Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

I thought I would try and read a few books from the Booker longlist, and as The Stranger's Child was already on my TBR list it seemed the obvious one to start with.
The novel is set over several decades, beginning in 1913. George Sawle brings his university friend Cecil Valance home for a weekend visit. Cecil is a very confident young man who comes from a rich family and is heir to a title. He has also had a few poems published. The Sawles are a middle class family and Cecil is quite an exotic creature to them. George's younger sister, Daphne, is particularly taken with him. Unbeknownst  to the rest of the family George and Cecil are having an affair.
The story then skips to the 1920s. This is the structure right through the book. The reader sees snapshots of the lives. Some people are gone and new people arrive. I thought this was very effective and I loved puzzling out how all the pieces fitted together when a new section began. When we reach the 1920s it is revealed that Cecil has been killed in the First World War. He had more poems published and his mother is determined to preserve his legacy. One of the story strands which gradually gets resolved over the course of the book is just how good were Cecil's poems?
One of the interesting things I found in this book was the character development. Because of the jumps of a decade or more we don't see characters change gradually. We see how they end up - without any of the intervening bits. So it's up to the reader through deduction and guesswork to figure out what has happened to make them that way. I thought this particularly about Paul Bryant, a character we first meet in the 1960s as a callow youth. I thought that the author was very clever in the way when we meet Paul again he is recognisable but also changed in a completely convincing way.
I also loved the way some characters just drifted away, and others that I thought had drifted away popped up again unexpectedly. I suppose with a book less well written than this one that might've been irritating. I didn't find it irritating, I just thought it was an accurate observation of life, where people do come and go.
I thought this was a really good read and I would recommend it. I've got The Line of Beauty by the same author on my TBR shelf and I think I'll read it sooner rather than later.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

This is the first book I have received via the Transworld Book Group.
Transworld Book Group
I'm part of the Transworld Book Group

The story is set just after the Second World War and a young American couple go with their small son to live in India, where the husband is continuing his studies. It is a time of tremendous upheaval in India with the end of the British Raj and the imposition of Partition. Martin Mitchell's particular area of study involves Partition and he is often away doing his research, leaving his wife Evie and son Billy alone. The Mitchell's marriage is in trouble, Martin is haunted by his experiences during the war, but won't open up to Evie. She in turn feels abandoned and rejected.
In the kitchen of their house Evie finds some letters belonging to previous tenants of the house, two Victorian women named Adela Winfield and Felicity Chadwick. She becomes fascinated by them and tries to find out more about them. The story goes back and forward between the stories of Evie and Martin in 1947 and Adela and Felicity in the nineteenth century. I thought was a good device and I was as anxious as Evie to find out what happened to the two Victorian women.
One of the things I liked best about this book was its descriptions of India. It's a place I've always wanted to visit and I want to even more after reading this. It is set in Simla, which was one of the most popular hill stations for the Raj, and judging from this book a very beautiful place. Of course there is immense poverty right beside the beauty, which Evie finds troubling.
I think the only niggle I have about this book is that sometimes I felt that Adela and Felicity's story was a little rushed. Apart from that I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found it a real page turner.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is an author I haven't read much of, though I love the tv series, particularly Poirot with
 David Suchet. So when I saw that Mysteries in Paradise was hosting an Agatha Christie Carnival I thought that I would join in. It's my intention to read her work in order of publication as far as possible, so the first on my list is The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
It is a Poirot story and when we meet the detective he is living in Styles St Mary with other Belgium refugees from the war. It is narrated by Hastings (I don't know his first name, I'm not sure if it's mentioned in the book). Of course Hastings features in many Poirot stories, but in this one he is not yet in the police force. He is home from the army after having being wounded. He is staying with an acquaintance at Styles Court, the big house of the village.
The victim in the novel is his hostess, Mrs Inglethorp. She is poisoned with strychnine. The people with motives include her stepsons, who are in want of money, her second husband Alfred Inglethorp who the rest of the family believe to be a gold digger. The people with the means include the mysterious Dr Baurstein, a world expert in toxicology, and Mrs Inglethorp's ward Cynthia, who is a pharmacist.
It is a troubling case for Poirot and he seems puzzled by it. The timings don't make sense, and the strongest suspects have the tightest alibis. Usually when I read a detective novel I am happy to let the author tell me who the culprit was at the end, I don't usually try to work it out. But I know that Christie is  well respected for her plotting, so with this book I tried to follow the clues carefully and guess the murderer. I was pretty certain I had it right - but I didn't. Hopefully I will get better as I read more of her work.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

When I was about 17 I bought an anthology of some of John
Steinbeck's novels. It was a massive hardback book, very heavy. I was about halfway through Cannery Row and loving it when I decided that the book was just too uncomfortable to read and I would get myself a paperback of Cannery Row and finish it from that. Twenty-five years later, thanks to The Classics Circuit I am finally finishing it.

This is a book without a plot as such. It is a description of the fictional Cannery Row in Monterey California. It is a coastal town and its main industries are fishing, and the canning factory. Steinbeck paints an affectionate picture of a motley group of outsiders. The neighbourhood seems to be entirely populated with eccentrics. It is a tightly knit community where people look out for one another and are only too aware of each others foibles.
Everyone does their shopping at Lee Chong's grocery shop, which 'while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply'. Lee Chong is generous with credit until it gets too much, then he simply cuts off the supply. This cutting off of credit frequently happens to Mack and his friends. Steinbeck describes Mack thus:

Mack was the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambition beyond food, drink, and contentment. But whereas most men in their search for contentment destroy themselves and fall wearily short of their targets, Mack and his friends approached contentment casually, quietly and absorbed it gently.

Mack is a work-shy charmer, but good hearted. He and the boys decide to put on a party for Doc, the marine biologist who lives in Cannery Row. Doc is a man apart. He is well liked and respected by the rest of the community, but is somehow separate from them. Whether this is because he is better educated than most of the people round him, or whether it is just something in his personality I can't say. He doesn't lack company, yet he seems lonely.
The preparations for the party take up a great deal of the book. Along the way we meet other, more peripheral characters. There is Dora Flood, the local madam:

Dora is a great woman, a great big woman with flaming orange hair and a taste for Nile green evening dresses. She keeps an honest, one-price house, sells no hard liquor, and permits no loud or vulgar talk in her house. Of her girls some are fairly inactive, due to ages and infirmities, but Dora never puts them aside, although as she says, some of them don't turn three tricks a month, but they go right on eating three meals a day.

Then there is Frankie, a young boy who hero-worships Doc. Nowadays we would say he had learning difficulties and he would get specialist help, but in the 1930s he was just kicked out of school. Not wanted at home he has to fend for himself and Doc takes pity on him.
The story takes place during the Depression and we see how some people had to cope with very little money. Mr and Mrs Malloy are reduced to living in a disused boiler. Mary Talbot loves to give parties but can't afford to, so gives tea parties for the neighbourhood cats.
I think the over-riding feeling of the novel is optimism. Times were very hard and many people had very little, but most people managed to be grateful for what they had. In the case of Mack we see someone who has opted out of the mainstream altogether. Mack's life would probably be the same if he was living through a boom. There is also stoicism and resiliance in the characters and they are bolstered by their community.
This book was just as good as I remembered and I definitely won't leave it another twenty-five years before I read it again.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Gone With The Wind - Chapters 8 to 15

Scarlett is now in Atlanta. The town has grown rapidly in just a few years, first due to the growth of the railways and then because of the war.

Almost the pulsing of the town's heart could be felt as the work went forward night and day, pumping the materials of war up the railway arteries to the two battle fronts. Trains roared in and out of the town at all hours. Soot from the newly erected factories fell in showers on the white houses. By night, the furnaces glowed and the hammers clanged long after the townsfolk were abed. Where vacant lots had been a year before, there were new factories turning out harness, saddles and shoes, ordnance-supply plants making rifles and cannon, rolling mills and foundries producing iron rails and freight cars to replace those destroyed by the Yankees, and a variety of industries manufacturing spurs, bridle-bits, buckles, tents, buttons, pistols and swords.

The social whirl is continuing in Atlanta despite the war. However if Scarlett thought that she might find more freedom in this new city she is mistaken. She is still expected to abide by the rules set down by her elders. She is tortured by the sight of young people her own age enjoying themselves while she is expected to stay home and mourn Charles. The only time she is in company is when she is volunteering at the hospital - a job which is expected of her, but which disgusts her.
Then Scarlett's luck changes.  A fundraiser is being held for the war effort and volunteers are needed to run the stalls. Scarlett can be there without being disapproved of because it is for 'the Cause'. It is here that she meets Rhett again and is drawn to him despite herself. Rhett only cares about other people's opinions as far as they further his own aims. Scarlett realises that she doesn't care about the war, and she doesn't care about the people in the hospital. It is the beginnning of her breaking free from convention.
It is also at the fundraiser that we see the first flash of spirit from Melly when she says that the militia shouldn't be in Atlanta, but should be fighting with the rest of the troops in Virginia. She is even braver later on when she insists that Rhett will always be welcome in her home, despite being shunned by the rest of Atlanta society. I think that Melly is shaping up to be the moral centre of the book.
Despite early optimism the war is turning against the South. The Battle of Gettysburg takes place and lots of people Scarlett and Melly knew are killed, including the Tarleton twins. Ashley survives and comes home on leave.  Scarlett is joyful that he is alive and consumed with jealousy because he is with Melly. When he goes back to the front it is implied that he loves Scarlett too. It seems that Ashley was too cowardly to marry Scarlett, so he settled for the safer option of Melly. Both Melly and her brother Charles married people who didn't love them. Perhaps their lives were so sheltered that they didn't recognise that there was anything missing from their relationships.
So, we wait to see what Miss Scarlett will do next. I wonder if we'll hear anything about poor little Wade Hampton, Scarlett seems to have forgotten that she has a child. I am also interested to see how Melly's character develops, whether she will become more forceful and stand up to the ladies of Atlanta. And will she see Scarlett as she really is? To see what others thought of this section of Gone With The Wind visit The Heroine's Bookshelf where Erin is hosting the readalong.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Mr Toppit by Charles Elton

Arthur Hayman wrote a children's book, The Hayseed Chronicles. Not a success in his lifetime, after his death the book achieved success of Harry Potter-esque proportions. The central character of The Hayseed Chronicles is based on Arthur's son Luke (like AA Milne and Christopher Robin). Luke Hayman resents this and struggles with the attention it brings him but as his father is dead he has no-one to be angry with. Anyway, he does better than his sister Rachel, who doesn't feature in the book at all. This seems to have affected her confidence and she spends her life searching for contentment and an identity.
The Hayseed Chronicles became famous in the most unlikely way. An American tourist is present at the accident which kills Arthur Hayman. She feels a strange connection with him and accompanies him to the hospital, then with his family back to their house where she makes herself useful cooking and cleaning. Laurie is an unhappy person. She lacks self-esteem and is put upon by her mother, her friend and her employer. Somehow this experience with the Hayman family kickstarts something inside her. She gradually increases in confidence and begins to stick up for herself. She decides to read from The Hayseed Chronicles on her hospital radio show. This is such a success that her career takes off and she becomes famous, as do The Hayseed Chronicles.
I was really looking forward to this book and I think perhaps I expected too much of it. I thought I would love it and I didn't, though I did enjoy it. I felt like a lot of it went over my head. For example I didn't understand the significance in the Hayman's lives of Mr Toppit, who is a character in The Hayseed Chronicles. I'm sure this is the main point of the book so I really felt like I was missing something. I will read it again at some point because I really want to love it.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Whispers in the Sand by Barbara Erskine

