Category Archives: Fiction

Anything is Possible – Elizabeth Strout

Anything is Possible – Elizabeth Strout

I bought this book on my Kindle quite close to its publication date, but then it languished in the pile (and on a Kindle you don’t really notice the pile) until finally I needed something good to read after trying (unsuccessfully) to get through Kim. As it turned out I was going to miss the Kim meeting anyway so I decided to cut my losses and move on.

I do like Elizabeth Strout – this one is another book of connected short stories.

Here is the blurb …

From #1 New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout comes a brilliant latticework of fiction that recalls Olive Kitteridge in its richness, structure, and complexity. Written in tandem with My Name Is Lucy Barton and drawing on the small-town characters evoked there, these pages reverberate with the themes of love, loss, and hope that have drawn millions of readers to Strout’s work.

“As I was writing My Name Is Lucy Barton,” Strout says, “it came to me that all the characters Lucy and her mother talked about had their own stories—of course!—and so the unfolding of their lives became tremendously important to me.”

Here, among others, are the “Pretty Nicely Girls,” now adults: One trades self-respect for a wealthy husband, the other finds in the pages of a book a kindred spirit who changes her life. Tommy, the janitor at the local high school, has his faith tested in an encounter with an emotionally isolated man he has come to help; a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD discovers unexpected solace in the company of a lonely innkeeper; and Lucy Barton’s sister, Vicky, struggling with feelings of abandonment and jealousy, nonetheless comes to Lucy’s aid, ratifying the deepest bonds of family.

With the stylistic brilliance and subtle power that distinguish the work of this great writer, Elizabeth Strout has created another transcendent work of fiction, with characters who will live in readers’ imaginations long after the final page is turned.

Her writing is fabulous and I love it when you get a glimpse of a character from another perspective – a bit like when you see someone you know well completely out of context. She writes about people whose lives are limited by lack – money, education, love, but in such a sympathetic way you feel you understand these people and are willing them onto better lives.

Now I need to read My Name is Lucy Barton (I have that on my kindle as well!) as I believe they are connected.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/23/anything-is-possible-elizabeth-strout-review

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/short-stories-review-anything-is-possible-20170511-gw2evz.html

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The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

Isn’t this a beautiful cover? I resisted reading this for a long time – I don’t really know why – but finally decided to read it when my friend told me how much she liked it (she hasn’t lead me wrong yet).

Here is the blurb …

Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.

They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.

This is beautifully written and felt very Victorian – medicine, science (mentions of Mary Anning), religion versus science, consumption – it was all there. The characters are spectacular – love triangles are everywhere, but everyone comes out unscathed in the end (in slightly unexpected ways).

If you want to be transported to another time and place, this is the book to read – the writing is so evocative.

 

More reviews

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/16/the-essex-serpent-sarah-perry-review-novel

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Noah’s Compass – Anne Tyler

Noah’s Compass – Anne Tyler

I went to a second hand book store/book exchange and I always feel I have to buy something. So when I saw this Anne Tyler novel I was on it.  I have read quite a few Anne Tyler novels – I like how the ordinary is made extraordinary.

Here is the blurb …

Quintessential Tyler, yet full of surprises – a perfectly pitched, enchanting and affecting novel about a man adrift in his own life, Noah’s Compass chimes gently, heart-breakingly with our times.

With the humour and poignancy of her classic The Accidental Tourist (though with a protagonist who doesn’t venture far from home) Anne Tyler’s new novel tells the story of a year in the life of Liam Pennywell, a man in his sixty-first year. A classical pedant, he’s just been ‘let go’ from his school teaching job and downsizes to a tiny out-of-town apartment, where he goes to bed early and alone on his first night.

Widowed, re-married, divorced and the father of three daughters, Liam is a man who is proud of his recall but has learned to dodge issues and skirt adventure. An unpleasant event occurs, though, to jolt him out of his certainty. Obsessed with a frightening gap in his memory, he sets out to uncover what happened, and finds instead an unusual woman with secrets of her own, and a late-flowering love that brings its own thorny problems. His ex-wife (sensible Barbara) and daughters worry about him but Liam blunders on, His teenage daughter Kitty is sent to stay – though it’s not clear who is minding whom. His middle daughter, Louise, is a born-again Christian with a son called Jonah, but her certainties leave Liam still more perplexed.

Noah’s Compass is about memory and its loss, about incidents and relationships which open up sight lines into a painful past long dead for a man who becomes aware that merely trying to stay afloat may not be enough.

Liam is disconnected from his own life – he has few friends and seems disengaged from his children. His two older children are angry at his emotional absence, but he just seems confused by them.  At the start, Liam has given up. He is planning on leading a small life – marking time until he dies – and then he suffers memory loss after a burglary gone wrong and becomes obsessed by the memory gap. While visiting a neuroscientist he overhears another patient in the waiting room being reminded (subtly) of someone’s name and he decides that’s what he needs a ‘rememberer’. He stalks this woman and they have a relationship – although she is not as she seems.

