Category Archives: Recommended

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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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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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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Snowdrift – Georgette Heyer

Snowdrift and other stories – Georgette Heyer

I do like Georgette Heyer novels – the regency romances the mysteries – and, so as soon as I had of this one I pre-ordered it. And then when it arrived I saved it for my trip to Rottnest – perfect!

Here’s the blurb …

Previously titled Pistols for Two, this edition includes three recently discovered short stories. A treat for all fans of Georgette Heyer, and for those who love stories full of romance and intrigue.

Affairs of honour between bucks and blades, rakes and rascals; affairs of the heart between heirs and orphans, beauties and bachelors; romance, intrigue, escapades and duels at dawn. All the gallantry, villainy and elegance of the age that Georgette Heyer has so triumphantly made her own are exquisitely revived in these wonderfully romantic stories of the Regency period.

If you have read any Heyer, then you will know exactly what this book is like. These stories are swashbuckling fun – full of beautiful girls, masterful heros and misguided young men trying to do the right thing. It is a book of short stories and it might be better to read them one at a time with a bit of a break between them because sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

More reviews …

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/snowdrift-and-other-stories-by-georgette-heyer-lsv8jt73j

http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com.au/2016/09/new-georgette-heyer-stories.html – this one is an interview with Jennifer Kloester who wrote the introduction (plus she has written a biography of Heyer)

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Road Ends – Mary Lawson

Road Ends – Mary Lawson

So after reading Crow Lake I moved straight onto this one (and I think this one is the better novel).

Here is the blurb …

He listened as their voices faded into the rumble of the falls. He was thinking about the lynx. The way it had looked at him, acknowledging his existence, then passing out of his life like smoke. . . It was the first thing—the only thing—that had managed, if only for a moment, to displace from his mind the image of the child. He had carried that image with him for a year now, and it had been a weight so great that sometimes he could hardly stand.

Mary Lawson’s beloved novels, Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge, have delighted legions of readers around the world. The fictional, northern Ontario town of Struan, buried in the winter snows, is the vivid backdrop to her breathtaking new novel.

Roads End brings us a family unravelling in the aftermath of tragedy: Edward Cartwright, struggling to escape the legacy of a violent past; Emily, his wife, cloistered in her room with yet another new baby, increasingly unaware of events outside the bedroom door; Tom, their eldest son, twenty-five years old but home again, unable to come to terms with the death of a friend; and capable, formidable Megan, the sole daughter in a household of eight sons, who for years held the family together but has finally broken free and gone to England, to try to make a life of her own.

Roads End is Mary Lawson at her best. In this masterful, enthralling, tender novel, which ranges from the Ontario silver rush of the early 1900s to swinging London in the 1960s, she gently reveals the intricacies and anguish of family life, the push and pull of responsibility and individual desire, the way we can face tragedy, and in time, hope to start again.

This novel, like Crow Lake, is about families – relationships between parent and child, between siblings, who is responsible for whom. It is also about responsibility for our actions – accepting the consequences and finding a way to move forward.  It is a beautifully written novel – the cold seeps of the page – and it is very moving. All of these people – Tom, Edward, Reverend Thomas – tormented by the past and their actions or lack of action. However, there is hope at the end.

More reviews …

https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2013/11/15/road_ends_by_mary_lawson_review.html

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/road-ends-a-compelling-but-familiar-look-at-the-harsh-realities-of-northern-ontario-life/article15675077/

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Crow Lake – Mary Lawson

Crow Lake – Mary Lawson

I have been wanting to read this book for a long time – ever since I read that she was a relative of L.M Montgomery, but it was quite hard to get hold off eventually I found a copy at the Book Depository.

Here is the blurb …

Crow Lake is that rare find, a first novel so quietly assured, so emotionally pitch perfect, you know from the opening page that this is the real thing—a literary experience in which to lose yourself, by an author of immense talent.
Here is a gorgeous, slow-burning story set in the rural “badlands” of northern Ontario, where heartbreak and hardship are mirrored in the landscape. For the farming Pye family, life is a Greek tragedy where the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, and terrible events occur—offstage.
Center stage are the Morrisons, whose tragedy looks more immediate if less brutal, but is, in reality, insidious and divisive. Orphaned young, Kate Morrison was her older brother Matt’s protegee, her fascination for pond life fed by his passionate interest in the natural world. Now a zoologist, she can identify organisms under a microscope but seems blind to the state of her own emotional life. And she thinks she’s outgrown her siblings—Luke, Matt, and Bo—who were once her entire world.
In this universal drama of family love and misunderstandings, of resentments harbored and driven underground, Lawson ratchets up the tension with heartbreaking humor and consummate control, continually overturning one’s expectations right to the very end. Tragic, funny, unforgettable, Crow Lake is a quiet tour de force that will catapult Mary Lawson to the forefront of fiction writers today.

