The Accidental Wife by Orla McAlinden

the accidental wife

At the beginning of this set of short stories, Orla McAlinden writes an author’s note which beautifully captures the essence of this book.  After stating that the characters and stories are all fiction she goes on to say:

‘However, the scenarios which fill these pages are familiar to my peers.  We shared the same fears: the stranger in the yard, the late-night knock at the door, the child who leaves home in a school uniform and returns in a closed coffin.  I have not told “your story” except to the extent that your story is also my story, and that the deeds of four dark decades have collectively become our story.’

Well, I can tell you something for nothing – if you are from Northern Ireland, those words are most definitely going to send a chill down your spine and resonate in the strongest imaginable way.

After reading such an eloquent description of her stories, I couldn’t wait to get started, but my fear was whether they would tip over into what can sometimes become a cliched tired view of Northern Ireland, a possibility when writing about the history of this small country.  Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about whatsoever.

Orla McAlinden has written a beautiful book of short stories which perfectly captures the tone, the voice and the lives of those who grew up in the North.  Being from Portadown, she had first-hand experience of life in the north, but her knowledge of farming (not sure where that comes from?!) and her ability to express both rural and city living with such an accurate eye, meant I read these stories repeatedly wanting to shout out – “Yes! Yes! I know exactly what you mean!  Sure, isn’t that just what the north and the people there are like!”

The stories revolve around the McCann family.  The author does a clever interweave of the stories, slowly connecting father and son, wife and daughter, families and communities.  However, the stories can also be read as separate pieces.  McAlinden nails the atmosphere of the troubles with a visceral authenticity which is uncanny.

The opening story ‘Strike’ pulls no punches.  Joan McCann is pulled over by a group of masked hooded men, while taking her son Rory to school.  However, it turns out to be (as do most of her stories) more complex than at first thought – Joan is taking her son to school despite a strike by The Ulster Workers council who have placards stating:

“Ulster Workers Council, No power-sharing, General Strike, In God we Trust.”

When Joan is determined not to be threatened by them, she decides to go about her business as usual, but her values, her religion and her views are shaken by her husband’s rough words and truths that she has been trying to avoid.    A cracker of a story to start this wonderful collection.

The author doesn’t shy away from using cultural references and the language of the people, and it is this that makes this collection unique and memorable.  I am sure for anyone outside of Ireland who reads the collection, they may have to check Google for a couple of references, but it is an education as to what Northern Ireland was like from the seventies to the present day.

The award-winning story ‘The Visit’ is a harsh look at the realities of dealing with paramilitaries and the lengths some people would go to in order to protect their land, their livelihoods and themselves.  Raw and poignant as most of the stories are, this one is particularly sad, when you see that at times good people were forced to take matters into their own hands, and suffering was an inevitable part of that.

My favourite story in the collection is a story entitled ICE.  Told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, it tells the story of how his life changes forever, with the arrival of a PSNI officer to their door.  Their father has gone missing.  It turns out he has run off with 4 million pounds from the client account of Jordan and McCann where he works as a lawyer.  Mark has always minded his mother and his three-year-old sister Siobhan.  ICE stands for ‘In case of Emergency’ which is how Mark’s father’s number is listed in his phone.  As he calls and calls and gets no response, he has to resign himself to the fact that his father is gone.  As his mother falls apart, it is the twelve-year-old Mark who is the only one who seems able to manage the family.  He has had to grow up far too fast (as many children did during the troubles.)  The language in this story is evocative and unbearably sad as Mark talks to his father in his head:

I’m tired Daddy, and I can’t do this on my own. I’m sorry for all the crap I put you through, for all the contradicting and the arguing and the always having to be right. I’m sorry I drove you away.”

As the news breaks, Mark’s family must flee to their Auntie Liz’s house.  We are reminded of the resilience of children as Mark learns to stand on his own two feet. When Liz is putting all the weight and responsibility on Mark he has a dig himself, saying:

“That’s right Liz.  You and me and Mum.  Against the world.” And it was nearly worth it, the whole shitty mess, just to see the blood drain from her face.”

What makes this collection of stories stand out for me and lift it from good to superb, is the use of language.  The Northern Ireland colloquialisms, some that brought a tear to my eye, as I remember my dad used to say them, such as ‘Houl yer whisht’ and  you lazy wee blirt (never said to me I am glad to say!)

The stories are such an authentic portrayal of Northern Ireland, from the middle-class families where appearance is everything, to the struggling farmers whose grit and humour get them through each day. If you want to get a sense of the character and tenacity of Northern Irish people, and the struggles they endured, this is a must read.

‘The Accidental Wife’ is a wonderfully evocative debut of short stories and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  I understand Orla McAlinden’s first novel is set in County Kildare in the 1800s.  I look forward to that, but I am also going to put in a request to the author.  Can we please have more of the Johnson family, especially 12 year old Mark?!

