Tag Archives: literature

#BookReview ‘Summer’ by Ali Smith #SeasonalQuartet #literary

And so Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet comes full circle with Summer. What a journey these four books have been – experimental fiction at its best written in the moment at a time of political and social upheaval. Challenging, sometimes grating, often uplifting, so many of the loose threads left dangling in the first three books are reconnected in this finale. Ali Smith

Ali Smith is a challenging author to read. You get comfortable with one story and a couple of characters who she then abandons to tell you about someone else who seems completely disconnected. At times there are passages which seem to belong to no character, where the authorial voice shows through. It can feel as if the manuscripts for two or three novels have been thrown in the air and landed randomly on your Kindle. But then, as you come close to the end of this fourth book, all the disparate stories start to connect. Read Summer, the last in Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, when your brain is in full gear otherwise you will miss so much.

The story starts in Brighton with Sacha and Robert Greenlaw, teenage siblings, precocious, curious, competitive, committed and awkward. Following a trick Robert plays on his sister, two strangers visit the home where they live with their mum Grace. The strangers, Charlotte and Arthur, are the first characters from previous books to reappear. And so begins a journey to Norfolk, inspired by Einstein, motivated by a promise, towards answers, towards mystery, no one seems to really know.

Smith says summer is ‘heading towards both light and dark. Because summer isn’t just a merry tale. Because there’s no merry tale without darkness.’ Smith’s tales always feature darkness and here it is the wartime stories of Daniel Gluck and his father interned on the Isle of Man and of Daniel’s sister in France. How, I wondered as I read, will Smith connect the Greenlaws, Charlotte, Arthur and the Glucks? That is what kept me reading, to discover the meaning of summer in this story and to these particular characters. Smith says ‘summer’s surely really all about an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something.’ There is so much depth in her exploration of theme – paralleling The Winter’s Tale, for example, and her own summer tale via the remembered summer of Grace when a young Shakespearean actress – more than I can explain here. You have to read it for yourself.

I do wish for old-fashioned punctuation, speech marks and clearly delineated changes of voice, the lack of which interrupts the flow of my reading and takes me away from the story – surely that can’t be the conscious objective of any author.

I will re-read this quartet back-to-back, without pause, hoping to gain more understanding and nuance. Individually, the novels are challenging and at times mystifying. Collectively, they become something else entirely. I suspect in years to come I will see a different interpretation.

Read my reviews of Autumn, Winter, Spring and How to be Both by Ali Smith.

If you like this, try:-
The Only Story’ by Julian Barnes
Amnesia’ by Peter Carey
The Testimony of Taliesin Jones’ by Rhidian Brook

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
SUMMER by Ali Smith #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4Qi via @SandraDanby

First Edition: Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was published in 1925 and was actually created from two short stories – Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street, and The Prime Minister. It is one of Woolf’s best known novels as all the action takes place on one day in June 1923. The story moves backwards and forwards in time, and in and out of character’s minds, as a picture of Clarissa’s life is constructed. Virginia Woolf

A first edition of the Hogarth Press 1925 edition [above right] is for sale at Peter Harrington, at time of going to press, for £1,750. Around 2000 copies of the first printing were produced.
A rare first edition of the American book [below] with the Vanessa Bell dust jacket, published in 1925 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, is for sale at Raptis Rare Books for $5,500. Virginia Woolf

The story
Clarissa Dalloway is making preparations for a party she will host that evening. The day reminds her of her childhood spent in the countryside at Bourton and makes her wonder at her choice of husband. She married reliable Richard Dalloway rather than the demanding Peter Walsh. When Peter arrives, the tension of her old decision resurfaces.

The film
A 1997 film starred Vanessa Redgrave in the title role of Clarissa Dalloway, with her younger self played by Natasha McElhone and Michael Kitchen as Peter.Virginia Woolf

Watch the trailer here.

Other editions

Virginia Woolf


‘Mrs Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf [UK: Vintage]

If you like old books, check out these:-
‘The Moonstone’ by Wilkie Collins
‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte
‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
First Edition: MRS DALLOWAY by Virginia Woolf #oldbooks via https://wp.me/p5gEM4-39X @SandraDanby

Great opening paragraph…61

haruki murakami - dance dance dance 10-6-13“I often dream about the Dolphin Hotel.

In these dreams, I’m there, implicated in some kind of ongoing circumstance. All indications are that I belong to this dream continuity.

The Dolphin Hotel is distorted, much too narrow. It seems more like a long, covered bridge. A bridge stretching endlessly through time. And there I am, in the middle of it. Someone else is there too, crying.

The hotel envelops me. I can feel its pulse, its heat. In dreams, I am part of the hotel.”
‘Dance Dance Dance’ by Haruki Murakami [translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum]

Great opening paragraph…60

Lord Jim - OP
“He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It seemed a necessity, and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else. He was spotlessly neat, apparelled in immaculate white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got his living as ship-chandler’s water-clerk he was very popular.”
‘Lord Jim’ by Joseph Conrad

Great opening paragraph… 59

the unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry - GOP 5-6-13
“The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelt of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with  slice of toast that he wasn’t eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen’s telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbours’ closeboard fencing.”
‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce

Great opening paragraph…58


“The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or rather protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow. The librarian handed it to Roland Michell, who was sitting waiting for it in the Reading Room of the London Library. It had been exhumed from Locked Safe no.5 where it usually stood between Pranks of Priapus and The Grecian Way of Love. It was ten in the morning, one day in September 1986. Roland had the small single table he liked best, behind a square pillar, with the clock over the fireplace nevertheless in full view. To his right, was a high sunny window, through which you could see the high green leaves of St James’s Square.”

