where Olive and Henry have a night out with friends and Olive desperately needs the bathroom on the way home. Henry turns into the local Accident & Emergency department just so she can use the loo when a nurse with not quite enough to do decides that Olive must be examined by a doctor. Then two armed raiders looking for drugs take the nurses, doctors, and Olive hostage and also Henry who has wandered into A&E looking for her. Olive and Henry then start a petty bickering which almost sends the guy who has tied them up over the edge.

The writing is great and the humour is black. One thing puzzling me about Olive Kitteridge - perhaps American readers can translate - what on earth are doughnut holes?!

Sunday 26 February 2012

More Anne Tyler

I always thought I would save literary festivals for when I retire but when I read that Anne Tyler will be attending the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival at Christchurch in April to receive an Outstanding Literary Achievement prize I couldn't resist ordering a ticket. If anyone else is planning to visit the festival do let me know and maybe we can meet for a latte!

Breathing Lessons is probably my favourite Tyler because of lovely Ira who is married to the infuriating Maggie. From the opening chapter where Maggie pulls out into the path of a Pepsi truck to the near-farcical scene at the races where Ira's obsessive sister lines up marshmallows along the seats of the bleachers, Breathing Lessons is a perfectly pitched comic novel and like the best comic novels it is sad, too. Tyler never intervenes to judge or comment on the actions of her characters she just lets the story unfold and the characters find their own solutions or compromises.

I also liked Noah's Compass. At the age of 60, Liam Pennywell is made redundant from his job as a high school lecturer. He moves to a smaller flat in a less desirable area of town and while asleep in bed is attacked and robbed. Waking in hospital he is infuriated that he remembers nothing of the crime or his assailant. He then meets and falls in love with a younger woman who works as a 'professional rememberer' for an elderly wealthy business man, remembering names and events on his behalf. What I particularly enjoyed about this novel was the character of his younger daughter, Kitty, who drifts in and out of his flat wearing a mirror 'the size of a dime' in her pierced naval and talking into a mobile phone so tiny he 'wonders how it can stretch between mouth and ear.'

I finished Back When We Were Grownups last night and now I really will make a start on Olive Kitteridge ...

Monday 13 February 2012

Elizabeth Strout

Oh Elizabeth Strout is a good writer. I bought Amy and Isabelle after reading an on-line interview with Anne Tyler who said that she admired it.

Fifteen-year old Amy and her mother live at Oyster Point, the posh end of Shirley Falls, Maine. Single mother Isabelle doesn't have the confidence or means to mix with the well-heeled wives of the neighbourhood. Lonely Amy embarks on a relationship with her charismatic maths teacher who seduces her by quoting the poetry of Edna St Vincent Millay. Meanwhile the soapy, sudsy river which divides Shirley Falls churns around the mill where Isabelle works as a secretary and the women in the office bicker and gossip.

There are many wonderful moments in this novel - Isabelle and Amy sharing doughnuts in the steamy coffee shop and Amy's fleeting moment of happiness, Isabelle trying to improve her mind by reading Madame Bovary which the women in the mill nickname 'Madame Ovary', kind Fat Bev's battles with her digestion and the way the river reflects the events of the novel. There is also the recurring motif of a missing 12-year-old girl which turns the novel almost into a thriller at the end.

Strout is an earthier writer than Tyler (her characters say f**k!) but has the same gift for dialogue and humour. I've ordered her novel Abide With Me and Olive Kitteridge a collection of short stories, both set in Maine. Do let me know if you've read Elizabeth Strout, I'm sure I've seen reviews of Olive Kitteridge around the blogosphere but can't remember where. I'd like to re-read them.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

The Thorn Birds

I started and abandoned a couple of books this month. Neither The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett or Gillespie and I by Jane Harris held my attention beyond the first fifty pages or so. Perfectly good books but they didn't speak to me. I wanted a big novel with a strong sense of landscape and a compelling story. I wanted something like The Poisonwood Bible with its female focus and exotic setting. The Virago logo on the spine of The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough caught my eye in Waterstones and I thought it might fit the bill.

Well it's certainly unfamiliar terrain! The novel is set in the early part of the twentieth century on the fictional homestead of Drogheda, a vast sheep station in Northwest New South Wales, Australia. Summer begins in December and winter in June. The land is populated by kangaroos, emus, parakeets and kookaburras, fearsome lizards with blue tongues, snakes, spiders and grasshoppers. Dust storms leave finely grained brown powder on all surfaces in the houses, even getting into sealed containers and 'dulling newly washed hair.'

Amidst the dust storms, floods and droughts the male-dominated Cleary family work as stockmen on the land. Meghann Cleary the only daughter reaches the age of fifteen wholly innocent of the facts of life while her strange, silent mother keeps her working in the family home. Mary Carson the elderly landowner seems to be obsessed with the local priest - the handsome, ambitious Father Ralph de Bricassart who smokes, swears and helps drive the sheep. Father Ralph seems to be very fond of young Meggie. I never did watch the TV series but I think I can see where this is going!

The dialogue in this novel is a little far-fetched at times but the sense of landscape is breathtaking. I can't put it down.