The Mayfly by James Hazel

The Mayfly (1) The Mayfly (buy here on Amazon) 

(If you wish to skip the review – but why would you?! Then please scroll down to see an author interview which gives a fascinating insight into the writing of this novel.)

Review: 

Every crime fiction series of note that has lasted the test of time has one essential element – a protagonist that the reader can believe in.  A character who will intrigue and with whom we will empathize and wish to see succeed in his mission.  Charlie Priest, the ex-detective inspector turned successful London lawyer, more than ticks these boxes.

The novel follows a complex storyline with many interweaving plot lines, but it is so well structured as to make it easy to follow.  The novel jumps between the present day and a second but equally strong story line that takes place at the end of World War II, involving another complex character – that of Colonel Bertie Ruck.

Bertie Ruck is investigating a Dr Schneider, a Nazi doctor, who was responsible for experimenting on and poisoning prisoners during the war.  The sinister element of the novel begins here and never falters, as Ruck’s life and that of Dr Schneider form an essential part of the modern-day dilemma in which Priest finds himself.

From the start both storylines steam ahead without ever flagging.  However, this is no flimsy action- packed thriller without substance.  For what separates Hazel’s book from many lesser crime fiction novels is the attention to detail and depth of his characters.  Each character is vividly portrayed, as we delve deeply into their world and find ourselves rooting for some and detesting others in equal measure.

Charlie Priest has a family.  His brother William is in a psychiatric ward after committing several murders.  Charlie has not given up on him and visits him once a month.  Charlie suffers from dissociation disorder which means he can suddenly find himself disconnected from reality and unaware of his actions or what is going on around him.  This vulnerability enables him to empathize somewhat with his brother.  For although he can never condone his brother’s actions, he can understand to some extent what it is to be completely out of control of your own mind.

Charlie’s sister Sarah has not been able to come to terms with Will’s actions.  She has wiped all traces of him from her life, but is a strong support to her brother Charlie and is always there for him.  Her daughter Tilly enables us to see Charlie’s softer side when he interacts with his niece.

The family of Charlie and his colleagues at the law firm Priest and Co enable us to anchor the characters in a real setting, so that when the narrative hits the points where we have to suspend our belief, we can still believe in Charlie and his family and friends.

The central theme at the heart of the novel is the evil perpetrated not just during World War II, but by modern day sociopaths who seek fulfilment at any cost.  The story begins with an intruder to Charlie Priest’s house, the step son of a man who runs a large pharmaceutical organization. The intruder is desperately seeking a data memory stick with names on it, about which Priest knows nothing. This episode is only the first step in a complicated investigation that will take all of Priest’s abilities to solve.

The title of the Mayfly is beautifully interwoven into the narrative and takes on a deep significance as the story unfolds.   As the body count mounts, so does the tension, added to the desperate search for the USB stick and the question of its significance.

Fortunately, Charlie has some very smart colleagues to help him.  The smartest, and the heroine of this novel is the intriguing and lovely Georgie Someday.  Smart, sassy and addicted to the thrill of the chase, she is Priest’s right-hand woman and is there for him every step of the way.   As a woman character I loved her grit, her tenacity and her fearlessness.  Yet she reveals enough flaws and weaknesses to make her human.   Whether her last name is a cheeky teaser by the author remains to be seen, but she is too good a character to leave out of future books in my opinion.

The two parallel stories grow in intensity and the level of fear ratchets up as the novel progresses.  The references to the horrors carried out during World War II by Nazi doctors are horrific, and give an insight into the terrifying evils that were perpetrated during the war.  James Hazel pulls no punches and the reader is left in no doubt as to the lengths to which humans will go to satisfy their depravity, all in the name of a completely perverted and utterly warped belief system.

If there was the rare occasion when people seem to coincidentally have the information that Priest required (Sandra Barnsdale for one) it is easy to forgive, given the complexity of the overall plot and the number of characters and storylines.

The final chapters are chilling and thrilling. James Hazel creates utter spine chilling fear with just a few short sentences:

‘Can you scream….?’ He whispered softly.  ‘Can you scream? I hope so.  Because people have paid me a lot of money to hear you scream tonight?’   (I removed the name so as not to give any spoilers.)

This is a heart thumping page turner with a difference.  It has depth.  The characters are brilliantly portrayed and the narrative is beautifully paced and written with intelligence and heart.

I believe there is to be a second novel featuring Charlie Priest. He will be a character who will win a legion of fans for James Hazel, and deservedly so.    A heart stopping, intelligent crime novel.  Most definitely one to watch.

James_Hazel_author_photo(2)_colour

Interview with the Author: James Hazel:

  1. As a reader, what authors did you love to read as a child, and do you think this influenced your later passion for writing?

I remember reading the Chronicles of Narnia series at a young age and just being mesmerised by the sheer enormity of C S Lewis’s world. More importantly, I also remember watching various TV and film adaptations and, for the first time, realising that most things I watched came from books. This was a trigger for me. I don’t think it was necessarily the moment I decided that I wanted to be a writer, but it was certainly the moment when started to realise how important literature was to me.

