Reading List


Dear Readers,

This is where I will post books I am reading and books I have recently read.  I will also say whether I enjoyed them or whether I considered them to be pants:

2012 :

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

This was a re-read for the first time in 15 years.  Am struck by the cruelty of young Fledgeby and the evil of Bradley Headstone the schoolteacher more than I am affected by the “is-he-the-dead-man-or-isn’t-he?” love story featuring Bella Wilfer.  However I’ve been reading it for two months and seem to be unable to finish.

Patrick Hamilton,  Hangover Square

Another re-read of one of my favourite London authors featuring one of my favourite London eras (war and post-war) in fiction.  Gin in toothglasses and two bar fires in West Kensington flatlets.  It’s a fairly grubby, meretricious, drink-sodden world, but the destruction of the tender George Harvey Bone is heartbreaking.

2013 :

HG Wells, Ann Veronica

One of the most important proto-feminist novels written.  Refreshingly brief at only 270 pages, Wells takes the reader through the story of what happens when a women discovers she is disempowered financially, economically and socially, and is particularly astute on that most corrupting of all the corrupting forces – sexual liberty.  Every woman should read this.

Dodie SmithThe New Moon with The Old

I love Dodie Smith.  She is deceptively brilliant.  There are an awful lot of people “dashing” about and far too many exclamation marks in this somewhat prosaic textual style, but the truths of how a family matures and develops after a crisis is excellent.  Smith is big on how chasing ideals of historic charm make everyone fall over and end up with egg all over their faces.  You have to be careful what you wish for.  Four coming of age tales in one family come out of this book.  A hearty, easy and satisfying read.

Charles Warren Adams, The Notting Hill Mystery

This is supposed to be the first detective novel ever written, as it appeared in 1862-63.  Although this may come as a bit of a shock to Wilkie Collins who was producing proto-detective types in The Woman in White as early as 1860, and also Collins’s novel displays the points of view of several characters within a mystery case by using their own letters / evidence as Charles Warren Adams does here.  Frankly, this book is terrifying. I’m only 100 pages in and already two people are poisoned to death, someone’s bigamous and someone else is using mesmerism to dastardly ends. Oh, and I think someone made somebody steal some orange marmelade too.  It’s quite a shocker.  But the over-wrought style is too flowery for me and I’m willing for it to end, mainly because I am growing so confused by who’s murdering who that I need it neatly laid out for me.  Preferably in a map.

Kate Morton, The Secret Keeper

Kate Morton is a writer who lives in the astonishingly named Tamborine Mountains in Australia.  She weaves webs with her plots, taking for her inspiration (usually female dominant) families and unravelling a secret that significantly changed the course of time.  Her stories are always set in rural England.   ‘The House at Riverton’ was another of hers, which I read on holiday in Cyprus a few years ago, poring over it so much that my friends were ignored for a whole afternoon and the cheap glue of the paperback spine creaked and melted in the Mediterranean sun.  I simply never see what’s coming.  You never get the sense of drag that mysteries sometimes give you two thirds of the way through the narrative.  Something is always being revealed and the momentum is delicately and stylishly maintained. She’s eminently readable, her plots starting in the present day and always, always tracking back to some significant event which occurred in the first half of the last century.  I miss my bus stops when I’m reading Kate Morton.  ‘The Secret Keeper’ was a tad unbelievable at times, and relied only very occasionally upon a suspension of disbelief that wasn’t necessary with her earlier novels, but do not let that deter you, readers.  It’s a riveting read.  Perfect for the upcoming 4 day Easter holiday break.

Kate MortonThe Distant Hours

Oh dear.  What a shame.  Hot on the heels of The Secret Keeper I immediately downloaded this, which was published just before The Secret Keeper.  I’ve been thinking about why it doesn’t quite work.  Morton is a concise, compact sort of writer, and an excellent plotter, but somehow lacks the technique to really flesh out and give justice to this tale of three sisters stuck in a Grimm brothers fairytale / nightmare castle during the Second World War.  It was haunts without being truly haunting, and contains fairies without the true magical mystery of a fairytale.  I guessed two of the plot twists (one blindingly obvious) and the explanation at the end as to why a deranged girl was covered in blood was a complete cop-out.  An editor needed to lop 200 pages off this.  The Secret Keeper was published a year later.  Perhaps Morton, chastised by the reception of The Distant Hours absolutely had to pull her work together to please her readers?  I kept thinking about Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger whilst I was reading this.  No doubt the idea of fading women living in a castle that might or might not be inhabited by ghosts, with their elderly dog for company and the walls falling in after the war reminded me of it.  it revealed the gulf between these two writers’ capabilities.  With Waters there is excellence, an underlying tension that won’t give, a masterful piece of suspense rather than melodramatic plot twists.  It seems that Morton cannot do what she has set out to do here.

