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Surrey, United Kingdom

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

I'm not quite sure how, but I have not read any Alan Hollinghurst until now.  It seems like a gross oversight and I am sure I would enjoy his novels.  Booker winner with The Line of Beauty, Somerset Maugham winner with The Swimming Pool Library - really, what's not to like?  And yet, I've never really felt inclined to read any of them.  I'm rather ashamed to admit that what really drew me to get The Stranger's Child out of the library was (in descending order): the cover, the fact it was a shiny new copy which looked pleasingly hefty and the blurb.  The blurb put me in mind of Brideshead Revisited, possibly The Cazalet series and a fair dollop of Atonement.  A good, old-fashioned family saga and a romp through gorgeous country houses in the first half of the twentieth century.  It certainly ticked a good number of my boxes.  And true to it's word, it was very enjoyable and I finished it in (for me) record time (just over two weeks - I'm not an especially fast reader and I am still coming to terms with the fact that a one year old doesn't leave you with much time, or energy, for reading).  It did remind me of Brideshead, well, certainly the first part did when we got to know Cecil, Daphne and George, but also the character of Paul Bryant brought to mind Charles Ryder - rather unpleasant and distinctly unlikeable, not to mention that unsettling sycophancy and fantasism.  What I found particularly clever was the way Hollinghurst shifted between the different parts of the novel.  There was no great exposition about how many years had passed, or how these people connect with the previous storylines, but it was never confusing.  It just flowed and I think this is to be commended.  All too often you get the feeling the author enjoys making you stumble around trying to work out what the heck is going on, but Hollinghurst balances this perfectly - you don't feel it is being explained to you, nor do you feel it is long-drawn out and un-explained.  I'm not explaining this very well...but you get my point that the shift in time, central character etc in the novel's separate parts is handled with skill and without compromising the story-telling.
The only problem with the novel is that it, well, it just sort of peters out.  So much so that I actually wondered if I was missing a final chapter (always a worry with library books, I don't know why) and it took me a few minutes to realise that no, that was it.  A couple of days on and I have come to terms with it - and I almost like that it left me feeling that way.  After all, life doesn't have a tidy ending, does it?  We don't finish any stage of our lives thinking 'great, that's all sorted then, nothing left over for the next generation to worry about.'  It also gives you the chance to use the old grey cells, and think about what you have read.  What did I learn through these characters?  What did I learn about myself and my own family?  Of course, this will be different for every reader and we will never know the truth about the Valances, Keepings et al.  And for once, I am quite happy with that.

Friday, 27 September 2013

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Having enjoyed Rebecca so much, I thought I would jump straight in with another Daphne du Maurier.  My Cousin Rachel, like Rebecca, centres around a mysterious woman.  In this case, it is the narrator's distant cousin, Rachel.  We never really get to know Rachel, but she has many of the characteristics of Rebecca.  She is charismatic and has an aura around.  What I find interesting is why Du Maurier was so drawn to writing about female characters like this.  At first read it can seem that she is saying that women are deceitful and secretive, manipulative and scheming, but I think her intention was very different.  What Rebecca and Rachel have in common is misconception.  Both women are thought to be different to how they are and I think it is this that Du Maurier is railing against.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Group by Mary McCarthy

This book had been sitting on my shelf since I stumbled across it in a charity shop about a year ago.  I think it had been re-issued a couple of months previously and there was a good deal of buzz about it.  As with so many books that I pick up second-hand I didn't get around to reading it straight away and then it got forgotten as other more demanding books took my fancy.

When I noticed a couple of weeks ago my enthusiasm for it had completely waned.  It was only because I had just finished Lucy Moore's wonderful Biography of the Roaring Twenties: Anything Goes that I was considering reading it.  But if there is one thing I have learnt over my years of reading it is that just because a book doesn't feel like the right book to read at the moment doesn't mean that you won't enjoy it and be proved utterly wrong.  And so it was with The Group.  I'm not sure how, but I had the impression that this was a non-fiction book.  That was my first eyebrow-raising moment.  Second was the joy of Candace Bushnell's introduction.  If I had previously doubted whether I wanted to read the book or not I had completely changed my mind by the end of the Introduction.  Candace describes it as a book that her Mother had recommended to her as a teenager.  At that age she had not enjoyed it and I think therein lies the secret of this book.  The story, of a group of girl-friends from Vassar college, follows the girls as they make their way in the big, bad world outside of college.  They all have hopes, dreams and expectations, just like young women today, and they none of them quite know what life will throw at them.  Suffice to say that within the group they all suffer, they all gain and they all show strength and resilience in the face of challenges and disappointments.  Their story is timeless.  OK, so the specifics may have changed, but the central theme of the story is that we cannot predict how life will turn out... and that's not a bad thing.  My only criticism of the book is that it could have told me more.  I had grown to love these women, for all their idiosyncrasies and flaws.  They reminded me of friends, acquaintances and colleagues and their stories were all ones I had seen play out in real life, and for that reason I understand why it might not appeal to younger readers.  It is the mirror it holds up to our own lives (and those of our friends) that make it such an intriguing and genuinely touching read.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