‘Possession’ by AS Byatt

Great opening paragraph… 57

iris murdoch - the philosopher's pupil 10-6-13“A few minutes before his brainstorm, or whatever it was, took place, George McCaffrey was having a quarrel with his wife. It was eleven o’clock on a rainy March evening. They had been visiting George’s mother. Now George was driving along the quayside, taking the short-cut along the canal past the iron foot-bridge. It was raining hard. The malignant rain rattled on the car like shot. Propelled in oblique flurries, it assaulted the windscreen, obliterating in a second the frenetic strivings of the windscreen wipers. Little demonic faces composed of racing raindrops appeared and vanished. The intermittent yellow light of the street lamps, illuminating the grey atoms of the storm, fractured in sudden stars upon the rain-swarmed glass. Bumping on cobbles the car hummed and drummed.”
‘The Philosopher’s Pupil’ by Iris Murdoch

Book review: The Miniaturist

the miniaturist by jessie burton 29-6-14Eighteen-year-old Nella starts her new life as a married woman at her husband’s home in Amsterdam. He is a wealthy merchant and it is an arranged marriage. But Nella finds herself in a world she did not expect: a husband never at home, an abrupt and unwelcoming sister-in-law, two servants who behave as if life on the Herengracht is full of secrets. Nella feels always at a disadvantage.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton [below] is an intriguing treasure box of a story. Johannes Brandt’s wedding gift to his wife is a cabinet, a kind of empty doll’s house for a young woman, a miniature of their home intended to be used by a young woman to learn how to run a home. “The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed.” It frightens her but she is unable to formulate why. jessie burton 29-6-14There is other disturbing imagery to suggest life in the house is not as it first appears. On the dark walls there are paintings of dead animals and at Nella’s first public outing as a wife, to the Silver Guild dinner, Nella meets Agnes Meermans. Agnes wears pearls in her hair, “The pearls are the same size as milk teeth.” Odd.

Nella orders her first miniature objects from a craftsman, a miniaturist, and the story burst into life after a slowish start. First, the three objects Nella orders are chosen as symbols of defiance against her new life. Secondly, the package is delivered by the intriguing Jack Philips of Bermondsey. Who is Jack, is he the miniaturist? Or does the title of the book refer to Nella? How else does the miniaturist know what is happening in Nella’s home, and her mind?

One thing is clear, everything in this book – and in the house on the Herengracht – is not as it seems. I raced through this.

To visit Jessie Burton’s website, click here.
To read about the cover design by Katie Tooke, Picador’s design manager, click here or to watch a short film on You Tube about the cover, click here.

‘The Miniaturist’ by Jessie Burton [pub’d in the UK on July 3, 2014 by Picador]

Book review: Elizabeth is Missing

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey 31-5-14Can there be a more unreliable narrator than an 81-year old woman with dementia?

Maud lives on her own, she has carers visiting, they leave prepared food for her and tell her not to use the cooker. But she does love toast. There is a rebelliousness about Maud which immediately made me connect with her. She reminded me of my mother, who suffered from dementia. I was impressed with the way Maud’s condition is portrayed, in convincing detail, slowly deteriorating as the story progresses. Maud writes herself notes, as memory prompts, and keeps them in her pockets and around the house. The note she re-reads most often is ‘Elizabeth is missing’. Elizabeth is Maud’s friend, and she is not at her house. The story has a cyclical motion as Maud finds the note, goes out to hunt for Elizabeth, and then is told by someone that Elisabeth is not missing, that she is fine. And then Maud finds the note again, and the cycle re-starts.

Interwoven with Maud’s search for Elizabeth, is a narrative strand set in 1946 when she lives with her parents and lodger Douglas. People are displaced as a population comes to terms with the end of the conflict, a poor economy, returning soldiers who are not the husbands they were when they went away to fight. Post-war rationing makes meals difficult, people grow vegetables, forage for fruit, make their own clothes. Maud’s older sister Sukey is good at dressmaking and she gives Maud items to wear. The sisters are close. And then Sukey disappears, no-one knows where she has gone, including her husband Frank.

I am a little unsure how a reader will react if they have no experience of dementia. Maud’s thought processes are, by the nature of her illness, repetitive. But her memories are key to understanding the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance. You, I, the reader, is the detective. It is up to us to sift through the clues, keeping them and discarding them.

In the background, throughout the novel, is the attitude of people towards dementia sufferers. The impatience, the lack of empathy, the unwillingness to understand someone obviously not in their full senses, and also the kindness, gentleness, the fondness, the helpfulness of strangers.

For example the police sergeant who repeatedly takes down the information when Maud reports Elizabeth as missing.
“‘Same as usual?’ he says, his voice sounding metallic through the speakers.
‘Usual?’ I say.
‘Elizabeth, is it?’ He nods, as if encouraging me to say a line in a play.
‘Elizabeth, yes,’ I say, amazed. Of course, that’s what I’ve come for. I’ve come for her.”

It is a nice touch that he appears at the end of the story, closing the circle.

This is the debut novel by Emma Healey [below] and was the talking point amongst the book world at the 2013 London Book Fair. I had heard a lot about it, and was not disappointed. I devoured this book, like cake.

[photo: curtisbrown.co.uk]

[photo: curtisbrown.co.uk]

Click here for Emma Healey’s website.
Connect with Emma Healey on Facebook here.
To learn more about dementia, visit the website of the Alzheimer’s Association.
‘Elizabeth is Missing’ by Emma Healey [pub. in the UK on June 5, 2014 by Viking Books]

Great opening paragraph…56

Lord of the Flies“The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon. Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead. All round him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat. He was clambering heavily among the creepers and the broken trunks when a bird, a vision of red and yellow, flashed upwards with a witch-like cry; and this cry was echoed by another.”

‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding