Book review: “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett

I’d heard a bit about this book before I read it, but I have to say that I had not paid too much attention to it. I’d recently tried to watch the film Passing (made in 2021 and starring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson), one that had been on my must-watch list for some time, and I fell asleep less than halfway through! It was slow and I found it hard to get into, but perhaps I should give it another chance. The Vanishing Half deals with a similar topic so I was not in a rush to pick it up. It came up as an audiobook suggestion, however, so I decided to give it a go over the summer. 

The story begins with twin sisters Stella and Desiree Vignes, growing up in the small town of Mallard, Louisiana in the 1950s. Segregation remains in place in the Deep South of America, of course, but the black citizens of Mallard are unusual in that they are particularly light-skinned, a consequence of the town’s history and in particular its founder. Prejudice and discrimination are nonetheless deeply embedded. Both girls are bright and ambitious, but their widowed mother withdraws them from school prematurely in order that they can work with her at the house of wealthy local landowners and help to support the family. 

Stella and Desiree are frustrated by the manual toil and the unwelcome sexual advances of their employer and decide to run away. The twins have starkly different personalities; Stella is the quieter one, the more academic, Desiree is more outgoing, more vocal in her desire to escape the oppressed atmosphere of Mallard and is the prime mover in the escape plan. 

The two young women find themselves in New Orleans working in a laundry, with little money. After her sister is fired, Desiree encourages Stella to apply for a clerical job. Stella does not expect to be successful, but, with her very light skin, she is mistaken for a white woman which means that her skin colour is less important than her skills and she gets a job working for Blake Sanders. Finding that her status as a “white woman” affords her privileges which she has never before experienced, Stella maintains her secret and soon finds there is no way back. Furthermore, Blake falls in love with Stella and eventually asks her to marry him. Stella decides to leave her sister and her old life behind.

The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.

From Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half

Meanwhile, Desiree, newly bereft, gets on with her own life. She marries a black man and moves to New York, where they have a daughter, Jude (whose skin is very dark like her father’s, not light, like her mother’s). But her husband becomes violent and so she decides to leave him. Desiree has nothing and has completely lost touch with her sister and so returns home to her mother’s house in Mallard with her daughter. Desiree never intends to stay, but somehow she does. She gets a job in the local cafe, where she quickly becomes indispensable, begins a relationship with a childhood admirer, Early Jones, who works as a shadowy investigator, and settles into small town life.

Meanwhile Stella has also had a daughter (blonde and white), Kennedy, and leads a privileged life in California. Her world is somewhat rocked when a black family moves into her affluent neighbourhood. They are treated with suspicion and contempt by local residents and Stella finds herself torn. Despite herself, Stella develops a close friendship with the woman, which triggers a series of events and changes in Stella, a burgeoning of desires which will eventually lead her back to Mallard.

Unlike what little I saw of the film Passing, The Vanishing Half has a complex plot which is deftly handled by Brit Bennett. It spans a large time span, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and moves back and forth in time and between the parallel lives of the two sisters. It becomes even more complex when the two women’s daughters begin to play a larger part in the story, leading their own lives away from their mothers. The book also explores many different types of relationship, between Stella and Desiree and their husbands, Desiree’s with Early, fathers and daughters, the women’s relationship with their mother Adele, and the two, very different, cousins, Kennedy and Jude. There are many ‘halves’ in the book; Stella and Desiree, as twins, are of course, two halves of a single birth event, but there is also the dichotomy in Stella’s life in particular. There is also the issue of two sides to every story and in this novel each person’s personal narrative is multi-layered. 

I was gripped by this book and on audio it was brilliantly read by Shayna Small. I might have wished for a neater ending, but in fiction, as in life, things don’t always work out quite how you want them to!

Nonetheless I recommend this book highly.

Bye bye summer, hello Booker shortlist!

It has been a long, hot and eventful summer, but the year has ticked round, as it inevitably does, and we find ourselves once again at the start of meteorological autumn – my favourite time of the year.