  1. When did you first become attracted to writing Crime Fiction and why?

I was relatively late to the party and my interest in crime fiction was really kindled by my wife, who is vastly more intelligent and well-read than me. During most of my twenties I was reading horror and supernatural thrillers (the weirder the better) and, whilst I still enjoy the occasional freaky outing, Jo introduced me to crime fiction and I’ve never looked back.

  1. I learnt a great deal about World War II from my father who had a lifelong interest in the war (having lived through it,) so I wondered where your interest in World War II began, and why it became a pivotal part of this novel?

This started when I was five years old and my grandfather started to tell me about his experiences in the war. My mum was called into school one day and asked about him because I’d told all my teachers he was a prisoner. I think I’d triggered a safeguarding alert. In fact, he had been a POW for most of the war Stalag 18A, a POW camp at Wolfsberg, Austria, having been captured in Greece in May 1941.

One particular story he told me still sends a shiver down my spine. On the 28th December 1940, the HMT Orcades arrived at Suez and the troops, Grandad included, were lined up to embark on one of two ships to Greece. Just before boarding, someone who knew Grandad called him over to the other ship: a regiment there needed a driver. He swapped ships at the last minute. It was to become the most important decision of his life. The other ship was sunk and the troops on it were lost to the sea.

A different ship, a different decision, and I would never have been born. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the war, and the role that fate plays in all of our lives.

  1. Your main character Charlie is complex, in that he is both incredibly smart and at times sure of himself, yet also with a uniquely vulnerable side. Where did you draw inspiration from for this character?

Charlie Priest is a mish-mash of people. First and foremost, he isn’t me. I’m not that cool. There’s bits of me in there, a little, but not much. Charlie is kind of the guy I would want to be if I was infinitely more confident and brighter. He’s like a bespoke fictional role model that I drew from various elements of other characters, from James Bond to Sherlock Holmes to Harry Hole and maybe a bit of Luther too.

  1. This novel is a fascinating mix of the past and present. Could you share some insights as to how you came up with the concept for this story?

It’s a difficult process to breakdown but I guess it went something like this:

  • Create an antagonist that everyone will find universally detestable;
  • Confuse the nature of the antagonist through the introduction of a secret society or cult to exacerbate the sinisterism;
  • Give the antagonists a diabolical motivation, something utterly abhorrent so as to really make the reader want to see the hero prevail;
  • Make the secret society a paedophile ring;
  • Abandon the idea of the paedophile ring because it’s been done before and come up with something else. Something worse;
  • Write The Mayfly

6. Could you name three authors who would be among your top ten favourite authors of all time?

Okay, here goes, in no particular order:

Antony Horowitz – because of his breath-taking ability to not only write novels in his own voice but in the voice of other writers who are, on their own merits, masters of the craft

Val McDermid – The queen of crime has few rivals when it comes to her ability to portray the ugly reality of crime but without it ever being overkill

Stephen King – because nobody tells stories like Stephen King. Nobody.

Thank you for your time James.

I think we can all agree this is a fascinating insight into  both the author and his thoughts behind the writing of this novel.   Away and buy your copy now!

 

 

 

 

Review of Stoner by John Williams

Stoner

Stoner to buy on Amazon UK

Described by The Sunday Times on its cover as ‘The greatest novel you’ve never read,’ Stoner by John Williams is a superb piece of prose fiction.

First published to little acclaim in 1973, thanks to John McGahern for one, it enjoyed a successful renaissance in 2003.   I first read it a few ago at a book club, and enjoyed it so much, I decided to read it again and review it here.

An only child, brought up on his parents’ farm in Missouri, William Stoner led a small sheltered existence.  In 1910, he goes to the University of Columbia, Missouri, to study agriculture, so that he can help his father out more on the farm.  However, during one semester when he has to take an extra subject, he takes a course in English Literature and falls in love with language and literature.  His life is changed by his professor Archer Sloane who recognizes a fellow traveller and encourages his passion.

Much to his parents’ dismay, he abandons his studies in agriculture and instead pursues a degree in English literature, followed by further academic studies, in order to become a professor of English literature himself.

This is a simple story of one man’s life and the struggles he faces.  Written in the third person, the narrative style is factual and understated, but with such an elegant beauty that it rendered me tearful on several occasions throughout the novel.

William Stoner is a quiet man, full of integrity, who builds his life on solid principles and values. Sadly, there are always those who would seek to take advantage of such goodness.  Stoner’s wife Edith is one such character.  She is so manipulative and evil towards her husband that you are desperately hoping he gives her a good clout.  He is too good a man for that.  He faces everything she throws at him with equanimity and good humour, and this is frustrating at times, if not admirable.

When Edith seeks to separate his daughter from him, I was disappointed in him for the only time throughout the book, for not standing up to her.

