Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

Firstly, apologies to my few faithful followers for not posting a book review in ages!

I have been rather busy of late with work matters.

Today’s book won the Irish Winner of the Bord Gáis Novel of the Year 2017.

midwinter break image

Bernard MacLaverty hails from Northern Ireland, so my interest was immediately piqued, and having heard great things about him as an author I ran out to buy the book.

The premise is this:  Gerry and Stella are happily married.  They head off on a four week break to Amsterdam.  We see that they are as comfortable together as a pair of old slippers.  Happily married, or so it seems on the surface.

As the novel progresses, we find out that Stella was injured in a bomb blast in Belfast many years previously, and the couple moved to Glasgow.   Stella has a deep spirituality and faith.  Gerry does not.  Gerry likes to drink – a lot.  Stella does not.  And yet, they obviously care for each other deeply.

So what do you do when you begin to question what your life is really all about, and whether the person sharing it with you, understands you at all?   These are just a couple  of issues Stella grapples with as she pounds the pavements of Amsterdam, while Gerry is either sleeping or secretly drinking.

This novel is a masterclass in the art of understated elegance and simplicity.  MacLaverty notices all kinds of details of both objects and personality traits, and describes them with relish. Here Stella dwells on a stone, as she remembers falling in love:

“She was always on the lookout for stones. Only white perfect ones would make her stoop. . . . When they were wet and glistening they seemed special but she knew that when they dried out maybe some yellow or grey would creep into their colour. The perfect ones would end up in a glass bowl on her table. It was their simplicity she found so attractive.”

Gerry is completely oblivious to Stella’s restlessness and ongoing spiritual ‘dark night of the soul.’

As his drinking worsens on the trip, her faith increases, and she visits a group called the Beguines, “a Catholic sisterhood who lived alone as nuns, but without vows.”   She considers joining them, but she is unable to, as they no longer exist in the place she had sought with them.

As she and Gerry are forced to confront the truth about themselves and their relationship, they find themselves stuck in the airport as a snow storm rages around them.  This apt metaphor will bring their feelings, resentments, hurts and fears to the surface, as they decide if they can survive their own storm.

I cannot even begin to tell you how much I enjoyed the beautiful prose of this novel.   It’s not action packed, so if you like your books filled with action, then this won’t suit you at all.

However, if you like words, beautiful writing and the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of human relationships, then look no further.

This novel is breathtakingly wonderful.

 

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Venetia by Georgette Heyer

venetia by g heyer

I was interested to read this novel by Georgette Heyer, after listening to the Backlisted Podcast. It is one of my favourite podcasts, where Andy Miller and guests discuss unusual books that are of a bygone era.  The tagline for the podcast is ‘Giving new life to old books.’

Georgette Heyer (1903-1974) wrote forty historical romance novels set during the Regency period (1811-1820.) Venetia and The Grand Sophy appear to be two of her most popular novels.

The novel is written in the third person and begins with the main character Venetia Lanyon enjoying some witty banter with her younger brother Aubrey.  We discover that Aubrey has a slight deformity – a limp, as a result of a disease of the hip joint.  He is an exceptionally intelligent and articulate boy who reads a prolific amount. He and Venetia are very close.

Venetia is mistress of her own home in Yorkshire.  Both parents are dead and she remains at home with the help of Nurse, who has cared for them since they were children.

When their neighbour, the dashing and wicked Lord Damerel returns to Yorkshire, Venetia’s life is set to become a lot more exciting and dangerous.  Venetia already has two suitors and her reputation as a young woman living as mistress of her own home, (seen as scandalous) is always a topic of debate amongst the great and the good of Yorkshire society.  They see it as their duty to get her married off as soon as possible, but Venetia has other ideas.

On the whole, I am not really a fan of reading historical romantic fiction, so it took me awhile to get used to the language of this novel.

However, I was completely in after reading the following scene when Venetia first meets Damerel and he makes a pass at her: (note: she says ‘How splendid!’, in response to him saying he will be staying in Yorkshire for some time.)

‘How splendid!’ said Venetia affably. ‘In general it is a trifle dull here, but that will be quite at an end if you are to remain amongst us!’……’Goodbye!’

