Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Oh dear! Coming on for two weeks into March and I haven’t written a blog post since my February round up. I hadn’t even realised it had been that long. I had hoped to write in some detail about a few of the brilliant books I read in February, that is clearly not going to happen. I do have one book from February still to write about – I’m a little anxious that I will forget all about it before I get around to doing it, it was a review copy, I read quickly before realising it wasn’t out until toward the end of April. All these years of blogging and suddenly I’m not managing it very well. I have thought about stopping altogether, but I don’t seem quite ready to make that decision, and so for now, I will continue to post erratically, lots of mini reviews and monthly round ups I’m afraid.  

I haven’t been feeling brilliant, but books can be a comfort – although neither of the first two books of March were what I could call comfort reads. They were excellent though.  

The Fawn (1959) by Magda Szabó translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix.  

This was a recent purchase, a pre-order in fact, a new English translation of an author I have enjoyed so much in the past was an exciting prospect.    

The Fawn is a complex piece, narrated by Eszter Encsy an acclaimed actress. Throughout the novel Eszter is speaking to her lover, explaining her past, seeking forgiveness, reliving key moments, and it’s only bit by bit that the reader begins to understand who who is, and what is going on. A helpful character list in the front of this edition was referred to several times. Eszter appears to be in her thirties and the present is the 1950s in communist Hungry, but Eszter is often talking about the past, an earlier time around the 1930s, when she was a child.  

Eszter was the only child of a music teacher and a non-practising lawyer, despite having aristocratic relatives the family live in terrible poverty, and all her life Eszter feels this poverty, and it fuels a terrible resentment and a hatred of a neighbour and classmate Angéla. Angéla grows up in a very different household, everything in her life appears to Eszter to be beautiful, gracious and rich – and when Angéla is given a fawn to care for – Eszter’s resentment boils over and leads her to do a terrible thing. Angéla has no idea of Eszter’s true feelings towards her – feelings carried through to adult life when Eszter is a successful actress and Angéla is married to the man who will become Eszter’s lover.  Even when Eszter hears of Angéla working as a nurse during the war, she views it with a snarky kind of spite that the author reproduces brilliantly.  

“Poor little Angéla with her little hands, her little first-aid kit, her lovely little feet — what delightful little bandages she must have made with lint and tape! Everybody had always been polite to Angéla all her life; I bet even the dying, the wounded, collapsed with some sort of internal haemorrhage so that she wouldn’t dirty her little hand.” 

The Fawn is a bleak story, it’s written very coldly which suits the narrative perfectly, but definitely doesn’t make for an easy read.  

Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman (2022) by Lucy Worsely  

I know I sometimes struggle with big hardbacks, but I specifically asked Liz for this book for Christmas when we were doing that ‘what do you want for Christmas?’ thing. I have been reading Agatha Christie since I was about eleven, when I borrowed them from my local library, and having visited her Devon holiday home Greenway several times, find her altogether fascinating. I was very much looking forward to reading this, and while I don’t think of biographies as comfort reads – this was wonderfully compelling.  

Lucy Worsely writes in a very accessible way; dare I suggest she writes non-fiction for those who don’t read much non-fiction (that is definitely me). It is certainly not too light, it’s thorough and well researched, but Worsely allows herself to be chattily familiar and informal at times – on one occasion she refers to Archie Christie as being ‘hot!’ I suspect some serious readers of non-fiction dislike that – I really don’t mind it at all. Worsely had access to a great number of personal letters and journals and uses these to help us to get a glimpse of a woman who was very private and who as the title to the book suggests, remains a little elusive.  

A must for Agatha Christie fans I suspect, this is a very readable biography, Agatha lived a long and remarkable life. Here Worsely details her childhood, her relationship with her mother, her daughter and both her husbands. We see Agatha buying up houses, volunteering during the war, and donating money to help her second husband’s archaeological digs, on which she happily accompanied him.  

One of the most compelling sections of the book is the section about that infamous year of 1926, when Agatha went missing for eleven days, before being unearthed in an hotel in Harrogate. I really had trouble putting it down during that section, it seems that still, we are all fascinated by that strange event in the life of this most famous mystery writer.  

 Naturally, we also see Agatha the writer – she appears to have had a great need to just keep on, producing the books that she did. She wrote when travelling and she wrote when she was ill. Spoilers abound, Worsely doesn’t shy aware from big plot spoilers when talking about the books, and I assume she thought that was the only way she could write about them honestly.  

Neither does Worsely shy aware of confronting some uncomfortable truths. While she doesn’t dwell on them at all, she does refer to those cultural references in Christie novels that jar terribly today, and she addresses her antisemitism, which apparently Agatha Christie persisted in seeing nothing wrong with, even after the Second World War. Worsley even acknowledges that some of her later novels aren’t really that good – there appears to have been a feeling in some quarters that Agatha should have stopped writing earlier than she did.  

Overall, this was a fascinating read that really kept me reading late into the night a couple of times.  

New books 

Another comfort I find is buying books – books I really have no need for right now! The joy of a parcel arriving – it cheers a day up. I have a list of books I must buy soon on my phone, it’s more than just a wish list – and I assume everyone has a list like that. Every now and then I buy a couple (or four) books off that list – and every now and then a few more books get added to the list. So last week I bought:  

Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernadine Evaristo  

A Single Rose by Muriel Barbery  

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin 

Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood, her new collection of short stories.  

They are now happily settled on the book trolley by my reading chair alongside these two that arrived from The British Library – so thank you to them for:  

The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr – a British Library Crime Classic and 

The Home by Penelope Mortimer from the British Library women writers series.  

