Posts Tagged ‘book review’

My second read for the 1954 club was Charlotte Fairlie by D E Stevenson, another great read from Dean Street Press. D E Stevenson is such a lovely writer, this provided a delightful escape from the twenty-first century.

The novel is named for the central character, Charlotte Fairlie is a young, girls’ school headmistress – who sometimes tries to look a little bit older than she is so she is taken seriously. Charlotte was once a pupil at St Elizabeth’s herself, and dreamed of being headmistress, and now she is. Two years into her dreamed of position, she has discovered that to be a headmistress is a very lonely profession – unable to make friends among her staff – and with the responsibility of the school resting on her shoulders. Another teacher at the school; Miss Pinkerton had been in the mix for headmistress, and is very resentful of Charlotte – and her resentment becomes really poisonous. With her secretary Miss Post ever desperate to know the contents of private letters, or the other side of a private phone call, Charlotte is not exactly surrounded by friends.

When the new school year starts, Tessa MacRynne is brought to the school by her American mother. Tessa lives on an island in Scotland – a place she loves as much as she does her father – the lord of the isle. It soon becomes apparent that Tessa’s mother won’t be coming back to visit – as she has left her husband, and returned to America. Tessa is terribly hurt by her mother’s departure, unable to understand why she would leave her father, and is desperate to go home to be with him.

“It’s a very bad thing to harbour resentment, Tessa. Do you understand what I mean? It won’t do your mother any harm if you think unkindly about her, but it will do harm to yourself—to your own character.”

When Tessa tries to run away, she draws Charlotte into a little deceit. Charlotte comes across Tessa late at night, and realising how distressed she is, she sneaks her back into school – and the sick bay. Charlotte can’t show favouritism to any pupil, but she is drawn to Tessa, and Tessa responds to her kind sympathy. Miss Pinkerton knows there is something odd about Tessa’s sudden apparent illness – and doesn’t really let the matter drop, keen to prove that Charlotte is showing inappropriate favouritism for a pupil. Miss Pinkerton’s resentment becomes more and more apparent – and the horrible woman is driven to play a very nasty trick on Charlotte around the time of the Queen’s coronation.

Tessa becomes friends with Dione Eastwood (known as Donny) – whose family home is nearby, though Donny only goes home on Sundays. Donny’s two brothers go to a local boys school – whose headmaster is a friend of Charlotte’s. When Tessa goes home with Donny one Sunday, she sees why it is that poor Donny often lacks confidence in herself. All three of the Eastwood children are horribly, bullied by their father Professor Eastwood – no one can do or say anything right in his presence. Donny’s brother Barney is particularly badly affected by his father’s bullying – and although, bright, witty, and chatty when he’s not around, becomes a stammering, nervous wreck as soon as he enters the room. Such is Tessa’s trust of Charlotte that she tells her all about the Professor and his unhappy children.

Over the rest of the school year, Tessa and Charlotte become really good friends – though there is little chance for Charlotte to speak to her young friend on many occasions. There are things about Tessa’s life that reminds Charlotte of her own childhood, she can’t help feeling an extra degree of interest in the girl who has made her affection for her headteacher very obvious. Charlotte is charmed by the girl’s stories of Targ, the island where she lives with her father.

As the summer holidays draw near, Tessa decides to persuade her father to write and invite Miss Fairlie to Targ for a few weeks. Charlotte is very unsure if she should accept the invite – but Tessa’s tales of the island have made her long to see it. Charlotte then manages to persuade Professor Eastwood to allow his three children to also make a summer visit to Targ.

When Charlotte arrives on Targ, the Eastwood children have already been there a week or two – and the change in them is remarkable. Barney has found a hero in Tessa’s father Rory MacRynne and has taken to island life extraordinarily well.

“It was bright and breezy. The sea was very blue with crisp white caps upon the waves; the sky was a paler blue and cloudless. The land was green, the beach was of pure white sand with piles of bright yellow seaweed. Far in the distance there were purple hills, their outlines softened by haze. All the colours were clean—like the colours in a brand new paintbox—and the sunshine was so strong that the very air seemed to glitter.”