‘Oh, not goodbye!’ he protested, ‘I mean to know you better, Miss Lanyon of Undershaw!’

‘To be sure, it does seem a pity you should not, after such a promising start, but life, you know, is full of disappointments, and that, I must warn you, is likely to prove one of them.’

This wit and feistiness from Venetia had me sold.  As the heroine of the story, she is full of zest, joie de vivre and mischief.

I did find the story took too long to get going for my liking.  The first third could have been cut down substantially, but if you bear with it until after the first third, your patience will be rewarded, as it picks up pace significantly after that, and I thoroughly enjoyed the last two thirds of the novel.

One thing I couldn’t help but notice were the similarities with Jane Austen. I’m surprised she wasn’t done for plagiarism!  One of the country houses is called Netherfold (Netherfield in Austen’s P&P!) and the dialogue is incredibly similar.  However, Heyer made no secret of the fact that she was influenced by Austen, so it seems to have been accepted without any problem.

Where Heyer is unique, is in her attention to detail of the Regency era.  She has this down to a fine art, and it’s a fascinating look at the social mores of the era.

I would have loved to have read this book while lying beside a pool or on a beach, where I could have luxuriated in the wonderful language and taken my time to enjoy it.   I felt I didn’t give it the concentration it perhaps deserved.    I would certainly read another Georgette Heyer and may read The Grand Sophy next.    A perfect holiday read – pure escapism!

 

 

 

My review of The Ginger Man (and I rate in order of preference the 10 classics I read last year.)

So, I finally reached the last book on my ‘Reading Gym’ list, although that term never really worked for me.  I still prefer Andy Miller’s term ‘The List of Betterment.’

Anyway, ‘The Ginger Man by J.P.Donleavy is a book I had been meaning to read for some considerable time.  Considered a classic of Irish literature, it was first published in 1955.  Mr Donleavy died last year at the age of 91.   The Ginger Man sold over 45 million copies worldwide and was banned in Ireland until the 1970s.

The Ginger Man

Apparently, Donleavy said that being a writer is about ‘just catching your unconscious.’

This is an apt and wonderful description of the incredible prose in this novel.  For incredible it is.  Donleavy has taken the rule book and thrown in out the window.  He jumps from third person to first, he jumps from past to present, sometimes mid-sentence.  He writes stream of consciousness. Yet every word is glorious, no word is wasted.  I began marking sentences I liked, but in the end, there were too many.  It is a masterclass of descriptive and comic writing.

Sebastian Dangerfield is a Trininty Law Student who comes from the States.  Married to the long-suffering Marion, they have a young child, and Dangerfield is down on his luck.  All we know he has going for him is his upper-class accent and his background (although this is also left as something of a mystery).  He is a Bon Viveur to the extreme.  No day is complete without a few good malts and a good fry up, perhaps followed with a rumble in the hay with whoever is obliging.  Faithful? Pah – it doesn’t exist in his vocabulary.  He loves with abandon and lust.

The setting of the streets and pubs of Dublin is so evocative and visceral I could almost smell the peat.  Just reading the book gave me a craving for sausages and copious amounts of tea, so vivid are his descriptions of the many breakfasts he is cooked by one of his many women, be it Chris, Miss Frost or his final female companion Mary.  He is more than a rogue and I was definitely not enamoured at all of the violence the character displayed towards women at times.

A lovable rogue?  More like a good for nothing violent, selfish, devil.  Yet why I found myself liking him slightly I couldn’t figure.  Many women hate Dangerfield for his drunken violence, yet to dismiss him as a violent drunk is to look far too simplistically at this character, in my opinion.

He is undoubtedly cruel to his wife and not always kind to the other women he meets, yet he loves and reveres women and is pushed to near breaking point by his circumstances.  People will see what they want to see, but I believe him to be a complex character, who, although he doesn’t deserve one iota of pity, also doesn’t deserve to be written off due to some of his behaviour.

Yet he is a horror of a man who drinks, gambles, fights and womanizes his way through life.  Despite always scrambling for his next penny, he has an unfailing optimism and resilience that sees him though many scrapes and has the women falling for his easy charm.  I think that may be what it is – he makes you believe that there is always hope and the possibility of a better tomorrow.