Stoner faces challenges from both students and professors at the university.  He remains true to his principals at all times when refusing to pass a student – Charles Walker, for work that does not deserve to pass.  In doing so, he incurs the ongoing hatred of a fellow professor called Lomax, who tries to ruin Stoner.  Stoner quietly continues to stand by his values, do what is asked of him (even when it is horribly unfair) and heroically does so without complaint.

There are times during the novel when you wonder how much more the poor man can take.  He does at times question this himself:

“He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it.  He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been.”

He finds happiness later in life with Katherine Driscoll, a student, and as we cheer him on, we know that yet again he is fated to lose the one true love of his life.

Whether you feel Stoner is a weak man or a hero, you cannot doubt his integrity, goodness and calm perseverance through the unfair blows of fate he is dealt.  He is not without passion and has given love as well as receiving it. He reflects on the love he has given:

“But he was not beyond it, he knew and would never be.  Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there.  In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him-how many years ago?-by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before.  He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life.”

I loved this book as much, if not more, on a second reading.  The narrative pace is as perfect as I have ever read in any novel.  It is the understated elegance of the prose and the sadness of one man’s heroic struggle against those of ‘meaner natures and lesser minds.’   I cannot recommend it highly enough.  It deserves the status of a classic.

As ever, feel free to share your views on the novel.  I would love to hear them!

I am having a little break from my list of betterment, but in July will return with the next book on my list, which is ‘The Razor’s Edge’ by Somerset Maugham.  It was supposed to be ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Maugham, but I have read that and couldn’t put myself through it again!  I read ‘The Razor’s Edge’ over 20 years ago, so can’t remember a thing about it.  Let’s see how I get on this time!

Feel free to read along or share your current reads.  Any books that have changed your life lately? Don’t keep it to yourself – be kind and share!

Book Addiction – Bad!  Reading – Good! Why there are worse things than a Book Addiction!

Image result for too many books

I have noticed recently that my to be read pile is growing at an alarming rate and my book addiction is getting worse.  I find it hard to pass a book shop without going in…’just for a look,’ which inevitably turns into the purchase of at least one book and usually several.  If there’s a two for the price of one offer on I’m sunk.  As for second hand and charity bookshops, it is not unheard of for me to come out with between eight to ten books.

I was berating myself for this the other day, as I tried to cram yet more books onto a shelf which is already overflowing.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: This is ridiculous, this book buying has really got to stop.  Look at all these books….grrrrr.

Me in reply: Oh but look at them, aren’t they fabulous?  I can’t wait to read them.

Me: Read them?  Half of those books have been sitting on that shelf for nearly two years without being read, because you keep buying more.

Me in reply: I know, but I will read them one day.

Me: One day, one day.  Just STOP buying books.  You are a total nightmare.  You keep buying new books before you have even read the ones you have.

Me in reply:  OK, I know that is a bit of a problem and I am going to try and stop doing that.  But I still think there are much worse addictions that a book addiction, and in fact some would say it’s a good way to spend your money.  I am going to think of all the reasons to justify my book addiction, and guess what I might even write a blog post about it.

Me: You do that.  (Carries on day in a huff with self.)

So, here I am ready to tell you all the reasons why it is good to buy books

  1. By the time I am an old lady (if God willing I live into old age) I will have the most fantastic book collection which I may be able to leave to a library or perhaps a group of schools, thus imparting wisdom and learning.
  2. Reading is a fantastic way to learn about life, about people, and about how to make sense of the world. Novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction all help us in this way.  Thus, books are an essential tool in our lives.
  3. Reading a physical book means you are not looking at a screen which we all now know has to be a good thing. We are spending far too much time looking at screens to the detriment of our long-term health and wellbeing.
  4. Reading stimulates the mind. It has been shown that stimulating the mind slows down the deterioration of the mind and keeps us mentally agile.
  5. Reading helps us become more empathetic as we begin to understand how other people view the world.
  6. Reading helps us feel connected, when we see that other human beings share the same emotions and thoughts as we do.
  7. Reading makes you more intelligent.
  8. Reading helps you unwind before sleep (as long as it is not a page turner in which case, good luck!)
  9. Reading helps you escape your daily grind by taking you to exotic and exciting places.
  10. According to researchers at theUniversity of Sussex, reading for just six minutes can help reduce stress levels by up to 68 percent.

I rest my case.  Now if someone could just help me figure out how to stop buying books until I have read the ones I already have, that would be great.

Image result for too many books

 

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita on Amazon

Where to begin?  What a novel!  Honestly, I am still reeling. Strange beyond strange. The weirdest aspect of it all – I still can’t decide whether I loved it or hated it.  What I loved was the sheer boldness of the Devil.  I also loved the imagery and the lightning fast roller coaster action. What I hated was always asking myself ‘what does that mean? and why did that just happen?  Hard work.

I couldn’t even begin to sum up the plot, so I’ll just give you a few of the main points.

