Tag Archives: American writers

#BookReview ‘Ladder of Years’ by Anne Tyler #literary #family

Ladder of Years is another fine character-led drama by Anne Tyler, one of my favourite authors. It is the story of Delia Grinstead who, in a moment of dissatisfaction with her life and relationships, goes for a walk on the beach and keeps on walking. Finding a niche in a small town, with hardly any money and possessions, Delia starts again. And when her family catch up with her and ask her why she left, she cannot find a way to explain.

It is twenty-eight years since Ladder of Years was first published. It was chosen by Time magazine as one of the ten best books of 1995. Tyler had already been a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1986 with The Accidental Tourist and won it in 1989 for Breathing Lessons. All her novels stand the test of time and can be read as if the action takes place today, so accurately is her finger on the portrayal of human emotion.

Adrift from her husband and three almost-adult children in Baltimore and not understanding why, Delia finally tips over the edge while on holiday. She finds herself in Bay Borough, the sort of small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. She finds a job and a room to rent, buys a couple of secondhand work dresses and a nifty gadget to heat water in a cup so she can make an early morning cup of tea. Delia knows she should let her family know she is safe but is disinclined to do so, feeling she has been taken for granted. Inevitably, one of her sisters arrives on the doorstep. What follows is the story of a woman free for the first time, having married as a teenager and worked all that time as her doctor husband’s receptionist. Free from the expectations of others, she makes a circle of friends on her own terms.

This is a novel about middle-aged stasis and escape, about admitting the truth of one’s own life, choices and possibilities, and that there are no easy answers. Tyler’s characters are always so well-drawn and believable and her observations so wise and true, sometimes uncomfortably so. Here’s an example; ‘Didn’t it often happen, she thought, that aged parents die exactly at the moment when other people (your husband, your adolescent children) have stopped being thrilled to see you coming? But a parent is always thrilled, always dwells so lovingly on your face as you are speaking. One of life’s many ironies.’ Of course, Delia encounters other parent/child combinations in Bay Borough which challenge this theory.

Tyler’s novels deceive; seemingly about small domesticities and passage-of-life-events, they are really about the big, difficult questions we all face as we pass through different phases of life.


Read my reviews of these other books by Anne Tyler:-

And read the first paragraphs of:-

If you like this, try:-
Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout
Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift
The Stars are Fire’ by Anita Shreve

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
#Bookreview LADDER OF YEARS by Anne Tyler https://wp.me/p5gEM4-49S via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Oh William!’ by @LizStrout #contemporary #literary

What a gifted writer Elizabeth Strout is. Oh William! sees the return of Lucy Barton as she meets again her first husband, William, and reflects on love, loss, friendship and the fact that life can seem bewildering. Lucy’s voice is so real it seemed as if we were having a real conversation, face-to-face. Elizabeth StroutThis is the stream-of-consciousness story – complete with ums, ahs, meanderings and distractions – of a few months in Lucy’s life, after the death of her second husband David and when William’s latest wife, Estelle has just left him. Lucy and William were married for twenty years and have two daughters; that’s a lot of baggage. The connections that bind a married couple do not disappear after they are divorced, memories and experiences are inextricably linked. William, now 71, came home one day to find the flat looking odd, with gaps where things should be, and a note from his wife Estelle saying she had moved out. As he explains to Lucy, now a successful writer in her sixties, what has happened, she relives the moment she also left William, how she felt at the time and how she feels now. She calls him Pillie, he calls her Button. They spend more time together and their daughters ask if they are getting back together. In fact, they are investigating a family secret recently revealed when William is given the gift of an ancestry records service. As they travel back into the past of William and of his mother, Catherine Cole, Lucy recalls her own childhood, the neglect, the poverty, and considers how this shaped who she is today.
Strout has written a short, elegant story with hidden depths that draw you in. She explores the affections, regrets, irritations and resentments of a couple, once married, now sort-of friends. They are an everyman couple who loved each other, who were at times thoughtless, cruel, unforgiving and impatient but now show moments of heart-stopping fondness. Lucy recounts the road trip undertaken into William’s past except it is also a journey into her own past as the revelations of someone else’s secrets shed new insight into her own desperately sad childhood.
A novel about human flaws that shows how it’s almost impossible to know ourselves as others see us, as we can never thoroughly know someone else.
This is a companion novel to My Name is Lucy Barton, the first ever book by Strout I read, but each novel can be read independently.