However, he himself convinces no-one that he will ever change, least of all himself.  He continues with his delusions. Here he reflects on all his passions with a practical attitude:

‘I’m starved for love. Not ordinary love but real love…..’If I got Mary as the maid, Chris as the boarder, Miss Frost as secretary and Marion to run the whole lot, we’d be a great bunch.  Then take my proper place in society, suits overhauled and the rest.  O there’ll be changes made…At least I have rules. And I know society respects a man for his discipline.’

He always believes he can be a good man, get his degree and earn a living, and yet at the slightest thought of hard work he is off to the pub for a swift one.

The humour that runs through the book is dirty and delightful.  Even at the height of his troubles, as the reader, you never doubt that Sebastian Dangerfield will survive. The comic mastery of this novel leaps off the page, and some of the bar brawls had me in stitches in spite of myself.

If you delight in the construction of a well written sentence and vivid description of place, you will love this book.   I found myself completely swept up in the madness and it certainly started January off with a bang!!   I think it is one of those books you just have to read!

So I have finished my List of Betterment started in 2017.  Here is the list of books I read ranked in order of preference.

  1. Stoner by John Williams. Still my favourite novel by a long shot.   A subtle beautifully told poignant tale.  Read it and weep.
  2. The Ginger Man by J.P.Donleavy. For all the reasons above!
  3. Middlemarch by George Elliot. A wonderful saga.
  4. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham. I so enjoyed the style and content of his musings!  One I definitely want to read again.
  5. Les Jeux Sont Faits by Sartre. Anything that makes you question the nature of life and death is right up my street!
  6. The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov.  An intriguing and riotous read!
  7. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Mixed feelings about this one.  Don’t remember much about it – never a good sign.
  8. Persuasion by Jane Austen. Enjoyable but a bit ‘beige’ for me.  I know – how could I?
  9. Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. Aaaargh – get an editor for goodness sake!
  10. Atomised by Michel Houellebecq – just kill me now! Painful in every way.

So in 2018 I am reading for pleasure.  There are so many books I didn’t get to read last year, because I was ploughing my way through these and others.  This year I want to read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.   The Break by Marion Keyes.  The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry…..oh and so many more I have piled up and ready to go!  Will try and post reviews as I go.  What are you reading in 2018?  Happy to have recommendations.  I can never have enough choice!  Thank you for following me/reading my post and I hope I may inspire you to read a book or two in 2018! We need to get off social media and back to reading.  Much better for the soul!

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I had been looking forward to reading this novel for some considerable time.  I am intrigued by Russian literature and love 19th century novels.

I had one major issue with this novel.  Its length.  Dear God, where was Tolstoy’s editor?  People had more leisure time and read more then, I get it, and this certainly would have kept you going through the winter, but I found reading it when I was tired was not ideal, and my patience was sorely tested on occasion.

In saying all of that, I can completely see why it is a classic.  The writing is sublime, the descriptions of both fatal events and turning points in the novel are breath taking in their brilliance.  “He stepped down, avoiding any long look at her as one avoids long looks at the sun, but seeing her as one sees the sun, without looking.”

As a writer, Tolstoy was a master.  Of that thee is no doubt.  As an entertaining read, I would say you need a lot of time and a lot of patience.

I can’t even begin to do a resume of the plot, so I will focus on the main characters.  Anna Karenina is a wonderfully complex character who has the misfortune to fall in love with the wrong man – the dashing Vronsky.   Is she a heroine or a tragic figure?  I believe she is a bit of both.  Beautiful, enigmatic and passionate, she is never dull.  Her passions rule her life and her jealousy is her ultimate undoing.   The descriptions of her increasing jealousy were some of my favourite scenes in the book.  Who hasn’t at times become paranoid, fearful and jealous when they are passionately in love? However, the lengths to which she goes, and her increasingly bizarre behaviour as her life spirals out of control, led me to wonder if she had actually gone insane.

