A Good Read
by Maggie O'Farrell
Few facts are known about the life of William Shakespeare but from the few that are Maggie O'Farrell has woven a compelling story about family, loss and love.
Told from various viewpoints, the novel is based on the early death of Shakespeare's son and the reaction of his mother, sisters and father. Grief takes many forms. For example the return of the father to London and his work in the theatre almost immediately after the funeral is incomprehensible to his wife and yet so necessary for him.
O'Farrell does not pass judgment on the characters. This is after all Tudor England and death is a common fact of life. They all have their faults and the dynamics of the extended family could quite easily be those of the 21st Century with its jealousies, compassion, misunderstandings and stoicism. They, the place and the period are brought to life by the author's attention to detail.
Whether or not Hamnet's death was the inspiration for Hamlet is neither here nor there. This is a fine novel about a family coming to terms with the loss of a son.
Review submitted by Trevor Caldecott (June 2021)
by Anita Shreve
June 1899; Olympia, is at the moment of transition between being a girl and a woman. Sheltered and educated home she has returned with her parents to their cottage for their annual summer holiday. Her studious father and delicate mother give a dinner party. John Haskell and his attractive wife are invited; the doctor, in his forties, has written about the working condition of the mill girls in the nearby town and offers them both his skill and his medical care. Olympia is attracted to him at once and we sense an electric current that passes between the two. They launch into a clandestine, overwhelming love affair that leaves her constantly 'in a state of suspension' between their stolen meetings and passionate intimacy. Inevitably their secret is out with dramatic and devastating consequences for both them and their respective families. Olympia now realises 'that she has begun something that will be larger than herself and that she will not be able to stop'. She now realises that 'he is not hers, he was never hers'.
Then the inevitable happens, she has a son. The rest of the novel concerns her fight to keep her baby boy.
This is story of love and dread. Shreve's compassionate, mellifluous voice gives us a metaphorical seascape with its tides coming in and receding, and describes the coastal houses, one in the process of being built, one rundown, another abandoned; these, like the title 'Fortune’s Rocks', offer us telling and underlying meanings.
Review submitted by Jan Lee (March 2021)
An appreciation of Dorothy Whipple 1893-1966
Literary fame is a curious phenomenon. Take Dorothy Whipple, a best- selling novelist of the thirties, forties, and fifties. Two of her novels They Knew Mr Knight and They Were Sisters were made into films, the latter starring James Mason. Her books were frequently selected to be Book Society Choices, and her work was admired by H.G.Wells, J.B. Priestley and E.M.Forster. But then after her death, oblivion. Fortunately for posterity the pioneering imprint Persephone Books made the inspired decision to re-publish all her novels, starting with the re-issue in 1999 of her final, and some would say finest, book Someone at a Distance (1953)
Why the oblivion? Maybe her work was seen as middle-brow and middle-class (wrongly, in my view, as she dared to write about domestic violence and alcoholism, among other issues) or maybe as one sympathetic critic has commented her name was just wrong, sounding both northern and old-fashioned. She may well have done better with a more sophisticated name. But Dorothy was a grounded northern woman who would have laughed at the very notion of curating one’s image.
So why all the admirers? She wrote strong narratives in exquisite prose and with a clear and shrewd eye of the lives of families struggling with the economic instability of her troubled times. Her canvas was small, usually a family or two in a small town. Her obvious predecessors are Jane Austen and Mrs Gaskell. But unlike them, she intuited a mythic quality to her characters, especially her villains. For example, Mr Knight a small -time swindler who ruins the family in The Knew Mr Knight (1934) is described as diabolical, with echoes of hell, when standing on a railway station platform. Equally, the French au pair girl in Someone at a Distance (1953) who seduces her employer's husband and almost destroys both his family and his firm, has an ancient lineage. Dorothy skirted near-tragedy in her tales but in the end her characters just about survive all the challenges, maybe a message for readers during the long anxious years of depression and war. Reading Dorothy Whipple is like spending time with a clear-eyed, very clever friend.
Review submitted by Linda Glees (February 2021)
Endorsement - Dorothy Whipple
I heard about Dorothy Whipple about 18 months ago. I read 'Someone at a Distance' and was surprised to find it completely engrossing. I quickly read two more of her novels and each one gave the same delight. The narratives engaged me immediately and were engrossing, the characters were utterly credible and I liked Dorothy’s seemingly effortless, lucid prose. The stories, written and set in the 1930s, about middle-class families, are not just cosy tales which might have been serialised in women’s magazines for example. They cover some of the most fundamental aspects of human life and relationships.