Charlotte is soon equally beguiled by the beauty of the island – and life with Tessa, her father and her father’s two elderly aunts who live in their own apartment in the castle. She meets other residents of the island – listens to the old legends about the MacRynne family – it is all a million miles from the realities of being a girls’ school headmistress. It isn’t long before she knows she will be very sad to leave – but the school year begins soon, and all this is complicated by her feelings for Rory MacRynne. A terrible incident – brings Professor Eastwood’s treatment of his children into sharp focus – and Charlotte works with Rory to help Barney who is clearly very damaged.

Targ has changed things for Charlotte and Barney forever – but Charlotte has no idea about the future – she returns to St Elizabeth’s reluctantly to take up the reigns again. I won’t say anything about how things end – but you can probably guess. This was an absolutely delightful read – the kind of book you look forward to returning to later.

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Over the last few days both here and on twitter – I have been involved in a number of conversations about this book. I am conscious that I may have inadvertently put some people off reading it which is certainly not what I had intended to do. I think the problem with books long anticipated and dare I say hyped – is that they can often lead to disappointment – even when they are good. The Goldfinch is good – it is very good – aspects of it really excellent – however it was a four star read for me rather than the five star read I had convinced myself it would be. There are parts of the book – that really could, and maybe should be shorter – there is a relentlessness to sections of the book that can get a bit wearing.

As the novel opens New Yorker Theodore Decker is thirteen years old living alone with his beloved mother, having been abandoned by his feckless, drunken father. On the way to a meeting at Theo’s school –to discuss his suspension – Theo and his mother end up at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. As they move through the galleries toward his mother’s favourite picture – The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius 1654 Theo catches sight of a young girl about his own age with bright red hair, and an elderly man Theo assumes is her grandfather (he’s her uncle in fact). In the moments before Theo’s life changes forever – he has no idea what impact these two strangers will have upon his life.

An explosion rips through the museum, Theo and his mother have been separated – and Theo find himself sitting with the old man goldfinch2he saw earlier as he dies. In his last moments the old man presses a ring into Theo’s hand and gives him an address to take it to. When Theo eventually finds his way out of the horror and chaos that the museum has become, horribly disorientated terrified for his mother – he leaves with more than a strangers signet ring – for in his bag is a rare and beautiful piece of art –The Goldfinch. At this point the novel is fantastic – the sense of horror and disorientation is brilliantly done. Donna Tartt understands the gut wrenching terror to a child at the very idea of losing their mother – and the shattering life changing grief numbness and desolation when the nightmare comes true. Theo’s yearning for his mother is heartrendingly palpable – throughout the novel Theo returns to the park bench he considers to be hers. The painting of course becomes a talisman – his last link to her.

“Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?

For the next fourteen years Theo’s life is driven by two obsessions – The Goldfinch and Pippa – the girl at the museum who he eventually meets when he takes the ring back months later. Sheltered by a Park Avenue family for several months, bewildered by his new life – Theo starts to visit the address the old man gave him, an antique shop – where he meets Hobie – a furniture restorer and an artist himself in a way. Theo’s appalling father turns up almost a year after the explosion, and Theo is uprooted again – finding himself in an almost bare house on the edge of Las Vegas – living with his father and his girlfriend Xandra. Virtually unsupervised and haunted by memories of his mother and obsessing about the painting – Theo’s life descends into an existence of drink, drugs and petty crime with new best friend Boris – who Tartt manages to even make slightly humorous in the midst of his malevolence. This section of the book – maybe around 200 pages or so drags a bit, there is bit too much detail – it feels unnecessarily padded out.