I apologize – without having read the book, none of that probably makes any sense.  Suffice to say, she seeks a divorce so she can marry her lover Vronsky, but she is unsuccessful, leading to her being ostracized from society as well as losing custody of her son.  She is a victim of society’s rules in Russia in the late 1800s, but she was well aware of how society works and made the choice to proceed anyway.  In that sense I admired her courage but also felt she had brought her troubles to her own door.   Overall though, I am a sucker for a passionate love affair and certainly understood why she left her husband.

My second favourite character in the book was Levin.  A deep-thinking landowner, who is willing to work his land alongside the peasants in one scene, while holding his own in the highest society in the next.  Levin is a thoughtful, kind, intelligent man and I loved his story, but could have done without the never-ending descriptions of Russian society, and the differences between life in the country and life in the city.

This novel has everything you would expect from a sweeping Russian novel – family betrayals, love affairs, a commentary on society, poverty, wealth, jealousy, politics, life and death.  All the themes are covered.

Overall, I am delighted to have read this novel, but if I was to read it again (which I probably never will) I would read it when I had the time and space to reflect a bit on it.  An ideal holiday read.

So I have come to the final book in my ‘list of betterment.’   It is ‘The Ginger Man’ by J P Donleavy.  An Irish classic.  I will enjoy reading this one over the festive season along with something a bit lighter too.  Happy Christmas and thank you to all of you who have followed and commented on my blog.  It is growing slowly but surely!!

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

wide sargasso sea by Jean Rhys

The latest novel in my ‘list of betterment’ is one I have been meaning to read for a good while.  The novel was published in 1966.   Rhys was fascinated by the novel Jane Eyre and more specifically by Bertha, who was Rochester’s first wife – the mad woman in the attic.

The novel is set in Jamaica and the West Indies.  Antoinette is a Creole who lives with her mother and brother.  They face hatred from the locals and after their estate is set alight and Antionette’s brother dies, Antoinette is taken to stay with her aunt.  She later discovers that her mother had descended into madness due to the death of her son.

The narrative is divided into three parts.  The first part is told by Antoinette Cosway (as she is re-named in this novel) the second part is told by Rochester, and the third part is told by Antoinette after she is brought to England and locked up in the attic by Rochester.

Antoinette’s family are descended from slave owners and despite no longer being so, are hated and reviled by everyone in Coulibri, the estate and town where they reside.   They face daily antagonism and apart from their loyal nanny Christophine, (who herself practises a form of witchcraft called ‘Obeah’ and gives rum to drug and soothe Antoinette) they have no friends or support.

Antoinette’s step father knows Rochester’s family and he is set up as a likely suitor for Antoinette, but in truth he marries her solely for her inheritance.  A cold Englishman, he is never named by the author and it is clear from the start that he has no intention of treating his new wife with anything other than scorn and cruelty.  Despite the passion between them, he takes what he wants and then refuses Antoinette the love she so desperately craves.

This is a multi-layered complex novel dealing with the politics of Jamaica, oppression, slavery, and the Gothic telling of Antoinette’s descent into madness.

What I loved most about this book was the exquisite prose, and how Jean Rhys depicts in sublime detail the oppressive nature of the setting and the characters trapped within it.  For those who have read Jane Eyre (what do you mean you haven’t?!) and always wondered why Bertha had been driven insane, this novel will provide some answers.  What Charlotte Bronte would have thought of it, one can only imagine!

The final part of the novel brings us to the final descent into madness of the now called ‘Bertha’ who is kept in the attic by Grace Poole.   Haunting and unbearably poignant, Bertha or Antoinette hallucinates visions of the Jamaica she loved, despite the cruelty she encountered there, and in her final act she seeks to revenge those who have held her prisoner, both literally and metaphorically.

A stunning classic.

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

The cottingley secret

As Tom Cruise’s character famously said in the wonderful film Jerry Maguire: ‘We live in a cynical world.  A cynical world.’   And never more so than now it seems.

So, upon receiving my copy of The Cottingley Secret, I knew I would have to leave my cynicism at the door if I was to stand any chance of enjoying this novel.

The novel weaves between the past and present day.  The past story begins in 1917 and is told from the perspective of nine-year-old Frances Griffiths, who has been torn from her secure life in Cape Town to move to Cottingley in Yorkshire with her mother.  The move is due to her father having joined the war.   Frances and her mother are to live with Frances’s aunt Polly, Uncle Arthur and her cousin Elsie.   Elsie is seven years older than Frances, but the two become firm friends.

On her first night in Yorkshire Frances hears an unexpected noise and Elsie explains that there is a waterfall at the beck in Cottingley Woods, situated behind the house. This is where Frances will have her first sighting of the fairies and where her life is to change forever.

Meanwhile, in the present-day, Olivia Kavanagh has her own sorrows to seek.  Following the death of her Grandfather, her beloved ‘Pappy,’ she returns to Ireland leaving behind her fiancée Jack and her high-flying life in London.  In his will Pappy has left her his second-hand bookshop ‘Something Old.’  Olivia is left to sort out the family affairs and visit her beloved Grandmother who is in a home suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  When Olivia finds Frances’s story and discovers a connection, their lives become inextricably linked.

The narrative weaves seamlessly between the past and the present as we follow the ever-growing complications in the lives of both Frances and Olivia.   The author lets the narrative unfold as gently and slowly as the beck that flows through the woods.

The novel is full of delightful snatches of poetry and I nearly cried upon reading lines that my father used to quote to my brother and me all the time. Frances hears them initially from Mrs Hogan:

“Up the airy mountain/Down the rushy glen,/ We daren’t go a-hunting/For fear of little men.”

I had always thought these lines were from Robbie Burns, so was surprised to discover they were actually written by William Allingham!

Frances and Olivia both adore fairy rhymes and stories, and there are many references to both throughout the novel, adding to the sense of magic.

Spoiler alert: (skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t’ want to know the secret!) If you don’t know the real story of the Cottingley fairies, Frances and Elsie take fake photographs of the fairies in order to silence Aunt Polly, Uncle Arthur and Annie (Frances’s mother) who have been giving out to Frances for spending so much time at the Beck.  She blurts out that she has seen fairies (true) but of course proof is required, and when Uncle Arthur invests in a camera, the plot is hatched.   I won’t give away any more, suffice to say, it is a secret that grows ever more complicated with the passing of time.

I felt for Frances throughout, having to live with the burden of what she had done, and that she had in fact seen fairies made it all the more poignant.  To ease that sadness though, there was the mysterious ‘fifth photograph’ which, although it remains with a question mark, may yet prove to be authentic. Now if that isn’t magical, I don’t know what is?! End of Spoiler!

The prose is elegant, and it is clear that Hazel Gaynor loves both the story and her characters, as it shines through in the writing.  This is a book that brings warmth, reassurance and a little bit of magic to the imagination. I was reminded of the joy of losing myself in fairy stories as a child, and the absolute wonder these stories have on the imagination.  Hazel Gaynor imbues her characters with typical Yorkshire and Irish warmth and kindness, and there are plenty of interesting sub plots; such as that of Ellen Hogan and her missing daughter Aisling.

It is also fascinating to read the story behind the story. Hazel Gaynor lets us in to her thought process in the author’s notes, as to why she created some of the fictional characters:  ‘What if there were others in Cottingley who also believed in fairies? It was these questions, and the generational connection between Christine and Frances, that led to the creation of my fictional characters Ellen, Martha and Olivia.’

For me (again the cynicism – sorry!) there were a few too many convenient co-incidences making life that bit ‘too easy’ for the characters.  But that is a tiny gripe of a wonderful novel. The mystery of the two girls and their prank, and it being based on a true story makes it a fascinating tale, and when you add Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the mix, it is an incredible story.

Hazel Gaynor has found an imaginative and unique way of bringing a true story to life within a fictional world.  An intriguing mystery alongside a piece of magical fiction.  This is a beautifully written piece of nostalgia with a dollop of magic on the side.   Gorgeous!

Many thanks to Harper Collins for sending me a review copy.

 

 

All The Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

All The Wicked Girls is Chris Whitaker’s second novel.  Following on from his highly successful debut ‘Tall Oaks’ which was published in 2016.

The blurb goes:  Raine sometimes complains that nothin’ exciting is ever gonna happen in Grace again.

Daddy told her careful what you wish for.

