Category Archives: Current Affairs

The People in the Photo – Hélène Gestern – 9/10

“Our families’ silence is a poison that infects everything it touches: our dreams, our fears, our entire adult lives. And it leaves us with nothing but questions to fall back on, thirty or forty years down the line.”

people in the photo

From the blurb, because it’s very accurate: Parisian archivist Hélène takes out a newspaper advert seeking information about her mother, who died when she was three, and the two men pictured with her in a photograph taken at a tennis tournament at Interlaken in 1971. Stéphane, a Swiss biologist living in Kent, responds: his father is one of the people in the photo. More letters and more photos pass between them as they embark on a journey to uncover the truth their parents kept from them. But will the images and documents from the past fill the silences left by the players?

The author has given the protagonist her own first name – when that happens, I do have to wonder if it is partly autobiographical (although Hélène is a very pretty name!). Hélène is well captured – gentle, curious, reflective, desperate to unearth her truth but loath to upset others. Obviously a sad childhood. I struggled a little more with Stéphane and actually preferred him when he cracked a bit every now and again. The epistolary style, in a sense, permits very limited development of any other characters, but then the whole book is about piecing together people from several decades ago and Nataliya is revealed little by little. Jean Pamiat, the side-lined friend, is actually my favourite character in the whole book, I think. He’s deliciously omnipresent, and thankfully still alive in the modern time for our detectives to at least visit.

I’ve said it before – I love the epistolary novel. It permits gentle development of the story (and the sub-story – just the right way to deliver that) without being slow. Had it been told another way I might well have thrown the book aside in frustration with the romance and the clunky delivery of the decades-old mystery – but this method was natural and elegant.

For me, the aspect I walk away with is the incredible sadness of the ending. The climax is correctly paced and the puzzle is appropriately concluded, including various characters’ odd behaviour, but this tale of love lost, found and lost again is really very sad in the end. Our characters put a brave face on it but… I would not be so sanguine.

It made me want to learn Russian! And mourn the lost art of the letter. I greatly enjoyed the adventures of Bourbaki the cat as told by Hélène – and the sub-story, which I cannot reveal for spoiler-avoidance reasons, is sweetly developed in the letters.

Additional information:
Copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Gallic Books, 265 paperback pages
Order The People in the Photofrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

I am Half-Sick of Shadows – Alan Bradley – 8/10

Dieter Schrantz, tall, blond and handsome, as they say on the wireless, stood on the doorstep, smiling at me with his perfect teeth. Dieter’s sudden appearance was a bit disconcerting: it was somewhat like having the god Thor deliver the furniture in person.”

half sick of shadowsIn this fourth instalment of the Buckshaw mystery series featuring Miss Flavia de Luce as junior detective extraordinaire, the family finances have become so dire that Colonel de Luce has been forced to rent out the family home to a cinema cast as the setting for Miss Phyllis Wyvern’s latest tragedy. Tragedy strikes while the cast and most of the village of Bishop’s Lacey are in residence, and Flavia must abandon her chemical experimenting for sleuthing duties.

Just like the other three in this series, this is a cosy mystery with a hefty dollop of chemistry thanks to our prodigious and precocious heroine. Flavia’s naivete and scientific passion offsets the somewhat grim plot of a guest strangled in a country mansion slowly sliding into disrepair. Flavia allmost seemed more child-like in this instalment than in the previous book, which I found odd, but she is still one of the more delightful detectives I’ve encountered in the genre. Rash, sweet and sweetly innocent, coldly intelligent, charming, not quite as capable as she thinks she is of fooling adults and her older sisters.

Time and page inches were invested more in the characters of Daphne and Dogger in this book at the expense of more heavily-featured characters from other books, particularly the Colonel – and it is well worth it as we keep watching the relationship between the three sisters of the house develop. Dogger is somewhat of a deus ex machina, but we’ll forgive that given how intriguing he is.

Bradley makes heavy use of dream sequences in a way I do not remember from the previous books, and I wonder whether he is itching to let Flavia grow up a bit. A number of times she is not certain of an adult concept and either notes down that she must ask someone about it later, or is easily satisfied with a very simple answer.

I read this just before departing to a country hotel for a few days across Christmas, and it was almost perfect timing – Buckshaw in the snow, in the lead up to Christmas is highly atmospheric. Flavia’s schemes to catch Father Christmas in the act of depositing presents are cutely funny (and ultimately useful to the plot) and while I struggle to visualise the huge house (which seems alternately enormous and normal-sized), she spends quite a while roaming on the roofs of the building, knee-deep in snowdrifts. There is a sleigh hooked up to a tractor, cocoa proves to be the exception to prove the rule of Mrs Mullet’s appalling cooking, and a serious quantity of carolling takes place.

If you are a devotee of the series, definitely one to read. If this has whetted your appetite, go back to the start and read your way through all four. And this series is definitely recommended for anyone with recent or present contact with a precocious pre-teen, purely because the heroine is so charming.

Additional information:

Copy bought for Mini-Me by the Book Accumulator, and filched by me before they left the country. Now that I have finally read it, I can pass it to its intended recipient, who will enjoy it greatly.
Publisher: Orion Books, 291 paperback pages 
Order I Am Half-Sick of Shadows: A Flavia de Luce Mysteryfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith – 9/10

(NB it’s at least 18 months since I read this book, so… this review might be a bit flaky)

“‘What did you want a lion for?’ I asked. ‘Oh, they were kind of cute,’ he said vaguely. Then the kettle boiled and we took the tea in.”

I capture the castle

This book has one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Thus we’re introduced to the zaniness that is Cassandra Mortmain’s life – a creative soul dying to see the grandeur of London, to be able to spend the money their accommodation boasts of, and to escape her equally desperate older sister, “fadingly glorious stepmother Topaz” (I can’t say it better than the blurb) and her depressed, stifled father. When the American heirs to the castle in which they live (the aforementioned expansive accommodation) turn up to claim their property, Cassandra’s life is turned upside-down – and not just because she’s head over heels in love.

The characters are what make this novel. Dimming beauty Topaz, slightly crazy but somehow holding the family together and keeping a roof overhead. Rose, desperate to escape the idyllic country exile, rushes into the first opportunity that presents itself, and is left plenty of time to repent. She’s an unusual first child (I have a certain sympathy for the birth-order psychology which appears popular these days) but certainly is headstrong and independent. I can’t figure out the Father character, but maybe that’s not necessary – it’s enough that he’s eccentric and creatively stifled and depressed and manic all at once. The conflict underpinning the plot is brought about by his inability to generate income as a writer – one of the saddest passages in the book is when Cassandra notes that she has seen him simply re-reading detective novels after a very short period of time, because the librarian knows he isn’t working and won’t give him more than one or two a week.

The writing: well, Dodie Smith writes children’s literature beautifully, we know that, and it’s just as unblemished here.

“And the feel of the park itself was most strange and interesting – what I noticed most was its separateness; it seemed to be smiling and amiable, but somehow aloof from the miles and miles of London all around. At first I thought this was because it belonged to an older London – Victorian, eighteenth century, earlier than that. And then, as I watched the sheep peacefully nibbling the grass, it came to me that Hyde Park has never belonged to any London – that it has always been, in spirit, a stretch of the countryside; and that it thus links the Londons of all periods together most magically – by remaining for ever unchanged at the heart of the ever-changing town.”

The romance is of course all tangled up and full of misunderstandings, as any book with a teenage protagonist should be. I still think that it should have turned out differently (without spoilers, but if you’ve read it you know what I’m thinking should have happened), but all in all perfectly satisfactory at the end.

A wonderfully beautiful book. Should be mandatory reading. It is testament to the book’s depth that Mini-Me, The Book Accumulator, The No Longer At All Resident Cousin and I have all absolutely adored it. I must re-read it.