Read my reviews of these other books by Elizabeth Strout:-

If you like this, try:-
Mum & Dad’ by Joanna Trollope
A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
In Another Life’ by Julie Christine Johnson

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
OH WILLLIAM! by @LizStrout #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5pB via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘The End of the Day’ by Bill Clegg #literary

Three girls grow up living near each other in Wells, Connecticut. Dana. Jackie. Lupita. Each in a different social class. With or without wealth. With or without expectations. Privilege, no privilege. One betrayal touches their lives and has ramifications for the next generation. The End of the Day by Bill Clegg is about the fragility of loyalty when teenage bonds are tested by love, jealousy, indiscretions, secrets and lies. ‘To end a friendship, it just takes someone willing to throw it away.’ Because when a decision is taken, more than one life is affected. Bill Clegg

Clegg has written a genealogical story wrapped up in two timelines, the years not defined but basically the Sixties and the Noughties. An elderly woman, frail and confused, sets out from New York on an excursion. Another old woman wakes in her family home to a beautiful passage of memories. A taxi driver in Hawaii ignores the repeated messages left on her mobile phone. These three are connected by a youthful flirtation, a pregnancy, arrangements made and lies told, assumptions made. A fascinating story, characters so believable, but the details lacking in clarity – perhaps because so many lies have been told. In the Noughties are mother and son Alice and Hap. Hap’s life takes two momentous turns when his father is seriously ill in hospital, the same hospital where his wife has just given birth to their baby daughter. A little girl still, significantly, without a name.

The first half is a slow read with beautiful writing that at times edged towards the self-indulgent. The book, though not long, felt long. I wanted occasional clarity of story and shorter paragraphs. I was unclear about the different houses featured – the childhood homes of Jackie and Dana and the area in which they lived. Perhaps the author knows it so well he forgot to be clear for the reader. The story moves location and year without specification which can be disorientating.

In re-reading the notes I wrote after finishing the book, I found I had twice written ‘lacking clarity’. The story is a sad one, of connections made, lost, and unknown, but for me it could be more touching with a clearer narrative spine. That said, the story stayed with me days after I finished it – always a good sign. The parallels between the generations, the vulnerability of a baby dependent on adults for the truth of its origins, the duty to protect and the urge to run from an old life. An okay story wrapped up in exquisite writing.

Here’s my review of Did You Ever Have a Family? also by Bill Clegg.

If you like this, try:-
A Sudden Light’ by Garth Stein
Summertime’ by Vanessa Lafaye
We Are Water’ by Wally Lamb

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE END OF THE DAY by Bill Clegg #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-523 via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Clock Dance’ by Anne Tyler #literary #family

Anne Tyler Every novel by Anne Tyler is a treat, I save them up, anticipate them. For me as a reader, she tells stories that seem ordinary but have exceptional depth, gentle stories which make me want to continue reading on into the night. For me as a writer, it is her I aim to emulate; her economy of word and scene, achieving depth without unnecessary diversion. So, to Clock Dance.

Told in three parts – 1967, 1977 and 2017 – this is the story of an ordinary woman, Willa Drake, to whom things outside normal life don’t happen. The three key events in her life – the disappearance of her mother, a marriage proposal, being widowed at 41 – are passive acts. Willa is not a proactive person. We meet her first as an eleven year-old, at home with her family; her emotionally-erratic mother, her passive, lovely father, her awkward younger sister Elaine. Willa takes on the motherly role, making a chocolate pudding, observing the ups and downs of her parents’ relationship with acute asides. At college, her boyfriend proposes to her and expects her to give up college and move across the country. In 2017, a confused phone call from the neighbour of her son’s ex-girlfriend sets in motion a chain of events that sees Willa gain a substitute grand-daughter but endanger her own marriage. Each time, Willa reacts to other people.

In Baltimore Willa and her second husband Peter move in with Denise who has been shot, and Denise’s nine-year-old daughter Cheryl and dog Airplane. It is an everyday story of a household, hospital visits, neighbours and community. Tyler’s observations of daily life are so spot-on, she tells the story in a way that makes it seem real, not a literary invention involving toil, plotting and rewriting. Without you noticing, time passes and people change so subtly it is impossible to put a finger on the point when the change started. Simple, complex, hugely perceptive.