For all of you Montgomery fans this does have a bit of a Montgomery feel and there is a family called Pye! In this novel we know something happened between Matt and Kate, which severed their close connection. And I have to say when the thing was revealed I was disappointed. However, I loved everything else about this novel – the characters are particularly well-written, I just thought the climax was anti-climatic. I was swept away to this small northern Ontario town – the sense of place was brilliant particularly the Morrisons’ house.

This is a story about families and family conflict and the different methods different members employ to negotiate conflicts.  It is also about choices – and how much freedom people have to make decisions about their lives.

More reviews …

https://www.januarymagazine.com/fiction/crowlake.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/24/books/the-girl-she-left-behind.html

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Hag Seed – Margaret Atwood

Hag Seed – Margaret Atwood

I don’t think I have read an Atwood novel that I haven’t liked. So I was keen to read this – I did ask at my local Dymocks and they hadn’t heard of it, which is very upsetting. Anyway this is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project). I know nothing about The Tempest, so I read the wikipedia summary (although having read that I think The Collector by John Fowles might have some Tempest allusions – there is a Miranda, a man who wants to be called Ferdinand, but gets called Caliban – I do wonder now what my English Lit teacher was thinking not to mention Shakespeare?)

Here’s the blurb …

The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion — starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.

In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself — and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever.

I found this to be quite the page turner – and I am quite sure I wouldn’t have found the original to be so enthralling.

It is such a clever, fun, modern interpretation (and the prisoners offer insightful commentary about the original).

As with all Atwood novels, it is beautifully written – her choice of words is extraordinary (it must be the poet in her). I wish she would write for the Austen project, which apart from Northanger Abbey has been quite disappointing.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/16/hag-seed-review-margaret-atwood-tempest-hogarth-shakespeare

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/shakespeare-goes-under-margaret-atwoods-microscope-in-hagseed/news-story/d21be2b437ca5c86a5f2365b1d08747d

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Every Good Deed and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple

Every Good Deed and Other Stories – Dorothy Whipple

I love Persephone books – I don’t think I have had a disappointing book yet.  For some reason I hadn’t bought one for a while, so I had slipped off the Persephone Biannually list, but when I heard there was a new Dorothy Whipple I had to get it. And then clearly I had to buy another two to get the discount postage – Miss Buncle Married and Fidelity.

Here is the blurb (or what it has on the inside cover – it is an excerpt from one of the stories)…

She sighed heavily and looked unseeingly out of the window, crushed with the boredom of being where she was, of being a widow, of not being invited anywhere for this fortnight. ‘It’s cutlet for cutlet,’ she thought bitterly. ‘I can’t entertain, so no one entertains me now. To think that I should have come to a place like this. After the life,’ she thought, ‘I’ve lived.’

She closed her eyes against the dining room, but opened them again on being addressed by Maud.

‘D’you want the mayonnaise?’ asked Maud truculently, bringing it.

‘Out of a bottle?’ said Mrs Moore. ‘No’.

Maud went out of the dining room, but spoke in a loud voice in the passage outside.

‘It’s a quarter-past two and my afternoon off,’ she said. ‘I’m not going to stand this, so you know, Mrs Pink. I’ve no need to.’

These are beautifully written stories about ordinary (and the occasionally  malicious) people. These stories were published between 1935 and 1961 and are of their time and about a certain class (middle) of English society. Don’t assume it is all tea drinking and scone eating – people are people wherever you find them. They are selfish, self-centred, vicious, kind, generous and self-sacrificing.

These novels are for people who are more interested in character than plot.

Here is the Persephone page for Every Good Deed

Here is a review from the Book Snob about one of the stories – Every Good Deed

And another review …

Every Good Deed and Other Stories – Dorothy Whipple – a new Persephone!

 

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Our Souls at Night – Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night – Kent Haruf

I love Kent Haruf’s novels – slow burning stories about the human spirit. So I was keen to read this his last novel.

Here is the blurb …

Addie Moore’s husband died years ago, so did Louis Waters’ wife, and, as neighbours in Holt, Colorado they have naturally long been aware of each other. With their children now far away both live alone in houses empty of family. The nights are terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk to. Then one evening Addie pays Louis an unexpected visit.
Their brave adventures – their pleasures and their difficulties – form the beating heart of Our Souls at Night. Kent Haruf’s final novel is a moving story about love and growing old with grace.

This is a beautiful story about the loneliness of old-age, but also about reaching out to connect with someone – the courage required and the rewards involved (a new lease on life). It is also about the expectations placed on us by our communities and our families.

The writing is (as always) beautiful – certainly not showy, but eloquent in its simplicity.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/27/our-souls-at-night-kent-haruf-review

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