Additional information:

Origin unknown. It was just on the shelf.
Publisher: Vintage Classics, 408 paperback pages 
Order I Capture The Castle (Vintage Classics)from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The President’s Hat – Antoine Laurain – 6/10

“Desmoine took it upon himself to pour Daniel another cup of coffee. ‘Important to drink coffee,’ he added. ‘Balzac drank litres of the stuff. You’ve read Balzac, of course.’ ‘Of course,’ Daniel confirmed, never having read Balzac in his life.”

president's hat

This is such a French book. It’s an isle flottante of a novella, vignettes floating on absurd custard of a felt hat. It is essentially the story of that felt hat: left behind by President Mitterand one day in a restaurant, it bestows great blessings upon the lowly clerk who snaffles it. When he leaves it on the train, it inspires its next owner to break off a dead-end affair. Inspires a grand parfumier back to his trade, and a man to speak his mind.

It actually reminded me of Roald Dahl’s short story collection, Kiss Kiss. Something about the inevitable tragedy and/or weirdness from every encounter. Each of the characters is amusingly drawn – the over-ambitious Daniel, frivolous and fickle Mme. Marchant, Pierre Aslan the giant of perfumerie whose muse has eluded him for so long. So I actually found it quite dissatisfying to spend so little time in their company. This could easily have been twice as long and I would have enjoyed it more (although maybe I’m just not patient enough for short stories?).

I think I’m not sufficiently French to enjoy this. Or I don’t have enough experience with French history, culture and literature to enjoy it. So I’m going to give it to the Book Accumulator and see what he thinks.

Additional information:

Copy sent by the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Gallic Books, 200 paperback pages 
Order The President’s Hatfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Mark Haddon – 6/10

“I think I would make a very good astronaut. To be a good astronaut you have to be intelligent and I’m intelligent… You also have to be someone who would like being on their own in a tiny spacecraft thousands and thousands of miles away from the surface of the earth and not panic or get claustrophobia or homesick or insane.”

curious incident

Christopher Boone loves maths, finds people confusing, hates yellow and brown (especially in foods), and likes dogs. So when he discovers his neighbour’s dog has been murdered in the night, he sets out to sleuth, discovering rather more about his family than he had bargained for.

I struggled with the first hundred pages or so of this and it was only the fact that I was on the world’s longest detour on the way home and had nothing else with me to read and my phone battery was dying that kept me going. Once I got onto Christopher’s adventure to London, I found it much easier to keep reading, although quite sad and pitiful.

The tone is unflinchingly honest, including some glorious adult opinions which flow unfiltered through Christopher’s dialogue. While it requires a lot of hard work, the portrayal through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s permits Haddon to write his protagonist as much more observant and grown-up than would typically be credible for a teenager – interspersed with musings on the awesomeness of red cars.

I can’t speak for the authenticity of the portrayal of Asperger’s, although Haddon makes a good attempt with the black-outs and the strange treatment by others and the obsession with colours. I’ve read a few other books which attempt to portray Asperger’s or autism, although mostly from the perspective of a parent (House Rules, which I don’t seem to have reviewed yet, and Love Anthony).

I actually read this because friends wanted to go to the play which is on in London at the moment. I think I would enjoy the play more than the book, given that the swathes of exposition could simply be demonstrated.

Probably worth it. I wasn’t convinced but I know there are plenty of very high opinions of it out there.

Additional information:
Copy from Bookmooch or some other second hand source.
Publisher: Vintage, 268 pages (paperback).
Order The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timefrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones – 9/10

“You cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.”

mister pip

Matilda is a headstrong intelligent girl rebelling against her conservative mother in the absence of her working father, making and losing friends in the village and courting the favour of her teacher by throwing herself headlong into a fictional world. So far, so coming-of-age story. Except Matilda lives on “the island” (Bougainville), and the “redskins” and the “rambos” are fighting for independence and Matilda’s village has been cut off from the rest of the world for a few years. Surrounded by chaos, Matilda is entranced by her teacher’s reading of Great Expectations.

The infatuation with Dickens’ Victorian England, with Pip, the loyalty to whom exceeds all reason and some sanity, the jealousy of Estella, is both cute and satisfying. Matilda is transfixed by this other world, the idea of a frosty morning, the idea of London, when she knows nothing more than her tropical cul-de-sac. She takes ownership of Pip fiercely, passionately. But I think all avid readers like to see reading and literature worshipped; a validation of our own addiction. And so I loved Matilda for her need of the story, her yearning for the next chapter.