Rupert EverettRed Carpets and Other Banana Skins

Impossible not to adore this.  Everett is one of those writers who uses such ideal and varied vocabulary that half an hour of reading this seems to leave you with an instantly improved grammatical lexicon in your own daily life.  This is an extraordinary asset.  It’s not often I compare anyone to The Master, but Everett shares Wodehouse’s capacity to live in his phrases and exist in his own words.  Also, like Wodehouse, reading this at the end of the day makes the strains and rumbles and uncertainties of the day disappear in a flash.  This is a riotous, often laugh-out-loud memoir showing an extraordinary recall of the places and faces the louche, determined and occasionally diligent Everett has known throughout the years.  Not only does he seem to have had dinner with everyone who ever mattered in the entertainment industries in UK and America, but he is a magnificent lampooner of prejudice, snobbery and pretension, whilst maintaining a delicious, almost cardinal, narcissism.  A real writer.  And a real treat.  Can’t wait to read the more recent memoir he published last year, Vanished Years.

Elizabeth Jane HowardThe Light Years 

Howard has an excellent ability to write in the first person in a huge variety of characters – one on page she writes as an 8 year old girl, and on the next page as a 42 year old man.  Her technique of writing is truly excellent – her dialogue in particular seems to leap from the page, it is so credible.  She published nothing until she was 70.  This is the distilled product of a life spent honing her craft.  She is particularly illuminating and brutally honest on the complexities of relationships in families, and this book set in the years just before the Second World War in England, I was delighted to discover, is the first in a quartet.  A real find.

Zadie SmithNW

I read this very quickly – perhaps too quickly.  It was beautifully written but I was left not understanding the sub-plot – too many characters pepper this novel set in a strangely claustrophobic north west London which, if I failed to recognise having lived in it for half my life, God knows how the rest of Britain coped.  This is a small world, and Smith doesn’t quite welcome you in.  The dialogue is amazing, but the four strands of narrative are jarred and distant from each other.  Perhaps this novel was actually four embryonic novellas?  I also could have done without the nasty paragraph about the thoughts inspired by an apple tree which was presented in a paragraph that was shaped like an apple tree.  This was an unnecessary, bastardised triumph of form over content, which impeded the reader’s ability to connect to the text and smacked of the prudish, first year literature undergraduate.  A fierce and fractured book, a grammatical delight, but ultimately unresolved.

Herman KochThe Dinner

I hate to say it, but I actually think the surname is pronounced Cock.  This tale is set in present day Amsterdam.  Two couples meet for supper.  The men of each of the couples are brothers.  Their children have done something terrible and at the beginning of the novel we’re note sure of the relationships between the four of them, or what terrible thing their offspring have done.  Over the course of one evening their relationships are dissected and the crime is uncovered.  Power struggles are played out as the brothers debate how to deal with their children’s crime and whether they should sacrifice their own aims and dreams for the sake of honesty admitting what their children have done. Extraordinarily tense in parts, its main strength lies in the uncertainty the reader feels towards one of the brothers, who is our narrator.  How normal is he?  Do we trust him?  And, is his damning assessment of his brother accurate?  A tightly woven, dramatic little book.

Barbara Comyns, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths

Quite a strange read – fairly enjoyable once I got over the consciously naive and childlike narrative voice.  Comyns was originally published in the 1950s and 1960s, and seems to be experiencing a publishing renaissance now.  This is the story of young innocent Sophia, who marries an indescribably selfish aspiring painter called Charles.  Both are young, seemingly relaxed about poverty and naturally bohemian (there is much pawning of jewellery and borrowing money from ‘easy touch’ relations).  They live in West Hampstead bedsits and paint the floorboards as they are unable to afford rugs.  Marriage and children prove to be the testing point for Sophia and Charles and the story evolves in a more interesting direction half way through.  The tone of the novel becomes truly touching towards the end, when Comyns’s light conversational touch poignantly displays tragedy, but this was a little too little, too late.  I’m not sure I’ll be reading others of hers.

