Thursday, 29 July 2010

In The Heart Of The Canyon by Elizabeth Hyde


DATE READ: July 2010

NOTES: Anyone who has looked down into the Grand Canyon and watched the turquoise waters of the Colorado river snaking along must wonder what it is like to be down there in “the heart of the canyon”. Elizabeth Hyde’s novel recounts the story of a river trip led by JT Maroney – a veteran guide with 124 trips under his belt. There are twelve assorted guests ranging in age from 12 to 76. Some are already experienced in this type of adventure holiday, some are obviously unfit and ill-prepared.

Over the twelve days JT and the other leaders have to respond to a range of tantrums, bad behaviour, selfishness, accidents and ill-health. While all these problems are probable typical of most package activity trips the dangers of the river add another dimension. As expected there is some unexpected drama along the way….

From a literary point of view In The Heart Of The Canyon is a fairly unremarkable work but it is a very light and enjoyable read. Some writers would have made this book into an Arizona version of Deliverance – but this reads more like an advertisement for the rafting companies listed at the back of the book!

A feel-good summer read.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The Bed I Made by Lucie Whitehouse


DATE READ: July 2010

NOTES: The Bed I Made is a very well written novel. It is intriguing from the outset – we want to know why Kate has come to the Isle of Wight in winter when she has no friends there. Her story gradually unfolds and we learn how the wonderful romantic relationship she was having with Richard has disintegrated leaving her fragile and vulnerable.

The atmosphere of the out-of-season island is beautifully crafted – as are her growing links with a few locals. She is very much an outside looking in. She is curious about the missing (believed drowned) Alice Frewin as well as the relationships between other residents.

The review on the cover said: “Gripping, believable and unnerving”. Well, it was certainly gripping and somewhat unnerving but I was not really convinced about it being believable.  While it was made clear that Kate felt guilty about how the relationship with Richard had developed she was also too intelligent not to pass on her worries to another person.  Why keep it secret? The threatening atmosphere was built up well but I thought the ending was a bit lame…. Certainly not as good as the ending I had planned in my imagination!

Friday, 16 July 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver


DATE READ: July 2010

NOTES: Lacuna – an empty space or a missing piece

This is an ambitious and brilliantly constructed novel. Harrison Shepherd is the son of a Mexican mother and American father. Mother takes him off to Mexico as a young boy as she pursues various men in the hope that they will look after her. Young Harrison winds up working for flamboyant artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahla. He is part of their household when Trotsky comes to stay and the whole tragedy of revolutionary politics unfolds before him.

From the beginning Harrison instinctively writes and records all that is going on around him. But it is not until well through the book that we begin to know how his writing has reached the printed page. After his return to the United States he successfully publishes two novels – but there are darker forces lurking and he is soon caught up in the anti-communistic witch hunts of the late 1940s.

Kingsolver brilliantly evokes both the vibrant, colourful and dangerous atmosphere of Mexico and the prosperous, introverted and small-minded North Carolina. She has created some wonderful characters: the unpredictable Frida, the stalwart, loyal Violet Brown and the honest, formidable Arthur Gold. The only criticism I would make of this book is that the writer has done a vast amount of research and seems to have been reluctant to leave any of it out of the finished work……

The concept of a lacuna is well employed. Throughout the book there are empty spaces and missing parts. The significant opening scenes describe the frightening spaces in rocks under the sea; various parts of Harrison’s notebooks and diaries go missing; there is a father-sized hole in his life. Harrison Shepherd describes the people and events that surround him but gives surprisingly little away about his own real self – another lacuna?

Very impressive – highly recommended.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble


DATE READ: July 2010 (audiobook)

NOTES: This memoir is a real nostalgia fest! Although Margaret Drabble set out to write a brief history of the jigsaw puzzle she found herself shooting off at tangents into a series of random memories and reflections.

She uses memories of her beloved Aunt Phyllis as a starting point but in the course of the book she reflects on childhood, children’s games, art history, the value of puzzles, mosaics, literature and the problems of growing old. Quite a mix! I also remembered well many of things from her childhood. - evaporated milk and tinned fruit (yum, yum!), five stones, jigsaws, board games played by the whole family. And those magical embroidery transfers – blue designs on tissue paper – that my mother never allowed me to iron on to the fabric in case I spoiled it! And ric-rac tape! And, yes, I even remember sewing cards – in fact I used to give these to my infant class pupils. I used them to help develop coordination in tiny fingers but Margaret Drabble sees no purpose in them.

I found the parts explaining the history of the jigsaw puzzle fascinating – especially the references to it in literature. I would however have liked to hear more about the inspiration and development Drabble’s novels – even though I realise this is not the remit of this book.

This was a really interesting read. Now I’m off to do a jigsaw!

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay


DATE READ: July 2010

NOTES: I don’t often choose to read autobiographies but was lured to this by some positive reviews and after hearing Jackie Kay talk about her book on the radio. She was adopted as a baby and Red Dust Road is her story of her search for her birth parents.

In no way is this a “misery memoir” – her story is told with openness, honesty and humour. Like many adopted children she had built up pictures of what her birth parents would be like and (let’s face it) neither of them really came up to her expectations. But she shows no bitterness or resentment and tries hard to understand them.

There is a dramatic tension when she recounts her trips to Nigeria to locate her father – but when he turns out to be a “born again” Christian zealot she continues to treat him with courtesy and respect. Let us hope that her dream of being welcomed into her village with drums beating will one day come true!

The real hero and heroine of this memoir are John and Helen Kay, Jackie’s adoptive parents. They sound like wonderful people – strong, principled, funny, loving and generous.

Red Dust Road is a beautifully written book that quickly draws the reader in. Warm and life-affirming.