On a slightly more personal note – I am pretty much officially retired (on ill health grounds – I am only 54) since Friday – just some pension stuff to sort. This week I will be away with my mum, we’re off for a few days in a hotel by the sea, being waited on, reading our books while we order another tray of tea and gazing at the sea from the windows of our sea front hotel.  

Read Full Post »

I have been having a rather good month reading things for #ReadIndies all of which have turned out to be great. Latchkey Ladies by Marjorie Grant was a Christmas present from family, and one of three Handheld Press books I have tbr. I am glad I chose this one as it turned out to be an enthralling read. It was the first novel by the Canadian writer first published in 1921 it is set around the end of WW1 in 1918.  

The novel opens in the Mimosa club – a kind of women’s hostel, where some women live in rooms above, while others – like several of our characters, live out, going there for meals and to socialise.  

One of the first young women we meet – and the principal character throughout – is Anne Carey, one of the latchkey ladies of the title. Latchkey ladies being young women who live independently, working and renting rooms. Anne is rather conventional – and she doesn’t particularly love this way of life – it all seems rather beneath her – and she hates the war work she is doing in an office and is frequently at odds with her landlady, who she cannot disguise her dislike for. She is engaged to a young man serving in the army, but Anne is bored with him. Anne isn’t always that easy to like, and as we see her at work, overly upset by the soldiers that she rubs shoulders with and feeling superior to pretty much everyone else in the office, she is at her least attractive. In time, however, the reader will probably warm to her as I did. Soon after the novel opens Anne gives up this hated work, and floats around between jobs for a while, relieved to not to have to go back there.  

“Actually Anne was almost at breaking point without knowing it. The difficulties of her ordinary day, too long hours, too little food and fresh air, no free time almost, and the common anxiety of war weighed her down, and the hardest part of the strain was, as she had said, that she hated this work”. 

There are several other young women who Anne is friendly with, they all see each other daily at the Mimosa club, often going out to bohemian parties, where they are introduced to all sorts of writers and artists. Maquita is the woman Anne is closest to, she is less conventional seeming to Anne – loud and energetic, fun loving and kind she embraces the latchkey lifestyle, enjoying the variety and independence it brings. Sophy is pretty, but lacks charm, and her own mother appears to prefer the company of Anne. Geraldine Denby, an admiral’s daughter comes to the Mimosa club with her employer, to whom she is companion. Through her brief story, we see the terrible toll, this lifestyle took on many women.  

Anne and Maquita meet Petunia at a party, and take her under their wing, she is an entirely different kettle of fish. There is some question over Petunia’s background – most recently she was a chorus girl – and these questions are discussed in ways which become rather uncomfortable. These kinds of novels always tell us so much about certain attitudes of the time, and how important the class system still was. Anne doesn’t much enjoy the noise and clamour of this party, happy to sit back and take it all in. 

“The room began to fill with people, and Anne, withdrawing from the inner circle that surrounded Mr Meebes, was content to look on and to talk to such casual guests as drifted by. It amused her to see how naturally Maquita became part of the crowd – her eyes, her hands flashing, her laugh pealing above the other voices. She adored people without discrimination – a party of any sort delighted her, and these chorus girls, and mannequins, and young soldiers were exciting to her. Sophy too seemed to be very happy, and Petunia when she was not claiming Simon’s attention, was charming a young Flying Corps officer with his arm in a sling.” 

 However, everyone seems to love beautiful, naïve Petunia (though whether she is really that naïve is also in some doubt) – she is only eighteen after all. Anne and Maquita secure a room for her at the Mimosa club, all set to fully scandalise an older member of the club who sees herself as being particularly refined and is possibly still living in the Victorian age.  

It isn’t long before Petunia has caught the eye of a slightly stuffy man from very good family, he is utterly infatuated with Petunia, determined to marry her, cart her off to the country pile and turn her into a society wife. Petunia doesn’t seem very sure what she wants.  

Someone else Anne meets at this party is Philip Dampier, a married man and well-known playwright whose work she has admired. The two become friends, and Anne is introduced to his wife and two little boys – she loves children – and becomes fond of the family. However, the two begin an affair, and of course, almost inevitably the consequences for Anne will be far greater than for Philip.  

A good novel about women during this period, giving an authentic flavour of London life and society at the end of WW1. Interestingly, for Rose Macaulay fans, Marjorie Grant knew Rose Macaulay and so it is possible that the relationship of Anne and Philip was inspired by that of Rose and Gerald O’ Donovan.  

Read Full Post »

With thanks to the publisher Michael Walmer for the review copy. 

Ada Leverson was a writer best known for her parodies and sketches of the 1890s and her six novels published toward the beginning of the twentieth century. She is well known for having been a friend of Oscar Wilde. I have previously read her 1911 novel The Limit and the Virago omnibus The Little Ottleys, which is comprised of the three novels Love’s Shadow, Tenterhooks and Love at Second Sight. So, I was delighted to be offered this new edition of Bird of Paradise – a novel very much in a similar vein as The Little Ottleys novels, yet for me even more of a page turner. It is a wonderfully bright, witty novel, that gently satirises a society in which love, and money go hand in hand.  

In this novel we meet two married couples, Bertha and Percy Kellynch and Nigel and Mary Hillier. Ten years earlier, at the beginning of the century, Bertha and Nigel had been inseparable. The eighteen-year-old Bertha had been heartbroken when Nigel realising that Bertha wasn’t possessed of the fortune he required, threw his lot in with heiress Mary instead and married her.  

“Nigel, who had been in a frightful hole when he met the heiress, of course made a point of discovering, as soon as all grinding money troubles had been removed and agonising debts paid, that no material things were capable of making him happy. The gratification to his vanity of his big country house, and charming house in London and so forth amused him for a very short time. He became, horribly bored, and when Bertha married Percy Kellynch, felt pained and particularly surprised and disappointed in her.” 

