Tag Archives: literary fiction

#BookReview ‘French Braid’ by Anne Tyler #literary #family

Anne Tyler writes about everyday relationships with a sharp eye and a silken pen, choosing subjects which to people who have never read her may appear boring or worthless. Her books are never boring. French Braid, her 24th novel is, like all the others, about people, individuals and their families, ordinary people who become so familiar they could be real. Anne TylerWe first meet college students Serena and James, on the train returning to Baltimore from a Thanksgiving visit to James’s parents in Philadelphia. They’re in love and think they know each other well but this visit has highlighted differences in their experience of family and childhood and the expectations each has of how their own family will be in the future. Not all families are alike, they discover. After this shortish section, Tyler settles into the main story of Mercy and Robin – Serena’s grandparents – and their three children Alice, Lily and David through births, marriages and deaths from the 1950s to today.
The Garretts think themselves an awkward family, aware they’re not perfect – as Robin thinks when preparing for his and Mercy’s fiftieth wedding anniversary party, ‘Oh, the lengths this family would go to so as not to spoil the picture of how things were supposed to be!’ But in fact they’re being themselves, getting along together in the way that suits them, dealing with what life throws at them.
There’s a brief scene in the kitchen between sisters Alice and Lily as the family gathers at Easter to meet David’s new friend, Greta. They’re setting out food for lunch when their mis-communications and misunderstandings are laid bare. Hilarious lines – ‘Was bottled mayonnaise not a good thing?’ – are typical Tyler and made me smile. It’s a classic way of showing how two sisters can be so unalike but still rub along together. Tyler has such a deceptively simple way with words, summarising sprawling emotions so concisely that I want to write it down to enjoy again later.
Tyler examines how each family finds its own way through life. Not all siblings are best friends, not all spouses live in each other’s pockets. There is no right way or wrong way of being a family. Close-knit families may find looser-knit families cold or odd, but may in turn themselves seem claustrophobic and cliquey to outsiders. Neither is odd, simply different. Everyone muddles through the best they can. The trick to being part of a family, in Tyler’s world, is to adapt. Allow individuals to be themselves and accept annoying traits, awkward memories and uncomfortable truths along with the happy memories and shared laughter as part of a family’s mosaic.

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

And read the first paragraphs of:-

If you like this, try:-
At Mrs Lippincote’s’ by Elizabeth Taylor
The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt
The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue

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#BookReview ‘Shrines of Gaiety’ by Kate Atkinson #literary 

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson is a sparkling portrayal of London in the 1920s, a heady mixture of madly-themed nightclubs, teenage runaways and the Bright Young Things. It is 1926 and the generation most damaged by the War to End All Wars is dancing to forget. But 1920s London is not as glittering it seems. Though the nightclubs sparkle by night, they are dank and dowdy in daylight. London has a dark, dangerous underbelly. Kate AtkinsonWhen veteran gangland boss Ma Coker is released from Holloway prison, a train of events is set in place. Her six children jostle for her attention, approval and power. The police at Bow Street station are either in her pay or are trying to convict her. Meanwhile, others are plotting the takeover of her rich kingdom – the five nightclubs the Amethyst, the Sphinx, the Crystal Cup, the Pixie and the Foxhole. Each is carefully targetted at specific clientele, each is managed by one of her five eldest children. The Amethyst is the jewel in the crown but Nellie, post-prison, is acting oddly and has taken to sitting alone in the immaculate, unoccupied, pink-decorated flat above the Cup. Is she losing it?
Two young women arrive in the closed world of the Coker family and will change things forever. Fourteen-year-old Freda Murgatroyd has run away from York with her bovine friend Florence, desperate to dance on the stage in London. Gwendolen Kelling, a former librarian and also from York, follows them to London with the aim of returning them to their families. Though Gwendolen’s tweed skirt and plain cardigan may suggest timidity, she is not what she seems.
What a wonderful read this is, this hybrid part-historical, part-literary, part-mystery novel. Atkinson juggles a huge cast and given this it takes a while to settle into the story, but as the pages turn the parties become more hysterical and people begin to die. There are three main viewpoints – Nellie Coker, Gwendolen and Freda – supplemented by Inspector John Frobisher and Nellie’s three eldest children Edith, Niven and Ramsay. But always Atkinson reminds us of the dark side. The Bright Young Things dazzle at the beginning of the evening in beautiful extravagant costumes, but their syringes and drugs become visible at twilight. Meanwhile, Nellie seems to be losing her iron grip on the clubs. When Gwendolen is recruited by Frobisher to visit the Amethyst undercover one night, with a policeman as her dance partner, things spin out of control. There is no sign of Flora or Florence, Gwendolen’s dance partner disappears, a fight breaks out and her beautiful dress from Liberty is covered in blood. The identity of her saviour is unexpected.
The story has been described as Dickensian and I can see why. Atkinson never wastes a sentence and, with a sure hand, she directs this complicated plot full of richly-drawn characters, criminal gangs, two-faced policemen and blotto partygoers. The historical detail stretches from the richest to the poorest, plus there’s a touch of romance and plenty of wry and witty anecdotes to make you chuckle. Some of the minor characters are classics to delight in, particularly Vanda and Duncan aka The Knits.

