Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Melissa, Michael, Stephanie and Damian – the four friends in ‘Ordinary People’ have discovered that: “Adult life has fully revealed itself, wearing a limp, grey dressing gown.”

I would suspect there aren’t many married couples with children who can’t identify with many of the sentiments and behaviours found in Evan’s extraordinary novel.

Both couples live in London.  Michael and Melissa in 13 Paradise Row in Crystal Palace and Damian and Stephanie live in Dorking.

ordinary people by diana evansOrdinary People on Amazon

Evans focuses her attention primarily on M&M (as they are known to some of their friends) and specifically on Melissa. She is a freelance journalist, an independent spirit who is beautiful, cool, and feeling utterly suffocated by the chores of domesticity.  An earth mother she is not.  Michael after thirteen years together is still entranced by her, but even he is feeling worn down by life and by Melissa’s coldness towards him. Her unhappiness permeates their life.

Their house is another character in the book and is a metaphor for Melissa’s increasingly fragile state.  The more the house deteriorates, the more her mind follows suit.

Meanwhile Stephanie is a no-nonsense earth mother who adores her children and puts up with her husband.  I felt it was a pity that the author did not spend more time on this couple. They seemed to be making up the numbers a lot of the time, especially Stephanie.  She was the most sensible of the foursome, so perhaps less interesting to the writer, but I would have liked more of her. I admired her resilience and her capacity for getting on with life.

Evans prose is majestic.  She allows the miseries of the characters to unravel slowly, while London is described in Dickensian terms and adds to the stifling, sometimes hectic slightly crazy atmosphere.

Music plays a large part in the novel – indeed the title is taken from a John Legend song which include the lyrics: “This ain’t the honeymoon/ passed the infatuation stage.”

Both couples are also strongly rooted in their heritage.  Melissa feeds her children Eba and follows superstitions passed down from her African mother.

I adored everything about this novel.  The prose is gloriously atmospheric.  The story never felt depressing, just intense, and such a vivid, portrayal of ordinary lives that I was genuinely sorry when I finished it. The characters will live on in my memory for some time to come.  There is also a wonderful slightly bizarre gothic twist towards the end which I didn’t see coming, but which, although surprising, was not at all out of place.

Reader beware though – if you are going through a difficult time in a marriage or a relationship, the intensity may be too much.  On the other hand, it may provide some comfort to read of others’ struggles.   I leave that decision up to you!  For most people (I hope!!) I couldn’t recommend this highly enough.  A wonderful book.

 

 

 

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The Party by Elizabeth Day

Elizabeth Day moved to Northern Ireland when she was 4.  During her life she has lived in several different countries and attended boarding school as a child.  She said she always felt an outsider.

the party by elizabeth dayThe Party by Elizabeth Day

She wrote ‘The Party’ following an extremely difficult period in her life. She had fertility treatment, she suffered a miscarriage and the break-up of her marriage.  On the writing of this book she said, “it came from a place of untrammelled honesty. It came from a place of me.”

Her understanding of suffering and anger is evident and visceral.

This is Elizabeth’s Day’s 4th novel and in my opinion it’s a belter.  The sort of novel that has you aching to get back to it, sneaking an extra couple of pages while you should be doing something else.  Engrossing, with intense characterization – a delicious reading experience in every way.

The story is told in alternative 1st person narratives by Martin and Lucy who are married.  The plot jumps between the present day and Martin re-living his past. Martin and Lucy also fill us in on how they met and how they have come to be where they are now, neither is in a good place either literally or metaphorically speaking (no spoilers!)

Martin is an only child who suffered at the hands of his controlling unaffectionate mother.  His life changes when he is sent off to boarding school and meets the glamourous and worldly Ben Fitzmaurice.  This is where the novel becomes a little ‘The Talented Mr Ripley.’  Martin sees a different life for himself and goes to dramatic lengths to get what he wants.

Ben and Martins’ lives become entangled in a way in which escape for either is impossible.

The novel is structured by Martin’s interview at a police station following Ben’s extravagant 40th Birthday party.  We know something dreadful has happened – but what and to whom?  This is only one element of what kept me turning the pages.

How could Martin be so cold on the one hand and yet seemingly caring on the other?  Love turns to obsession and therein lies the inherent danger of human suffering.