A decade on Nigel has had time to regret his choice, coming into money himself soon after his marriage, he feels he should never have thrown over the great society beauty – for his marriage hasn’t been a happy one. Despite being blessed with two children, Nigel remains horribly jealous of the man Bertha married soon after his own marriage. However, it is Mary’s jealousy that is blighting their marriage, her bitter jealousy toward Bertha, her insecurity and tendency to cling to Nigel is driving him mad.  

Bertha is known as having been blessed by great beauty, goodness and kindness, and although she hasn’t been blessed with children, she is blissfully happy with her husband Percy. She no longer thinks of Nigel as she did when she was eighteen, and in fact, being aware of his frailties and penchant for wanting what he can’t have, has no regrets whatsoever. Several years after their respective marriages, the two have again become occasional friends, existing within the same social set. For a while at least Nigel had been content to merely see Bertha occasionally in the guise of a friend. However, as time has gone on that has become less satisfying, and Nigel is now tormented by the return of his old feelings for Bertha.  

Meanwhile Bertha has set herself the task of helping her friend Madeline Irwin in her own pursuit of love and marriage. Madeline has become smitten by Rupert Denison, a popular young man, with the habit of patronisingly ‘educating’ young woman in a slightly school masterish manner – Madeline doesn’t care and declares to Bertha that he is to her as Percy is to Bertha. With another young woman having been seen in the company of Rupert, Madeline is desperate to secure her man. Bertha enlists the help of her old friend Nigel – little realising perhaps how easily these things could be misconstrued.  

“With the casual indiscretion of the selfish man, Nigel, of course, told his wife at length early in the honeymoon, all about his romance with Bertha. This Mary had never forgiven. Curiously, she minded more this old innocent affair of ten years ago, which he had broken off for her, than any of his flirtations since.” 

With Mary becoming ever more suspicious, things get very serious, as the poor, miserable woman goes to rather desperate lengths to separate Nigel from Bertha. Mary doesn’t really know Bertha and has built her up in her head as a terrible flirt, a woman who is bound to be after her husband. Mary is portrayed as a desperately unhappy woman, she realises Nigel married her for her money, and now spends most of her day, sitting looking out of the window, watching intently for his return. She takes little interest in her children, investing all her energies in the worship of her husband. With things so suffocating at home, it is little wonder that Bertha has once again become Nigel’s ideal. Nigel’s infatuation, and Mary’s jealousy can only lead to trouble for everyone. The reader can’t help but feel sorry for Mary in her terrible misery.   

There are some very enjoyable peripheral characters including Bertha’s mother-in-law – Lady Kellynch and young brother-in-law, Clifford, who eighteen years younger than Percy, is a twelve-year-old schoolboy, who clearly gets up to all sorts but is the apple of his mother’s weary eye. Clifford has lately become very enamoured by the mother of his school friend and induces his mother to invite her to tea. When Mrs Pickering arrives, it becomes clear that she is a former actress who famously married after meeting her husband when she was playing Prince Charming in Blackpool, to the collectively raised eyebrows of society.  

This is a joyfully, entertaining novel, and I just flew through it, while not wanting it to end too soon.  

Read Full Post »

Edited by Robert Chandler, Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler & others.  

Despite not having reviewed many of the books I read in January, I am moving straight on to my first read for #ReadIndies month. I might go back to some of those January reads yet – but I doubt it. #ReadIndies is hosted by Karen and Lizzie and is a lovely flexible challenge – you can read anything at all as long as it comes from an independent publisher. Independent publishers are so important, giving us a range of different voices from writers all over the world, reissuing classics and producing quirky titles and interesting editions that differ to those produced by the big publishing houses. I particularly appreciate those publishers bringing out translations and backlisted titles by women.  

My first title for #ReadIndies was Other Worlds: peasants, pilgrims, spirits, saints by Teffi sent to me for Christmas by Jacquiwine, a NYRB classic. I don’t read much Russian literature these days (I had a short Russian phase in my early twenties) and I have never read Teffi – but I do enjoy short stories and so this felt like a great collection to start with. Apparently best known for her satirical sketches of pre-revolutionary Russia, this collection focus on more other worldly themes. The stories were written over a forty-year period, from the times she was writing in Moscow through to those days when she was living in Paris.  

It is difficult to review this kind of collection, though I hope I can offer a little flavour of it. These stories have themes of religion either Christian or Russian orthodox and folklore and spiritualism. The collection is organised into five parts, with each group of stories taken from one of Teffi’s collections. Here we have stories of the poor and the rich, of pilgrims travelling together sleeping in hostel type accommodation, of wolves, shapeshifters, of witches and spirits, fear and superstition.  

For example, In Confession, a young girl prepares for her first confession, she worries about a lie she told, the event looms large and fills her with anxiety. In a A Quiet Backwater a laundress discusses the name days of the flora and fauna around her. It’s a beautifully descriptive story, presenting us with a very visual scene of traditional rustic life.  

“Every sea, every great river and stormy lake has its quiet backwater. The water is clear and calm. The reeds don’t rustle, and there are no ripples on the smooth surface. Anything there is an event – the mere touch of a dragonfly’s wing, or that long-legged dancer, an evening mosquito. 

If you climb the steep bank and look down, you’ll see at once where this quiet backwater begins. A line has been drawn with a ruler.” 

