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‘Monsters’ by Emerald Fennell ****

I don’t tend to read much children’s fiction nowadays, cultivating the image, as I am, of a sensible PhD student.  Regardless, I really do enjoy it, and every now and then, something aimed at younger readers really catches my eye.  Monsters by Emerald Fennell was such a book.  The sparsity of its blurb made it sound deliciously creepy, and I have seen favourable reviews from a lot of fellow adults who have succumbed to it.

9781471404627From the outset, I was reminded of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; yes, it is aimed at a different audience entirely, but there are rather a lot of similarities with regard to the narrative voice and the uneasiness which sets in almost immediately.  The matter-of-fact way in which it opens, too, contributed to the comparison for me: ‘My parents got smashed to death in a boating accident when I was nine.  Don’t worry – I’m not that sad about it’.  When her parents are killed, the narrator goes to live with her grandmother: ‘The good thing about living with Granny is that she has no idea about twelve-year-old girls and what they should be reading or watching on the television, so she lets me sit up with her and watch gory films while she picks the polish off her nails and feeds it to her dog, John.  John is permanently at death’s door but never actually hobbles through it’.

Monsters is filled with dark humour, such as the above.  The voice of our unnamed narrator was engaging as much as it was detached from things going on around her: ‘Mummy was obsessed with being thin – it was the thing she was most proud of.  At meal times she only ate peas, one at a time, with her fingers’.  There is a grasp of reality here, but whilst in charge of her own thoughts and feelings, the narrator is very much led.  When she meets fellow twelve-year-old Miles Giffard, who is holidaying in the Cornish town of Fowey where she is staying with her aunt and uncle, another darkness entirely enters the novel.

Our narrator has a vivid, and often rather frightening, imagination: ‘I really like my school but, honestly, sometimes I think it would be better if someone just burned the place to the ground’.  With Miles in tow, she soon has a fascination with murder, which is piqued when female bodies begin to wash up upon the beach.  She and Miles decide to investigate, and churn up horrors from which most twelve-year-olds would run away screaming.

The narrative voice feels natural after the first few pages, but some of the comments which the protagonist makes either startled me, or caught me so by surprise that I ended up snorting with laughter, such as with the following: ‘Sometimes I’m so tired I can barely move or think straight.  But it gets better after I’ve had a couple of strong coffees from the buffet.  Jean doesn’t approve of twelve-year-old girls drinking coffee, but truly, Jean can get fucked’.

Fennell is a talented writer, whose characters – young and old – felt immediately realistic.  She has such an awareness of her narrator, and has crafted a book which is really chilling at times, even to those who fall several (ahem) years outside of her target demographic.  The plot and pace within Monsters are faultless, and the reader is always aware that something sinister is on the horizon.  Monsters is a real page turner, for audiences young and old(er).  I could never quite guess where it would end up, and it kept me surprised throughout, particularly with its clever twists and its fantastic ending.

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Two Reviews: ‘The Tiny One’, and ‘Falling Awake’

The Tiny One by Eliza Minot **** 9780375706332
I love stories which feature child narrators, and Eliza Minot’s The Tiny One was almost perfect.  The book’s blurb ticked a lot of boxes for me, and I was very much looking forward to immersing myself within the story.  Via is only eight years old when her mother is killed in a car accident; her voice from the outset is believable, and has been constructed both with sensitivity and an outpouring of emotion.  She springs to life almost immediately; she is made up of naive quirks and complexities.  The structure which Minot has utilised within her novel is the age-old formula of fragmented memories, which build a full picture of both Via and her mother.  Once I began to read The Tiny One, I could barely put it down.  It is as transportative as Kaye Gibbons’ work, and is a must for anyone who enjoys reading about trauma in fiction, or seeing serious occurrences from the viewpoint of an unreliable or biased narrator.

 

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald ****
9781910702437Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake has one of the most beautiful blurbs which I have ever read; even had I not been familiar with her poetry or output beforehand, it would definitely have enticed me to pick this particular tome up.  I very much enjoyed Dart when I read it a couple of years ago, and have been eager to read more of Oswald’s ever since.  The imagery which she creates throughout Falling Awake is nothing short of beautiful, and her use of mythology is strong and fitting.  The themes of nature and mutability tie the whole together wonderfully.  Oswald’s repetitions are splendidly handled, and there is not a single poem here which falls short of being meaningful or memorable.  Falling Awake is a fluid poetry collection, which I would heartily recommend to any fans of poetry.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘Songs of Willow Frost’ by Jamie Ford ****

Songs of Willow Frost has been incredibly well reviewed; Helen Simonson, author of the marvellously entertaining Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, very much enjoyed it, and other critics have deemed it ‘dazzling’, ‘spellbinding’, ‘enchanting’ and ‘unforgettable’.