This is also a novel about entitlement and the power and abuse that can occur with untold privilege.  Ben Fitzmaurice has had everything he ever wanted his entire life.  He is charming, intelligent and on the surface, apart from being a little superficial, he could be an all-round good guy.  Until we begin to perceive his complete lack of empathy and understanding for Martin’s experiences in life. Ben has a total lack of self-awareness and is entirely unwilling to take responsibility for his failings.   He is weak.

The heroine of the novel is Lucy.  She may initially appear downtrodden and desperate for Martin to like her, but her courage and anger propel her  forward, and as she comes to the realization that many women do later in life, that she is worth loving and doesn’t have to be ‘the perfect wife,’ we see her glorious true self emerge.   Elizabeth Day says of writing about Lucy:

“I loved writing Lucy, because it was a cathartic experience in many respects……And what I wanted to do with ‘The Party’ is show that a woman can be as empowered by her anger as a man. I think we’d live in a much healthier society if women just faced their anger, realised it was part of them and that it can be a really creative stimulus, in the same way happiness can be or love can be.”

Martin’s anger is destructive, where Lucy’s is cathartic.

This novel had me hooked from the first few pages.  The writing seems effortless (I have no doubt it was anything but!) the characterization is brilliant.  Elizabeth Day has recently written a non-fiction book entitled ‘How to Fail.’  I am breathless with anticipation to read that and her back catalogue of novels. Oh, the joy of finding a new writer that I love never gets old!  I hope you enjoyed the novel as much as I did, and if you haven’t read it yet, take it on your hols, you can thank me later!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney.

This novel made me nostalgic, it frustrated me and by the end I couldn’t decide if I loved it or hated it.

normal people

I read this novel over a day and a half. It usually takes me at least a week now to get through a novel, time permitting. I found myself wanting to keep reading, so it certainly didn’t bore me.  Far from it.

It was the writing and the plot that had me a bit discombobulated at times.  Rooney’s style is so pared back, so effortlessly simple, that sometimes you wonder if it is any good at all, and yet it is this which makes it so brilliant.

The characters frustrated me at times.  So melodramatic, but then again, we are dealing with youth and perhaps I have forgotten how intensely you feel things at that age?

The plot centres around Marianne and Connell.  We first meet them when they are at school.  Marianne is a loner at school and not popular.  Connell is popular.  Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house, so we are immediately aware of the class difference.

The two develop a friendship which develops into something altogether more complicated.

We follow them as they both go to Trinity College in Dublin where money and class matter.

I think what bothered me about this novel is that Marianne is clearly suffering from some very serious psychological issues, brought about by the abuse, both physical and psychological, dished out regularly from her mother and brother.   We never get an insight into why they are so horrendously abusive towards her.  Also, surely to God someone in her circle would have spotted this and insist she get help?

Yet instead her friends seem happy to ignore this – she finds she is in the right social class at Trinity and develops a large group of friends.  If anything, some of her friends seem as damaged as she is.    It’s just not ‘normal’ life!   Perhaps this is the point that Rooney is making, that people slip through the gaps.  But Marianne is far from stupid.  How can she be so blinded to the trauma she has experienced, and why doesn’t she do anything about it?

If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.  Of course, the drama in the book relies on Marianne and Connell being equally dysfunctional in their own ways, but I felt this was both a bit oversimplified and a bit overdone on occasion.

What I loved about this novel was the dialogue, which is subtle, witty and extremely clever.  I also loved how Marianne and Connell’s relationship developed, then suffered a serious setback, when Connell does something unforgivable, and how Rooney slowly revealed the long road to whether it would recover, thrive or die.   A fascinating roller-coaster of power struggles, and the thin line between love and hate.

Like ‘Conversations with Friends’ this is a novel that I would love to re-read and no doubt will.  Rooney’s novels have a way of staying in your head, causing you to dwell on the characters, their lives, and in turn you remember your own fraught youth, first loves etc.  For me, that is the greatest compliment a novelist can receive – to make the reader question life, love and our place in the world.  In this, Sally Rooney fully succeeds.

Review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

eleanor oliphant is completely fineBook on Amazon

I can now fully understand why so many people have urged me to read this novel.  Gail Honeyman has brought to life an eccentric lovable character, who brings to life the themes of loneliness and isolation and forces us to confront them.

Written in the 1st person we are introduced to Eleanor as she goes about her dull daily life.  Her eccentricity is immediately apparent.  She drinks vodka like water, yet her superiority towards the rest of humanity is at complete odds with the reality of her own life.