(A Quiet Backwater)  

In Solovki – a group a pilgrims travel to a monastery. Two of the pilgrims are Semyon and his wife Varvara – and Semyon wastes no time in telling the story of his wife’s transgression to the other pilgrims – a story he has been repeating to everyone he can for months. It becomes clear to the reader that he doesn’t know the full story.  

Some stories concern matters that are little darker – lightly brushed with horror, they explore the deep superstitions of spirits, witches, shapeshifters and things unknown. In Witch a couple come to believe their servant is a witch, the final straw for the young wife is finding the dining chairs all turned around, facing outwards (not a superstition I have heard of before). Wild Evening is about the fear of the unknown, all the characters seem to be in a state of fear. Shapeshifters explores the various stories around shapeshifters, werewolves and shewolves. The Dog tells the story of a loyal lover, war and a legend from an old mill that a group of young people once joked about.  

“We liked Tolya’s old legend. Vanya Lebedev, however, said, ‘That’s splendid, Tolya. Only you could have told it better – it should be more scary. You should have added that the mill’s been under a spell ever since. Whoever spends one whole night there will be able, if ever he wishes, to turn himself into a dog.” 

(The Dog)

All these stories are wonderfully visual, Teffi is a very atmospheric, descriptive writer. I was at first a little perplexed by the translation of some of the dialogue in a few stories. Several stories – like that of Yavdokha, about a peasant woman who receives a letter she is unable to read – have a local dialect spoken between characters. The speech that is reproduced in some of these stories began to sound to me like the dialect of someone from Yorkshire. I was a bit discombobulated, but flipped to the explanation, written by Robert Chandler on this translation, in the back of the book. I was glad I did, his explanation is rather too long to reproduce here, but reminded me how difficult translation is and how important it was for the translator to provide differentiation between peasant characters and say middle-class people, monks or even wealthy landowners.  

This collection was a superb introduction to a legendary writer – thank you Jaqui! It really got my #ReadIndies reading off to a good start.  

Read Full Post »

Popping up with a longish post, proof I am still around. It’s been nearly a fortnight since my last post as again I have been hit hard by RA symptoms and crippling fatigue. This is clearly going to happen a lot, so I suppose my blog posting will continue erratically at least for now.  

I began January joyfully reading at quite a decent pace, however that has slowed down now, as I have been sleeping so much, and watching loads of TV. I had wanted to join in several of the reading challenges that are around in January, and started reading Heaven for the Japanese reading challenge as the New Year came in. So far, that is the only book I have reviewed from this month’s reading.  

Following that I sat down with The Old Boys by William Trevor for Cathy and Kim’s year of William Trevor. A marvellous novel full of excellent characterisation and sharp observation. I had hoped to move on to Cheating at Canasta, the short stories that are selected for this month too, but I haven’t even managed to buy a copy yet much less read it. (I might cheat and read it in February, as I have read both of February’s William Trevor titles before).  

I then moved back to Japan with Yūko Tsushima’s Woman Running in the Mountains – a pricey NYRB edition I bought with book tokens just after Christmas. Having so loved Territory of Light back in November I was really looking forward to this, and I wasn’t disappointed, so glad I treated myself to that particularly nice edition too.  

So, in a bid to catch up a little, forgive me for these mini reviews of two novels that are not only quite different to one another, but really deserve proper full-length pieces.  

The Old Boys – William Trevor (1964) 

The old boys of the title are a bunch of septuagenarians who were once, public schoolboys together, and now make up the Old Boys Association. High on the agenda as the novel opens is the election of the new president. Jaraby is sure of his success, this is a position he has been waiting to take up, feeling it is his proper due. He has however not reckoned on the bitter resentment of Nox – who Jaraby was particularly awful to during their schooldays, but for Jaraby that is long past and forgotten. The rest of the wonderfully named old boys are General Sanctury, Ponders, Swabey-Boynes, Turtle and Sole and Cridley. The latter two having more recently taken up residence together in a boarding house, where they get up to all kinds of mischief sending off for catalogues and getting quotes for home improvements, they have no right to request. When Jaraby’s wayward son Basil gets arrested by the police, Nox immediately sees it as a way of upsetting Jaraby’s plans for his election. His memory of the past is clear and for him it isn’t over.  

“Jaraby, who was a stickler for detail and discipline, was determined that Nox should do what was required of him; quietly contentedly, and with the minimum of nonsense.” 

Jaraby is the main character here, one of Trevor’s brilliantly drawn, though not very likeable creations. The best scenes in the book I think are those between Jaraby and his wife. She, no doubt long suffering with this fussy, pompous old bully – who is currently trying to persuade his doctor that he needs help drugging his ‘mad’ wife, to keep her quiet – lovely man! However, the worm has turned, and she is quietly, but determinedly fighting back, and Jaraby can’t work out what’s wrong with her. Two things they fight about most is Jaraby’s cat and their son Basil – who Jaraby won’t have in the house.  

Warning cat lovers, there is a very bad thing with the cat – which Trevor manages to not make very upsetting however a lot of cat lovers would really dislike it.  

The Old Boys is an excellent novel with a lot going on beneath the surface, Basil for instance, is a brilliant creation – we only latterly realise what a disturbing character he is. Trevor is good at these kinds of sinister characters, and he slips them into his writing a lot and I have to say I find them fascinating.  

Woman Running in the Mountains – Yūko Tsushima (1980) 

Translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt

This is a beautifully written novel full of atmosphere, quiet, subtle and thoroughly engaging. It is the story of Takiko who as the novel opens on a hot, midsummer morning leaves her home, her family asleep and walks to the hospital by herself to give birth to her son. Her pregnancy is the result of a brief liaison with a married man she met through work and is a cause of great shame to her parents. She has no shame about her situation, for her it is perfectly natural, she is to become a mother, a fact she can hardly believe. She would rather not have to return to her parents’ house where her child is unwanted, but she will have no choice when the hospital discharges her. Takiko thinks this baby will be hers, just hers and she longs for independence and to be able to direct her own life fully. Takiko enjoys her time in the hospital, enjoying the company of the other new mums, however the time is short and soon she accepts she will have to go home with her mother to the house with her young brother and abusive father, where there is little space and no enthusiasm for a new baby. 