Lottie Moggach, Kiss Me First 

God Ms Moggach, your publishers must have shoved so much money at the campaign to publicize your novel that there isn’t a tube traveller, or bus queuer or shopper who hasn’t had this title rammed down their necks since June.  It has been everywhere.  You’d think no one has ever had a book published before.  I have never seen such a glut of over-exposed publicity in all my born days.   The problem with that is you are tempted to go at the book defensively, as if to say “Well, you better live up to the hype….”  and this is far too dangerous a game for the publisher to make a habit of playing.  After all, how often is it that the readership are pissed off with the book before they have opened the front cover, simply because they have had to look at the poster for it 75 times in a fortnight?  Ms Moggach can breathe a sigh of relief, though, because this was a really readable, entertaining debut novel.  An almost unbelievably lonely young woman from Kentish Town is coerced into impersonating online a woman who wishes to commit suicide, but who doesn’t want to hurt family and friends.  Therefore she needs someone to pretend to be her on social networks after her death.  The central third of the book is particularly tightly woven and well written but the ending came as more of a whimper than a bang and I felt that the manner in which Moggach chose to give her characters resolution wasn’t entirely satisfying.  The most interesting aspect of this novel is the questions it raises about how we bend and manipulate the internet into being another, purported version of our own realities, and how a highly unsocialised lonely woman unwittingly succeeds in blurring the lines between virtual reality and real reality.  However, this principal character is almost incredibly naive whilst also being instinctively intelligent and rational, therefore it seems astonishing that she becomes so easily and definitely confused by fantasy and reality.  The thriller is certainly thrilling though, and the novel dances neatly around the issues of the power and the lure of online identities.  But please, be a little bit more aware of your potential audience before you flood them with posters of her next book, dear publishers.

Suzanne Rindell, The Other Typist

This was a book that had an excellent start, a bit of a stodgy middle and a stupendous ending.  A thriller set in the typist’s pool of a 1920s New York police station, we see the glamorous Odalie befriend the dowdy, plain fellow typist, Rose.  But what is her masterplan?  This plot was executed brilliantly and both Odalie and Rose are intricately drawn and vital, believable characters.  If the central third of the novel dragged a little, it was Rindell’s beautifully concise prose made me want to carry on to the finish line.   The overtones of ‘The Great Gatsby’ were slightly laboured in the middle, where Rindell takes her characters off to a Long Island house party where you have expect Jay Gatsby to turn in an appearance.  Her stylish descriptions of New York through the seasons are distinctly evocative.  The twists and turns are unexpected and if the film they are making of it is true to the novel, I think it should play out brilliantly on the screen.

Louisa Douglas, The Secrets Between Us

I loved this.  I think it must have been hugely influenced by Du Maurier’s Rebecca, one of my favourite novels. The premise is a young woman, recovering from a loss, meets a mysterious man with an even more mysterious (now vanished) partner whilst on holiday.  There was a skilled twist towards the end of this real page turner.  A great mystery, written in a highly believable first person voice.   I read this on summer holiday (for which it was perfect escapism) and I found this very difficult to put down, and particularly loved the fact that it started in early summer and drifting through the year, catching the essence of the English seasons.

Rupert Everett, Vanished Years

Oh, it’s our Rupes again.  A wider scoped memoir than Red Carpets and Banana Skins, – chapters in the present interspersed with chapters from the past – this is as funny and eloquent as its predecessor.  I am afraid I skipped most of the parts about religion, however.  It’s an odd white elephant sort of read, leaving one with the sense that Everett is emerging into a different sort of writer, and that it would have been a very different type of book if he hadn’t been so welded to the ‘memoir’ concept – there are several delicious tangents that never quite have their final moment in the sun, for example.  In equal parts happy and sad, and particularly brilliant and illuminating on the subject of the effect of the death of a parent.

Wilkie Collins, The Law and Lady

A great amateur female sleuth, albeit charged with clearing the name of a really dull, unimpressive husband, charges through Scottish law to determine whether her husband was rightly or wrongly treated at the trial of his first wife’s death.  It sounds dry and unappealing, but with Collins’s signature Gothic cripples, sadistic slaves, roues, creeps and supercilious poisoners added into the mix, this is an exotically hypnotic tale.  Not one of his better known novels, however, and it thoroughly deserves to be.  I probably wouldn’t have made a note to read it if it hadn’t been prep for a forthcoming PhD, but I’m certainly glad I did.  As always with Collins, it’s the perverts who you remember once you close the pages.

Judith Kinghorn, The Last Summer 

Read during a period of convalescence and general physical recovery last year, this was a ridiculously comforting and slightly intoxicating historical romance.  It won’t take much to see that my weakness when it comes to comfort reading is for historical mysteries and romances.  This one sweeps through the first half of the last century, starting out during the Great War and not drawing breath until it parks itself in a heaving mass of broken hearts, love fulfilled and lost country houses approx 40 years later.  There was a very real and instant investment in the characters lives and you felt, as a reader, you cared hopelessly and immediately as to what happened to them.  But some element remained unfulfilled – in particular, Kinghorn’s asides about the nature and experience of passing time, which required more fleshing out.  The husband of the female protagonist was so vaguely drawn I couldn’t quite believe in him, which was unfortunate.  But I still got caught up in the world within it and adored it.  If this was a drink it would be hot chocolate – comforting and cloying in the face of November gloam, but ultimately no good for you at all.

Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones 

I’m a late one to this.  I think it was published in 2002.   I found it in my newest and most favourite charity shop for books in East Finchley.  But, wow.  I digested it in two days.  Very chilling and unputdownable.  The premise would usually turn me off (14 year old murdered rape victim speaks from the grave on the aftermath of her death and seeks vengeance from heaven) but so beautifully does Sebold tell this excruciatingly cruel story and with such apparent effortlessness that you are drawn in to the family and friend relationships of the deceased, until you feel you know them as well as your own family and friends.  Isn’t it odd that a book should prove such a page turner when the destiny of the central character is known on the first page, already dead, and has no further narrative arc to fulfil?  Alongside the story of the victim is the story of our murderer, and we hear of the nature of the disposal of the body in matter of fact, sterile language.  Concisely told, this was a brilliant and – despite the subject matter – beautiful read.

Chris Greenhalgh, Seducing Ingrid Bergman 

This was an odd book – a fictional retelling of the real life love affair between Ingrid Bergman and the war photographer Robert Capa, which started in Paris just after the end of the Second World War.  A daft title though.  Something about the manner of the storytelling seemed precious and a little heavy, and the story only really seemed to come to life when the narrative switched from Paris to Los Angeles.  The character of  Bergman was impressively drawn, that of Capa less so.  The writer of this novel is a screenwriter, rather than a novelist, and it shows.  The sequences of chapters have a distinct cut / edit / chop feel between them, and whilst this is an appropriate nod to the protagonists’ professions and aesthetic contexts, it does not make for a very pleasurable reading experience.  The constant shift between writing from one character’s perspective to the other jarred after a time, and the book felt increasingly filmic.  This should be script, not a novel, because as a film I am sure it would be a good one.  It’s also rare for me to say that my favourite part of the book was the last section, but in this case it was – the narrative truly came to life in the last section for the first time, like the climax of a film. A good short read, finished in two evenings.  Ultimately a 3 out of 5.

2014  – The challenge this year is to read 50 books.  Can I do it?…:

 

Louise Doughty, Apple Tree Yard 

Excellent thriller about  a woman in her 50s whose extra marital shenanigans sparks off a series of events leading to a rape and murder trail.  Perfect unputdownable book for those dreary, bloated few days after the New Year break, and a really tremendous pay off on the final page.

Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means 

God, but she’s just brilliant.  Spark by name and Spark by nature of the cutting words and phrases that slice across with an almost metallic, dark, humourous clarity.  Hers are murky sorts of tales, and this one is set in one of my favourite eras, London at the end of the Second World War, between the two armistices (May to August 1945).   A dark, knowing book, it is characterised by a Spark trademark : any one with any illusions about themselves is never allowed to get away with them.  This story concerns itself with the relationships between young women who all stay in a shabby genteel boarding house in Kensington, half horror story and half fairy tale,  the jaded world the publisher also gets a Spark-type lampooning, as does the young, male world of poetic revolutionaries and their corduroy clad cronies.  It is the echoes of the recently visited war that ultimately shatter the girls.  Frighteningly good storytelling from a master of the trade.

Nancy Mitford, Wigs On The Green 

This was very funny – a satire of the British Fascist movement of the 1930s, inspired by Mitford’s brother-in-law, Oswald Mosley.  Very laugh out loud funny – especially the section featuring the peers’ loony bin in the Sussex countryside, mocked up as a complete copy of the Houses of Parliament, complete with house sittings and lunatics voting.  The climax of the novella was a rural village pageant where the 18th century English theme is taken over, mainly by Eugenia Malmain’s (the “largest heiress” in England) Social Unionist party fanatics, which results in the pageant George III and Louis of France characters getting “razored up by Marxist Non-Aryans”.  Nancy’s sister, and Mosley’s wife, Diana, was furious with her on publication of this book in 1935 that they didn’t speak for several years.  Nancy insisted the book wasn’t published again in her lifetime, possibly because of her sister’s reaction, but also because she feared that once the atrocities of German fascism was made known after the war, a high spirited romp satirising the British Far Right was highly inappropriate.  Nevertheless, a blinding example of her comic brilliance, which is so tightly woven that it appears simply constructed on reading.  Mitford is a great technician of satire and the republishing of her novellas in the last few years has brought about a well-deserved reassessment of her abilities.