Liam is a non-stick man – he passes through life and nothing seems to stick – wives, children, friends, jobs. He is going through the motions but is not living. However, his memory loss, meeting Eunice, having Kitty (and her boyfriend) move in, minding Jonah and his oldest daughter’s anger seems to somehow ignite him and he becomes part of the world.

As always, the writing is beautiful, but unobtrusive.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/16/noahs-compass-anne-tyler

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/books/review/Harrison-t.html?_r=0

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Girl Waits with Gun – Amy Stewart

Girl Waits with Gun – Amy Stewart

I saw Amy Stewart at the Perth Writers Festival and was intrigued, so I popped over to the festival book shop and picked up a copy. I enjoyed it – it is well-written and entertaining (plus I learnt things)

Here is the blurb …

Constance Kopp doesn’t quite fit the mold. She towers over most men, has no interest in marriage or domestic affairs, and has been isolated from the world since a family secret sent her and her sisters into hiding fifteen years ago. One day a belligerent and powerful silk factory owner runs down their buggy, and a dispute over damages turns into a war of bricks, bullets, and threats as he unleashes his gang on their family farm. When the sheriff enlists her help in convicting the men, Constance is forced to confront her past and defend her family — and she does it in a way that few women of 1914 would have dared.

I wish I had read it before I went to the talk because I am intrigued by the research. It wears the research lightly – it is never intrusive – but you feel like you are at the Kopp farm, or downtown Paterson, or waiting with a gun for the mysterious women in black. There is mention of clothes (I always like that), food, transport… essentially documenting a vanished way of life.

I love the fact that all three of the Kopp sisters are individuals – Constance, our heroine, Norma with her pigeons and her meaningful silences and Fleurette, melodramatic and flighty.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/01/girl-waits-with-gun-by-amy-stewart-review-a-marvellous-debut-mystery

https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/girl-waits-with-gun-review-a-feisty-heroine-inspired-by-a-real-detective/2015/08/26/49d374da-4b34-11e5-84df-923b3ef1a64b_story.html?utm_term=.42e2d3b88490

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The Odd Women – George Gissing

The Odd Women – George Gissing

After reading The New Grub Street I was loathe to start this one, but my fellow book clubbers assured me this was a good read. And it was – I enjoyed it.

Here is the blurb …

A novel of social realism, The Odd Women reflects the major sexual and cultural issues of the late nineteenth century. Unlike the “New Woman” novels of the era which challenged the idea that the unmarried woman was superfluous, Gissing satirizes that image and portrays women as “odd” and marginal in relation to an ideal. Set in a grimy, fog-ridden London, Gissing’s “odd” women range from the idealistic, financially self-sufficient Mary Barfoot to the Madden sisters who struggle to subsist in low paying jobs and little chance for joy. With narrative detachment, Gissing portrays contemporary society’s blatant ambivalence towards its own period of transition. Judged by contemporary critics to be as provocative as Zola and Ibsen, Gissing produced an “intensely modern” work as the issues it raises remain the subject of contemporary debate.

At first I thought the ‘odd’ in the title meant quirky or a bit strange, but it means unpaired. So this novel is about all of the ‘superfluous’ women – the ones who can’t seem to find themselves a husband.

It shows the plight of a few ‘odd women’: Mary Barfoot (independent and trying to educate women with useful skills), Rhoda Nunn (fiercely independent and determined to remain so no matter the cost), the Madden sisters – Alice (poor but respectable), Virginia (who takes to drink) and Monica (who marries to escape her sister’s fate – a cautionary tale) and Mildred Vesper (content to work for her living).

Despite portraying all of these women sympathetically Gissing makes several misogynistic statements (unconciously revealing his belief that women are inferior)

Guilty or not, Monica would regard her with secret disdain, with woman’s malice

and

The scandal of Amy Drake, happening long after, revived her misery, which now took the form of truly feminine intolerance

This novel is preoccupied with money – very detailed accounts of incomes, what is required to get married, etc. It is about people living in straitened circumstances and how limited their lives are as a result. The women, for the most part, want to be free, but the only ones who achieve this are Mary Barfoot (independently wealthy) and Mildred Vesper (content with little). Monica finds marriage to be a prison and Rhoda’s fate is complicated – she got to choose it, but was her choice wise?

Gissing doesn’t provide any solutions -life is hard made even worse by poverty. Women, in particular, have little control of their lives.

More reviews …

“And neither was content”: George Gissing, The Odd Women

The Odd Women by George Gissing

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The Camomile Lawn Mary Wesley

The Camomile Lawn – Mary Wesley

We stopped in Capel on the way home from Dunsborough and the library was selling books for a $1 – I bought this one and A Common Loss by Kirsten Tranter.