Takiko’s son is called Akira and the novel follows her first year of being a mother. From those first difficult days with a newborn, living in cramped conditions in the heat of summer coping with all the associated pain and difficultly of new motherhood – through to her accessing of childcare and finding work. A series of poorly paid, unsatisfying jobs, waitressing, door to door make up sales make life difficult for Takiko as she juggles that with paying for childcare. Then she sees an advertisement for a male employee at a nursery supplying plants to businesses – knowing she can do the job as well as a man she applies and gets the job.  

Work sees her exploring new things, new neighbourhoods and finding things she can do she had never dreamed of. It also brings her closer to the mountain that has captured her imagination. Her mother grew up in the mountains and Takiko carries the images and ideas of the mountains with her, part of her longing for freedom, for a different life. Takiko meets another older, married man at work, the father of a disabled child, they are drawn together by their parenthood and the mountain.  

I am so glad I finally discovered the writing of Yūko Tsushima I found this to be every bit as good as Territory of Light

So, two challenges ticked off and thoroughly enjoyed – I had intended to read another Japanese book, but I seem to be running out of time in one way and another. I have watched and absolutely loved Tokyo Vice on BBC iplayer though which seemed appropriate this month.  

Read Full Post »

Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd 

The Japanese reading challenge has totally passed me by in previous years, so having discovered it (finally) I was able to get to read a couple of books that had been on my radar for a while. Hosted by Dolce Bellezza it’s clearly been going for years. The first book I read was Heaven by Mieko Kawakami a short novel shortlisted for the International Booker prize. My first read of 2023 and it was brilliant.  

A tough read in many ways, it could be quite triggering for those who have ever experienced significant bullying – so it might sound odd to say I enjoyed it, but I did. I think perhaps that the way the author approaches the subject is key, she makes us care about the two central characters very quickly, and that of course draws us in. School days stay with us I think in some way for many years, we never entirely throw off the old little insecurities that were exposed in those days. We never quite forget what it was like to be side-lined or laughed at, school was not a happy place for me, I wasn’t one of the uber popular or cool kids, I experienced the usual rough and tumble of school, some of which was unkind, but I was never seriously bullied. However, for most people school days remain a significant easily remembered time, and maybe that is what makes this novel work so well, we can all of us put ourselves right there.  

In this novel we meet an unnamed fourteen-year-old boy, a pupil at what appears to be a typical Japanese school. He is relentlessly and horrifically bullied – choosing to stay silent about his misery, he goes to school each day, knowing what he’ll face. He is sure the one thing that makes him stand out, the thing that has made him a target is his lazy eye – the other boys call him ‘Eyes’. He is as bound up in hating his eye as he is in hating his tormentors. This situation never gets any better, the bullies never let up, he is psychologically worn down as well as physically attacked time and again. ‘Eyes’ spends long hours thinking about his situation, worrying about what might happen next, analysing why he was selected. This daily torture becomes his whole world, eclipsing everything else. One evening on the TV news is a story about a schoolboy who has killed himself because of bullying, and ‘Eyes’ begins to think about this a lot. 

One day, totally out of the blue, he finds a small note folded up in his pencil case. The note says: ‘we should be friends.’ The note turns out to be from Kojima, a girl in his class, who herself is also subjected to bullying at the hands of her classmates – it appears to be the boys who targets ‘Eyes’ and the girls who torment Kojima. 

“But I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I guess I was crying because we had nowhere else to go, no choice but to go on living in this world. Crying because we had no other world to choose, and crying at everything before us, everything around us.” 

 The two are able to provide each other with much needed support and consolation, they have a secret meeting place, and even meet up during the summer holidays. They communicate often through notes, and bit by bit the two become closer, they are each the only friend the other has. In time they begin to talk tentatively about the bullying. It is through these conversations that the author is able to explore the psychology of bullying, why it happens, how best should a victim react, is retaliation or passivity the best way to deal with this kind of daily torment? 

“For people to actually live by some golden rule, we’d have to be living in a world with no contradictions. But we don’t live in a world like that. No one does. People do what works for them, whatever makes them feel good. But because nobody likes getting stepped on, people start spouting crap about being good to others, being considerate, whatever. Tell me I’m wrong. Everyone does things they don’t want people doing back. Predators eat prey, and school serves no real purpose other than separating the kids who have what it takes from the ones who don’t. That’s the whole point. Everywhere you look, the strong walk all over the weak. Even those fools who think they’ve found the answers by coming up with perfect little sayings about how the world ought to be can’t escape it. Because the real world is everywhere.” 

 Gradually we see that the two see their bullying rather differently, while our narrator is certain all he should do is remain passive, that any kind of retaliation would make things worse, Kojima feels that there is a strength in their suffering that will serve them well through life – and for which they will be rewarded.  While he feels that if only his eye could be fixed, he would be accepted everywhere just as others are, Kojima likes his eye – says it makes him, him, and views fixing it or wanting to fix it as a betrayal of all they are enduring.  

This is a beautifully written novel, compelling and heart-breaking, a poignant exploration of a fragile friendship that has a shared torment at its heart. Can a friendship based on such things really survive?  