About a year later I decided to read 'They were Sisters' - another very unassuming title which would not jump off the shelf to you. I did wonder whether I would be less engrossed this time, familiarity dulling the edge as it were. But not a bit of it. If anything I found this novel even more compelling. Without spoiling the story, I would just say that here Dorothy portrays problems which are very much of today - the unreachable anguish of addiction, the bullying and controlling of women and even children. Without any description of sordid scenes or use of ugly language, she manages to convey the full horror of a father’s behaviour in a way which I found truly shocking.
But true to life, the stories also show the best of human nature. Though never a mother herself, Dorothy gives wonderful, insightful depictions of the feelings of a mother and also of what goes on in the minds of children at all stages.
Dorothy Whipple has been a real 'find', a literary friend I shall keep by me.
Review submitted by Wendy Ralph (March 2021)
A Perfect Spy
by John le Carré
The name John le Carré conjures up thoughts of espionage, the Cold War, international criminals and the like, and rightly so. We have all enjoyed the various film and television adaptations of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Night Manager and The Constant Gardener.
He is however so much more than a writer of beautifully crafted spy novels, and his 1986 work A Perfect Spy is quite simply a fine novel which bears comparison with anything written in the second half of the 20th Century.
It takes the form of a retrospective on the life of Magnus Pym, secret agent, at the time of a crisis in his life following the death of his father Rick, one of the most memorable and outlandish characters of British fiction. Pym takes the reader through his life from birth to school to university to secret service and le Carré constantly changes the perspective, ranging from Pym’s point of view to that of his wife and then of his colleague Jack Brotherhood. The narrative is complex but then so is the moral dilemma Pym has created for himself.
It is a tale too of Pym's relationship with his father, almost an exorcism of the negative effects of that relationship. Espionage is present but the book is more a dissection of character than an action novel and the backgrounds are very convincing, this being the most autobiographical of le Carré's books.
The reader is not surprised by the conclusion. There is a certain inevitability about it all, and yet that does not matter. This reader, certainly, was gripped from beginning to end.
Review submitted by Trevor Caldecott (February 2021)
Most widely known for her 2008 novel 'Olive Kitteridge', Elizabeth Strout is an author who justifies the description of one of the best novelists writing in English today. In fact 'Olive Kitteridge' has been described as the best novel of the 21st century. Elizabeth Strout is however much more than the author of 'Olive Kitteridge'. Her work, set mainly in small town America, has a universal quality; it is not just about the communities she describes but all communities.
Elizabeth Strout said that she “records the human experience as honestly as I can” and it is that honesty which strikes the reader time and again. Olive herself is completely honest, too honest in fact. She is one of the great characters, flawed and compelling, and like so many Strout characters presented with tough minded humanity. It is clear the author likes people, no matter how difficult they are, and identifies with them. 'Olive Kitteridge' is essentially a series of short stories in which Olive features, sometimes prominently, sometimes not, and the novel is a picture of Olive and her community, how different people see Olive in different ways. It contains great truth and understanding.
In 'My Name is Lucy Barton' a successful New York writer looks back on a time in her life when she had a spell in hospital and when her estranged mother came to stay with her in her hospital room. Through the prism of that time Lucy looks back on her childhood poverty, her daughters, her marriage and her escape from rural Illinois. Like all Strout novels there is a wealth of understanding, of people and their faults, and the self knowledge which comes from reflecting on the younger self from the vantage point of middle and old age. The novel is a spare, apparently simple account, through the fog of memory, of a family dealing with life, hardship and rejection, yet with a thread of hope running through it.
'The Burgess Boys' is very different. The author uses a much broader canvas but still anchors her story in small town Maine where she grew up. Its themes range wider than the other novels, into the contrast between the life of the city and that of the small town, the return home to their roots of the successful local boys, dysfunctional sibling relationships, the culture wars in America, immigrants and marriage breakdown. Always however she is very good at the little things, the observed gestures and expressions, the dialogue of everyday, the recognition that life is messy and imperfect. She is a truly remarkable recorder of the human experience.
Review submitted by Trevor Caldecott
On Seamus Heaney
by Roy Foster
Those members who enjoyed Roy Foster’s talk on Seamus Heaney in February 2018 may be interested in his new book on the poet, part of the Writers on Writers series from Princeton University Press. The book is very much a personal interpretation of Heaney’s work rather than an exhaustive biography. Roy was recently interviewed on Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme and also appeared on The Spectator Book Club podcast, both of which are worth listening to. Joe Biden quoted Heaney in his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination which speaks to his continued relevance in these trying times and resulted in a flurry of requests for comment from Roy!
Review submitted by Caroline Priday
by Jonathan Coe
Jonathan Coe’s Middle England is a useful reminder of what we used to talk and argue about before March 2020. They are all there - Brexit, immigration, political correctness, the generation gap. There is not a whiff of Covid 19 in sight, and how refreshing it is to think again about issues that will be waiting for us if and when we emerge from our pandemic.
The author is well known for his comic skewering of the British tribes and his latest novel is an entertaining look at the extended Trotter family and assorted friends. It ends a little too neatly and predictably but along the way paints highly amusing portraits of the irascible grandfather, the failing children's entertainer, the rebellious teenager and the cynical journalist. Amongst the humour Coe makes a number of serious points about the country’s journey from the Coalition to the Referendum and on to Brexit. Certain politicians do not come out of it well but that is not surprising.
So, be indulgent, and lose yourself in Middle England.
Review submitted by Trevor Caldecott
The Custom of the Country
by Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton may have been writing ‘The Custom of the Country’ in the high summer of the Edwardian era, but its anti-heroine Undine Spragg might well be a character from our own times. She is fascinating and dislikeable, and yet try as the reader might it is difficult not to have a sneaking regard for her despite her faults. Set in the gilded world of early 20th century New York and the invasion of Europe by wealthy Americans, the novel is first and foremost an addictive narrative, and as subtle as the best of Wharton’s work. It is perfect for a long sunny afternoon in the garden. It is a masterly portrait of the clash of three cultures - American, French and British - and all the more relevant today for that.
Undine Spragg is however the heart, if that is the right word, and soul of this novel. She would be suited to today’s world of social media, celebrity culture and conspicuous consumption. She is quite a character.
Review submitted by Trevor Caldecott
Where The Crawdads Sing
by Delia Owens
I was immediately hooked and captivated by this book. Set in the marsh lands of North Carolina this is so much more than a murder mystery. There are evocative descriptions of nature as we follow the trials and tribulations of Kya, the ‘Marsh Girl’. A couple of times I thought I’d worked out ‘whodunnit’, only to be confounded and then gasped out loud when all was revealed. I can easily imagine this book will at some time transfer to the big screen, but the pictures created in my head will linger longer!
Review submitted by Julia Johnson
A Gentleman in Moscow
by Amor Towles
The restrictions we’ve lived with over recent weeks have no doubt made many of us turn to books. In my case it’s been very much as a ‘comfort blanket’, going back to old favourites which I knew would amuse, entertain or delight me, shutting out the hard facts and uncertainties of life at the moment. Avoiding anything new or challenging, I felt better sticking to what I knew. And then a kind neighbour offered me ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’. She told me nothing about it other than saying she had enjoyed it and would leave it in her garden shed for me to collect.
It engaged me as soon as I started reading. The story is set in Moscow, covering the years between 1922 and 1954, a period of great change in Russia. I do not propose to expand on the narrative of the novel, except to say that the title of the first chapter is 'Appearance of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov before the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.' This didn’t engage me at all, but the ensuing brief dialogue certainly did, because that’s when we get our first glimpse of The Gentleman, Count Rostov. The result of his ‘appearance’ is to condemn him to house arrest for the rest of his life, to be shot dead if he ventured out.
He is escorted by guards to his future accommodation in the Hotel Metropol in Theatre Square, Moscow, a tiny room in the attics, amounting to one hundred square feet, with a window the size of a chess board in the ceiling.
Tiny though the room is, this is not a story of imprisonment, restriction and wistful imaginings. The author, and the Count himself, somehow expand this little box so that we experience life in Russia before the Revolution, throughout the various stages of Russian political upheaval up to 1954, as well as in Europe and elsewhere and in the company of all sorts of people. It is not a political novel but we find out a lot about politics and history, not as the cold facts of a history book, but as lived and felt by people. We move from philosophy, to art, to literature and music, via French and Russian ‘cuisine’, love, grief, cowboy films and much more besides.
Amor Towles writes with freedom and ease, changes the pace of the story, includes a few intriguing ‘coups de theatre’ and breathes life into the Count as a man of great charm and intelligence, with delightful humour whose witty remarks enliven the text like grace notes in a piece of music. Towles is equally convincing when portraying sadness and creating suspense. At times I laughed out loud, and at others realised that I had read a whole sequence of pages with a smile on my face. This is a glorious novel and one which kept my attention right up to the very last sentence.
Review submitted by Wendy Ralph
The Last Attachment
by Iris Origo
This is the story of Byron and Teresa, Countess Guiccioli. It is wonderful. Origo, using the masses of letters which the Guiccioli family have kept and to which she had access, gives a joint biography concentrating on those years of Byron's exile in Europe which he spent in Italy and when he formed this final attachment to the young Countess. He was faithful to her in a most uncharacteristic way for him, leaving her only to go to Greece and die. La Guiccioli was at the time married to a considerably older, much-married man, and the saga of her developing relationship with Byron and eventual escape from her husband's clutches, a process that involved her father, the courts, and even the Pope, makes for quite a read. The light it all throws on Byron's personality as well as hers, and his friendship with Shelley too, also fascinates. There is such a contemporary feel about all these characters. His own letters are written with such immediacy. If you get into the groove, I'd recommend following up with:
Lord Byron's Jackal
by David Crane
A book about that arch-hanger-on, fantasist, adventurer, fraud, sailor, farmer and part-time brigand Edward Trelawney, whose time in Italy and Greece overlapped Shelley's and Byron's and whose career is straight out of fiction. He designed Shelley's yacht (the one that fatally sank) and it was he who burnt Shelley's body on the beach when it washed up some days later. He outlived them all by decades and in curmudgeonly old age had plenty of scores to settle when giving his version of Life With The Romantics to rapt young Victorians hanging on his every word.
Reviews submitted by Michael Spilberg
The Human Stain
by Philip Roth
This novel is set in 1997, the year of the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal which gripped and divided America. The national scandal forms the backdrop to a local scandal set in a small American college, a scandal which escalates tragically out of control. This dramatic, fast-paced, and totally absorbing novel is one of Roth's best. His rolling energetic prose sets the reader on a rapid trajectory through racial, sexual, and psychological traumas. To say more would be to reveal the plot..... This is a story which is both contemporary and archaic, as 'the human stain' of the title is the stain of existence.
Review submitted by Linda Glees
The Giver Of Stars
by Jojo Moyes
Inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s initiative to promote reading and the love of books Jojo Moyes, author of the celebrated ‘Me Before You’, has written a moving and absorbing novel, ‘The Giver of Stars’. In a small town in Kentucky during the Depression five very different women, from various backgrounds and coping with daunting problems of their own, come together to establish and run a travelling library delivering books on horseback through a dangerous terrain to isolated dwellings. Faced with resistance, misogyny, poverty and racism, they soldier on unbowed by their men until tragedy strikes. Moyes has given us a shower of dazzling stars in this fascinating story.
Review submitted by Janine Lee
I would happily revisit all my Barbara Erskine and Elizabeth Harris stories plus the following which all, apart from Geraldine Brooks, have an element of time slip: 'The Hours' by Michael Cunningham, a story following three women in the 1920s, 1940s and 1990s with the common thread of Virginia Woolf and 'Mrs Dalloway’. Two books set locally but spanning time so settings are both familiar yet different: 'Bleak Midwinter' by Peter Millar and 'Doomsday Book' by Connie Willis and finally, 'A Year of Wonders' by Geraldine Brooks set during the 1665/1666 Plague in Eyam.
Recommendations submitted by Julia Johnson
The Mirror and the Light
by Hilary Mantel
This long awaited and long book was worth the wait. Concluding the Wolf Hall trilogy, Hilary Mantel provides us with a fascinating detailed picture of Tudor life and manages to get inside Thomas Cromwell’s head, his opinions of others, his previous life in Italy and his childhood. The seeds of his downfall are scattered throughout the book as he becomes just too powerful but curiously, despite knowing how the story will end, the reader suspends belief and is on Cromwell's side. Why is that? I think it comes down to Mantel's consummate skill in understanding her character, a rounded portrait of a man who is cruel, kind, realistic, a dreamer, competent, and ultimately careless.
The novel is a portrait of a corrupt oligarchy at the centre of the state, detached from the rest of the country, as the Pilgrimage of Grace section makes clear. It is a brutal world and any character on the slippery path to ruin has no way of recovering, not even Cromwell. The end comes quickly and with inevitability. Perhaps not the best of the trilogy, nothing can surpass the freshness and surprise of Wolf Hall, but a truly excellent modern historical novel.
Review submitted by Trevor Caldecott
Death in the Dordogne
by Martin Walker
Since the Covid crisis started I have hugely enjoyed escaping in my reading to pre-pandemic times and places, and the series of detective stories written by Martin Walker set in the Dordogne have provided the perfect opportunity. The first in the series is 'Death in the Dordogne' and there are currently thirteen books in the series, so plenty to keep one happy. Martin Walker is a distinguished political journalist for the Guardian newspaper, and has also written some highly respected political books. So he is a polished writer, now enjoying letting his hair down writing about a region of France he loves.
Although the detective narrative is always good, carried forward by his appealing character, Bruno, Chief of Police in the imaginary town of St Denis, these are not totally light books as there is always a multilayered political and social context. But their chief delight for me, and I suspect most of his readers, is Walker's portrait of the Dordogne, its landscape and seasons, and its fabulous food. Indeed by characterising Bruno as a skilled cook and gourmet we read of some delectable meals (and learn about Chinese truffle smugglers!)
So, totally multi-layered escapism, and all the more welcome for it.
Review submitted by Linda Glees