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life 

I really adored this; a woman’s life told many times over but told differently each time she dies.    In one version of a chapter of her life, she dies.  That chapter is then retold resulting in her survival.  Atkinson is careful never to drawn conclusions regarding whether or not this survival is down to choice or fate or a unlucky combination of the two.  If it sounds confusing, it is.  This is a book that must be gobbled up swiftly, like a bar of chocolate, in order for the reader to get the most out of it.  I’ve found all of Kate Atkinson’s books tantalisingly addictive.  The past and the future become equally vulnerable and subject to being remade and retold.  Intriguing ‘deja vu’s’ are exposed as echoes of former narrative strands, the echoes of which are exposed when the chapter is being told anew.  Time is both ephemeral and eternal.  There are also highly effective descriptions of the London Blitz.  I’d recommend this to anyone who actually thinks they’re in control of any aspect of their own destiny.   A superlative novel.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina 

I loved the first 550-ish pages of this, and the expressive, realistic relationships that Tolstoy draws between Anna and Vronsky, and Anne and her surrounding family.  But the last 250 pages dragged incessantly for me – (had the same problem with War & Peace).  I started this in November 2013 and finished it late January 2014.  I did read it first when I was 17 but had no memory of it, or rather no ability to understand it’s emotional maturity, but this new Penguin Classic translation is award winning and brilliantly done.  Tolstoy shows the reader every side of his character’s souls, thoughts (however fleeting), fears, feelings and desires, to the extent that when the book is finished you feel you are closing up a whole world full of people you have come to learn to know unnervingly well.  Anna, however, lost my sympathy with the vindictive nature of the final act (not to be revealed in case there are those of you who loathe spoilers), and I ended up feeling very sorry for her husband.   I discovered the most touching and transcendent of love affairs in this novel is not Anna Karenina and Vronsky at all, but rather that of Kitty and the noble Levin, who experience the realisation of each other’s love in a manner that makes theirs one of the most beautiful love affairs in literature.

Rachel HoreThe Silent Tide

I adored this and read it in a few days.  It is a dual time-set historical novel (my favourite kind) set both in post-war London and present day London.  It’s about a writer (now dead) whose biography is being written and the editor who became the writer’s first wife.  The family tensions amidst an atmostphere of writing and publishing is echoed in the present day narrative, when a publishing assistant familiarizes herself with the “great man’s” life, whilst becoming more and more intrigued regarding his first, unfortunate wife.  A novel that engages with many issues regarding what is stated and what is not stated in the act of biography and who owns, or doesn’t own the agency of their own narrative.  The mystery spins itself out well, unpredictably and was very gripping.  Reminded me a little of Kate Morton’s writing.

Rachel HoreA Place of Secrets

So much did I enjoy The Silent Tide that I went straight on to this one – but it perplexed me.  High hopes were not dashed by the first, say, two-thirds of this novel and I enjoyed it, despite the fact that the subject matter (astronomical discoveries in the 18th century) isn’t quite my bag, but the problem was the clumsiness of the back story (modern day, antiquarian book valuer finds Mills & Boon romance and fulfillment whilst documenting the 18th century story).  The 18th century story concerned Esther, a foundling, whose work with her adoptive father at a folly lead to the discovery of Uranus ( oh do stop tittering at the back).  The problem was that Hore didn’t need the modern tale to be quite so boisterous, barging into the foreground and, in a riot of cliched loose ends, unconvincingly went about deciding the characters’ narrative resolutions.  I would like to read a novel of Hore’s where she doesn’t use the dual time-set, and instead focused everything on one story, because she tells one story terribly well here, I’m just not sure we need the security of the second.  This book needed a sharp editor ; 50 pages too long and, oddly, dull and prosaic sentence structures detracted from a beautiful and magical story.  I note this was written before The Silent Tide.   Did Simon & Schuster get her a better editor after the publication of this one?

Simon MawerThe Girl Who Fell From The Sky

This was an excellent tale of a British female member of the Special Operations in World War Two, undercover in France.  A thriller, complete with British agents being parachuted into France as part of the SOE, but this gripping tale featured a woman in the lead role.  A subplot involving leading psychiatrists intent on developing the kind of power that could wipe out an entire city lent a sense of foreboding horror as to what the reader knows comes to Horoshima in 1945.  Brilliantly told, with beautiful language with a hearty, thrilling pace, I won’t tell you anything else, as these few lines here is enough to get your whistle whetted without giving away the story.  This novel concerns itself with the age old tension between global security and the human heart in a flourishing climax that left me actually exclaiming and jumping off the sofa.  Read it, it’s great.

Claire MessudThe Woman Upstairs

I don’t know what to call this – psychological thriller?  A tale of unrequited love?  A story of obsession?  Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a thirty something elementary school teacher meets a European family recently moved to the area.  The glamorous mother in this family is an artist; our schoolteacher a frustrated artist.   The school teacher falls in love with the entire family, it seems and the two women gamely begin to share an artist’s studio to create their own individual works.  This is a really intriguing book – and the use of conceptual art as a tool for corruption and rage is skilfully done.  It’s also a brilliant telling of the rancour that results from deep loneliness and unrequited desires. Really compelling reads like this pull you through with a seemingly invisible string in this tale where reality and fantasy are not placed at binary opposites but rather jostle for prominence.