Published in 2013 and beginning in 1934, Songs of Willow Frost tells the story of William Eng, a young Chinese boy who resides at the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Seattle.  Whilst on an annual jaunt to the cinema to celebrate the given birthday of all of the boys who reside there, William is confronted by an image of an actress named Willow Frost, and is immediately convinced that she is his mother.  ‘The story of Willow Frost’, Ford tells us, ‘is far more complicated than any Hollywood fantasy’.  His mother, contrary to what he believes, is not dead; rather, she was placed into a ‘funny farm’ when he was small: ‘The lonely years had been easier to endure when he’d imagined his mother dead.  He hurt and he grieved, but that sorrow was less heartbreaking than the thought of his ah-ma alive and well, leaving him behind like a stray dog’.

The day on which we are introduced to our young protagonist is his twelfth birthday.  This is ‘a marvellous age’, he is told by Mother Angelini, ‘the precipice of adult responsibility’.  The room which William, the only Chinese boy in the orphanage, has to call home is perfectly evoked at the outset: ‘He kept his eyes closed as he listened to the bare feet of children, shuffling nervously on the cold wooden floor.  He heard the popping and billowing of sheets pulled back, like trade winds filling a canvas sail.  And so he ducked, on the favoring currents of his imagination, as he always did, to someplace else – anywhere but the Sacred Heart Orphanage, where the sisters inspected the linens every morning and began whipping the bed-wetters’.

Throughout, William’s own naivety and innocent ignorance of certain things is very touching indeed.  When the orphans are taken to the cinema, for example, he is made to sit in the ‘colored’ balcony, to which he has the following reaction: ‘Am I colored? William wondered.  And if so, what color am I?’  The social history of the period has been well evoked, and Ford encompasses such issues as the Great Depression and consequent spread of poverty; the state benefits in existence for orphans and the disabled; prohibition and its effects; and widespread racial prejudices.  Tired of the boundaries – both within the orphanage and society as a whole – which so tightly constrain him, William breaks free, setting out with his friend, a conscientious and caring blind girl named Charlotte, to find Willow Frost.

Songs of Willow Frost is both captivating and compelling, and holds a lot of interest from the very beginning.  Along with William’s story, we learn about Willow Frost’s past, and the mistakes which she is so determined not to repeat.  The writing within is sensual, and the third person perspective which Ford has chosen to use works wonderfully; it is not at all detached, as it can so often be, and the characters are followed in a manner which seems almost sensitive.  Songs of Willow Frost is at once literary in its style, and very easy to read.  The Chinese culture, along with all of its complexities, has been well exemplified.  The novel is reminiscent of Amy Tan’s work, in terms of the characterisation and the bridges both built and burnt between two such vastly different cultures.  There is much of interest within Songs of Willow Frost, and it is certainly a novel which I will be recommending.

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Showcasing the TBR

As I’m sure a few of you will remember, I ran a project during 2016 to cull my TBR list to just one or two tomes.  I managed it alongside reads for my Master’s course, but the number of unread books on my shelves has crept up steadily since, and is now consistently at around the fifty mark (oops…).  I thought that I would take this opportunity to showcase ten of my unread tomes which I am most looking forward to.

1. Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell 18176595
The decision to invite his Southern relatives to stay proves a fateful one for Austin King. By the time they leave, his reputation and his marriage have suffered irreparable damage.  Against the perfectly-drawn background of small-town Illinois at the turn of the twentieth century, Maxwell uncovers the seeds of potential tragedy at the heart of a happily-established family.

 

2. Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington
A novel of period and place, of mood and manners, tells its story in three parts:- the first and third, through Bernard Middleton, a young Englishman on tour, which sees the beginning and the end of Madame Solario’s stay at Cadenabbia, on Lake Como; and the second through the unrelenting questioning of Madame Solario by her brother, Eugene Harden.   It is 1906 and Cadenabbia’s visitors are ending the summer. Their many nationalities, titles, money, and idle chatter make a new world for Bernard, while Count Kavonski’s pursuit of Madame Solario gives him a chance to protect the woman who has infatuated him. The antagonism between the two is dissolved when Eugene appears, and envelops Madame in his plans for an opportunist alliance with wealth.

 

12552113. The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West
In these four short novels set in America, England and Paris, Rebecca West explores the lives and relationships of rich women and men who are ruled by ‘the harsh voice we hear when money talks, or hate‘. There is Josie, a flower of American girlhood with boundless ambition for wealth. There is Etienne de Sefavenac, a dilettante French aristocrat whose courtly stratagems are intended to ensnare Nancy Sarle – a plain American businesswoman. There is Alice Pemberton, a sensible Englishwoman – the very salt of the earth – in her own estimation. And lastly there is Sam Hartley, an American businessman who has fought his way to riches with his wife at his side, but whose life is now haunted by visions of beautiful young women.