Following a chance meeting with a guy from work called Raymond (after they help a gentleman called Sammy, who has collapsed on the pavement) Eleanor finds herself making small changes to her life.  Raymond is gentle and kind, and despite herself, she finds herself accepting invitations to go places.

The heart of this novel is about how humans cope with trauma and loneliness.  Eleanor is seen as different because she doesn’t conform to the rules of beauty, fashion or some social norms. The rest of society doesn’t understand her, and bar the kindness of Raymond, Sammy and a few others, Eleanor would continue to live a tragic and lonely existence.

There are many laugh out loud moments.  My particular favourite was when she had her first make over (make-up etc) and described herself thus:  “‘I look like a small Madagascan primate, or perhaps a North American raccoon,’ I said. ‘It’s charming!’”

As the novel unfolds, we receive clues as to why Eleanor is as she is, and the life she has had. The spectre of ‘Mummy’ lurks in the shadows and Eleanor must deal with a weekly phone call with her mother which is littered with abusive put-downs.

Eleanor is a plucky, incredibly resilient heroine – now one of my favourites in literature.  Her need for human connection is visceral, and my heart ached for her. I cheered her on as she began to emerge from the cocoon of her traumatic life.

This book is a joy to read.  It is beautifully written and heart-warming.  I loved it.

Milkman by Anna Burns

milkman image

Hailing from Northern Ireland myself, I was looking forward immensely to reading this Man Booker Prize winning novel.  I was a little trepidatious however, having read both glowing reviews and this odd criticism of it being ‘hard going.’  Well the reviews I can now agree with, and the idea of it being hard going, I must disagree with.

In saying that, I understand how it came to be said.  Anna Burns writes in such a unique style, and in my humble opinion, there are moments where the stylistic devises take away from the story itself.  She is fond of the repetition of three, long lists of adjectives, in fact long lists of anything.   There are also no names in the book.  Everyone is called by a title, which I thought added greatly to the humour.

The novel is set in an unnamed town in Northern Ireland, where our 18-year-old female narrator lives with her mother and ‘wee sisters.’  She also has three older sisters who are all married and living nearby.   She goes running with third brother-in-law, and life then takes a strange turn when she is followed by a character by the name of Milkman.

We soon come to know that he is a paramilitary and the novel follows our narrator’s journey, as she tries to deal with the unwanted advances of Milkman, as well as contemplating her current life with ‘maybe-boyfriend.’ All this takes place during the many complications of the Troubles which form the constant dangerous undercurrent of this brilliant novel.

She tells us about the ‘beyond-the-pales;’ anyone who doesn’t fit in or follow the rules of the tribe (there are many of them in the town including herself.)  She also describes the different tribes, ‘the renouncers,’ and the ‘issue women’ who hold power in the town.

Violence is part of everyday life:

“The only time you’d call the police in my area would be if you were going to shoot them.”

There is plenty of humour thoughout, although it is dark humour indeed, but I found myself laughing out loud many times.  There are also plenty of incredibly touching moments throughout the novel, where there is hope that light and love can replace the utter darkness of the time.

The writing is sublime.  It is ironic, black, harsh and yet gentle too.  Honestly it is hard to describe its nuances and cadences.  Just read it and weep at its brilliance.

I adored this book.  There were several lovely moments between the main character and her mother and wee sisters, not to mention her third brother-in-law.

I felt frustrated and yet completely understood how and why our heroine felt powerless to change her situation, always wondering how bad it was going to get.   No spoilers so can’t say anymore than that!

I highly recommend this novel.  I could read it again and I intend to. I will probably get a whole lot more from it the second or third time around.  It is not light reading but oh, (sighs with sheer pleasure) it is so worth it.  Divine.

 

Making Time to Read in 2019

Hello, dear followers.  Yes, I am still here!  I apologize sincerely for the lack of posts in 2018.  Not at all what I had intended.   You see, I was working extremely hard at developing my career in 2018, and this necessitated reading a lot of non-fiction for my work (I am an executive coach and trainer.)   Alas, this left little time for reading fiction.

This year I am going to make time to read fiction.  I intended to read so many books in 2018.  I can’t believe I haven’t yet read Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, or ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine,’ by Gail Honeyman, two books I am SO looking forward to reading in 2019.