Read Full Post »

Translated from the Icelandic by Brian Fitzgibbon

There are several books I read toward the end of 2022 that I would like to review properly, though I don’t think I will be able to manage that. Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was in fact my final read of 2022 and probably not a book I would have reviewed had I not been reading it for Annabel’s Nordic Finds reading event. 

This is the most recent novel by the author of Butterflies in November, which I really enjoyed a couple of years ago. Telling the stories of a family of midwives it also includes many thought-provoking musings on birth, death, human beings, the natural world and even the universe beyond. There is little in the way of plot, and I was left not really sure what my feelings about it were.  

Set in Reykjavik in the days leading up to Christmas, as a great storm approaches the city, we meet Dómhildur, who has just delivered her 1,922nd baby.  

“In order to be able to die, a human first has to be born.” 

Dómhildur, is a midwife, who comes from a family of midwives and undertakers. One of these former midwives was the woman she calls her grandaunt (I would assume that was Great-Aunt in English, but it doesn’t really matter). The grandaunt now deceased is a woman long remembered at the hospital, for her unconventional methods.  

“It is almost noon when the Artic night finally begins to dissolve and the ball of fire rises over the horizon, or just about, a pink streak piercing through a slit in the curtains of the delivery room, barely wider than a pocket comb, landing on the suffering woman on the bed.” 

Dómhildur is living in her grandaunt’s old apartment, nothing has been done to update the furnishings or décor, it has the look and feel of somewhere an elderly person has recently vacated. The aunt’s possessions are still in the apartment, as are the manuscripts the aunt worked on for many years and the letters she received from her pen-pal in Wales.  

When she isn’t at work, Dómhildur, begins to go through the mass of writings left behind by her grandaunt. She discovers three manuscripts that are rather chaotic and jumbled but which point to a near obsession in their writer. The natural world, animal life and its connection to human life, the aunt has spent years compiling and analysing information about a host of subjects, from light, to environmentalism, to the life span of an oak tree and everything in between and beyond – musings on the comparisons between animals and humans and the coincidences which need to be present for a human child ever to be created and born. Alongside the manuscripts are forty years’ worth of letters she exchanged with her pen-pal.  

“I wake up on the shortest day of the year into the longest night of time. It will be a long time before the light dissolves the night and the world takes on a form.” 

Light and dark is important, perhaps not surprisingly. It is the darkest time of the year in Iceland, and as Christmas draws nearer and the forecast storm gets ever closer Dómhildur meets her new temporary neighbour. An Australian tourist is staying in the apartment on the floor above, her other frequent contacts are her sister, and an electrician – who doesn’t like the dark. Dómhildur’s sister is a meteorologist with concerns about the coming storm, she phones often to ask where her sister is and what she is doing. The electrician comes to fix some lights, he is the husband of a woman whose baby Dómhildur delivered. 

So, that feels like pretty much all that happens. The novel is beautifully written, there’s plenty of thought-provoking ideas within it too, but the author never allows it to get too dry or serious, providing moments of lightness too. There is a slightly fragmentary nature to this narrative, which can be harder to engage with, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed.  

Read Full Post »

One thing that #DeanStreetDecember gave me the chance to do was to explore the work of two new to me authors. First was Molly Clavering, a Scottish middlebrow writer who was a great friend of DSP favourite D E Stevenson. DSP have reissued eight of her novels. The second new to me author was Basil Thomson, a mystery writer (among many other things) in that Golden Age style. He was a man of many hats, having worked in the foreign service, then later alongside the Prime Minister of Tonga and then as Police Commissioner to the Metropolitain police. DSP have also published eight of his novels featuring his character Inspector Richardson. I was lucky enough to stumble upon five of them together in a charity shop a year or so ago, I found nos 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8 and having now started with number 2 as the earliest I doubt it matters much which order they are read in.  

Near Neighbours by Molly Clavering 

Near Neighbours is an unashamedly delightful read – without being in way sugary or silly. Molly Clavering has created a cast of characters her readers can become immediately invested in. Her central character Dorothea Balfour in particular is a wonderful character – her back story is somewhat sad, and the reader can delight in her late blossoming and happiness.  

“For as long as she could remember, Dorothea had lived in a continual state of giving-in: to Papa at first, and after he died, to Belle. It had not been so bad while Mamma was alive to share this bondage, but during the last ten years, alone with Belle in the big gloomy house except for Edna far below in the basement, life had become almost unbearable.”  

Dorothea Balfour we are told early on is closer to seventy than sixty. The novel opens on the day of her sister’s funeral. Dorothea had been totally dominated by first her father then her sister – and now suddenly at the age of sixty-eight she is alone in the Edinburgh family home, save for her servant who is clearly happy to see Miss Balfour freed from her domination.  

Next door to Miss Balfour lives the Lenox family, who Dorothea has secretly rather enjoyed hearing through the walls and watching from the third-floor window. Her sister had strongly disapproved of their neighbours and so Dorothea was never able to get to know them. The Lenox family is made up of the widowed Mrs Lenox, and her five grown up, or very nearly grown-up children. Four daughters, all named after trees, Willow, Hazel, Rowan and Holly and a son Murray (pleased to have escaped the tree names). Willow is quite newly married, her young husband is living with her and the rest of the family in the house next door to Miss Balfour – though as he is away at sea, he isn’t there much and Willow sometimes finds that lonely. Mrs Lennox thinks Willow and her husband should be moving out and living on their own. Holly the youngest is coming to the end of her time at school.  

When, on the very day of her sister’s funeral Miss Balfour is visited by Rowan Lenox expressing her condolences, Dorothea seizes the chance to finally get to know her neighbours. She is soon embroiled in their busy, chaotic lives and the Lenox family can barely remember a time when dear Miss Dorothea – as they come to call her – wasn’t a big part of their lives. She is further surprised when her sister’s former husband turns up on her doorstep, and she finds he isn’t quite what she thought he would be.  