Back in New York, Theo fully embraces the world of antiques managing to move effortlessly between the homes of the wealthy and the criminal underworld. However Theo’s obsession with a small seventeenth century painting threatens to draw him deeper into a frighteningly dark world. Fourteen years after he stumbled out of the aftermath of that explosion, Theo is still in thrall to a painting that finally just before Christmas one year takes him to Amsterdam where both it and Theo’s fates are likely to be decided. Some of what happens to Theo and Boris in Amsterdam is at best unlikely – and I know some people think the ending weak – I wouldn’t go quite that far, in fact I rather liked the philosophical wonderings that Tartt leaves us with after all the other matters of the novel have been satisfactorily dealt with.

This is a huge, rip roaring stomach churning ride of a novel, big bold themes and memorable characters – there are images that may remain in my head for a long time – although the one that lingers longest maybe that of a small bird chained by the foot against a plain wall. Donna Tartt’s characters are extraordinarily real, flawed, damaged people set against huge canvases of New York, and Las Vegas – even Amsterdam – the sense of place is always excellent. I can’t help but think this would make a very good film, and I won’t be surprised to see it a box office hit in a few years. Of course one of the most extraordinary things about this novel is the length of time Donna Tartt took preparing for and writing it, she is undoubtedly a very gifted writer.


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good daughters

(My second reading for All Virago/All August – although I read a lovely Abacus edition)

Mary Hocking has been a recent discovery for many of us over on the Librarything  Virago group. I read A Particular place a couple of months ago, and knew immediately I wanted to read all her books. How delicious it is to discover a new author. Mary Hocking – who it seems is scandalously out of print – is a lovely sort of mash up of Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, also her books seem reasonably easy to get hold of second hand -phew! Why someone like Persephone or Virago aren’t rushing to re-issue her books is something of a mystery.

Good Daughters is the first book in Mary Hocking’s Fairley family trilogy – I have the next two waiting to be read.  The novel opens in 1933, the world is on the brink of great change, and so is the Fairley family. Sisters: Louise, Alice and Claire live in a traditional family home ina suburban street with their parents. Stanley  Fairley is the headmaster of a boys school and a Methodist lay preacher. Although a loving father Stanley is quite strict with his daughters, he finds so much in the changing world around him to disapprove of. Louise wants to be an actress,and her requests to take acting parts in a dramatic society production are met with great suspicion. Alice invents stories, climbs trees and over the course of three years begins growing up and making sense of the world around her. Most of the story of the Fairley family is seen through Alice’s eyes who seems to be a fairly autobiographical creation.  The youngest sister is Claire a dreamer, who finds it hard to keep her sister’s secrets.

It was apparent that the head of the house was present. Although he lacked the stature for natural authority, being a little short of medium height, he nevertheless, on entering a room, contrived the impression of a substantial force; an effect achieved mainly by a certain fierceness of expression and the thrusting of his stocky body against the air as though he was forever pushing an unseen opponent before him. Forcefulness alone would probably not have been sufficient to sustain dominance over a long period of time, but he was fortunate in having his wife’s support. She had suffered in her own childhood from the lack of a man at the head of the table and was not minded to go through her marriage as her mother had hers. She therefore reinforced her husband’s position while not always accepting his judgement

Next door to the Fairley family live the Vaseyelin family, the Fairley sisters are drawn into the lives of Jacov and Katia and their faded mother, their father who doesn’t live with his family but plays Violin outside a London station. It is at the Vaseyelin house that they meet Guy Immingham.  Katia goes to school with Alice, and they are good friends, but Alice’sother friend Daphne Drummond doesn’t like Katia. Both Daphne and Katia’s families differ to the Fairley’s and  Alice’s involvement with them change her, and influence her understanding of the world. Daphne’s father is a deeply unpleasant man, Alice witnesses him with another woman, and his right wing politics have influenced the way Daphne thinks too.  Louise is friends with both Jacov and Guy, both of whom are involved with the drama she loves so much, Jacov in helping to produce the play she is hoping to take part in, and Guy as a fellow actor. Guy’s mother is a snooty woman who lives her life through her golden boy, she strongly disapproves of Louise and considering her determined to “get” her son. Claire is able only to fully commit herself to one friend at a time, and we see her changing childish allegiances and the way her friend of the moment directs her behaviour at home. Poor Claire suffers a bit from being the youngest often the last to know what is going on, required to keep quiet about things she is dying to talk about, and necessarily reduced to frequent tears when she incurs her sister’s wrath.