Click the title to read my reviews of these other books by Kate Atkinson:-
BIG SKY [Jackson Brodie #5]

If you like this, try:-
‘Fatal Inheritance’ by Rachel Rhys
Freya’ by Anthony Quinn
The Light Years’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard [Cazalet Chronicles #1]

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#BookReview ‘Companion Piece’ by Ali Smith #SeasonalQuartet

Companion Piece by Ali Smith is about truth, the telling of stories, real stories, fake stories, fairy stories, perceived truth and real truth, and how language and data can be used and abused. Smith tackles some of the biggest issues facing society today, not so much providing answers but making us ask questions about life and the modern concept of ‘truth.’ A ‘companion’ novella to Smith’s lockdown-themed Seasonal Quartet, Companion Piece sings from the beginning. Ali SmithTwining together present and past stories, two motifs run throughout. ‘Curfew,’ the idea of restriction of physical movement, on access and egress, the feeling of being constrained and the invasion of our space. And ‘curlew’, the freedom of nature, the bird’s odd-shaped bill, a reminder that there is room in nature for things that don’t quite fit the norm, the ever presence of wildlife whatever happens in the human world, the familiar pattern of a bird’s day, of nature’s life cycle and therefore also of ours.
Artist Sandy is struggling during lockdown to distance-visit her sick father who is in hospital. She must stay isolated and free of the virus so she doesn’t prejudice his health and is accompanied only by Shep, her father’s dog. Into this closed world comes Martina, an acquaintance from university many decades since, who telephones with an odd tale concerning an incident at border control when she recently returned to the UK with the Boothby lock (a medieval artefact for which Martina is responsible). Held in an immigration detention room, she hears (or imagine she hears) a mysterious message – ‘Curlew or curfew.’ Martina wants Sandy’s advice to decipher the message, as Sandy is good at words. Sandy, who barely remembers Martina, tries to help while simultaneously trying to end the call. There are flashbacks to their university days, to Sandy’s childhood.
Then Sandy’s peaceful isolation is shattered by the arrival on her doorstep of Martina’s twin daughters, Lea and Eden, whose speech is littered with text-speak abbreviations. They dismiss Sandy’s concerns about covid distancing and accuse her of upsetting their mother who is acting strangely and is changing information about historical artefacts in the digital database at work.
The second story (whether it is told by Sandy is unclear, like many things in this book) set in another pandemic, this time the Black Death. An unnamed young girl, a blacksmith’s apprentice, is lying in a ditch after being attacked by men. There she meets a curlew chick, an ungainly beautiful bird she begins to care for. As people around her die of plague, she remembers the stories told to her by the blacksmith Ann Shaklock and these help her to survive.
Any novel by such an experimental writer as Smith needs to be read with a loosening of expectations, acceptance of the abandonment of normal commercial fiction norms. Passages are beautifully written but incomprehensible, others are simple and sweet, some made me laugh out loud. Punctuation, speech marks, forget about them all and sink into the story of Sandy the artist who paints words layered on top of words.
Don’t expect answers at the end. As Sandy says, ‘A story is never an answer. A story is always a question.’ It is a plea for us all to ask more questions, to not simply believe what we are told but to analyse and strip back stories in order to separate fact from fiction, fake news from truth.