Everyone loves Summer Ryan.  A model student and musical prodigy, she’s a ray of light in the struggling small town of Grace, Alabama – especially compared to her troubled sister, Raine.

Then Summer vanishes.

Raine throws herself into the investigation, aided by a most unlikely ally, but the closer she gets to the truth, the more dangerous her search becomes.

And perhaps there was always more to Summer than met the eye…’

Every once in a while, an author comes on to the scene who has something special.  I believe Chris Whitaker is such an author.   What makes him special?  His ability to write character and voice which is so authentic and visceral, that as a reader, you become completely engrossed in the story, you come to genuinely love the characters, and temporarily forget they are not real.

Whitaker has the Alabama drawl, the Alabama setting and heat, and the Alabama character so perfectly fine tuned, that I had lost myself in the town of Grace within a few short chapters.

The novel is divided into the chapters that are narrated by Summer herself – these are short chapters, with just enough information to keep us tantalized as the mystery unfolds.  The other chapters are told in the third person, but they are so tightly narrated they feel as if the various main characters are talking to us directly.

At the heart of this novel is not just a murder mystery, but a story, or should I say several stories of friendship.  The friendship I was most drawn to was that between two teenage boys who help Raine to look for Summer – Noah and Perv.  Their friendship goes above and beyond, and the love and respect they have for each other is incredibly touching.  Both have unique frailties and issues (can’t give away any plot spoilers) and to buoy each other up they use catch phrases like: ‘we’re brave.’ Or, ‘we’re fierce and we’re brave.’

After one of the many scrapes they get into, which they inevitably lose, there is an adorable exchange between the two:

‘I had him,’ Noah said.

‘I know you did,’ Purv said. ‘I had your back.’

‘I know you did.’

Raine and her sister Summer also have a uniquely close bond, and as we come to know the character of Raine, our sympathy grows as we understand how Summer is more than a twin, she is an integral part of Raine’s life, connected in so many ways.

Against this backdrop of messed up lives we have the town of Grace itself.  A low down dirty place, where houses are dilapidated, streets are dirty and the town believes the end is nigh, as a predicted storm turns the sky dark and remains that way for weeks.

It is a suffocating atmosphere and the author brilliantly builds the tension of the story, as they sky grows darker, the air grows hotter, and the atmosphere becomes so oppressive you can nearly smell the fear-induced sweat.

As with many small towns in the deep south, religion is a way of life.  In Grace, the recently retired Pastor Lumen breathed his own brand of hell fire.  The current pastor Bobby is a different man altogether, but cannot escape the torment of his violent past.   The irony of Grace is that the majority of the town turn up for church on Sunday before leaving and committing a multitude of sins, ranging from adultery to murder.  Like the river that runs through the town, they think by stepping into the church, their sins are miraculously washed away.

This is a novel that fulfills its purpose on every level; the setting, the characters and the story are all uniquely woven to form a masterful piece of work, and one which will live in my memory for a long time.  If ‘Tall Oaks’ was a successful debut, then ‘All the Wicked Girls’ deserves all the plaudits, awards and adulation I know have begun, and I hope will continue.   An incandescent novel.

Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

atomised

OK, so first off.  I now understand that you are not supposed to like this book.  It is supposed to be depressing and a vivid look at the dysfunctional state of society.  I wish I had known that before I started reading it!  Houellebecq is a French writer who does not shy away from any controversy.  He is nasty and dirty, and I am afraid as far from what I enjoy reading as you can get.

I read this book because Andy Miller wrote about it in ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously.’ He loved it so much, and as I thought his book was funny and clever, I decided to add it to my list.   Big Mistake. Huge.

I cannot express how much I loathed this book.  I apologize profusely for having recommended it, and I hang my head in shame if you actually went out and bought it.

I know there are all kinds of commentaries on the state of society and the plight of human beings.  There is much philosophy thrown in to enliven the boredom of a story where little happens.  There will be those who say – ‘stupid woman, you just don’t get it.’

But therein lies the problem.  I do get it, but I hate it anyway.

Two brothers – one a scientific genius, one a social drop out who is utterly obsessed with sex (don’t even get me started on the smut in this book – gratuitous and unnecessary.)