Like many people, we found ourselves travelling more this year than we have done for what has felt like a long time, primarily because we COULD. Two, summers of severe restrictions curtailed lots of people’s plans and it has certainly felt to me as if there was a high degree of pent-up wanderlust. We had a family holiday in France this year, a few days in sweltering Paris, followed by a longer spell in the south-western Gironde area, not far from the location of some of the terrible forest fires to hit parts of continental Europe, although we were lucky not to have been directly affected. It was heaven and I ate far too much patisserie, partly thanks to our holiday home being located next door to what we were told was the best boulangerie in town – it would have been rude not to partake!

We also spent time with family in Ireland, as well as a couple of shorter trips in the UK. Interspersed with that was the stress/excitement of not one but TWO results days. It has been the most difficult year for 16-18 year olds in this country, with the damage done to so many by Covid and online learning, all the talk of bringing down the perceived grade inflation of the last couple of years, fewer university places on offer, not to mention the uncertain economic environment. I am relieved to say that both my daughters did fantastically well, getting results they thoroughly deserved, and I will be despatching my middle child off to university in a few short weeks.

With only my youngest child left at school (and with her going into sixth form that’s only two years left!), September for me now is less about ‘back to school’ – that is a hard habit to break after 16 years! – and more about renewal and re-focus. I have had my break (three weeks without posting a single blog!) and now I am ready to start again.

What does September mean for you?

One event that has been on my radar for some time, but which was somewhat overshadowed this year by the appointment of yet another new Prime Minister in the UK (our fourth in six years!), was the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist last night. It went largely unnoticed here because the mainstream media was completely absorbed by the shenanigans in Downing Street. As ever it is an interesting list, and I am familiar with only two of the authors.

As usual, I will be attempting to read my way through the shortlist before the winner is announced on 17th October, a little under six weeks’ time. Last year was the first time I actually managed to get through all six, and I am fairly optimistic of being able to do so again this year as quite a few of them are pretty short! That does not necessarily mean one can speed-read of course as short books are often more intense, I think. A couple of them are very long!

I aim to publish reviews regularly in the coming weeks and to make my prediction on the day itself. I’m very excited! Having only just returned from Dublin I think I will be starting with Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, a novel set in a small Irish town in the 1980s, a period when society there was dominated by the Church.

I would love to hear what you’ve been up to over the summer and what your plans are for the autumn.

Happy reading!

Literary Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Festival is currently underway. This almost month-long “event” is one of the highlights of the Scottish cultural calendar and world-renowned for its high quality, its breadth and its edginess. Between the main festival, the Fringe and not forgetting of course the book festival, there are literally hundreds of events to attend. So many events in fact that I don’t know how you would choose which ones to go to! I went once, many years ago, pre-children, and I remember seeing a comedian, a couple of plays, one of which was Shopping and F***ing by Mark Ravenhill (I can’t remember the other one) and going to the book festival. I went with a friend and we stayed with their grandmother. Accommodation in the city is at a premium during the festival, one of the main reasons I have not been since.

I have been to Edinburgh many times over the years and like the city very much. I’ve been for conferences, training events for my day job, to the Christmas markets, but I went recently with my son to a gig. We saw The Smile at the Usher Hall. It was a brief visit, but we did a self-guided walking tour which took me to parts of the city I had not previously seen. I thoroughly enjoyed it and vowed to return as soon as I could – perhaps when it’s less busy, although as it is the UK’s second most visited city, it is probably never not-busy!

To celebrate the festival, I thought I’d share some photos of my trip, particularly the literary aspects of the city.

Edinburgh Castle dominates the city from every point!
One of the many highlights on the stunning Royal Mile, the John Knox House, parts of which date from the 15th century, is one of the oldest buildings in the city. It is now a museum telling the story of the Reformation. John Knox himself, the firebrand preacher, is not thought to have actually lived here!
The Burns Monument, commemorating Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns (1759-1796), unofficial national poet of Scotland

Sir Henry Raeburn’s famous Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch. One of the many treasures to be found in the outstanding Scottish National Gallery, overlooking Princes Street Gardens

There are other literary highlights that I did not get to see (and some I saw but did not photograph!), such as the Conan Doyle pub, named in memory of the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and an Edinburgh physician. There is also the Elephant House cafe, said to have been patronised by the likes of Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and JK Rowling. There is even a ‘Harry Potter trail’ which takes in locations that JK Rowling is said to have incorporated into the novels.