This is a novel about meekly accepting your place in the world until the day arrives that you realise life is passing you by. Does Willa have the courage to find a new life? I was urging her on all the way. A 5* book for me.

Read my reviews of A Spool of Blue Thread and Vinegar Girlalso by Anne Tyler.

If you like this, try:-
‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith
‘The Stars are Fire’ by Anita Shreve
‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
#Bookreview CLOCK DANCE by Anne Tyler https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3J9 via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Time Will Darken It’ by William Maxwell #literary

William MaxwellTwo families, the one from the South visits the one in the North. America before the Great War, class divides, manners, family duty, the race question and, beneath the politeness, love is turbulent. This is the world of Time Will Darken It. I don’t know why I have never discovered William Maxwell before now, but I will certainly seek out his others.

Draperville, Illinois, is the setting for this observation of manners which at times reminded me of Austen. Draperville is based on Maxwell’s own hometown of Lincoln, Illinois. In 1912, the Potter family from Mississippi visit the family of their foster son. Austin King, lawyer in Draperville, struggles to live up to the reputation of his father Judge King. The interaction and resulting effects of the King and Potter families over four weeks and three days, is detailed in a way reminiscent of Austen. And the detail is fascinating. The interaction between the generations, the expectations of the men and women, norms of behaviour and what happens when those norms are broken. This pre-war period teeters on the verge of war, and all the changes that will soon be brought about.

This is a wise book about relationships and how one’s own self-perspective, and that of your parents, changes over time and with experience. “…the history of one’s parents has to be pieced together from fragments, their motives and character guessed at, and the truth about them remains deeply buried, like a boulder that projects one small surface above the level of smooth lawn, and when you come to dig around it, proves to be too large ever to move, though each year’s frost forces it up a little higher.”

If you like Time Will Darken It, try:-
Some Luck by Jane Smiley
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
‘Summertime’ by Vanessa Lafaye

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
TIME WILL DARKEN IT by William Maxwell #books via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1I1

Book review: Purity

Jonathan FranzenI admit to feeling disappointed by Purity by Jonathan Franzen. The root of this disaffection is partly my expectations, having loved The Corrections and Freedom, and partly the subject matter. Unlike his previous two novels, which focussed on an extended family, the central narrative of Purity is a young woman’s search for her father, a search which brings her into contact with some seriously dodgy people.

A large chunk of the novel is about Andreas Wolfe whose Sunlight Project brings light to the world by leaking secrets. His backstory as a young man in East Germany as the Wall crumbles is historically interesting but I found his character unpleasant. On his first foray into West Berlin, Wolfe meets a young American journalist, Tom Aberant, who becomes another constant throughout the book. Great chunks of the book are dedicated to Wolfe and Aberant’s relationships with, respectively Annagret and Annabel, who confusingly merged together in my mind.

So what kept me reading? Pip, the Purity of the title, a young woman burdened by student debt and a curiosity about the identity of her father, is lured to Bolivia to work for the Sunlight Project, in the belief that she will find out the name of her father. Pip’s story inevitably becomes entwined with Wolfe and Aberant but at times it seemed as if Franzen was writing two separate novels, I wanted to skip the Wolfe parts and get back to Pip.

Purity is not just Pip’s real name, it is the big theme. Purity in terms of information freedom, in terms of intentions and objectives, and old-fashioned secrets and lies; and there are a lot of the latter two. All the characters are hiding something, or avoiding someone, or longing for someone, or seeking something unattainable; and all must consider whether, in seeking the truth, they actually want to hear it when they find it.

This is not a bad book, Franzen couldn’t write one, and parts of it are written beautifully. He has a wonderful economy of phrase sometimes which encapsulates a big observation in a few well-chosen words. Unfortunately for me, other parts of it were stodgy and over-long and I skipped over some paragraphs.

Is it an epic book? It is certainly big [576 pages, but not the 736 pages of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life] but that is not in itself a problem, I like reading big books – big in terms of length, and subject matter. My real problem was that I didn’t engage with the characters, I didn’t care about them and found them at times over-the-top, verging on hysterical. I don’t need to like them, but I do need to care about them.