If there's one thing I hate in a book it's when a man and woman meet at the beginning of the story and hate each other on sight. Because it is immediately obvious that they're going to get together by the end. It is the main reason I don't read romances. Anyway, that exact thing happens at the beginning of this book. Anna meets Toby on a plane and, for no good reason that I can see, they hate each other. I nearly gave up on the book at this point, but I'd abandoned the book I'd started before this one and I don't like giving up on books, so I persevered.
I'm glad I did because I can forgive a lot for a good story and I think that this is a good story. Anna is recovering from a brutal divorce and has gone on holiday to Egypt. She chose Egypt because her great-great-grandmother Louise had travelled there in the 19th century, and had kept a diary. Anna thinks it will provide an interesting focus for her trip if she retraces Louisa's footsteps. So she heads off, armed with the diary, and also a little glass bottle which had belonged to Louisa. Anna sees the bottle as sort of a lucky charm.
However it turns out that the bottle has a longer history than Anna suspects. It isn't a Victorian trinket but in fact goes all the way back to Ancient Egypt. It contains a secret and valuable potion which has been fought over for centuries by two high priests. With the return of the bottle to Egypt the spirits of the priests are re-awakened and everyone who comes into contact with it are put in danger.
It is a bit silly, but it kept me reading. Anna's story is alternated with Louisa's story so we can see the parallels in their lives. I found that the tone of both stories was the same, making it difficult to differentiate between the two. I think that it would've been more effective if Louisa's story had be put into diary form, and first person rather than third.
I thought this was an enjoyable, light read. A bit silly, but good for the beach.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

I'm part of the Transworld Book Group

I'm really looking forward to taking part in this. I should receive my first book next week, then when it's read and reviewed I'll get another one, on so on until I've received four books. The books I've chosen are:

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark
Black Swan Rising by Lee Carroll
The Water Room by Christopher Fowler
The Obscure Logic of the Heart by Priya Basil

Monday, 1 August 2011

Gone With The Wind - Chapters 1-7

gwtwreadalong.jpgI am taking part with the Gone With The Wind readalong organised by The Heroine's Bookshelf 
 I have read it before, and have been meaning to re-read it for some time.
We enter the world of the wealthy plantation owners of pre Civil War Georgia. It seems on the surface to be an easy comfortable life, but we see as the story progresses that there is a cost. We meet Scarlett O'Hara, not conventionally beautiful but possessed of great charm and vivacity. Her head is filled with parties and boys. The young men flock round her, not realising that they are being manipulated, the young women mistrust and dislike her. Scarlett's shallowness is not entirely her own fault however. She lives in a society which expects girls to be passive and docile and to defer to men. The main object of their lives is to get married. Once married they have more freedom to express themselves, though they will of course be tied down by husband and children. Scarlett is frustrated by this system but lacks the imagination to see a way out of it.
It is an insular world where the same families marry each other generation after generation. They have little idea of the realities of the outside world. The men long for the war which is inevitably coming. They believe that it will be over in a month and that they will thrash the Yankees. Even Rhett Butler's words of warning doesn't dampen their war fever;

Has any one of you gentlemen ever thought that there's not a cannon factory south of the Mason-Dixon Line? Or how few iron foundries there are in the South?......Have you thought that we would not have a single warship and that the Yankee fleet could bottle up our harbours in a week so that we could not sell our cotton abroad?

Margaret Mitchell paints a picture of a group of people who are almost child-like in their innocence of reality, who are drifting towards what the reader knows is catastophe.
Scarlett's carefree life ends with her marriage to Charles Hamilton. She doesn't love him but has married him to spite Ashley Wilkes, the man she is really in love with. She is soon widowed with a baby and the feeling that her life is over before it even got started.