 

4. Selected Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
In the selection of her stories from 1932 to 1977, the author casts a kind but piercing eye on human quirks and passions, as well as chronicling the events of Elfland. A brother and sister, shattered by the horrors of war, find solace in a tender, incestuous ‘marriage’. A wife, bored and rancorous, stitches a widow’s quilt. An old level-crossing keeper watches over his speechless, disfigured niece. In this magnificent selection of her stories, ranging from 1932 to 1977, Sylvia Townsend Warner casts a compassionate but piercing eye on the oddities of love. There’s the joyously farcical story of the mouse and the four-poster bed, the strange fugue of a sad woman and her doppelganger cat, the composer unexpectedly spending an afternoon ‘living for others’. And finally, there’s the skein of stories reporting on the events of Elfland, precise, witty and strange. Readers who know this author’s work will be delighted, while newcomers will find the perfect introduction to a writer of incomparable style and substance.

 

5. Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide 716381
A delicate boy growing up in Paris, Jerome Palissier spends many summers at his uncle’s house in the Normandy countryside, where the whole world seems ‘steeped in azure’. There he falls deeply in love with his cousin Alissa and she with him. But gradually Alissa becomes convinced that Jerome’s love for her is endangering his soul. In the interests of his salvation, she decides to suppress everything that is beautiful in herself – in both mind and body.

 

6. Therese by Francois Mauriac
From the moment she walks from court having been charged with attempting to poison her husband, to her banishment, escape to Paris, and final years of solitude and waiting, the life of Thérèse Desqueyroux is passionate and tortured. The victim of a hostile fate, Thérèse, as Mauriac said of her ‘belongs to that class of human beings … for whom night can end only when life itself ends. All that is asked of them is that they should not resign themselves to night’s darkness.’ Thérèse’s moving and powerful story affirms the vitality of the human spirit, making her an unforgettable heroine.

 

12199497. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
Set in Penang, 1939, this book presents a story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.  The recipient of extraordinary acclaim from critics and the bookselling community, Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel casts a powerful spell. Set during the tumult of World War II, on the lush Malayan island of Penang, The Gift of Rain tells a riveting and poignant tale about a young man caught in the tangle of wartime loyalties and deceits.

 

8. The Innocent Mrs Duff and The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (omnibus edition)
Two novels of suspense in one volume. Long out of print, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding wrote popular suspense novels in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Raymond Chandler was among her fans. The Innocent Mrs. Duff is from 1946, The Blank Wall from 1947.

 

9. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse 7998632
Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free reign. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence.

 

10. The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joanna Kavenna
A legend, a land once seen and then lost forever, Thule was a place beyond the edge of the maps, a mystery for thousands of years. And to the Nazis, Thule was an icy Eden, birthplace of Nordic “purity.” In this exquisitely written narrative, Joanna Kavenna wanders in search of Thule, to Shetland, Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Greenland, and Svalbard, unearthing the philosophers, poets, and explorers who claimed Thule for themselves, from Richard Francis Burton to Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Marked by breathtaking snowscapes, haunting literature, and the cold specter of past tragedies, this is a wondrous blend of travel writing and detective work that is impossible to set down.

 

If you’re interested, you can see my working TBR, which consists of physical books and those which I have purchased on my Kindle, on Goodreads.

How many books are on your TBR?  Which are you most looking forward to reading?

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Reading the World: ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was a book club pick for February.  Ogawa is an author whom I have only sampled through her interconnected short story collection, Revenge, which is vivid even two and a half years later.  I plumped for The Housekeeper and the Professor as my book club choice because it sounded utterly charming, and looked like it would present a wonderful – and slightly unusual – slice of Japanese life.  First published in Japan in 2003, and translated into English by Stephen Snyder, the novel both met and exceeded my expectations.

9780099521341The Professor of the novel, a former maths teacher whose name we never learn, only has eighty minutes of short-term memory function, following a traumatic head injury seventeen years before the narrative begins.  His memory effectively stops in 1975.  Each morning, his housekeeper has to meet him anew: ‘… as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them.  The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past’.  It is she who narrates the story.  The third character in the novel is the Housekeeper’s ten-year-old son.  He is at first rather reluctant to spend so much time with the elderly Professor, but the two soon form an unshakeable bond.

The novel’s opening sentence really sets the tone for the whole: ‘We called him the Professor.  And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign’.  Ogawa’s writing is lovely, and she sets scenes simply yet beautifully: ‘It was a rainy evening in early April.  My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug.  The light in the Professor’s study was dim.  Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain’.

