Snog, Marry, Avoid

The last few months’ reading, in a nutshell…

SNOG.

 The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
I haven’t enjoyed the last few of Anita Shreve’s but I felt this one shows her back on form. The story of Grace, Gene and their children in post-war Maine gradually unravels, in a way you don’t expect it to. I had no idea about the great fire of Maine, so I was reading without having the sense of impending doom that others who know its history will experience. This in no way lessens the impact of the writing and the rebirth of the shattered family. Shreve’s prose is spare, which gives every word a heightened resonance, and can be read in one sitting.

Never Alone by Elizabeth Haynes
Sarah lives alone, and is not prepared for an old aquaintance coming back into her life. Nobody in her social circle trusts him, and it appears with very good reason… While not hitting the spot the way Into the Darkest Corner did, this is an improvement on her other work and has given me hope we’ll get back to the strength of her debut novel.

Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran
Caitlin Moran’s zany bounce does make you want to squash her like a mosquito sometimes, but I enjoy her refreshing zest for life and passion for everything.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
I very much liked the way this novel was written. The comparisons to Angela Carter are spot on as this is in so many ways a twisted fairytale with thorns of truth poking through amongst the roses. The writing is often beautiful and the story of orphans Rose and Pierrot, separated just as their love begins to blossom, is fascinating. Pierrot hides from his past in drugs, Rose in sex, before they are reunited – but we all know real fairytales do not end with ‘happy ever after’.

The story goes on too long, and loses its way. Having initially been desperate to eat it up, I found myself wanting it to end. Nevertheless this is a startlingly beautiful and original story and I have already checked out this this author’s other work from the library.

I’m Right Here by Yvonne Cassidy
I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. The tale of a teenage girl who starts hearing the thoughts of a slave-girl from 150 years ago is taut, human and very intelligent. Interwoven into the stories of both Cassie and EL are the experiences of slavery, friendship and family. Cassidy understands all her characters very well, and although there are a few loose ends – the story of EL in itself, and that of Cassie’s grandfather – in a way these don’t matter because the reader draws their own conclusions. I walked away from this powerful story finding that I didn’t leave it alone. I wrote my own ending, thought about the back stories of the characters. This is the sign of a good book and I look forward to reading more from this author.

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
A visceral tale about a woman who discovers her father has escaped from prison. The story flags a little, but starts to pick up the pace towards the final third of the book and one twist made me gasp out loud. I would be interested in reading more from this author who displays a confident tone with regards to nature both human and animal.

Howards End on the Landing by Susan Hill
A year of re-reading books – an interesting premise, but perhaps more a memoir than a simple delve into the book shelves. Still, there are authors here I haven’t read, and need to investigate so it is worth a read.

The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis
This is a book aimed at young adults, but I enjoyed it as an oldish adult. Orphans Jennet (could that be a taste of a future Pendle-witches story?) and Ben come to Whitby to live with their great aunt. It soon becomes clear that Aunt Alice is not the harmless old lady she first appears. Not great literature, but very readable.

MARRY.

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicholson
Stretching across gender and class – how people recovered from the catastrophe of World War 1.

A Game of Ghosts by John Connolly
John Connolly just keeps upping his game and this latest Charlie Parker novel is the best to date. Not only is it a tense story about the Brethren, a family linked by dark means to the supernatural, but it is a story of Charlie’s relationship with his daughter Sam and his friends Louis and Angel. There is a hugely unexpected death – one I was surprised I felt saddened by – and I get the sense a denouement is not far away. The story is getting taut and I felt a bit breathless reading it.

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant
Fascinating, rich book about the Borgias, particulary Lucrezia in the Italian city of Ferrara. Great stuff!