It begins with two men having a discussion while sitting on a park bench at Patriarch’s Ponds in Moscow.  One is a poet called Bedzomy and the other is a man called Berlioz. He is the head of the literary society Massolit. They are having a discussion about the existence of Jesus Christ.  A foreign looking gentleman sits down beside them.   He goes by the name of Professor Woland, but is actually the devil – are you with me so far?  OK that’s about the most straightforward part of the novel.

From there we have two settings, – 1930s Moscow, where Woland and his entourage, which includes an oversized cat called Behemouth, wreak havoc on society through magic shows, fires, and all manner of madness, which leads to many individuals ending up in a psychiatric ward, including the aforementioned Bedzomy.

The second setting is a novel within a novel – the Master, a writer that we only know by that name, has written a book about Pontius Pilate, and we are given extracts of this work which is set in Jerusalem.   The Master also ends up in the psych ward, but is later freed.  We know nothing about his past or where he came from, which I also found hard to get my head around.

If you want a detailed description of the novel, can I suggest you use Google, where you will find minds far better equipped to describe the plot than I can.  I am merely blogging of my experience of reading this as part of my Reading Gym – she says, copping out entirely.  Sorry but I feel I would need a Masters in English lit to get to the truth of this one.

So, I guess having ploughed my way through this novel, am I any the wiser?

Well one thing I can understand is why it is regarded as a classic.  It includes magical realism, a satirical look at the Soviet Union of the 1930s, not to mention looking at the themes of religion and even love.  There are also major thematic debates on the battle between good and evil.

The love story between the Master and Margarita only comes into play in the second half of the novel, and having persevered to that point, I began to enjoy it much more, as some of the mysteries were cleared up.

What I found difficult about this novel were the incredible number of themes, deeper meanings and satire. I found it hard at times to enjoy the story for its own sake.  I was always aware of there being more than the narrative at play.

Would I recommend it?  If you like a challenge, or you feel like reading something wild and completely different, then yes.  Otherwise forget it.   I feel like I would need to read it at least two more times to really get to grips with it, but somehow, I suspect I won’t ever read it again.   Oh well, at least now I can say I have read some Russian literature!

If you have read it, please feel free to share your thoughts.  Maybe you can educate us all?!

Next month’s read is Stoner by John Williams.  Hoorah!  I have read it before and cannot wait to read it again and share my views.   I highly recommend Stoner.

Review of Persuasion by Jane Austen

It is a good while since I have read any Austen, so I was looking forward to this a lot.  The universe thought it would have a little laugh at my expense first though.  I have a beautiful bound copy of all the Austen novels with illustrations.  However, it is fairly heavy to hold, never mind cart around with you, so I ordered a 99p copy of Kindle – I know – I’m sorry, but it was just easier.

I began to read one night and grew increasingly perplexed.  Austen had lost, not only some of her skill in writing prose, but there was a decided lack of her trademark wit and intelligence.  Bemused, I am ashamed to admit I read until Chapter Three before I realized something was drastically wrong.  I went downstairs to my bookshelf to consult my hard-back copy.  Needless to say, it was completely different.  My kindle edition was some sort of very badly abridged version.   I wrote a strongly worded complaint to Amazon and got my 99p back, but not my pride.

Persuasion cover

Anyway, on to the correct version of the novel.   Once normal service had resumed, I was delighted to find I enjoyed this book enormously.   Austen is a master of both storytelling and characterization.

Anne Elliot had been in love with Frederick Wentworth at the age of 19.  He had proposed marriage, but Anne had been persuaded not to marry him by her friend Lady Russell (remind you of any other Austen novels?!)  due to his lack of wealth and standing.   Despite loving him she gave him up.  He went off to join the navy utterly heartbroken.

Anne is now 27 and has lost her beautiful first flush of beauty and bloom, due to allowing herself to be talked out of marriage, and the general hassle of living with a vain father – Sir Walter Elliot and two hideous sisters.  Anne’s elder sister Elizabeth seems to be even worse. She is as vain as her father and only cares how she appears to others and what she can get for herself.  She is also horribly mean to Anne.

Anne means little to her father or Elizabeth as we are told in Chapter One: “but Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way – she was only Anne.” (Chapter 1)

However Anne is a wise character and is able to keep her head when all those around her are being silly.  Frederick Wentworth returns from the Navy, and when he and Anne meet again, we are into classic Austen territory.

I won’t tell you anymore of the story.  Suffice to say, it is a romantic tale with morals galore and witty observations on both human nature and society.