There are domestic difficulties to be negotiated, romantic dilemmas and an artist’s abandoned family to be contended with – and although not everything is tidied away completley (which always seems more realistic) there’s plenty to satisfy those hoping for positive outcomes. Near Neighbours is a very cheerful and hopeful novel. Certainly, an author I shall read more of in the future.  

Richardson Scores Again by Basil Thomson 

Richardson Scores Again is the second of Basil Thomson’s Inspector Richardson novels – though Richardson is still a Seargent and has yet to ascend to the dizzying heights of inspectorship. Still, it is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery, with plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader on their toes. I can’t see it matters much what order these books are read in, however the progression of Richardson’s career would make more sense if the novels were read in order I suppose.  

“In the hall he found the body of his maidservant, Helen Dunn, aged about fifty, lying on the floor near the telephone. She had bled profusely from a wound in the head and her body was cold.”  

The case starts with a murder and robbery at a house in Laburnum Road in London. It certainly doesn’t end there however, strangely enough it goes on to include an escaped parrot, a man impersonating a policeman, a stolen car, a political rabble rouser and the almost unbelievable story of the nephew of the Laburnum Road householder.  

To begin with some of Richardson’s superiors aren’t convinced all these things are connected – but Richardson is dogged in his pursuit, an intelligent investigator, who leaves no stone unturned.  

No doubt Thomson’s experience in the world of policing, help to make the police procedural element of this mystery feel very authentic. His characters are well drawn, with good dialogue and some humour. There is a lot to enjoy in this pacy mystery and I will definitely read more.  

Read Full Post »

December has been declared #DeanStreetDecember by Liz – a chance to read our lovely Dean Street Press books, and I think it should be an annual event. I always have plenty of DSP waiting to read – usually some in book form, with lots more on my kindle (can’t resist those deals). So, of course I had to join in, although I originally only committed to reading one, I have just finished my third. Such a lovely ten days of reading, two Furrowed Middlebrow titles and a Golden age mystery. I will do my best to review them all properly, but no promises.  

Anyway, the first title I took down off my shelf was an easy choice All Done by Kindness by Doris Langley Moore. I had already read the three other titles DSP publish by her, so I had been looking forward to this one, I wasn’t disappointed. Doris Langley Moore is an excellent writer, the plot of this one, like My Caravaggio Style (1959) showing her knowledge of the creative arts. Where My Caravaggio Style was about an audacious literary fraud, this novel is a comedy of errors centring around the authenticity of a pile of potential Old Masters. It is incredibly compelling.  

Dr George Sandilands is a kindly, family doctor, a widower with two adult daughters and two almost grown-up children still at school. When he shows particular kindness towards an elderly patient who has fallen on hard times, she insists that he allow her to gift him a lot of old paintings that have been stored in the attics of her house for many years. Unaware of the drama these paintings will unleash after the old woman’s death the good doctor accepts the trunkful of old damaged paintings.  

The doctor’s house is run, and managed very well by his eldest daughter Beatrix, who as well as being a superb housekeeper is a bossy, managing kind of person, she is immediately horrified by the pile of old paintings which she considers an eye sore and an untidy nuisance.  

“If it had not been for Mrs du Plessis, Dr Sandilands might never have discovered that, far from having sold a horse for green spectacles, he had, so to speak, exchanged a cow for a handful of coloured beans.”  

Four years after the death of the old lady who gave him the pile of paintings (now stored in his own attics) Dr Sandilands makes the acquaintance of Mrs du Plessis, a young widow who had been previously living in Rhodesia and is now the boss of Linda Sandilands – the doctor’s other adult daughter – at the library. Mrs du Plessis is an amateur art connoisseur, and amateur or not she really knows her stuff. When Mrs du Plessis is shown the old paintings, she gets herself into a fever of excitement, undertaking a lot of detailed research and finally developing a theory about what the works really are, which if correct would take the art world by storm. Mrs du Plessis is totally convinced, and her enthusiasm eventually ignites a little flame of excitement in the doctor and his family.  

A decision is made to get a foremost expert to authenticate the works, should he agree with Mrs du Plessis then any remaining doubt will be put to rest, and the paintings can finally be shared with the art world, sold and out of Beatrix’s hair. Sir Harry Maximer is generally considered the leading art expert in the country, a man of unblemished character. With his trusty and adoring secretary never far away, Sir Harry is himself a collector of art, and he can’t help but be quite the snob about what he likes and what he doesn’t. However, there is more to Sir Harry than meets the eye.  

“He laughed with unwonted nervousness, perceiving for the first time that his coup – so tremendous if he were to bring it off – might be classed by those who did not understand his praiseworthy motives as fraudulence on a rather considerable scale. He was not afraid; he had abounding faith in his own cleverness, but he was excited and a little overwhelmed at the daring of the steps he had already so coolly achieved, like a man who looks down from somewhere near a mountain top and wonders how he has succeeded, without losing his head, in scaling such a height.” 

The battered old pile of pictures that Dr Sandilands has in his attics will unleash all manner of nefarious plotting and machinations. Enter a sleazy London art dealer and the director of a local art museum who comes to side with Mrs du Plessis, who is not about to give up her theory without a fight, and the stage is set for a rollicking good read, that becomes increasingly hard to put down.  

Not wanting to spoil the rest of the plot for future readers I shall leave it there.  

I know that Doris Langley Moore wrote a couple of other novels so far not reissued by Dean Street Press, so of course I am hoping that at some point they will.  

Read Full Post »

I have not done well with the reading challenges lately – there are loads in November. However, after wrestling for some time with a rather heavy book that made my poor hands hurt, I decided I would get some of the novellas on my tbr knocked off and thereby join in with Novellas in November. Going for three translated works because I hadn’t read anything in translation since #Witmonth. 

All three are wonderful novellas in their way, nuanced, spare and atmospheric. The thing that so often makes a novella great is that understated economy of language, beautiful writing and the ability to pull the reader in instantly. These novellas all have those qualities.  

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray – Dominique Barbéris (2019) translated from the French by John Cullen. 

As so often happens, it was a review written by Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s Journal that put this delicate little novella on my radar. I bought it when spending gift vouchers earlier this year.  

This extraordinarily atmospheric novella takes place on a Sunday in that period between the end of summer and the start of autumn. Our unnamed narrator travels from her home in the centre of Paris to visit her sister in Ville-d’Avray, a quiet suburb. The sister is Claire Marie she lives in a comfortable home with her doctor husband and daughter. This is somewhere where the pace of life is slower, there’s a sense of stillness and quiet – the two sisters sit in the garden as the light of the afternoon begins to fade, Claire Marie’s daughter has been playing the piano, the smell of newly cut grass drifts over the fence.  

In flashback we glimpse the sisters as young girls, highly imaginative and romantic influenced greatly by Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. As the sisters spend the afternoon talking and reminiscing, Claire Marie begins to tell her sister about a rather strange encounter she had with a man several years earlier, when her daughter was still quite young. She met the man while covering for the receptionist at her husband’s surgery, a man named Marc Hermann who we immediately sense is a little mysterious. He says he is Hungarian, but we get to know little else about him.  

Claire Marie’s narrative takes us and her sister back to that time, a time that had never been spoken about before. Not much happens between Claire Marie and Marc, they meet up from time to time, go for walks in the forest or local parks. Something has clearly drawn these two together that is unexplained, and feels slightly dangerous, there is an edge to Marc or perhaps to the risk the Claire Maire is taking in having this time away from her normal life. There is a sense that she wants to pull away from him but can’t quite.  

A lazy Sunday afternoon of a novella, atmospheric and hugely readable. A smart little edition published by Daunt books I highly recommend it.  

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes (2018) translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle. 

I feel as if there isn’t a lot I can say about this novella – it certainly hasn’t much in the way of plot, and it is the shortest of these three that I picked to read this month. It is the one I bought most recently too, originally thinking I might read it over Christmas – but decided November was close enough after all.  

It’s a beautifully evocative piece however set in the period between Christmas and twelfth night.  

As the novella opens, we meet Manfred, who is walking through the snow towards the village where he grew up and where he hasn’t been back to for forty years. The landscape is both familiar and strange after all this time – and Manfred recalls his mother’s traditions at this time of year, a period wrapped up in superstition and folklore.  

“The ill fate their mother had feared, and hoped to prevent with all her precautions, did occur. But it wasn’t the work of demons. They had conjured it up, he and Sebastian: the fraternal feud in Hullert. Or had it even been a war? No wind chime could prevent it. No sprig of mistletoe, no St John’s wort; motherwort and sweet seneca were powerless, as was the Yule log smouldering in the yard.” 

Manfred had grown up with his brother Sebastian, but a bitter family feud erupted when Sebastian inherited the family farm. Manfred had considered his brother inferior to the role and when the woman he loved also chose to marry Sebastian Manfred cut all ties with his brother and left. Manfred’s furious act of revenge, before leaving still haunts him, an act he regrets still.  

Now seeking some kind of redemption before it is too late, Manfred is returning to where he grew up, not even knowing if his brother will see him.  

I still think this would make a lovely little Christmas read, one to be devoured in an afternoon by the fire. This little hardback edition from Harvill Secker is beautiful too.  

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (1978) translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt. 

Read on my kindle – I have had Territory of Light tbr for ages – I keep meaning to read it for #Witmonth and forgetting I have it. I absolutely loved this and will read more by this author.  

Light is a recurring theme in this novella, and the author uses it to brilliant effect. Sunlight streams through windows, or is dappled in the park, there are fireworks, shining flood water, the altered light of an apartment where the windows have suddenly been covered by blue mesh.  

The novel is told in twelve standalone fragments telling the story of an unnamed woman’s first year parenting her daughter alone after separating from her husband. She moves herself and her daughter – who turns three during the course of the story – into a fourth-floor apartment that is filled with light.  

“But once you got the door open, the apartment was filled with light at any hour of the day. The kitchen and dining area immediately inside had a red floor, which made the aura all the brighter. Entering from the dimness of the stairwell, you practically had to squint. ‘Ooh, it’s warm! It’s pretty!’ My daughter, who was about to turn three, gave a shout the first time she was bathed in the room’s light. ‘Isn’t it cosy? The sun’s great, isn’t it?’ She ran around the dining-kitchen as she answered with a touch of pride, ‘Yes! Didn’t you know that, Mommy?’” 

Here she must come to terms with the end of her marriage, face the future and parent a lively young child alone. The child is portrayed delightfully, and realistically, the mother doesn’t always make the best choices, and her daughter unsettled or disappointed can fly into rages. Negotiating work, childcare and limited contact with her estranged husband, take their toll and this lonely young mother looks for entertainments elsewhere, often finding being alone with her child challenging and frustrating.  

There is a lovely, dream like quality to this narrative which I really enjoyed, the whole story suffused with light and colour like the apartment where most of it is set making for another wonderfully atmospheric read.  

Sorry for the long post, but I wanted to write about all three of these before the end of the month – just made it. 😉  

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »