Monday 19 July 2021

Fifth birthday round-up by Adèle, Celia and Linda


What have we been reading?

Next week we celebrate our fifth birthday, and an exciting special guest is lined up to help us mark the occasion. Meanwhile, the three of us indulge in our own summer round-up. (We've been busy writing, too - each of us has published a book during lockdown! See the end of this post.)

Thank you so much to all the guest authors and independent booksellers who send us reviews, keeping us supplied now for five whole years and 275 blog posts - we couldn't do this without you! Don't forget to come back next week ...

Adèle Geras:

I love novels set in Cathedral Closes. I am a sucker for stories about the clergy and their families, like The Rector's Wife by Joanna Trollope and various books by Anthony Trollope. I also love soap operas. It's a term people use sneeringly, but they've never considered what gifts it takes to manage a cast of many people and keep us interested in every single one of them. I admire writing that's both witty and emotional, and a tale that introduces me to a whole crowd of new and interesting characters. I'd read all three of Catherine Fox's previous Lindchester Chronicles. She's married to a bishop and clearly knows what she's talking about ecclesiastically, as well as being a whizz at structure and in this fourth chronicle she casts an intelligent and sympathetic eye over what happens to her characters during the Pandemic. The phases of the moon are being studied by a young teenager and her diary threads the beads of this particular chain of events together. It's great to be back with the inhabitants of Lindford and I am now following their further adventures on Catherine Fox's Twitter account (@FictionFox) I must also admit to being envious of a writer who used the Pandemic to such good effect and has this to show for it now.

This novel has more than 2000 four and a half star reviews on Amazon and has been widely reviewed and raved over in the press. All I can say is: I quite agree with them. This is not the kind of book I thought I would love because I've lately felt I'm a bit too old for 'my life is falling to pieces' novels and also I'm not that keen on "will she find Mr Right?" novels. But I can honestly say that once I started reading Sorrow and Bliss, I literally couldn't put it down. I was up far too late into the night. I read it at odd moments....turns out it's my old friend, the frying onions kind of book. Which is, if you haven't met me saying this before, the sort of story where you hold the book with one hand even while frying onions with the other. It's most spectacularly well- written and deals in part with a wonderful depiction of the relationship between two sisters. I'm very fond of books about sisters because I'm an only child and this one is wonderful. You will laugh. You will cry. You will thank me for pointing you in the direction of this novel.

"Kieran Watts has been dead for over two years when I see him standing on the roof of a building in Shad Thames" says the narrator of this gripping thriller which isn't out till August 5th but which I read in proof. She knows what she's talking about because she killed him. So begins a twisty, atmospheric novel which has at its heart the fear and hatred which can arise when your beloved son come under the influence of someone you believe is truly hateful and evil. The reader is so swept up in the narrative that every shock comes as a real surprise. Your allegiances move around all the time. It's a book about fears, both real and imagined. My advice: read at once because The Heights a natural for TV adaptation and even though dramatisation will add to the visual representation of a London full of glittering high buildings, you won't get the obsessed tunnel vision nearly as well. It's a corker and just the thing for a holiday, at home or abroad.

Linda Newbery

The High House by Jessie Greengrass could perhaps be considered as dystopian science fiction by those who still, in spite of all evidence, don't take the climate emergency seriously, but for those of us who do it's a realistic and terrifying picture of the imminent future. Although it's a huge issue, the focus is on a small cast of characters, centred on Caro and her half-brother Pauly, sent to the house on the Suffolk coast that's been prepared for them as a refuge for when disaster strikes, looked after by the practical Sally and her wise grandfather. Along with the characters we realise how much we take for granted: that there will be light and heat at the flick of a switch, that there will be food available in shops ... and how inadequately we're prepared for survival when supply systems fail. I won't say more, as I'm planning to write a longer review of this engrossing, timely novel.

Like many others, I was mesmerised by Ridley Scott's TV dramatisation of The Terror earlier this year, and decided to read the novel by Dan Simmons too. In both we join the doomed Franklin expedition with the two ships, Erebus and Terror, locked in sea ice as they attempt the forbidding north-west passage. Although the ships were supposedly equipped to over-winter in the ice, crew members begin to fall ill and die from scurvy or lead poisoning, leading to the awful realisation that their tinned food is contaminated and their only hope of survival is to set off with sledges with the aim of reaching help farther south. Qualities of leadership, loyalty, resilience and self-sacrifice are to be found even as conditions become ever more desperate - but also there's malice and rebellion. Both novel and TV drama are spell-binding, though I did wonder whether the lurking presence of a vengeful spirit bear was really necessary. It was certainly used to dramatic effect, but to my mind it was the human interactions, disputes and allegiances in this dire situation that were so compelling.  