With Austen, you know what you are going to get, and while some readers don’t enjoy that, I find that immensely comforting.  She is a genius at writing flawed characters who are completely oblivious to their flaws.  Her hero and heroine are always empathetic and have to go through the same fears and doubts that I am sure we have all faced at one time or another.   There is always the ‘wicked’ man who tries to steal the fair lady’s heart, but is inevitably found out before all is lost. I don’t mean to sound trite, because though Austen may write of universal themes, she does so with an originality and a timelessness that has made her one of the most loved authors of all time.  Having read Persuasion, I now want to re-read Sense and Sensibility and the other Austen novel I have not yet read – Northanger Abbey.  If you have read Austen, which is your favourite?  If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

 

 

Books and Podcasts

I have been a little quiet of late.  I have been rather busy what with one project and another.   However I have continued to read non-stop.  I am reading Persuasion for my March Reading Gym.   However I also read books that are meant to be helping me in the writing of my own novel.  So I have recently read ‘I Capture The Castle’ by Dodi Smith and ‘The Remains of the Day’ by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Remains of the Day

Now if you haven’t read either of these novels, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to read them immediately.  Go on.  They are WONDERFUL.  You won’t regret it for  a second.  I had actually read ‘I capture the Castle’ before, but for some reason didn’t get as enamoured of it as I was this time.  It begins with the brilliant line, ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’  It tells the story of Cassandra, her sister Rose, their step mother and father, who all live in a castle in Suffolk.  The castle has seen better days and their eccentric father once wrote a brilliant book, but has not been able to write anything since.  Their lives change when two American men enter their lives – they are the rightful heirs to the castle.  The story is told from the point of view of Cassandra who is 17 and writes the story as she tells it to us, in her journal.  It is funny, charming and the voice of Cassandra is one of literature’s most endearing creations.

The Remains of the Day is also brilliant.  I had seen the film with the incredible Anthony Hopkins, but the book is a masterpiece.  The manner in which Mr Stevens the butler so deludes himself not just about his importance in the world, but worse, his sense of propriety in all things, means he never really lives at all.  Oh I could gush, I could and I will.  It is a brilliant, subtle, intriguing piece of writing which deservedly won The Man Booker Prize.  It goes straight into my Top Ten favourite books ever.  It’s a book for the procrastinators of this world, or for those who have let opportunities slip through their fingers for fear of being seen as improper.   Wonderful.

Finally, I thought I would share my latest blog piece that I wrote for Cuckoo Magazine.  It’s all about book podcasts and I hope you enjoy.   The link is below.  I will return ere long with my review on Persuasion by Jane Austen.

For the Love of Podcasts

 

Les Jeux Sont Faits by Jean-Paul Sartre

les-jeux-sont-faits

I am back to my ‘Reading Gym’ as based on the idea of the ‘List of Betterment’ by Andy Miller in his book ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously.’  Check out my list in November’s blog post.    This is the 2nd book in my list and so far I am on time and enjoying it enormously.  Fatigue has not yet had the chance to set in.

I wanted to re-read this book which I studied for A level French, as I remember loving it. I was delighted to discover that the French was easier than I remembered, and I didn’t have any trouble in understanding it – always helpful.

Published in 1947, there was also a film version made, staring Micheline Presle and Marcel Pagliero.

A short deceptively simple story, Pierre and Eve are both killed in different circumstances.  Pierre is a revolutionary and is killed by his friend Lucien whom his mistreats.   Eve is poisoned by her husband Andre, who wishes to get his hands on her money. He is also having an affair with her younger sister Lucette.    Pierre and Eve both arrive in the afterlife, and despite the differences in their backgrounds, they fall in love – rather too quickly and too easily for my liking, but with a genuineness that is quite touching.

They then find themselves back in front of the lady who ‘signed them into the afterlife,’ who tells them that there has been a mistake in the paperwork, and they were destined for each other in life, but didn’t meet in time.   They have 24 hours to go back to earth, and if they can maintain their love on earth, they get to stay there.

Without giving away any further plot points, the novel deals with the themes of freedom, responsibility, and whether our lives are predestined or not.  These were the themes and questions that intrigued me as a naive young 18 year-old, and I find they are still the themes that preoccupy me this time around.  Eve and Pierre seem to take a very fatalistic approach both to how their lives have ended, and what is happening to their loved ones who they have left behind.  However when they return to earth, they waste no time in taking their opportunities and trying to change their fate.

It is the age old question – how much control do we actually have over our own lives?  Whatever the answer, Sartre makes one thing abundantly clear.  We always have the freedom to choose, and we owe it to ourselves to take responsibility for our lives – predestined or not.

For such a short simple story, it packs one hell of a punch.  There are enough life questions within to keep any philosopher amused for years.

As another couple gets the chance to return to earth, the young man asks Pierre and Eve:

‘On peut essayer de recommencer sa vie? insiste le jeune homme. ‘We can try to to start our life again? insists the young man.

Pierre et Eve se regardent, hesitants.  Ils sourient gentiment aux jeunes gens. Pierre and Eve look at each other, hesitant.  They smile kindly at the young people.

‘Essayez,’ conseille Pierre. ‘Try’ advises Pierre.  ‘Essayez tout de meme,’ murmure Eve.  ‘Try all the same,’ murmurs Eve.