The Good Daughter – Karin Slaughter
I enjoy Karin Slaughter’s Grant County novels, but I also enjoy it when she goes off piste and writes about other characters. It doesn’t always work well – Coptown was a big disappointment – but The Good Daughter shows Slaughter at her very best. Sisters Charlotte and Samantha Quinn are torn apart both physically and emotionally by what happens one evening in their home. Almost 30 years later they are forced to confront the events of that night, their relationship with their father, and their relationship with each other, when there is a shooting at the local school. As always in Slaughter’s books, things aren’t quite what they appear.

This is a painful book. I found it very hard reading certain scenes, but that is because Slaughter writes so well. She pulls no punches, yet words everything gracefully and tenderly. I gobbled down this book and cannot wait for her next one.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
The emotional side of the book is actually a great deal more interesting than the thriller bit and would have worked perfectly well on its own right. Lehane is such a leader in his genre because of these touches, the care he takes over character history and emotion. I don’t know anyone else who does it so well.

The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees
A fascinating study which answered many questions I’d had, thinking of a hopeful “no” as an answer, with  a damning “yes”.

Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum by Kathryn Hughes
Fascinating look at Victorian life, blood, guts, beards and all. I will never say “Sweet Fanny Adams” again!

Together by Julia Cohen
This is a book written backwards, with the most dramatic event in the story happening in the early few pages. I like this device, and it encourages the reader to carry on – to find out the WHY. I itched to discover the reason behind Robbie’s suicide and what happened in 1962 throughout the whole book. Cohen doesn’t tease her reader, but she develops her characters and story well, so when the denouement comes, you feel empathy rather than perhaps a more traditional response.

This is beautifully written and while it lost its pace occasionally (the modern family dynamics aren’t as clear as I’d like them to be, and the story stays more in the past than the present) I thoroughly enjoyed it. It also made me think about ethics, morals and all the stuff which appears so clear cut until we’re in these situations. I would recommend this author and read more of her work. While I’m not a big believer in ‘true love’, romance and all that, this book allowed me to suspend my disbelief for a few hours.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Gorgeous, rich, authentic story of two young soldiers during the Civil War.

All That Man Is by Dazid Szalay
Clever, inter-connecting stories.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon
NOT a real memoir as I thought! Very convincing though. Michael learns about his past and that of his forebears during the last week of his grandfather’s life.

AVOID.

Crimes of the Father by Thomas Keaneally
This is a worthy book, and similar to Schindler’s List in that it tells of horrendous doings and one man’s attempt to change them, but it leaves the reader strangely unmoved. Perhaps the emotional distance kept by the narrator is what’s needed in this, but I found I was struggling to maintain my interest in the story, which is of a priest who coincidentally meets with several victims of an abusive priest and decides to try and help them bring the perpetrator to justice.

The most interesting thing in this book was the twisted justification used by two of the priests for their actions. Otherwise I, as a reader, felt so much at a distance that I was not drawn into the story at all, and the subject deserves better. A History of Loneliness by John Boyd deals with a similar subject in a much more engaging fashion and with the sensitivity it deserves without shying away from what happened.

Beyond The Wild River by Sarah Maine
On the surface, this is a a pretty interesting story: a young gamekeeper flees the country estate where he has been accused of two murders, and five years later comes face to face with the landowner (Ballantyre) and his daughter. Having said that, the plot meanders. It didn’t grip me and you can see the denouement coming early on. There are a few too many characters thrown into the mix, who aren’t fully developed, although that of Larsen, Ballantyre’s friend, was surprisingly intriguing. I would like to read more about him. The others were not particularly interesting and quickly forgotten.

The book has moments of fine writing, and the book isn’t a failure – it just isn’t one that will stick in my head, and I found myself in a hurry to finish it off. Tighter editing and pacing would help.

City of Masks by S D Spyres
The historical setting of the book is fascinating – Sykes has set Venice up beautifully, and as a lover of the city I really enjoyed the story from this perspective. The plot however is not as interesting, and a little flimsy – I am not doing spoilers, but I saw the denouement coming a mile off. The end was too nearly stitched together. However, the device of the hero’s melancholy is a clever one, and his references to previous crimes he has solved made me idly think about looking out for the two previous novels in the series.