For those fascinated by the exploration of the treacherous north-west passage, I also recommend Michael Palin's Erebus - the Story of a Ship.

Miss Benson's Beetle
, by Rachel Joyce, is also the tale of a journey of exploration but with a much lighter touch. Fascinated by beetles, disappointed in love by the Professor who has taught her all she knows, and disillusioned with her job teaching domestic science, Margery Benson vows to find the elusive golden beetle of New Caledonia. When she advertises for a travelling companion, she ends up with the least suitable person imaginable: Enid Pretty, who arrives in a pink outfit complete with dainty pompom-trimmed shoes, and only the vaguest ideas about beetles or travel - but with the one fixed idea that she must have a baby. All slightly larger than life, the story combines Rachel Joyce's signature warmth and humanity with the dangers of travel and a murder mystery in the background. This reminds me very much of Lissa Evans' Old Baggage, with its wit and humour and the affectionate, often exasperating friendship between women.

Celia Rees

During lockdown, I joined my friend Julia’s book club via Zoom. They had invited me to talk about my novel, Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook and at the end of the discussion they asked if I would like to join them. I accepted readily, welcoming the chance to read books that I might not have read otherwise. One of their choices was The Long Petal of The Sea.

The title is a quotation from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, his description of his homeland as a ‘long petal of sea and wine and snow’. This is an epic novel spanning decades and crossing continents, following the lives of people both real and fictional. It begins in the brutal reality of the Spanish Civil War. A young medic, Victor Dalmar, is on the losing side and is forced to flee with his sister-in-law Roser Bruguer and thousands of others; his brother has been killed, his mother lost in the confusion of the retreat. After a gruelling crossing of the Pyranees, they are interned by a hostile French Government. From here they are rescued with many others, taken on a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda to find refuge in Chile.

The novel follows their lives through changing years and circumstances from impoverished beginnings in a new country to successful careers, Victor as a heart surgeon and Roser as a musician, but they are strangers in a strange land and progression is anything but straightforward.

As Victor and Roser settle into their life in Chile, other stories are brought into the narrative. Effortlessly tracking her characters through time and across countries and continents, Allende exquisitely demonstrates the vulnerability of the individual to forces beyond their control, from the cruel exile forced on Victor and Roser by the Spanish Civil War to the defeat of the Allende liberal democracy in Chile and the brutal military dictatorship of Pinochet. This is a powerful novel of identity and belonging, love and loyalty but, above all, the resilience and endurance of the human spirit.

I’ve just finished reading A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale. I confess to arriving late to his work, but after reading Notes from an Exhibition and now A Place Called Winter, I’ve joined my fellow Writers Review bloggers as an admirer of this supremely intelligent and sensitive writer.

A Place Called Winter is set in the first decades of the twentieth century and follows the life and adventures of Harry Cane. Discovered in an illicit affair, he is ostracised by his family, exiled from his comfortable metropolitan life, he leaves to start afresh as a homesteader on the prairies of Canada in a place called Winter, a place as bleak and inhospitable as it sounds. Ill equipped in every way, Harry nevertheless survives, more than that he thrives, relishing the physical work, appreciating the beauty of the country, enjoying the rural simplicity of his new life. He finds friendship here in a place where neighbour depends upon neighbour, companionship, a love he hadn’t known before but even in this idyll, old prejudices endure…

This is a novel of great compassion, a celebration of difference, a round and eloquent condemnation of the kind of small-minded prejudice that continues to blight lives.

Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat is one of those books I’ve always meant to read. I’m very interested in his brand of occult psychogeography. He has a deep fascination with London and its dark history from the ancient origins of the City to the outer circuit of the M25. In Lud Heat, he explores the mythical and occult patterns underlying the modern city, detecting invisible lines, a web of pentacles and triangular patterns connecting the East London churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor to plague pits and the sites of the Whitechapel and Radcliffe Highway murders. His opaque style is difficult at times but there is a mystery in what he writes and an energy which has inspired and informed the writing of many authors who share his fascination with London and the esoteric from Peter Ackroyd to J. G, Ballard and Hilary Mantel.

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1 comment:

Rosemary Hayes said...

Such a lot of great reading ideas. Thank you ladies!