The novel follows their depressing, desperate lives as they find love, lose love, try and fail to have sex, and contemplate suicide.  You know what, within five minutes I hated them both, and that was my problem with this novel.  How can you enjoy a novel when you hate the two main characters.  I felt no sympathy for them, they were just two pathetic specimens trying their best in this mad world.  Who cares?

There were a few funny moments but God knows the novel needed them.

I know the point of a book review is to be objective and look for the balance.  Sorry I have failed miserably here.  I just don’t care enough.

Not one I would recommend.

Review of Suitcase Number Seven by Ursula Kane Cafferty

Suitcase Number Seven

The author of this unique story, Ursula Kane Cafferty and I became acquainted through the wonder of Twitter – a useful platform when used responsibly!  We had both written books about a rugby player.  I was struck by the similarities.  Her uncle Tom Cleary was not just a supremely talented rugby player, but he was much more than that, and so is his story.

Suitcase Number Seven was written after Ursula found a suitcase belonging to her uncle after he died in 1997.  It was a simple suitcase with the number 7 on it – a poignant reminder of his rugby playing days.  Ursula was amazed to discover that her uncle Tom Cleary had kept a record of his life in this small suitcase.  As Ursula tells it:

‘When we reached the bottom of the case, it was lined with a green plastic property bag from the hospital where I worked and where Tom had first been treated a year earlier.  The hair stood up on the back of my neck and a shiver ran down my spine as I realized Tom had known he was dying during the past year of his illness and had sorted out what he wanted us to have and see.  His story.  It was then I knew I had to write this book.’

Suitcase Number Seven is told as a fictional memoir, only in the sense that Tom’s life is recreated by Ursula.  The chapters are entitled either ‘Ursula’ or ‘Tom.’  Those written by Ursula are her account of what she remembers about spending time with her uncle, and the wonderful times (and sometimes difficult times) they had.  It is also a well-researched story of the life of an incredibly talented sportsman.   The chapters entitled ‘Tom’ are told as if Tom were telling them himself.  This gives the reader an intimate account of one man’s hopes, dreams, triumphs and struggles.

Tom Cleary was born in 1930 and spent the first 15 years of his life growing up in Carrick-On-Suir in County Tipperary.  At 15, as tradition in his family dictated, he was sent to boarding school at Castleknock College in Dublin.  After a nervous start, he discovered his love of rugby.  He took to it like a duck to water and was a ‘natural talent.’  However, he was not just gifted at rugby but he also excelled in both tennis and table tennis.  He won numerous trophies for tennis including the junior cup, and also played on the Senior cup team despite his tender age.

Tom Cleary became known as a sportsman with flair, natural talent and speed. This all began at Castleknock College, where he was popular with both sexes and had a wonderful time filling his days with sport.  He was no slouch academically either.

As Tom neared the end of his education at Castleknock he was now playing as scrum-half, not only in the school’s team, but he played against Ulster in the blue of Leinster in an inter-provincial match.  He was also on the team that won the Leinster School’s Senior Cup in 1947 against Blackrock College.

He continued to excel in tennis.

In adulthood Tom became an accountant and got a job in Limerick.  It is here that he was to find the team to which he gave his heart and soul – Bohemians.  He excelled there, captaining the club and making some lifelong friends along the way.

Despite all of Tom’s success the one thing that eluded him was an Irish cap, although he was on the reserves for Ireland 17 times.  It is an ambition that he never achieved.    In reading the book it is clear that it was an absolute travesty that he was never given this honour.  A total injustice which he bore with great equanimity.

Ursula portrays a man who was shy, kind and a true gentleman who tragically became dependent on alcohol, due to struggles with low self-esteem and shyness.

That she was brave enough to tell the full story is a credit to her and in no way diminishes his reputation, if anything, it makes us realize how a person can be hiding sorrows and issues about which we may be entirely unaware.

Although there is much for rugby fans to enjoy in this book, this is much more than a book about rugby.  It is a story of one man’s struggle to believe in himself and find self-acceptance, after knockbacks in both the world of sport and in his own romantic life left him rudderless and isolated, despite the love of family and friends.