Here is the blurb …

Behind the large house, the fragrant camomile lawn stretches down to the Cornish cliffs. Here, in the dizzying heat of August 1939, five cousins have gathered at their aunt’s house for their annual ritual of a holiday. For most of them it is the last summer of their youth, with the heady exhilarations and freedoms of lost innocence, as well as the fears of the coming war.
The Camomile Lawn moves from Cornwall to London and back again, over the years, telling the stories of the cousins, their family and their friends, united by shared losses and lovers, by family ties and the absurd conditions imposed by war as their paths cross and recross over the years. Mary Wesley presents an extraordinarily vivid and lively picture of wartime London: the rationing, imaginatively circumvented; the fallen houses; the parties, the new-found comforts of sex, the desperate humour of survival – all of it evoked with warmth, clarity and stunning wit. And through it all, the cousins and their friends try to hold on to the part of themselves that laughed and played dangerous games on that camomile lawn.

I have been on a 1930s/1940s thing lately – The Light Years and then Marking Time. This period is definitely growing on me – although both Mary Wesley and Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote about the 40s much later, so maybe I wouldn’t like contemporary authors.

This novel starts in the summer of 1939 war is brewing but has yet to break out. The cousins come every summer to Cornwall to stay with their uncle. Oliver has returned from Spain – altered by his experiences, but still in love with Calypso. Calypso is determined to marry a rich man. Then there is Polly and Walter – both overshadowed by Calypso and Oliver, and finally Sophie much younger than the others and she lives with Richard and Helena (the uncle and aunt everyone is visiting). There is also the rectory twins.

The novel then follows their adventures during the war – although Sophie ‘sees something nasty in the woodshed’ and deals with that early on. Everyone lives like each day might be their last – Helena finds love or at least sex, Calypso marries her rich man (and may indeed love him), Oliver continues on his cynical and selfish path, Polly finds love, Walter never finds his sea legs and remains a bit of a shadowy character and Sophie watches it all and wishes to be older. There are bombs, rationing and lots of drinking – all of the characters are more alive during the war years than before or after.

It is a beautifully written novel – witty, lively and at times brutally honest.

I am now going to watch the 1992 adaptation – As it is rated MA15+, I need to wait for my girls to be back at school.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jun/03/featuresreviews.guardianreview2

http://www.nytimes.com/1984/07/08/books/oliver-worshipped-calypso.html

 

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LaRose – Louise Erdrich

LaRose – Louise Erdrich

I am not sure about this one, it was recommended by several people and I liked it, but I am not sure if I would recommend it.

Here is the blurb …

Louise Erdrich, the author of the National Book Award-winning The Round House and the Pulitzer Prize nominee The Plague of Doves wields her breathtaking narrative magic in an emotionally haunting contemporary tale of a tragic accident, a demand for justice, and a profound act of atonement with ancient roots in indigenous culture.

Some bits of it I loved – the social/cultural history of settler/Indian contact, contemporary life on Reservations (the drugs, alcohol and violence, but also the kindness and support). However, I stopped reading found excuses to do something else, which is always a sign that I am not that taken with a novel. It seemed overly long and I found it a struggle to read. Having said all of that, I am glad I finished it.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/25/larose-by-louise-erdrich-review

https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/louise-erdrichs-larose-a-gun-accident-sets-off-a-masterly-tale-of-grief-and-love/2016/05/09/e719aa04-1215-11e6-8967-7ac733c56f12_story.html?utm_term=.ed461f97f16e

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The Light Years – Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Light Years – Elizabeth Jane Howard

A friend recommended this, but I had a few reservations – it seemed a bit saga-ish (there are several books after all) and the author’s name seemed a bit romance novelisty. However, I really enjoyed this one and will certainly read the rest.

Here is the blurb …

In 1937, the coming war is only a distant cloud on Britain’s horizon. As the Cazalet households prepare for their summer pilgrimage to the family estate in Sussex, readers meet Edward, in love with but by no means faithful to his wife Villy; Hugh, wounded in the Great War; Rupert, who worships his lovely child-bride Zoe; and Rachel, the spinster sister.

This novel was full of social detail – the drama of organising meals, buying enough food, dealing with servants, taking the family to the beach, but it is also surprisingly modern – there is a lesbian couple, there is a brief mention of anti-semitism, being a conscientious objector during war.

The characters are magnificently portrayed – the view point switches around between characters and there is a lot of pyschological insight. I was fully engaged with this novel. There was a never moment when I was jolted out of the story because of poor writing.

More reviews …

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/elizabeth-jane-howard-2/the-light-years/

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

 

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Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry was meant to come to the Perth Writers Festival, so I thought I should read his latest novel. However, he didn’t end up coming, but none-the-less I pushed on and finished this novel.