Dodie SmithIt Ends With Revelations

I didn’t enjoy this at all.  Nothing remotely interesting happened for the first 150 pages and then it improved.  This wouldn’t be so bad if there was another 150 pages to go to make up for it, but there was only 90.  Jill is in a lavender marriage to a raving whoopsy actor called Miles, but then falls in love with a widowed Tory MP called Geoffrey and his eerily sycophantic and precocious daughters.  The characters’ back stories are clumsily unloaded in chilly drawing room monologues.  Jill decides to stay in her lavender marriage despite her love for Geoffrey the Tory and the fact that her whoopsy husband has almost certainly been fiddling around with an underage boy.    Then whoopsy husband conveniently writes her a scribbled missive releasing her from her dry marriage and they all lived happily ever after.  Totally extraordinary that the same person who wrote this wrote the sublime I Capture The Castle.  It Ends With Revelations has been out of print for some time, and I wonder what reviews it brought on its first publication.  Not a hearty recommendation, dear readers.

Joanne HarrisThe Evil Seed

Found in a charity shop in Willesden.  I have two charity shops where I do some book buying on the way to piano lessons – one in Willesden and the other (much better) in East Finchley.  Joanne Harris is famous for highly-praised novels set in Europe (notably Chocolat) and which are diligently and deftly woven.  This one was not about French farmhouses but about vampires, and was a book she wrote many years ago and published fairly recently.  Now, I’ve never been drawn to vampire stories really (except for watching The Lost Boys) but the backcover, which mentions a war time diary, a bewitching woman and sexual jealousy in the first paragraph, gripped me.  Also there was strong echoes of Victorian Gothic in both the narratives.  The two narrative strains are : Blood-sucking in Cambridge (UK, not USA) after the Second World War and blood-sucking in Cambridge today.  It was full of the undead, and I loved it. A mixture of fairytale, myth and gothic and hugely enjoyable.  If you like your fiction with gore and veins ripping all over the place then this is the novel for you.

Daphne du MaurierRebecca

** Contains Spoilers **                

Another Willesden charity shop find, having (insensibly) got rid of my paperback of it a few years ago.  I had read it twice before, but this re-read is the first one since I got into Victorian Gothic and did my MA, so the echoes of Victorian Gothic were deeply felt. But, whilst Victorian Gothic is heavily descriptive and uses a trench-load of flowery vocab, Du Maurier’s writing is clean, stripped back, a gothic horror where the chill exists in the gaps between the lines. Her phrases are coldly precise.  The final pages, after the dreary inquest which lost my concentration a little, was a display of all the Gothic, impressionistic visions of Manderley entwining with the Rebecca of Maxim’s first marriage where Du Maurier really gets to show what she is so sublime at.  Danvers is a brilliantly horrendous construction, of course.  Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, a deeply repulsive man, realised more thoroughly with this third reading.  Maxim de Winter is very faintly drawn physically – aside from the narrator noting he looks like a Romantic hero from another point in history – I noticed this time  – and the narrative is characterised by a sexual ambivalence in the relationship between Maxim and his second wife.  It was at this point I got really rather cross.  You see, the difficulty is that you need real sympathy to be invested in your two central protagonists and, to me anyway, Maxim is a selfish, frigid, dull, pompous potato of a man who doesn’t deserve our heroine’s love.  Who cares if he hangs for murder?  Who cares if he lives or dies? Not moi.   He marries his young, innocent second wife and then casually abandons her to a psychotic housekeeper with latent lesbian tendencies whilst he trundles off all day to manage his “estate” and who, as a poor, second wife, he only deigns to fuck once he is certain she will stand by him after he admits he’s killed someone.  Twat.  So, apart from my displeasure with the character of Maxim de Winter, I loved this book, and I love how du Maurier writes.  Three readings though, doubt I’ll ever do a fourth.

Rachel HoreThe Gathering Storm

Yes, I’ve gone back to her.  Another Second World War narrative, but I felt there was a bit of sparkle lacking after the other Second World War set one (The Silent Tide).  I got the sense that I knew what was coming before she wrote it.  Unfortunately, the dialogue was quite weak (my bete noire when it comes to novels) and I find the way Hore writes  about sex priggish and faintly farcical, despite the salty and robust implications of her surname.  I would still read her, however, because when she does pull it off she is masterful.  I didn’t want to be disappointed by this novel but here Ii am, disappointed by it.  I hope I am not beginning to find her novels formulaic, but this one about a heroine getting stuck in with the French Resistance was a story that left no mark.  I can remember little about the plot as I write this.

