Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

DATE PUBLISHED: 2006 DATE READ: June 2009 NOTES: Iris is a single woman with her own business living in Edinburgh. She has a lover and also a married step-brother who continually makes a play for her. Iris is shocked to receive information that she has a great-aunt in a mental institution who is about to be released into the community. At first she refuses to have anything to do with her but is soon intrigued and drawn into a relationship with Esme. Esme Lennox was born in India and lived there for her early childhood. She was a rebellious child (though never malicious) and causes despair in her older sister and her strait-laced parents. She continues to defy convention after the family moves back to Scotland – says she has not wish to be married and wants to continue with her education and go to university. Her family is horrified by this – marriage in the 1930s was the only respectable choice for females of her class. After an incident at a dance Esme becomes hysterical and she is put in a mental institution. She is left there with no contact with her family for over sixty years. It is a story of betrayal – Esme is betrayed by her family, especially by her sister Kitty. None of the male characters can be trusted. Kitty’s husband lets her down, James deceives Esme, Alex (though married) lusts after Iris and Luke (Iris’s lover) is clearly never going to leave his wife. The story is told in a mixture of flashbacks and memories of both Kitty and Esme. (This is not altogether a successful technique as it is not always clear who is speaking). The time in India is very well portrayed as is Esme’s unhappy time as a young girl in Edinburgh. Although we know that the cruel incarceration of difficult young women was a reality of the time I would like to have learned more about her time in the institution. Did she have access to books, newspapers or television? Also the ending was somewhat abrupt. But nonetheless an interesting story that keeps you turning the pages.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Celebrity -How entertainers took over the world and why we need an exit strategy by Marina Hyde

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: June 2009 NOTES: Marina Hyde is young, bright and funny. Having read her weekly columns in The Guardian I more or less knew what to expect from this book. She is not “anti-celebrity” as such but has over time become enraged by celebrities stepping out from their own sphere into arenas that they really don’t know much about. It is the celebs who take on the role of spokesperson for the developing world, weird religions or peace initiatives that are recipients of her wrath. And many of the examples quoted are cringingly terrible. Madonna (sponsored by Gucci) taking over the UN gardens to draw attention to her Malawan charity is in receipt of Marina’s opprobrium. And Sharon Stone gets numerous special mentions as she manages to promote both her forthcoming films and peace in the Middle East at the same event! When Angelina Jolie gave Namibia the privilege of being the country in which she gave birth she was actually granted a no-fly zone over the resort she was staying in and was also able to vet the entry visas for visiting journalists! Over and over again she gives examples of how people willingly indulge celebrities – UN officials, politicians, charity organisers, government officials, TV presenters etc etc. Have we, the public, actually reached the stage of only being able to understand poverty/disease/war/ if it is pointed out to us by someone who is actually an actor, singer or model? But apart from the neediness of the so-called celebs Marina Hyde also points out that much of the culture is driven by the tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines. Much of what they print is vicious and cruel – and if no-one bought them a whole industry would die.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: June 2009 NOTES: In 1903 a young woman, Mary Boulton, makes her way alone through the mountains, forests and valleys of Canada pursued by two men with rifles. As the story unfolds we find out that she has murdered her husband and the men are his brothers desperate for revenge. Rather than refer to her by name the author calls her “the widow” which creates a somewhat mythical status for her. Along the way she meets a strange reclusive man known as the Ridgerunner, and Indian and his wife, Bonnycastle, an eccentric but kindly church minister, and McEchern, the dwarf who runs the trading post. Although she is trying to survive in a harsh environment nearly all the people she comes in contact with are benign. But her brothers-in-law are relentless in their search for her. This is a simple story beautifully told. The description of life in the mountains is vividly described – the hunger, the cold and the despair all seemed so real. The mining town of Frank is graphically portrayed. It would be a cold-hearted reader who didn’t care what happened to Mary – I found I was racing to get to the end!

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Amenable Women by Mavis Cheek

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: May 2009 NOTES: A really delightful book. Recently widowed Flora is trying to pick up the pieces and forge a new life for herself. But she is not helped by everyone else’s memories of her larger than life husband. At his funeral her thoughts wander over their past life together as she realises that she probably won’t miss him all that much and that she is in fact looking forward to being her own boss. Much of the book (especially the early part) is very funny and it would be a hard-hearted reader indeed who failed to root for Flora. Edward, her late husband, had begun a history of their village. Flora had originally suggested that she do this but Edward quickly took over the idea and squeezed her out. So Flora was now free to work on this again and wanted to concentrate on the links that Anna of Cleves had with the village. She soon rejects the epithet of the Flanders Mare and gives us a refreshing reappraisal of Henry VIII’s fourth wife. There are a series of disappointments throughout the narrative. Flora has been disappointed by her husband and is now attracted to Ewan. But Ewan’s wife admits how disappointed she has been by him. And, of course, Anna of Cleves was very disappointed in the husband that awaited her when she arrived in England! It may not sound like the most feminist of messages but Mavis Cheek shows that amenability can lead to a woman getting what she wants! And what a lovely word “amenable” is – I will find ways to include it in future conversations!

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Some thoughts on book signings.....

When you come to think about it, it is a somewhat odd activity. Why do we do it? Is it to spend a few moments with someone you admire? Do we somehow think the signing will "add value" to the book? And how long would you be prepared to wait in a queue just to spend thirty seconds getting that oh so precious signature?
I have only been to a few book signings and somehow I never feel entirely comfortable. Do I look fairly normal and relaxed - or will the author mistake me for that mad woman in Misery and send for security? And what do the writers think of it all - a chore to be got over as quickly as possible or a good opportunity to meet ones readers?
I admit that I joined in a few signings at the Hay Festival. The queue for Tobias Hill was small and select, the one for David Simon was long and very cheerful. Kate Summerscale seemed genuinely pleased to meet us. However I bet they all couldn't wait to escape to the Green Room for a stiff drink!
There was a really massive queue for the children's writer Jeremy Strong and he signed away frantically. But next to him sat another writer with pen poised but no eager signees - how demoralising must that be?

Heartland by Anthony Cartwright

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: May 2009 NOTES: Set in the midlands, this is a story of politics, football, family strife and love. Two football games are described throughout – the 2002 World Cup match between Argentina and England and an important Sunday-league match between a BNP funded team and the local mosque. The council elections loom and Jim worries that he will lose his seat to the BNP. Rob, his nephew, has problems of his own. Glenn, a family friend, is now committed to the BNP thus causing a rift in relationships. Adnan, an old school friend of Rob, has disappeared and rumour says he has gone to Pakistan to join the Mujahadeen. The structure of the book is fairly complex – no separate chapters, just sections of First Half, Half Time, Second Half and Final Score. The accounts of the two football matches flow into each other – so you have to keep alert! I also found it difficult at first to keep track of all the characters and their relationship to one another – solved this by making a list. However this book is well worth sticking with. It gives a good picture of a working class area in the present time. It is especially good on the lost dreams and fading ambitions of the two ex-footballers and on the secrets that are held by so many. And it would have been so easy to turn the whole story into a “racists versus good folk”. He refuses to fall into this trap – the characters are nuanced rather than good and evil. And you don’t need to be a football fan to enjoy this book!