Mary Hocking re-creates family life at this crucial changing time in England’s history faithfully and realistically, there is a fantastic sense of time and place, lots of good period detail. Alice spends a lot of time at cinema, mooning about the 1930’s stars of the silver screen. Stanley Fairely keeps a eye on the news from Europe, and Alice expresses mild concern at Katia’s proposed trip to her Grandparents in Bavaria.

I know a lot of people out there are reading or planning to read Mary Hocking so I am loathe to say too much more about the story. This is an excellent start to a trilogy which I know know I will continue to enjoy, and I am looking forward to the rest of the trilogy with enthusiasm.

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By now I think I must have made it fairly obvious that I love Thomas Hardy, and so I was looking forward to my re-reading of this superb collection of Hardy shorter fiction for my on-going Hardy reading challenge.

Wessex Tales contains seven stories, the first two of them really very short – the others considerably longer. In this collection Hardy explored familiar themes of marriage and rural life that we see in his novels, but he also experiments rather in a supernatural tale, ‘The Withered Arm’, which I think I have read at least three times, as it crops up in various other short story collections. The Three Strangers is wonderfully atmospheric, with a delightful little twist, although short it is a perfectly crafted little story, a small isolated cottage, packed with local folk for a celebration, inclement weather and the unexpected arrival of three strangers. ‘The Withered Arm’ – for me at least – is right up there with the best of the gothic type ghost and supernatural stories. There’s a wronged woman, an illegitimate child, a pretty young wife, a curse and a wonderful twist – delicious.

Hardy doesn’t allow himself to be in anyway curtailed by the genre of the short story – he gives full reign to his imagination, and his characters are fully explored. Hardy presents us with men making foolish and rash decisions in the pursuit of marriage, the women they reject so obviously superior. Using irony, coincidence, comedy and tragedy, devices that are so familiar to readers of his novels, Hardy could quite easily have spun out several of these brilliantly constructed stories into novels. In ‘Fellow Townsmen’ and ‘Interlopers at the Knap’ the stories span many years – characters are made to regret the decisions of the past. While in ‘The Distracted Preacher’, a good man puts his principles to one side in order to help the woman he loves – in a wonderfully atmospheric and slightly comic tale of smugglers.
Hardy was very aware of the changing world in which he lived – and in the Wessex Tales it is a world that is presented to us with the great understanding and affection that he had for it. Born and brought up in a humble home Hardy understood the rural world that he wrote about, he understood the work of the furze cutter and the shepherd, he had an ear for the dialect of the region, which he reproduces in many minor characters, characters who no matter how minor they are manage to be completely real.

“Is it necessary to add that the echoes of many characteristic tales, dating from that picturesque time, still linger about here, in more or less fragmentary form to be caught by the attentive ear? Some of them I have repeated; most of them I have forgotten; one I have never repeated, and assuredly can never forget.”

Hardy even manages to lend some of his stories an air of traditional folklore – the story being re-told by a nameless narrator after a passage of time. I wonder if it these were the kind of stories that Hardy would have grown up hearing.
Although I do love Hardy’s pastoral novels best, I think his shorter fiction to be very well worth reading, and wonder if it doesn’t sometimes get overlooked a little. I actually think that The Wessex Tales wouldn’t be a bad place to start for those who have never read any Thomas Hardy.


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Can Lord Peter Wimsey prove that Harriet Vane is not guilty of murder – or find the real poisoner in time to save her from the gallows?
Impossible, it seems. The Crown’s case is watertight. The police are adamant that the right person is on trial. The judge’s summing-up is also clear. Harriet Vane is guilty of the killing her lover. And Harriet Vane shall hang.