Olivia Manning, School For Love 

A new writer, that both my brother and mother are currently enjoying and ripping through her back catalogue like nobody’s business.  Most famed for The Balkan Trilogy and The Levantine Trilogy that are set in Europe and the Near East during and shortly after the Second World War, this was an intensely melancholic novel with an enjoyably cruel despot, Miss Bohun, who rules over a boarding house in Jerusalem in the small space between the end of the Second World War and the end of British rule in Palestine.   The pace and style were so ideally pitched you instantly know you’re in the presence of a real mistress of the trade.  Manning paints a delightfully vibrant picture of Jerusalem, where Miss Bohun is a sinister Evangelist, peppered with Europeans, Jews, missionaries, Arabs, and a whole host of other dislocated peoples in transit.  The main dislocated person in transit we meet is Felix, a young (although age is not stated) British man being shuttled around from various  in loco parentis until he turns up at Miss Bohun’s door, where the only thing he can love and can fall in love with is the cat.    Felix learns several lessons of life concerning lies, manipulations, jealousy and humanity during his brief stay at Miss Bohun’s.  Manning leaves her British characters at unease, delicately suspended and miserable in the Palestine of 1946, soon to be stripped of its Britishness in the War of Independence two years later, yet they exude that endlessly British sense that everything will stay as it is, if they stay just where they are.  Won’t it?   Rich and excellent stuff.

John Lanchester, Capital

I was initially put off by the idea of reading this and it languished in a pile under the coffee table for the best part of a year.  I just thought it might be a heavy tome, and I wasn’t in the mood for a heavy, London book.  I also thought the title was dull and the art work is crap so it didn’t inspire me to pick it up.  But I’m bloody glad I did.  I rattled through this excellently phrased, finely tuned novel – sad in parts and laugh out loud in others.  It tells the partly interwoven stories of the residents of one London street, Pepys Road.  Everyone on the street has received an anonymous postcard through their letterbox which baldly states “We Want What You Have”.  Who is sending these?  And why?  Much of the novel focuses on the preoccupations that have worried Londoners for the last decade or so – the capital wealth and greed that dominates the city’s house sales and shuts out a whole generation of people from it.  House improvements – cost of and capital appreciation benefits of – are obsessively listed in some of the characters interior monologues.  Lanchester pulls you into the residents’ lives, all of whom you remember well after the book has been closed.   I really enjoyed this.

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites 

Oh, but it’s cold.  I mean cold.  We’re talking Northern Iceland in 1829 cold.  Appropriate weather setting for this chillingly grim tale based on real life events.  The story concerns a murderess, the last woman to be executed for murder in Iceland.  It had flashes of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, but some element of it was a little unsatisfying – if only because I would have liked more of a twist or revelation towards the end of the story.  Some readers found the Icelandic names confusing but I overcame that by reading a name the first time I saw it and immediately replacing it with a name such as “Barry” or “Steve”.  Kent is amazing at pulling together the picture of the sheer brutality of Iceland winters on an early nineteenth century farm.  Everything is wet, everything is encrusted with mud.  Every day is a tense, bitter struggle against the elements.   So, did she kill? Was she pushed to kill?  A horrid, jealous love triangle surrounds the killing.  Did she deserve to die?  You’ll probably find it hard to put down, without quite knowing why.

Mary Elizabeth BraddonHenry Dunbar

Time for another Victorian sensation thriller.  I enjoyed this – which dealt with the key themes of Victorian sensation literature : mistaken identities, swapping of identities, a Scotland Yard detective who no one likes and who the policemen are faintly bitchy to, a daughter committed to solve the murder of her father, a large amount of railway trains, lots of brandy and water taken at moments of plot revelation and shock, a sinister forger, bribery and a huge amount of diamonds.  First published in 1864, this is excellently plotted by Braddon and was actually successfully adapted for the stage.  It’s natural melodrama would have lent itself to the stage perfectly.  Runs a close second to Braddon’s most exciting, feverish pageturner, Lady Audley’s Secret.  If you like Victorian thrillers such as The Woman in White or No Name, you will love this, which is actually more exciting than these two, and much shorter.

Erin Kelly, The Ties That Bind

There are few writers I pre-order on Amazon, or count down publication dates to their latest works, but Erin Kelly is one.  (The other is Harriet Lane).  This is a tightly-woven thriller set in Brighton in the 1960s and the present day, economically told, with an occasionally very gorgeous turn of phrase.  It features a modern day journalist determined to unlock the mystery of an 1968 gangland killing on the beach at Brighton (echoes of Greene abound). Kelly’s novels are dialogue-heavy and my only complaint was that I found so many of the characters’ ways of speaking to be identical.  There wasn’t a lot of deviation towards individual phrases and patterns that naturally occur in individual people’s speech.    Nevertheless, the twists and turns were delightfully unpredictable, as always with Kelly, and the town of Brighton was painted with a down-at-heel, vibrant violence.   The ending does not disappoint.