Perhaps this is the ultimate message at the heart of this novel.  There is always hope if you are willing to try.

The novel has been translated into English with the title ‘The Chips are Down.’

If you fancy a bit of philosophical contemplation, there is much to admire in this novel.

 

Review of ‘Making It Up As I Go Along’ by Marian Keyes.

marian-keyes

There are two female Irish writers who I think are underrated.  Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes.  Both undoubtedly beloved and revered, but I don’t think people appreciate what skilled writers they were in Maeve’s case, and are in Marian’s.     The trick is, they make it look effortless, but it’s not, and I don’t think people appreciate that enough.

‘Maeve’s Times’ by Maeve Binchy is one of my favourite books ever.  It made me laugh, cry, and sigh with envy.  I re-read it from time to time and it gets better with every reading.

So, it was with some trepidation and excitement that I set out to read Marian’s series of articles. The trepidation came because I was nearly afraid I wouldn’t like them, and that would have been terrible, what with being such an ardent admirer.  I should have known my fears were ridiculous.

I began reading the book one night whilst in bed.  My husband began to look at me in a most alarming manner, as I began to shake with laughter and then to snort most unbecomingly.  At one point, I think I sounded like Pluto the dog.  From the very first piece on ‘Fake Tan,’ where my snorting was caused by an anecdote in which Marian goes to get fake tan administered at a salon for the first time.  She isn’t told until it is applied that she can’t wash it off until the following morning.  Unfortunately, she had plans to go out for dinner for her mammy’s birthday.  As she tells it:

“At the restaurant I caused a bit of a stir.  As if the smell wasn’t bad enough, bits of the mud were going black and green and falling off my face into my dinner.”

I don’t laugh easily.  A friend at school once told me I was terrible for laughing at other’s misfortunes.  I prefer to think I am laughing with them.  Marian Keyes is so exquisitely funny about the calamities that can strike when we least expect it and we are doing our best to just get on with things.  I laugh in understanding, in female solidarity and in empathy.

I once told a friend a story about leaving a suitcase in the wrong person’s house in London, and as it was the height of the troubles, and it was found with a Belfast address, all kinds of hell broke loose, while I was busy sunning myself on a beach in France.  It’s a long, complicated story, but my friend has been dining out on it ever since, and says it is the funniest thing she has ever heard.

Equally, my 10-year-old niece adores the story of how I sprayed myself from head to toe with an anti-mosquito Citronella spray and inadvertently became exceptionally drunk from the amount of ethanol in the spray. And there was me thinking it was natural and therefore safe.

So I have had more than my fair share of minor disasters too, and this my friends is where Marian is a joy.  She is generous in sharing both her good successful experiences (of which there are many I might add) and her less successful forays into areas of her life such as travel, the beauty industry, exercise, and the complicated business of living.  I am not a sycophant.  For example, I don’t always agree with her butchering of the English language for comic purposes – it doesn’t always work for me.

However, I do love this book and I think everyone should read it, for it is a tonic for the soul.  Marian Keyes is a great conversationalist, and her narrative voice is what makes the book special.  She writes as if you were sitting in her kitchen, having a chat and a cuppa. What’s not to love?

To end:

10 reasons why Marian Keyes is Fabulous:

  1. Despite her success as an author, she never pretends it is easy, and she is happy to admit she struggles with her writing.
  2. She is self-deprecating and exceptionally witty, but we also know that she is really very clever.
  3. She loves Alexander McCall Smith. I was SO excited when I read this.  Whenever I rave on to people about AMS, they usually mumble something about having read a couple of his books, but look at me like I am a bit sad.  This enrages me and makes me rave all the more.  Marian gets him, and his lovely books.
  4. She is generous in the extreme in sharing her tips for all kinds of things, from cooking to beauty, to writing, and she shares her mistakes too, so we can all learn from them.
  5. She is hilarious about ‘himself’ and showed her vulnerability and brilliant sense of humour when ‘himself’ went off trekking up a mountain somewhere far away (sorry don’t remember where it was) and she feared she would ‘lose him’ to one of the females in the climbing group.  She tweeted with much angst and hilarity.
  6. She is a big fan of Strictly and her blogs and tweets re the shows are unmissable.
  7. Her tweets and vlogs are legendary. Also, she is not like many well-known people who think they are too important to tweet with a non-celeb! She tweets with lots of different people.
  8. Her book ‘Is Anybody Out there?’ is one of the best novels I have read about the experience of grief. It stayed with me for ages afterwards.
  9. She supports causes she believes in, and donated her royalties for ‘Making It Up As I Go Along’ to the Save the Children Syria crisis. I mean – Come On.
  10. She started her tribute to Jilly Cooper at the Bord Gais Energy Book Awards last December, by addressing the assembled company with her signature vernacular of ‘Lads…..’ I was watching it on the T.V. and nearly fell off my sofa in admiration and glee.  Funny, funny fabulous woman.