What I did read at the end of 2018 was The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Jackson.  Not at all my usual reading choice, but my 12 year-old niece could not believe it when I said I hadn’t read them, and promptly leant me all three books and requested my immediate opinion on completion!  I must say I was pleasantly surprised.  A gripping story, excellently told and I did enjoy it much more than I expected.

Over Christmas I read the final installment in Jeffrey Archer’s The Clifton Chronicles.  Once again, this is not my usual type of reading material, but long story short, I was given the 7th novel in the series as a present, so out of sheer stubborness,  I decided to read the other 6 books.  If you are looking for some light reading, it’s a good long family saga and will not tax the brain, but is no less enjoyable.  I thought the writing in the first few books of the series was deplorable, but I think the writing improves as the saga develops, and the 7th is by far my favourite.  It also has a few good twists along the way.

marilyn-monroe-photo-awesomepeoplereading-tumblr-com-23-4-14

So with great hope, I intend to try and read at least a book a month and post a review every couple of months.    I am starting with this year’s Man Booker Prize Winning novel, ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns.   As I am from Belfast, this is one I am really looking forward to getting stuck into.  I will report back next month!

Any reading desires for 2019?  Please share thoughts and opinions.   Thank you and I wish you all a Happy New Year.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

the circle

Social Media.  Harmless fun or privacy nightmare?  If you have ever found yourself wondering whether you might be allowing too much of your private information to be shared, and maybe it’s not such a good thing, then reading this book may confirm your fears.

Mae Holland finds herself employed at one of the most prestigious internet companies in the world – The Circle.

The mission of The Circle is not just for everyone to be connected, but for total transparency.  This is done through various programmes such as SeaChange, where tiny lollipop size cameras are filming people all over the world unbeknown to them.

The campus is utopia.  Everything is “perfect.”   The company is run by ‘the three wise men’ who are only accessible to the elite.

Mae works diligently and obsessively to become part of this elite and this is where the thriller aspect of the novel kicks in.  The further into this murky world, of being seen and being accepted, Mae dives, the further into a dystopian nightmare she falls.

I found this novel a rollercoaster ride of fun and satire which posed some interesting questions such as, our right to privacy, where does your duty to others begin and end, and most interestingly is technology becoming more of a danger to our society than a help?

Some of Mae’s actions I found wholly implausible, not to mention the actions of some of the other characters in the book, but whilst the novel pushes the boundaries of reality at times, it is none the less an extremely enjoyable read.

I have had little or no time to read recently as is clearly evident from the lack of posts on my blog, so the fact I had this read in three days speaks for itself.  I apologize for my lack of posts and also that this one is short.  It’s been a crazy year so far.   I hope to be able to resume more reading and blogging in the near future.

This is a great read – holiday or not!  I would give it 8 out of 10.

 

 

 

Musings on Roth, Wolfe and More!

This year my book reviewing has gone to pot, due to circumstances beyond my control!

Well, actually, whilst I have had to temporarily move out of my home (long story) and have also been busy with work matters, part of the reason I haven’t reviewed as much, is that I am also reading a lot of non fiction.

I have re-discovered the joys of non fiction and I am currently reading ‘A Tribe of Mentors’ by Tim Ferris, which I highly recommend.  It is a hefty book though, so taking me a lot of reading hours to get through.

With regards to fiction, I have discovered that when my routine is turned upside down, so is my reading.  I have been trying to get back into a regular routine of reading fiction, but haven’t as yet been able to do so.   I hope once I am returned to my home and my ‘normal’ routine, and all this house stuff is done and dusted, my reading life will improve!

Anyway, in fiction, I have been reading ‘Good Evening Mrs Craven,’  by Mollie Panter-Downes.   A wonderful book of short stories set during World War II.  Available from Persephone books.

With news of the death of both Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe, my husband is reading ‘Everyman’ by Philip Roth and enjoying it very much.  I am determined to add both authors to my reading list (yes I know….I can’t believe I haven’t read either of them yet.)

I have been meaning to read ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ by Wolfe for so long.   I plan to read it sometime over the next few months and will put a review up here.

the bonfire of the vanities

If you have read any Roth or Wolfe, what would you recommend?  Would love to hear your thoughts on this, or anything else book related!

Due to the lack of reviews, I thought I would share some books worth a read this summer as recommended by Bill Gates.  This link came via Literary Hub which I read weekly.  A great resource for book lovers.

https://www.gatesnotes.com/About-Bill-Gates/Summer-Books-2018 

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.

 

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!