Lianne Moriarty, The Husband’s Secret

I enjoyed this more in the second half when it really got going.  It’s about the repercussions of a murder 20 years previously in a community in Sydney and the writer tells us about various clusters of communities that have been affected not only by the killing, but also by the inability for the killer to be brought to justice and for the identity of the murderer to known.  I found it initially confusing working out who everyone was, and who was related to who, but this came together in a fittingly shocking and chilling climax, in a book which shows how fate deals with those who avoid facing the consequences of their actions and also what destinies lie in store for those who are wrongly convinced they know the truth.  The real issues and emotions of life are laid out by Moriarty here.  Quite stunning.

Lucie Whitehouse, Before we Met 

An otherwise likeable and believable thriller that let itself down on weakness of character development and (my usual tic) dialogue.  I should have been on the edge of my bus seat with this tale of Hannah, recently married to the ideal man following a romance of the whirlwind variety, who discovers her charming perfect husband isn’t so charming and perfect after all and investigates further and further into his murky past.  But the comedy Berkshire punch up and the two dimensional brother appearing in the final third of the book were untidy and nonsensical.  The problem with this novel is basic: The reader is given so little insight into Mark’s character in the first place that he doesn’t seem like Mr Perfect.  He seems like Mr Ordinary Slightly Dull Bloke.  This failure to encourage the reader to invest faith in his character remains a central problem for Whitehouse.  I read this and then left it on a seat on the a bench of the southbound Victoria Line platform at Oxford Circus, where someone else could pick it up and be disappointed by it too.

Harriet Lane, Her

I adored Alys, Always, Lane’s last novel and I read Her on the day of publication, read the entire thing in a quiet office day and was still reading it perched outside my piano lesson on a bench in Hampstead Garden Suburb, finishing it a mere two minutes before my lesson with my pupil was meant to start.     This is a riot of unease, a slow burning thriller where you know something is about to go very very wrong but you can’t quite work it out and where the tension is belied by a basic construction: the novel consists of chapters, narrated in turn by two female characters.  This as an interesting and valuable way of offering insight to both plot and character – a scene, apparently innocent, is told by one narrator, only to veer into murkier territory when told by the next. If you like your thrillers about jealousy and obsession then this is the one for you : two women in their late thirties bump into each other in a North London street. One recognises the other and contrives to get involved with her life.  The other has no clue they have a history.  Not only a strident and chilling final scene, but Lane is also bang on with identifying those little details that identify the various social tribes of North Londoners.  A blinder of a book.

Sian Busby, A Commonplace Killing 

A deeply atmostpheric murder tale set in Holloway Road in 1946.  Not much of a whodunnit, however, as we sort of knew whodunnit by two thirds of the way through, but Busby’s focus in on the murdered, rather than the murderer.  Lillian Frobisher, imminently menopausal, bitter and repressed and unhappily married is killed one night, apparently by a lover.  The dreary dust and drabness of austerity London through the summer of 1946 is beautifully expressed, and Busby draws her characters exquisitely.  The fact that her widower edited and included the final chapter after Busby’s death three years ago adds to the sad poignancy of the tale. She died of lung cancer before she had a chance to write it up.  Her depiction of the police officer in charge of the case is a wonderful piece of character work in this tale of frustrated loves, lonely cops and escapist yearnings in ration book London.

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch 

Ooof. I’ve just surfaced.  870 pages of this and the first 700 actually seemed to fly by.  The final 170 pages represent a very underwhelming finale, where credibility seemed to disperse and the “ending” of the book lacked an “ending”.  Very much a bildungsroman in the Victorian tradition, this is a tale of a modern, parentless New York boy whose mother dies in a (apparently terrorist-related, although we are never told) explosion and who is sent to Las Vegas, and drifts to New York again.  Tartt lulls you in with the strange hypnotism of her prose, although the common use of brackets and the long, not terribly lucid speeches she has the characters embark on often without paragraphs and for several pages, become slightly irritating.  The medieval painting of The Goldfinch which our hero happens upon in unfortunate circumstances opens up a whole world for him, serving as a metaphor for timeless perfection in a lonely and unloving world and also takes him on a trail to the only family and place he can truly call home.  An engrossing, liberating read, despite the last 150 pages or so, exhibiting the best of Tartt’s impressionistic, short phrases, which I love.

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