Here is the blurb …

From the two-time Man Booker Prize finalist Sebastian Barry, “a master storyteller” (Wall Street Journal), comes a powerful new novel of duty and family set against the American Indian and Civil Wars.

Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in.

Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.

I found this hard going at first not because it is poorly written (quite the contrary), but the era of history is not one I am that interested in. However, I persevered and was well rewarded. It is a beautiful story about family and how often the family we make for ourselves is better than the family we were given. It is a violent story – Indian massacres, civil war battles, soldiers being massacred by Indians, but the violence isn’t dwelt on it is just how life was at that time. I didn’t realise how badly the Indians were treated or the sorts of things that happened to black people in the South after the civil war – terrible times.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/28/days-without-end-by-sebastian-barry-review

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/days-without-end-review-sebastian-barrys-novel-of-a-young-irishman-in-america-20161024-gs9ckg.html

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Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

This was novel was recommended by a friend and I took a while to get to it, but I am glad I did.

Here is the plot summary from Wikipedia …

Lolly Willowes is satirical comedy of manners incorporating elements of fantasy, it is the story of a middle-aged spinster who moves to a country village to escape her controlling relatives and takes up the practice of witchcraft. The novel opens at the turn of the twentieth century, with Laura Willowes moving from Somerset to London to live with her brother, Henry, and his family. The move comes in the wake of the death of Laura’s father, Everard, with whom she lived with at the family home, Lady Place. Laura’s other brother, James, moves into Lady Place with his wife and his young son, Titus, with the intention to continue the family’s brewing business. However, James dies suddenly of a heart attack and Lady Place is rented out, with the view that Titus, once grown up, will return to the home and run the business.

Laura finds herself feeling increasingly stifled both by the obligations of being a live-in aunt and living in London. When shopping for flowers on the Moscow Road, Laura decides she wishes to move to the Chiltern Hills and, buying a guide book and map to the area, she decides upon the (fictional) village of Great Mop as her new home. Against the wishes of her extended family, Laura moves to Great Mop and finds herself entranced and overwhelmed by the chalk hills and beech woods. When out walking, she makes a pact with a force that she takes to be Satan, so as she can remain in the Chilterns rather than return to her duties as an aunt. On returning to her lodgings, she discovers a kitten, whom she takes to be Satan’s emissary, and names him Vinegar Tom, in reference to the English history of witchcraft.

In the meantime, Titus, having visited Laura, has decided he wants to move from his lodgings in Bloomsbury to Great Mop and be a writer, rather than inheriting the family business. Titus’ renewed social and domestic reliance on Laura make Laura feel frustrated that even as a witch living in the Chilterns she cannot escape the duties expected of women. Satan intervenes, plaguing Titus with tricks, such as curdling his milk and, finally, setting a nest of wasps upon him. Finally, having had his wasp stings treated by a Londoner named Pandora Williams, Titus proposes marriage to Pandora and the two retreat to London. Laura, relieved, meets Satan at Mulgrave Folly and tells him that women are like ‘sticks of dynamite’ waiting to explode and that all women are witches even ‘if they never do anything with their witchcraft, they know it’s there – ready!’ The novel ends with Laura acknowledging that her new freedom comes at the expense of knowing that she belongs to the ‘satisfied but profound indifferent ownership’ of Satan.

My version has an introduction by Sarah Waters, which contains this gem

Having read verbatim accounts of 16th Century Scottish witch trials and been struck, as she described it, by the ‘romance of witchcraft’ for the women who became involved with it, the ‘release’ it represented to them from ‘hard lives’ and ‘dull futures’ it occurred to her to try out a novel on this theme, but with a contemporary setting.

and that is what she does with Lolly Willowes.

She wrote to her friend David Garnett

Other people who have seen Lolly have told me that it was charming, that it was distinguished, and my mother said it was almost as good as Galsworthy. And my heart sank lower and lower, I felt as though I had tried to make a sword only to be told what a pretty pattern there was on the blade.”

I have to admit I thought it was charming (subversive as well, but definitely charming!). This novel is about gender and the role of unmarried women in particular. Laura moves to Great Mop in 1921 – women had been granted the vote in 1918 (well some women) and England was dealing with returned service men (unable to find jobs and emotionally damaged) and surplus women (which was seen as a problem). For the most part unmarried older women were seen as chronically unfulfilled. There was a contrast between the lives they lived and their passionate imaginative emotional lives. Laura turns to Satan who, in the words of Sarah Waters, “who pays them the compliment of pursuing them, and having bagged them, performs the even more valuable service of leaving them alone.”

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/15/100-best-novels-lolly-willowes-sylvia-townsend-warner-robert-mccrum

http://furrowedmiddlebrow.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/sylvia-townsend-warner-lolly-willowes.html

 

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