Maths is the force which serves to really unite the trio; as the Housekeeper describes to us, ‘… I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do.  Numbers were his way of reaching out to the world.  They were safe, a source of comfort’.  There are many mathematical problems, diagrams, and equations which have been included, but they seem a natural addition to the whole.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is rather a peaceful novel about understanding, trust, and family; protection, selflessness, and kindness.  Ogawa’s prose is unfailingly lovely, and the whole has been sensitively wrought.  The Housekeeper and the Professor is an understanding and deep tome, which transports the reader entirely.  All in all, it is a satisfying novel, which restores one’s faith in humankind, particularly within these turbulent times in which we live.

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‘The River King’ by Alice Hoffman ****

‘For more than a century, the small town of Haddan, Massachusetts, has been divided, as if by a line drawn down the centre of Main Street, separating those born and bred in the ‘village’ from those who attend the prestigious Haddan School. But one October night the two worlds are thrust together by an inexplicable death and the town’s divided history is revealed in all its complexity. The lives of everyone involved are unravelled: from Carlin Leander, the fifteen-year-old scholarship girl who is as loyal as she is proud, to Betsy Chase, a woman running from her own destiny; from August Pierce, a loner and a misfit at school who unexpectedly finds courage in his darkest hour, to Abel Grey, the police officer who refuses to let unspeakable actions – both past and present – slide by without notice.’

9780099286523I felt – correctly so – that The River King would be a great choice for a Sunday afternoon.  I very much enjoy Hoffman’s work, but hadn’t read any of it for quite some time before picking this tome up.  Her books are rather easy reading, but are well – and intelligently – written.  They also deal with a lot of important themes; here, bullying and the mystery of the death of a teenage student take centre stage.

As in all of Hoffman’s work, there is a strong sense of place, and of society, here.  It is absorbing from the first page, and evident is the way in which Hoffman has the real knack of being able to follow numerous, and realistic, characters almost simultaneously.  Rather than being set within a small town, as have the other Hoffmans which I have read to date, The River King is set largely within a boarding school, in which two students primarily, and a couple members of staff are followed.  Although we learn about other characters around them in later chapters, these four essentially become her focus.

The River King has been nicely structured, and as with her other work, I could barely put it down when I had begun.  The long chapters have been well paced, and the entirety is filled with telling details and small cruelties perpetrated by several secondary characters.  The River King is an achingly human novel, with elements of Hoffman’s trademark magical realism.  It left me spellbound.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins ****

First published in March 2014.

As I am sure lovely readers of The Literary Sisters know by now, I am currently working through the Virago Modern Classics list.  A few years ago now, some beautiful ‘Designer Collection’ books were issued by the publishing house, and I just cannot resist them.  I can only hope that Virago choose to release more of them in the near future (hint, hint).

‘The Tortoise and The Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins

Without further ado, I chose to purchase the beautiful The Tortoise and The Hare last time I placed a book order, as Elizabeth Jenkins is an author whom I have wanted to read for a very long time.  The introduction to this novel has been written by Hilary Mantel; she states that it is ‘exquisitely written’ and goes on to say that ‘Jenkins has provided a thoughtful and astringent guide to the imperatives of sexual politics – and one of which is of more than historical interest’.  The novel has received some stunning reviews on the various book blogs which I hold in high esteem, and Jenkins is very well respected in terms of the stunning and perceptive books which she authored.

The Tortoise and The Hare is rather a quiet novel, as many of the Viragos tend to be, but that purely means that more focus is placed upon the beautiful writing and well drawn characters.

The novel’s blurb is quite intriguing:

“In affairs of the heart the race is not necessarily won by the swift or the fair.

Imogen, the beautiful and much younger wife of distinguished barrister Evelyn Gresham, is facing the greatest challenge of her married life. Their neighbour Blanche Silcox, competent, middle-aged and ungainly – the very opposite of Imogen – seems to be vying for Evelyn’s attention. And to Imogen’s increasing disbelief, she may be succeeding.”

It is a book about love and hate, about the very emotions which are liable to tear us, and the relationships which we have tried so very hard to build, apart.  In this respect, Jenkins has done a marvellous job, highlighting the ease with which facades can slip, and the way in which single actions can destroy what is so taken for granted.

Throughout, I found the majority of the characters so very intriguing.  I did not like many of them, as such, but I did become fond of Imogen towards the very end of the novel, and Tim Leeper, the young friend of Imogen and Evelyn’s son, was a real sweetheart.  It is clear that Jenkins respects her characters, and everything which she envisioned has been so well set to paper.

Whilst The Tortoise and The Hare is not my favourite on the Virago list, it is a thought-provoking novel, both intelligent and witty, which I will be sure to pick up again in the future, and which I will heartily recommend.

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