All in all an OK read, but I will not break my neck to find more by this author.

The Crime and the Silence by Anna Bikont
An investigation into the Polish massacre of Jews in the town of Jedwadbne in 1941, denied by so many and buried for over 60 years. It was hard going to be honest. An important book, but not the most readable.

Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill
Oh dear. What a disappointment! Whimsical, drowsy, dull, obsessed with crows… the second Mrs de Winter loses any sympathy. What a letdown. This has put me off reading anything more by Susan Hill (which is silly) but I need to dive back into Rebecca again to rinse this dreadful sequel out of my brain.

The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins
Historian Olivia Sweetman, whose father discovered a new breed of dungbeetle, collaborates with awkward, brusque Vivien Tester on a historical book which is going to send her into orbit. All is not well in Olivia’s world though and only Vivien knows. A family holiday in France brings matters to a head. This was not a particularly interesting book, if I’m honest. This just didn’t surprise me enough; I wanted to be on the edge of my seat and I was quite comfortably in the middle of it.

On the plus side, I learned some really interesting things about beetles.

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Mourning Helen

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I was deeply saddened to read of the death of Helen Dunmore earlier this week. The loss of one of my favourite wriiters haunts me: I can’t quite believe that there will never be another book from her.

I came across Helen Dunmore when I read Burning Bright aged about 16-17. The assured delicacy of the prose, when compared to its subject matter, jolted and intrigued me. Dunmore’s words were like a cool, clear glass of water on a hot day. Her stories of love, desire, danger, revenge and things done wrong pull you in as relentlessly as the tide in Zennor, the setting of her first book.

When I read of Dunmore’s illness a couple of months ago there was no confirmation that it was terminal. I put a reminder in my diary to send her a letter, wishing her strength and telling her how her writing had affected me. I sent this letter finally about three weeks ago and I really hope she got it, and knew what an impact she has had on me and on so many other readers.

If you haven’t read Helen Dunmore, Zennor in Darkness. Mourning Ruby is startling in its raw and paradoxically beautiful depiction of grief. The Lie, published during the centenary of World War 1, is gut-punchingly powerful. Burning Bright is sheer poetry. Your Blue Eyed Boy and Talking to the Dead are darker tales of people not always being quite as we’d like them to be.

She wrote this poem before her death. If you haven’t read Helen Dunmore, this must tempt you into doing so.

Hold out your arms

Death, hold out your arms for me
Embrace me
Give me your motherly caress,
Through all this suffering
You have not forgotten me.

You are the bearded iris that bakes its rhizomes
Beside the wall,
Your scent flushes with loveliness,
Sherbet, pure iris
Lovely and intricate.

I am the child who stands by the wall
Not much taller than the iris.
The sun covers me
The day waits for me
In my funny dress.

Death, you heap into my arms
A basket of unripe damsons
Red crisscross straps that button behind me.
I don’t know about school,
My knowledge is for papery bud covers
Tall stems and brown
Bees touching here and there, delicately
Before a swerve to the sun.

Death stoops over me
Her long skirts slide,
She knows I am shy.
Even the puffed sleeves on my white blouse
Embarrass me,
She will pick me up and hold me
So no one can see me,
I will scrub my hair into hers.

There, the iris increases
Note by note
As the wall gives back heat.
Death, there’s no need to ask:
A mother will always lift a child
As a rhizome
Must lift up a flower
So you settle me
My arms twining,
Thighs gripping your hips
Where the swell of you is.

As you push back my hair
– Which could do with a comb
But never mind –
You murmur
‘We’re nearly there.’

 

I am still on the library waiting list for Birdcage Walk, her final book. When I get paid I’m going to stop waiting, and buy it. Right now I am going to start rereading the books I do have in all their elegant, searing, fine-boned beauty, and cry a little more.