I would describe Philippa Gregory's historic fiction as a guilty pleasure but you know what? I don't actually feel that guilty about it.  Her writing is compelling and enjoyable and she really makes the characters come alive, by giving them motives and backgrounds.  This is the second of the Cousins trilogy and is as fascinating and well written as The White Queen.  Following the life of Margaret Beaufort, we see the Lancastrian side of the story this time and what I really enjoyed was the cross-over between the two books.  Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville's lives are set against each other and reflect the contrasts and conflicts of the Lancastrians and the Yorks.

I'm sure for scholars or students of the period the historic fact is a little too black and white, but for me it simply enthuses me and makes me want to learn more about the period, which can only be a good thing, surely?

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Discovering Anthony Trollope is a wonderful experience - The Warden by Anthony Trollope is the first of his Barsetshire novels and only my second ever Trollope read.  Having been a life-long fan of Dickens, I admit to being a little biased and resisting Trollope for some time.  I'm so glad that I decided to go against my better judgement and give Trollope a chance.  His writing is just wonderful and his characters more than compare to Dickens.

The Warden tells the story of Septimus Harding who is the warden (no surprise there) of an almshouse in Barchester.  The plot centres around a legal action against Mr Harding, challenging the living he makes from the wardenship.  Trollope examines the effects of investigative journalism on those involved and how it colours opinions and can damage reputations.  There is biting satire  - Dickens is lambasted as Mr Popular Sentiment, an author writing novels pandering to the masses and manipulating their emotions.  But it is also a story about human relationships and what brings us happiness.

Anthony Trollope

What I find so intriguing about this novel is how it has remained so fresh and applicable to society today.  Journalism and publishing still influence opinion and can manipulate the general public.

Mr Popular Sentiment
While I will never turn my back on Dickens, I can now appreciate that Trollope is a writer of equal importance and possibly greater talent.  While Dickens embraced and shaped popular thought and opinion Trollope questioned and challenged them and in some ways this makes Trollope's work more universal and lasting.  I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of the Barsetshire novels and am grateful that Trollope was as prolific as Dickens!

One Day by David Nicholls

I don't think I would have ordinarily picked this book up were it not for a string of recommendations by book bloggers and friends.  One Day by David Nicholls turned out to be one of those books that really took me surprise.  It started off as straight-forward.  It's the story of two people who spent one night and day together following their university graduation.  We then catch up with them on the anniversary of that day (St Swithin's day) over the next twenty years.  I think the beauty of this book is that it all seems so real - Emma and Dexter are people you know, the situations they find themselves in are those that we, or our friends, go through.  It's a book about the things in life that matter - love, friendship and realising your dreams.  I started off thinking it was going to be a story that I have read a million times before and yet the brilliant thing about David Nicholls is that he manages to make this seemingly standard love story different and memorable.  For all the things about the story that are familiar, there are still moments that surprise, and shock.

There's an up-coming film adaptation of One Day, due later this year, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess.  Having seen (and enjoyed) other films and tv projects that David Nicholls has written (Starter for Ten and Cold Feet) I have no doubt that this adaptation will work really well.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Brighton Rock - the film

Went to see Brighton Rock at the lovely Reigate Everyman cinema this afternoon, and am still a little undecided about it.  Of course, there is no arguing that the cinematography is beautiful and the acting, for the most part, is wonderful.  Andrea Riseborough gives Rose an innocence and childlike quality that goes some way to making her character believable.  Sam Riley, whilst certainly brooding and menacing wasn't much else and we never got a sense of why he was the way he was.  I haven't read the book, but watching the film made me wonder how much more there is in the novel than they were able to squeeze into the film.  So much of the story seems to be unexplained - I don't think we saw enough of Rose and her home life to understand her willingness to devote herself unconditionally to Pinkie.  The religious aspects of the story are glossed over and there are many sub-plots which are hinted at, but left undeveloped.  It may be that the book is much the same but I felt that many of the characters seemed quite flat because their motives were unexplained.  On the plus side, the film certainly gave me a good deal to think about - what makes us love or trust people the people we do, what are we driven by? - and it also made me want to read the novel!