The sadness of this book is that Tom Cleary was loved so well by so many, and for many years he couldn’t see it or perhaps couldn’t appreciate it.  The joy of this book is that near the end of his life he found joy and understood that sometimes love of family and friends is all that matters.  He also understood that giving is receiving.

This book is a moving account of one man’s journey from sports hero, to lost soul, to final redemption, and belief in the power of life and love.

I want to end with two verses from a wonderful poem that Ursula wrote at the end of the book entitled ‘If Only’ which, in my opinion is worth the price of the book alone!  These are the final two verses:

‘So this was Tom’s life story, it’s a tale of ups and downs,

A tale of joy and happiness, but also tears and frowns.

I am very determined, that this book will serve to tell,

That success, it is not everything….and failure isn’t hell.

 

So to use the words of Grantland Rice, a sportswriter of note,

(I found it in Tom’s suitcase, this simply perfect quote)

“For when the one great scorer comes to write against your name,

He marks – not how you won or lost – but how you played the game.”

For further information on Suitcase Number Seven, check out the following links:

Ursula on Twitter – @ukanecafferty

Ursula on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Ursula-Kane-Cafferty-132496904510/

Ursula’s website at  http://www.ukcafferty.com/

The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham

The razors edge

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When I was in my early twenties my father recommended Somerset Maugham to me.  I remember reading ‘The Razor’s Edge’, but truth be told, twenty odd years later I couldn’t remember much about it.

Maugham wrote the book in 1944 and there has been much speculation over the years as to where he got his inspiration for the main character of Larry.

The book is narrated by Maugham himself, who wanders in and out of the story at will, as he follows the lives of a group of characters over a twenty-year period. The story begins in Chicago in 1919.  Larry Darrell had been a pilot during the first World War. He is engaged to Isabel who adores him.  Isabel’s uncle, Elliot Templeton is a snob and a social climber.  He wants a good match for Isabel.  When Larry shows no signs of wanting to work, and turns down a good job offered by the father of his friend Grey Maturin, Elliot is concerned.

Larry wishes to travel and to, as he calls it, ‘loaf’ but Isabel is used to having money, so after trying to persuade Larry to get a job, to which he obstinately refuses, they break off their engagement and she marries Gray Maturin a very successful stock broker.

Larry sets out on a spiritual quest to try and find the purpose of his life and life in general.  The reason for this is as enigmatic as Larry himself.  Could it be due to the incident that happened during the war, where a friend died saving his life? We know it affected Larry deeply but he seems as unsure of his path as everyone else.

Without revealing any more of the plot, the novel weaves a fascinating path as it follows the lives of all of the main characters, as mentioned above.   There is also another important character called Sophie, who reveals more about Isabel’s character to us than any dialogue could ever do.

Maugham manages to balance a beautiful clear fluid style with an engaging narrative.  This is most definitely a character based novel.  If you are looking for action, this is not the book for you.  However, if you like a good psychological drama, where characters flaws, fears, secrets and desires are gradually revealed through a series of circumstances, then look no further.

For a taster of Maugham’s wonderfully easy narrative style and characterization, his early description of Elliot Templeton is a good example:

“He was a colossal snob.  He was a snob without shame. He would put up with any affront, he would ignore any rebuff, he would swallow any rudeness to get asked to a party he wanted to go to or to make a connexion with some crusty old dowager of great name.”

This novel is right up my street.  I love novels that contain deep characterization and exploration of a character’s motives, which this novel has in abundance.   It also has wonderful settings in Paris, the Riviera and Chicago.

I feel I cannot do it justice with a simple book review.  I would suggest giving it a go.  It is the sort of novel I feel you will either love or hate, and you should know pretty quickly.

I personally think Maugham is a genius and I might even be tempted to try and read ‘Of Human Bondage’ now, which is a tome and a half!

Please do let me know if you have read it.  I think it is my favourite from my list of betterment so far and a novel I will definitely re-read.  How did you like it or did you hate it?  If so, why?

Next month’s list of betterment read is Atomised by Michel Houellebecq.  This one I am reading because Andy Miller from The Year of Reading Dangerously raved about it.  I am not so sure?!  For the full list of my reading goals for 2017 see here:

The List of Betterment