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Surrey, United Kingdom

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is one of those books that it felt like everyone except me had read. You know, the one that all the commuters seem to be reading and that you see in charity shops by the bucketful.  I was therefore quite pleased when this got suggested as a book club read.  I hadn't even realised it was by the author of The Virgin Suicides which I had read and loved a year or so ago.

The great thing about this book was the number of ways in which I enjoyed it. It had the sweeping family saga (three generations!), the undiscovered secret and romance. With all of that in one story it is no wonder it has been enjoyed by so many people. The writing style is easy, straight-forward and familiar and while not comic in the traditional sense, there are certainly amusing incidents.
For such a chunky book, this was an incredibly quick read.  Although there was no real mystery in the novel, I felt I had grown to know the narrator so well that I wanted to find out how everything ended up, like listening to a friend telling you their family history, warts and all.  It's a really delightful book, despite, or perhaps because of, its unusual subject matter.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Clara Reeve by Leoni Hargreave

Clara Reeve by Leoni Hargreave was given to me by my brother-in-law who is a literary fanatic, with a book collection that could probably put the British Library to shame. His main area of interest however is science fiction, so I was very surprised when he gave me this book, of which he mistakenly had two copies. So, how does a sci-fi enthusiast end up with not one but two copies of a Victorian pastiche novel? Well, Leonie Hargreave is a pen-name, which the author Thomas M Disch was advised to use when publishing this novel which was so different to his usual output of science fiction work. 

As a fan of all things Victorian, I was absolutely delighted and couldn't wait to get reading.  With the background knowledge of the book being written by a) a man and b) a sci-fi author I was very much prepared for the worst.  Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised.  Hargreave/Disch really managed to evoke the sensation novels of the Victorian era and all the trademarks are there - the mysterious continental man-servant, the mentally unstable wife, the question of inheritance and a dark secret bubbling under the surface.  The period detail is well created and it really felt quite authentic, perhaps even so far as it being quite a verbose and hard-going book at times.  The main character of Clara is endearing and sympathetic - all her troubles are visited upon her for no apparent reason other than an accident of her birth; very much a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  What I did find frustrating was that the denouement was so late in the book and consequently, I felt, a bit rushed.  

Not one of the most memorable Victoriana novels I have ever read - it's no Fingersmith or The Crimson Petal and the White (which also was rather a departure from the authors usual subject matters and writing style) but I like to think it was one of the more authentic and unusual.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

I can't remember the how or why of this being on my to be read pile, but there it was.  The End of the Affair by Graham Greene is not the type of book I would usually choose to read, although having said that I am not really sure what kind of author I thought he was.  I think I imagined his books were all about cold, wet seaside towns (Brighton Rock?) and espionage (no idea where that impression came from...)  So I guess it was the title that first caught my attention.  That in the period setting, and rather more specifically the cover of this particular edition which I really liked.

It wasn't what I had expected (although I'm not really sure what that was) but I did enjoy reading it.  The narrator is a fairly unlikeable fellow, I thought, and through his eyes we see his and the woman's lives beginning to unravel as their affair begins, ends and resumes.  He is a rather arrogant and selfish man who seems to have little regard for the effects of his actions on others.  The woman is an interesting character - self-serving yet not selfish, pleasure-seeking yet not vacuous.  For a book by a male author it is quite a surprising depiction of how women of the time were looking to create lives and interests of their own and how they tried to balance being a wife whilst maintaining their sense of self.  

The most unexpected part of the novel for me was the exploration of faith and Catholicism.  I had expected some intrigue, but not along the lines of whether someone believed in God or not, and the effect that had on those around them.

It's not a book I would jump to recommend, but it is an interesting examination of love, it's power (both for good and for bad) and how very differently people choose to live their lives in pursuit of happiness and fulfilment.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Having read Wolf Hall for our last book club we all agreed that Brooklyn by Colm Toibin seemed like a good 'easy read' choice for our next book.  It was the winner of the 2009 Costa Novel award and longlisted for the Man Booker 2009 and so we had high expectations.  The story is of a girl from a small town in Ireland who moves to Brooklyn to start a new life and follows her experiences there.  Whilst we all thought it would be quite a light read, I think we were all surprised by just how light it turned out to be.  The one male in our book club felt he had been duped into reading a chick-lit novel and, much as it pains me, I tend to agree with him.  What we all felt it lacked was any depth, any real emotional tie and, indeed, any real point.  I didn't feel I had learnt anything at the end of the book.  The emotions and plot were all things I have read before and I failed to find anything 'novel' about it all.  Few of the characters seemed likeable.  Plenty of opportunities for interesting storylines seemed to be passed over (the department stores attitude towards black customers for example) and neither of the love interests fitted my idea of a romantic hero.

Who knows, perhaps we all missed the point of this book?  In its defence, it is a very easy read and you do get swept along in the story.  It's just that I constantly had the sense of waiting for something to happen, for a plot development that never really came.  The dramatic incident that brings Eilis back to Ireland even felt to me a bit underwhelming and skimmed over.  Maybe I'm too big a fan of melodrama - what do you think?

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I am ashamed to admit that I have never read any du Maurier, and apart from the opening line I knew nothing about Rebecca. So, having finally finished Wolf Hall I decided that what I needed was the kind of book that I could really get swept away by and everything that I had heard about Rebecca made me think it would be perfect.

And it was.

The atmosphere, the palpable sense of dread and uncertainty throughout the story and the pace of the plot make it a true page-turner.  What I found most interesting was the almost supernatural sense that du Maurier creates.  As I said, I knew nothing about the story and I was kept guessing right the way through.  I thought that Mrs Danvers could be Rebecca, or that all the other characters were ghosts.  The twists and turns in the plot don't feel like twists and turns - they all make sense and are perfectly possible.  Somehow the fact that none of it was supernatural made the whole thing seem more sinister.

Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford

My fascination with the Mitford sisters seems to have a never ending source of fuel.  My latest venture into their lives came in the form of Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford  These letters have been edited by Charlotte Mosley, Diana's grand-daughter-in-law.  Faced with what must have been an inexhaustible supply of materials, Charlotte Mosley has produced a comprehensive and highly readable volume.  We follow Nancy from childhood right through to her last days.  The beauty of reading a volume of letters as opposed to a biography is that you hear the subject's true voice and consequently feel you are really getting to know them.  Nancy's dry and sometimes caustic wit rings clearly through all the letters, yet it is so liberally tempered with warmth and affection that it is hard to imagine anyone ever taking it the wrong way and being upset by her manner.  Nancy's life was not easy - Diana and Unity's associations with Nazism and Hitler caused her moral anxiety and pain, as did Jessica's elopement and emigration to the USA.  Even her love life was not straight-forward - her marriage to Peter Rodd whilst not necessarily an unhappy was certainly not a fulfilling one and her affection for 'the Colonel' never seems to have been fully reciprocated.
A wonderful insight to a wonderful lady - this collection is well worth reading.  I had it on my bedside table for some time and found it perfect to dip in and out of when no other reading material seemed to be the right choice.