Wednesday 9 August 2023

Penguin Orange Classics - The Joy Luck Club

And I am sitting at my mother's place at the mah jong table, on the East where things begin.

Can't believe it is almost 35 years since The Joy Luck Club was published.  I was a young woman working in a library when this book came out (pre-internet and iphone) and I loved it then and have reread it many times over the years.  I had to treat myself to the Penguin Orange Classic paperback. Very classy cream and orange cover and I love the Chinese dragon entwined around the penguin!

All the motifs from the novel feauture on the front and back covers; Waverly's chess pieces, Jing-Mei's piano and the mah jong tiles where the 'aunties' play in each other's houses and invite Jing-Mei (June) to be the fourth corner after her own mother dies.

I think Best Quality is my favourite story in The Joy Luck Club where the rivalry between June and Waverly which began when they were children comes to a head. (Waverly was a child chess prodigy and June's mother forced her to play the piano).  At a crab dinner to celebrate Chinese New Year,  Waverly who was taught by her mother to always have the best selects the nicest crabs for herself, her husband and daughter while June picks the crab with a missing leg and her mother doesn't have one at all.  Waverly humiliates June during the dinner and June is close to tears. Her mother afterwards tells her not to worry about Waverly and gives her a jade necklace which is light green and tells her it will become darker with wear - proof of her self-worth and value.

June's distress at the crab dinner is of course tempered by the unintentional humour in the Chinese-English of the mothers:

"Suyuan! called Auntie Lindo to my mother. "Why you wear that colour?" Auntie Lindo gestured with a crab leg to my mother's red sweater.

"How can you wear this colour anymore? Too young!" She scolded.

My mother acted as though this were a compliment.  "Emporium Capwell." She said. "Nineteen dollar. Cheaper than knit it myself."

Auntie Lindo nodded her head, as if the color were worth the price.

The Joy Luck Club still reads as fresh as when it was first published. That is the liberating power of imaginative fiction.

Friday 31 March 2023

Real Tigers (Slough House #3)

I raced through the Slough House series by Mick Herron after reading an interview with one of my favourite writers, Mary Lawson, who recommended them.  These well-written, fast-moving spy thrillers with a nice line in humour and a central London setting are just what I need right now.  

Slough House just went live. The four of you are up.

London is sweltering in a heatwave and tempers are fraying in Slough House the building for washed up spies on the wrong side of the river.  Leaving work Catherine Standish runs into an old acquaintance from her Regent's Park days.  Catherine knows that chance encounters don't happen to spooks and tries to go to ground on London's streets but can't shake off her tail.  Bundled into a van and asked by her kidnappers which one of her colleagues she trusts the most she names River Cartwright. Which could be a mistake.

Catherine's disappearance raises alarm bells back at Slough House led by the hard-drinking, smoking, flatulent Jackson Lamb, a former spook from the Berlin days.

'This is the Secret Service. Not frigging Woman's Hour.'  

Young River Cartwright is an interesting character.  Exiled to Slough House since he crashed King's Cross in a training exercise (even though he was set up) he is impulsive to say the least and can't stand the tedium of admin work. Swinging into action he embroils his colleagues (known as the slow horses - a pun on Slough House) into a violent situation where, as always, they are largely unarmed, ill-informed and unprepared.  But at least it gets them out of the office.

Real Tigers is one of my favourites in the series because the weather reflects the action.  As the heatwave finally breaks the violet hour gives way to darkness and a soft rain falls over London.  

This is the noise the rain always makes; the soft sighing of the pavements.

Saturday 14 January 2023

Lucy by the Sea

Easily the best novel I read last year was Elizabeth Strout's Lucy by the Sea.  I love Lucy's gorgeous narrative voice.  I think this novel is as good as the first in the quartet My Name is Lucy Barton but instead of a younger Lucy in her hospital bed overlooked by New York's Chrysler building we have a newly widowed Lucy transported by ex-husband William from pre-pandemic New York to ride out the lockdown in a house overlooking the sea in Maine.

Lucy's mother is a powerful presence even though she is no longer alive.  Appalling though she could be, sometimes remembering her words 'People need to feel important' helps Lucy to get some of William's excesses in perspective.

You get the sense that this may be the last Lucy novel, not least because characters from other novels resurface.  Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys takes regular coastal walks with Lucy, Katherine from Abide with Me appears as an adult and Lucy's gentle, troubled brother 'socially distancing for 66 years' succumbs to Covid.  

This is not a sad novel, though.  There are beautiful descriptions of the changing sea and sky throughout the pandemic year.  Bob Burgess and William arrange a studio for Lucy so that she can continue to write.  There is humour in William's insistence on doing all the cooking yet needs praise for every meal he makes while Lucy washes up.  Although still haunted by her childhood experiences she finds joy in small things - a faded table-cloth edged with pink pompoms she finds in the Maine house. 

As a trauma survivor and perhaps naturally reticent Lucy takes care not to overstep around the adult daughters she loves but when her eldest daughter is about to repeat a mistake Lucy herself once made when younger, she steps up:

I turned so that I was facing Chrissy. "You listen to me," I said. "You listen to every single word I have to tell you.  And take your sunglasses off I need to see your face,"

I'm now rereading the wonderful My Name is Lucy Barton.

I also read Darling India Knight's re-imagining of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love.  I think it just about works.  Certainly, the updated characters are clever and amusing and I kept turning the pages but without the wartime background you lose the poignancy of the original.