Jones has written amazing characters in this novel. Mr Watts the stranded white man, displaying public and private loyalty to his mad wife, earning the derision of the villagers. Mr Watts the teacher, stepping in when the government teachers were extracted to safety, teaching the one text he knew and loved and happened to have with him. Mr Watts the peacemaker, keeping the rambos occupied with fireside stories from his early life to keep the fragile calm intact.

Dolores* tries to hold her life together with both hands, to keep her daughter on the straight and narrow, and isn’t afraid to storm into the classroom and tell tales of witches and devils to counteract Mr Watts and his apathetic atheism. She is stubbornly faithful to all she holds dear, even at exceptional personal cost.

Susan Lyons reads this exceptionally – a quiet Pacific island accent for Matilda, a much stronger one for Dolores, and shades of Australian when needed. I assume Lyons is Australian although you wouldn’t know it from the consistency of Matilda’s voice.

Definitely, definitely recommended. Beware the sudden violence about 75% of the way through though.

*I can’t ever write or say the word “Dolores” without thinking it should be followed by “Landingham”, after President Bartlet’s beloved executive assistant in West Wing.

Additional information:

audio edition, narrated by Susan Lyons, borrowed from the library. To order from Amazon through an affiliate link from which I will earn a few pennies towards this site, click here

Return to Oakpine – Ron Carlson – 6/10

“He’d been a writer, he realized early in his career, because he lived for loveliness and intensity but only if he could know about them, be aware, have the distance and the words that would make them ring and ring in him.”

oakpineJimmy Brand has come home to die. Thirty years after leaving his hometown in the wake of his brother’s tragic death, after a career as a successful journalist and author, he moves back into his parents’ garage because his father won’t have him in the house. His old bandmates rally round, bound by ties of loyalty and friendship, nostalgia and remorse.

This is a tricky one. Carlson writes beautiful set pieces. Larry’s fixation with running around the town, running away from the suburban prison, while happily fulfilling the role of his father’s apprentice is crystal clear and smooth. And yet I was bored, I was fed up with these people.

On the one hand, the setting feels stagnated; the town is fixed in its introspective isolation. Maybe I’m imprinting my own ambitions and drive on the characters, but the lives chronicled are so sadly ambivalent, mediocre and shambolic. No one’s relationships have turned out the way they should have – divorces, premature widowerhood and mental affairs abound. On the other hand, maybe that’s more real, and maybe Carlson’s gift is in capturing that, when too many writers are keen to have fiction make vivid that which is so rare in reality.

This is very much a type book; if you liked Sense of an Ending, or When God Was A Rabbit, or maybe The Spare Room (Spare Room is the best of these), you will enjoy this. If you’re not a fan of nostalgiaville, stay away.

 
Additional information:
Copy kindly provided by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Publisher: Viking
Order Return to Oakpinefrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

Dances with Wolves – Michael Blake – 7/10

“He had geared himself for criminals, a gang of lawbreakers, burglars who needed punishing. What he found instead was a pageant, a pageant of action so breathtaking that, like a kid at his first big parade, the lieutenant was powerless to do anything but stand there and watch it go by.”

dances with wolves

Lt. John Dunbar voyages west to take up a post at the western frontier, his life’s ambition. Finding the fort deserted and himself the only white man within a week’s travel, he sets about restoring the fort to appropriate standards and surveying the nearby lands. When he encounters the local Indian tribe, his diplomatic attempts are a little more open-minded than most soldiers of his time, and he slowly drawn into the Indian camp…

The overall arc, the idea, is a strong and beautiful one, and Blake went out on a limb to write a book which is overwhelming positive about the Native American tribe (assumed to be Sioux), particularly in comparison to the US Army. The novel is gentle; the writing is not complex or particularly literary. The reader is lulled into the huge expanse of the plains, Dunbar’s solitude at Ford Sedgewick, and equally the excitement of the buffalo hunt, the repeated attempts to steal Dunbar’s beloved horse and the conflict with the Pawnee grips the reader. I found the book easy to keep reading but also quite easy to put down and pick up again.