I am a big fan of what are often referred to as the “golden age of crime” novels especially those of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Strong Poison is one I had wanted to read for some time but- though I have spotted her novels in charity shops and on book laden tables during bookcrossing meet ups – never seem to come across this particular novel. So I gave in recently and downloaded it to my kindle at a cost of £4 or £5 – I think it was worth it. Having stumped up the cash – so to speak, for ‘Strong Poison’ I was chuffed therefore, when I found another Dorothy L Sayers novel ‘Whose Body’- the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel published in 1923 – available for free (girlebooks.com).

It is in Strong Poison that we – and indeed Lord Peter – meet Harriet Vane – who is an important figure in some later Sayers novels. In this novel although she is at the centre of the story she doesn’t actually appear very often. Harriet is on trial for Murder; Lord Peter in the public gallery is convinced she is innocent. Thankfully Lord Peter’s employee Miss Climpson happens to be on the jury and although certainly not prompted by Lord Peter – she too believes the prisoner innocent and sticking to her guns throughout deliberations ensures that a verdict cannot be reached. Forcing the judge to order a new trail gives Lord Peter valuable time to investigate to truth of the matter. The problem though, is that the victim, Harriet Vanes former lover, was poisoned – his last meal he shared with his cousin and the servants and they suffered no ill effects, but he was later taken ill shortly after drinking coffee with Harriet Vane in her flat. There are three possibilities, he was murdered by Harriet Vane – obviously not, he committed suicide, or was murdered by someone else, only how?

The plot is fairly ingenious I thought – although I did guess the whodunit – I think most readers will. In a way the who is less important in this novel and could be said to be pretty obvious – but it is the howdunit that kept me guessing. Ably assisted by the utterly marvellous Bunter, Miss Climpson and the ladies of The Cattery – a typing bureau that is really a bureau of investigation funded by Wimsey, Lord Peter sets out to prove Harriet Vane innocent. The fact that he has immediately fallen in love with her and proposes to her upon first meeting her in prison adds a little flavour of romance to the story. The period of 1929/1930 – which of course is around the time the novel was written is beautifully portrayed – no doubt fairly seamlessly as Sayers was writing about her own era – but how wonderful for us now to have this period so humorously presented to us with its peculiarities of speech, social conventions and class snobberies.

I found this overall to be a thoroughly entertaining read, and for those readers new to Dorothy L Sayers it would make a pretty good one to start with.

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This hardback was one of my Christmas presents – and I was eagerly anticpating it as I could see from the blurb that it was rather different to Anita Shreve’s other books.

At a New England boarding school, a sex scandal is about to break. Even more shocking than the sexual acts themselves is the fact that they were caught on videotape. A Pandora’s box of revelations, the tape triggers a chorus of voice — those of the men, women, teenagers, and parents involved in the scandal — that details the ways in which lives can be derailed or destroyed in one foolish moment. A gripping emotional drama with the pace of a thriller, Anita Shreve’s Testimony explores the dark impulses that sway the lives of seeming innocents, and the ways in which our best intentions can lead to our worst transgressions.

Having read almost all Anita Shreve’s other books (there is 2 of the earlier ones I haven’t managed to get arounfd to) I was a little surprised that a writer of such standing and with such a huge following had chosen to write in  such a way.  I did enjoy this book, but I also have a few issues with it.  I have to say first of all it is hugely readable, I had a job to put it down at times.  The story of the "sex scandal" is narrated by numerous voices – each of them fairly unique – and this was quite well done – I just wasn’t sure I liked multiple voices – two or three is fine – but about 20 is very unusual to say the least (in a novel of only just 300 pages).  It was a powerful way of demonstrating however how the actions of just a few people can impact so enormously on others.  The sex scandal – by our depraved British standards is fairly tame – ok it is a regrettable/unpleasent/embarrassing incident – but considering the fall out that comes after it does seem tame-ish.  The thing that makes this story line work though is that it is set – in a private school in a small town in Vermont, USA – which I suspect is far more conservative than we are in the UK.  As I said – enjoyable, and a real page turner – but I was left a little unsatisfied – especially when there wasn’t really a big shock at the end or anything like I had been expecting.

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