P.S.  I have decided not to tweet Marian the link to this piece for fear that she will –

(a) Think I am a stalker, which I am SO not.   I am happy to admire from afar.  (Or even worse, she gets the link but doesn’t bother to read it.)

(b) She will hate it and think me a creepy fan.  This would kill me altogether, so this remains between us.  I am just glad to have put it out there to encourage you to buy the book.  You can laugh and support a good cause. Sure, what more could you want?

P.P.S.  If you have been following my ‘Reading Gym’ list or ‘List of Betterment’ (see November’s blog post.)  I will be back next week with my review of ‘Les Jeux Sont Faits’ by Sartre.   The book for March is ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen.

 

Middlemarch by George Eliot

middlemarch-by-george-eliot

This was the first book on my 2017 ‘list of betterment’ (see previous post in Nov 2016, on ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’ by Andy Millar) or as I call it, ‘My Book/Reading Gym.’

I set myself a target to read 50 pages a day.  Some days I read more, on only a few occasions I read slightly less.  As I reached 600+ pages I galloped through the final 200 pages.

Readers have strong views on Middlemarch.  They rhapsodize about it, or detest it.  Not much middle ground in terms of the opinions I have heard. Well – I loved it.  I wouldn’t say it was the best book I have ever read or that it changed my life, but I definitely loved it.

George Eliot writes as omniscient narrator, and this along with the Victorian references and wordiness grated with me initially, until the brilliant characterization swept me along, and I became lost in the world of Middlemarch society.

The novel is set in 1830 and covers a wide range of the societal and political issues of the day, from medicine to parliamentary reform and education. I won’t begin to try and summarize the plot.  If you want to know what it’s about, google it my friends!  800 pages is 300 pages too long for a summary.

Instead I am going to tell you why I loved this novel.  The manner in which Eliot draws together all the different lives of the characters, and weaves the storylines between them, and makes the connections appear understated yet important, is nothing short of genius.   The characters’ lives weave, mesh and become entangled in the subtlest but most daring ways.   Two characters who may have not even met, suddenly turn out to be the cause of each other’s potential downfall.  The moral dilemma between Bulstrode, Dr Lydgate and the rest of Middlemarch society had me gripped and transfixed.

The two main characters of Dorothea and Dr Lydgate held the most interest for me.   Many reviewers have portrayed Dorothea as a saint and a specimen of perfection.  For me (as much as I did try to imagine how hard it must have been for women in the 1830s) she was an irritating sycophant.  She married the much older Mr Causaubon because he was so highly knowledgeable in her eyes, and so much worthier than herself.  Blimey, whip yourself a bit harder why don’t you.  She had him on such a high pedestal, it was inevitable there was only one way for him to go, which he duly did.  Down down down.     She then falls in love with Will Ladislaw, but cannot admit it to herself, or have anything to do with him until he proves himself worthy.  I know she had it tough, but I just yearned for her to show some feistiness, or some rebellion at some point.  Her self-pity and self-flagellation just made me want to puke.  Mind you, her sister Celia was worse, particularly when she became a mother to her darling Arthur.

Even though Rosamond (who married Dr Lydgate) was vain, self-centred and selfish, at least she had a bit of back bone and knew what she wanted.

My two favourite characters were probably Dr Lydgate and Mary Garth.  Humble, dependable, sure of themselves and their values. Poor Dr Lydgate.  My heart truly broke for him.  Marrying the selfish Rosamond, and struggling both financially and with his lifelong ambition. He needed a wife like Dorothea to fulfill all his needs, while he got on with his work.

Middlemarch is a book I imagine you could read five or six times and still not fully appreciate.  There is so much to it, my mind boggles just thinking about it.  It is a book I hope to read again in a few years.    To be honest I don’t think I got the full juice out of it on a first reading.  I also appreciated and enjoyed the exquisite writing, and marked many passages in the book.  One of my favourites regarded the nature of Mr Casaubon and his inability to enjoy anything in life.  A truly remarkable piece of writing:

“It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy; to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self – never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold…but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.”  (Chapter 29 Page 280 Penguin Classics edition)

Eliot’s wisdom is rare, her genius plentiful.  It may take some effort and some time to read this masterpiece, but certain things are worth the effort, and in my opinion, reading Middlemarch is one of them.

If you have read it, I would love to hear your opinions.  Who was your favourite character?  Do you agree with me re Dorothea, or do you think she is the true heroine of the novel? Pray do tell (sorry…went all Victorian there for a moment.)

Next up at The Reading Gym is:  ‘Les Jeux sont Faits’ by Sartre.   I will be reading it in French, but if you fancy reading along, you can get a translation entitled ‘The Chips are Down.’  What a hideous translation, but never mind!  It’s not that easy to get, so I fear I may be on my own with this one!  The next book after that is ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen.   I can’t wait for that one!

Thank you for reading.  I hope you enjoyed your stay at The Book Club Cafe!