Faults? Lt. Dunbar is too good a man. It’s too easy for him to move into the Comanche world – Kicking Bird comments on it very directly (I can’t find the quote now). He never seemed to do anything selfish, foolish, or wrong. I felt this novel didn’t really know what it was, and that feeling lingered throughout. Was it an Army v Indians frontier adventure? A romance (there was more than enough gentle romantic language for it to qualify)? A social commentary?

The film made from this book (which originally started life as a speculative screenplay, which may explain the fairly simple style of writing) won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture (first Western film to win since 1931), Best Director and Best Sound. Sounds like I need to add that to my LoveFilm request list!

Additional information:
Copy from Bookmooch.
Publisher: Anchor Books, 184 pages (paperback)
Order Dances with Wolves from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – Dai Sijie – 6/10

“Years later I learnt that the translator was himself a great writer. Having been forbidden to publish his own works for political reasons, he spent the rest of his life translating French novels.”

balzacThe Book Accumulator raves about this book. I’ve seen him buy copies to have on hand to give away to people, just in case he gets the chance. Normally in German. So when this came up on Bookmooch in English, I was pretty excited.

Two city boys are sent to a mountain village for re-education during China’s Cultural Revolution. They encounter the beautiful daughter of the local tailor and manage to steal a stash of Western classics in translation; as they gorge themselves on the forbidden writing, they are released from their grim everyday lives.

I have to say, I was a bit underwhelmed by this book.

I can see why it appeals – all that French literature, the idea of secretive, reclusive, covert education, these two boys suddenly released from their academically cloistered existence into the classics of Western literature. The humour of the pranks with which they release themselves from their dire situation is spot-on – the violin ditty called “Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao”, the alarm clock on which they change the time so many times that they lose track of what the actual time is and their cruel treatment of the village head man during his dental operation.

And yet, it lacked bite – there was no grand climax, no overarching fight against anything. In fact, it was probably the last few chapters that put me off. The sad conclusion of the love affair is somehow not in keeping with the rest of the book, when the Little Seamstress has been so graceful, delicate, gentle all along. There is no triumphant release from the village; instead, the boys seem to surrender to the re-education, their spirits broken.

Worth a try – my grumbles are quite specific. And I still think it’s a 6/10 read overall.

Additional information:
Copy from Bookmooch.
Publisher: Anchor Books, 184 pages (paperback)
Order Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstressfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Fault In Our Stars – discussion post

So, people, Mini-Me basically ordered me to read this book, and The Book Accumulator had me order it for him so he could get it in English without stupid postage charges, and then I forgot to give it to him. So clearly my stars were telling me to get my act together and read it.

tfios

First impressions: these kids are witty, and I love their conversation, but so far, so another teenage cancer-ridden love story. See similar misery novels: My Sister’s KeeperElsewhere, Before I Die.

I like the humour, the conversations are funny, but then I had An Issue With This Book: Augustus. He talks like no 17-year-old I’ve ever met. He talks like no man I’ve ever met. I know some quite humorous (can’t believe I just tried to spell that humourous and I had to rely on WordPress to tell me it was wrong) young women who can get about that many words per minute in amusing streams of consciousness out, but no men. I’m not trying to generalise here, find me an erudite loquacious teenage boy, never mind teenage cancer-surviving boy, and I will eat my metaphorical hat. Or an actual one, if you find me a hat made of chocolate. (melty).

And when I cannot believe the conversational talent of one of the main couple, things are Not Going To Go Well.

Or so I thought – I’ve read another 70 pages and have sort of accepted it but it’s still bugging me. But now they’re in Amsterdam and drinking the stars and falling in love but it’s cute and complex and not totally sugar-laden because Hazel thinks of herself like a grenade and… stuff. Themes. Things that English teachers like to discuss.

 

Also, in unrelated news, today I finished the audit that would not die.

highest of fives

For those reading this on an email – I request the highest of fives. Funnier with the accompanying clip of Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother requesting the five.

 

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