Click the title to read my reviews of other books by Ali Smith:-
AUTUMN #1SeasonalQuartet
WINTER #2SeasonalQuartet
SPRING #3SeasonalQuartet
SUMMER #4SeasonalQuartet

If you like this, try:-
‘In the Midst of Winter’ by Isabel Allende
‘Blow Your House Down’ by Pat Barker
New Boy’ by Tracy Chevalier

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COMPANION PIECE by Ali Smith #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5PB via @SandraDanby

#Bookreview ’Summerwater’ by Sarah Moss #literary #contemporary

Twenty-four hours in the Scottish countryside, twelve people are staying in holiday cabins beside an isolated loch. Summerwater by Sarah Moss starts off with strangers concerned with the minutiae of their own lives and ends with a tragedy. Sarah Moss

This is beautifully written with sly humour coupled with sensory description of the place which puts you right there. The pace is slow and contemplative, taking time to plait together the observations by characters and the actual names, so carefully building together a picture of a temporary community. At first, they make assumptions and generalisations about each other. A retired couple sit and look out at the rain, reminiscing about the previous years they spent in this cabin. A young mother runs in all weathers and at all times of day, leaving her husband to look after the children. A teenager escapes the boredom of his bedroom by kayaking around the loch. The Romanian family, who party all night and don’t know how to behave, are the only ones seeming to have fun on holiday. They are also the only ones whose viewpoint we don’t hear, setting them apart from the rest. While at night a shadow stands in the woods, watching.

I never did get the identity of some characters straight in my head and the building of tension – the shadow in the woods – didn’t convince me. I didn’t feel it was necessary as I quickly became fascinated by the setting and the gradual interaction of characters. The constant rain acts as a claustrophobia device keeping everyone inside, feeling trapped, looking out and watching others, making judgements.

Summerwater is also darkly funny. Don’t miss the chuckle-out-loud scene when Milly and Josh are having sex but she’s thinking about a cup of tea and a bacon butty. The chapters about people are alternated with short sections about the natural world – a deer and fawn, the geology of the rocks, the origin of water flowing into the loch, bats, birds waiting for the rain to stop. These briefly pause the story – most are two paragraphs long – but add to the sense of place.

Most definitely not a page-turner in the thriller sense, Summerwater ends abruptly. It is however thick with atmosphere. The rain, the wet vegetation, the finger-chilling cold, the sense of the holiday park, the loch and earth being much older than the visitors. It is a book about a day in which not a lot happens, showing how small things become big when you are bored, and how we are all inter-connected.

Here’s my review of Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss.

If you like this, try:-
Akin’ by Emma Donoghue
These Dividing Walls’ by Fran Cooper
Anderby Wold’ by Winifred Holtby

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SUMMERWATER by Sarah Moss #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4SD via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘The Only Story’ by Julian Barnes #love #literary

I seem to be developing a Marmite relationship with Julian Barnes. I loved his early work and The Sense of an Ending but had difficulty with his last novel The Noise of Time. So I approached The Only Story with trepidation. Julian BarnesMy stomach sank as I read the first page. The first paragraph poses a question: ‘Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.” A pertinent question to which each of us has our own private answer. My difficulty with the first few pages is the lack of characterization; because it is told in the first person, we do not know who is speaking, there is no context. That of course comes later, and a few pages in its starts to warm up with the description of a tennis match. But ultimately I could not shake the perception that it was Julian Barnes the man speaking, not a fictional character, in the way American authors such as Wolfe and Roth seem to become characters in their own novels.
But this is a lesson in patience. I read on and the story started to come alive as the relationship of Paul and Susan unfolds. A teenager and a woman in her forties; it is first love for Paul but, as The Only Story is told completely from his perspective, we don’t know what it is to Susan. We only know what she tells him, not what she thinks. It is telling that one day after finishing the book, I could remember the name of his character but not hers.
The story is told in three parts: in the first flush of love; in the difficult times that follow, and as Paul looks back in later life. Barnes changes narrative voice from the immediate first person for nineteen-year old Paul, to a combination of first and second in the middle section; and the more distant third person in the final part, symbolic of the passing years and perhaps of pushing emotions and guilt away. The turning points in the novel are the turning points in the relationship, as love turns to familiarity, to duty and becomes a burden. I think the author intends The Only Story as a rumination on the nature of love, when in fact it is an account of a teenager learning that young love does not stay young love.
The writing is beautiful to read, as always with Barnes, but as the story progressed the pace slackened and I grew tired of repetition. I finished it wishing I had felt more engaged with the other characters in the story; Susan’s husband is a peripheral character who behaves oddly, and I would have loved to see more from her caustic friend Joan.
A sad story, but not a new one.

Click here to read my review of THE NOISE OF TIME.

If you like this, try:-
‘Curtain Call’ by Anthony Quinn
‘Fair Exchange’ by Michèle Roberts
‘The Roundabout Man’ by Clare Morrall

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THE ONLY STORY by Julian Barnes #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3pO via @SandraDanby