A full-fat novel with extra sugar and extra caffeine.

If you like ‘Purity’, try these other ‘big’ American novels:-
‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler
‘Some Luck’ by Jane Smiley

‘Purity’ by Jonathan Franzen [UK: 4th Estate] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
PURITY by Jonathan Franzen #bookreview via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1Sq

Book review: Housekeeping

Marilynne RobinsonThis book by Marilynne Robinson had been on my shelf for a while, bought because of reputation, and anticipated. Perhaps I expected too much of a first novel because, though it has amazing reviews, I struggled to connect with the story. The writing, however, is beautiful, poetic, elegiac.

It is the story of Ruth and Lucille, orphans, who grow up beside a haunting lake in the vast open countryside of mid-America. The lake dominates the life of everyone who lives around it, it floods every year, and floods the house where the two girls live, first with their grandmother and then with their Aunt Sylvie. We see Sylvie’s attempts at housekeeping dwindle as the house floods each winter, as her care for the house fails, so the two girls are uncared for. Not abused, but not clean, not sent to school, not disciplined. It is a novel about the failure of housekeeping in this house, and in the family, and it is the two who girls who suffer.

The sad story moves at a slow pace, and until halfway through I had no clear picture of how the two girls were different. It is Ruth who narrates, much of which is description of the house which lays at the heart of the story.

All the description, though, is poetic. Ruth’s grandmother in her elderly years “continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing.”

This is not an easy read, often obscure. There was no strong thread to pull me through the book, to keep turning the pages. Two other Robinson books sit on my shelf – Gilead and Lila – I don’t know now what to expect from them. I think I will wait a while before attempting them.

If you like ‘Housekeeping’, try these other novels by American writers:-
‘A Thousand Acres’ by Jane Smiley
‘Summertime’ by Vanessa Lafaye
‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx

‘Housekeeping’ by Marilynne Robinson [UK: Faber] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1zG #bookreview via @SandraDanby

Book review: A Spool of Blue Thread

Anne TylerWhat do you think of when you think of novelist Anne Tyler? For me, it is The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. It is quite a list. So I enjoyed the anticipation of reading her latest, A Spool of Blue Thread. What do I expect? Family, no-one writes about family like she does.

I became wrapped in the story of Abby and Red Whitshank and their four children Denny, Stem, Jeanie and Amanda. Abby was the character that fascinated me, we see her first as a mother in 1994 when Red takes a strange phone call from Denny who is living who knows where. They don’t know whether to believe Denny, whether to worry about him, Abby tries to empathize, Red says there is such a thing as being ‘too understanding’. And so the Whitshank story slowly unfolds like a dropped spool of blue thread running across the floor. We hear the story of Red’s father, Junior, a carpenter, who built the house Abby and Red now live in, we hear about Linnie Mae, Red’s mother and her love affair with Junie. The history of this family is in their bones, and in the bones of the house where they live. But Abby and Red are getting old now, and managing in this large house is becoming fraught with incident.

Anne Tyler dissects the structure of the family, how they become who they are, how the memories and misunderstandings from childhood and adolescence filter through to adulthood and shape mature viewpoints. And how all of this affects the Whitshanks’ relationships with each other, and the outside world.

If you like ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’, try these other American family novels:-
‘A Thousand Acres’ by Jane Smiley
‘Some Luck’ by Jane Smiley
‘Housekeeping’ by Marilynne Robinson

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler [UK: Chatto & Windus] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD by Anne Tyler #bookreview via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1xH

Great opening paragraph 21 ‘Freedom’ #amwriting #FirstPara

Jonathan Franzen“The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read The New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbours had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times [“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”] with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedalling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.”
‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
‘Dance Dance Dance’ by Haruki Murakami
‘A Bouquet of Barbed Wire’ by Andrea Newman
‘After You’d Gone’ by Maggie O’Farrell

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
A 1st para which makes me want to read more: FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen #books https://wp.me/p5gEM4-7s via @SandraDanby


Great opening paragraph 3… ‘Herzog’ #amwriting #FirstPara

Saul Bellow“If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.”
‘Herzog’ by Saul Bellow

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
‘Enduring Love’ by Ian McKewan
‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding
‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
HERZOG by Saul Bellow http://wp.me/p5gEM4-4G via @SandraDanby #books