Edinburgh has so much to offer bookworms and literature buffs as well as just being a beautiful and interesting place to visit. If you go on a walking tour, however, wear your most comfortable shoes and be prepared to climb lots of stairs!

[Note to self: must improve photography to ensure I capture fewer random strangers in future!]

Book review: “Death and the Penguin” by Andrey Kurkov

The last month has flown by. Not only have I not been blogging very much in the last few weeks, but my reading has also been patchy at best. As I mentioned in my last post, I was on a family holiday in France for two weeks. My eighteen year-old daughter, who has turned into a bit of a bookworm in the last couple of years, observed that you always think you are going to read more on holiday than you actually do. I always take at least one book for each week that I am away (and that’s when I am being restrained!), but if my recent performance is anything to go by, I seldom get through even one! I planned to read Margaret Atwood’s very bulky Burning Questions, but it came back with me unread because I had only just started a book called The Behindlings by an author I do not know, Nicola Barker. It’s a bizarre and curiously compelling (also very long) book which I have yet to complete. More about that for a future post.

This week I would like to tell you about another book that took me a very long time to get through, and which I posted about my intention to read many weeks ago – Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. This was first published in Kyiv in 1996. The first edition in English came out in 2001. It has been reissued this year with an updated foreword by the author under the Read for Ukraine initiative in association with Oxfam. For each copy sold, a donation has been given to Oxfam’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.  

Death and the Penguin is considered one of the greats of contemporary Ukrainian literature and Andrey Kurkov is a respected international commentator. He has written over twenty novels as well as books for children and is a documentary maker. Born in St Petersburg, he writes in Russian but in his foreword to this edition he writes of has sadness and dismay at the Russian invasion of his country.

I read this book very slowly, almost in real time with the events of the novel! The central character is Viktor and his pet penguin is Misha, a powerful presence in the book and a motif for Viktor’s state of mind. Viktor is an aspiring writer who is offered a job writing obituaries for a newspaper. It soon becomes apparent that he is writing notices about people not yet dead, and that his subjects are being assassinated mafia-style. Viktor becomes increasingly paranoid and he enters into a series of bizarre relationships. First he is left in charge of a young girl, Sonya, the daughter of the Chief of Police, known as ‘Misha non-penguin’ to distinguish him from his animal namesake, a hilarious touch. Misha non-penguin disappears and Viktor hires Nina, the niece of a militiaman he meets, as a nanny for Sonya, to look after the child while he is working, or hiding form the increasing list of dangerous individuals he believes are in pursuit of him. Viktor starts a relationship with Nina, but it is a strangely cold one and stands in contrast to his relationship with the penguin.

Viktor’s situation starts to look increasingly desperate when he finds that a new person has been hired to write obituaries and that he, Viktor, is to be the subject of one. In the meantime, Misha starts to become sick and Viktor is told that the penguin needs a heart transplant or else he will die. A child’s heart becomes available and the operation is successful, but Viktor decides that he must return Misha to Antarctica. He learns of an expedition that is travelling there and he pays for Misha to go. At the very last minute, however, Viktor opts to save his own life and switches places with the penguin, figuring that the penguin in popular and someone else will take care of him.

This is a surreal and dark book, with moments of black humour. Set in the 1990s in Kyiv and its environs it captures the sense of surveillance, of corruption, of secrecy and scarcity that pervaded the former Soviet republics at the time. It has been described as an existentialist novel, exploring as it does Viktor’s inner turmoil and expressing that through the mood and health of the unspeaking penguin.

It is a work of surreal quality that reminded me of The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Czech writer Milan Kundera, set in a similar context and with the same feeling of oppressiveness, as well, of course, as the presence of a pet. There were times when I wondered what on earth the book was about, but I understand it better having reflected on it. Kurkov is definitely an author whose work I would like to explore further.

I would recommend this book to gain an insight into a very different literary tradition, and to trigger a donation to the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal. Let’s hope the war is over soon and that justice prevails.

#KeepKidsReading Book Review #2 – “Into the Sideways World” by Ross Welford

Going on holiday can play havoc with your writing goals so my July #KeepKidsReading week has turned into a #KeepKidsReading fortnight, my second book review being a full ten days after the first! So I am writing this from a very sunny south-west France where I am holidaying with my family. We escaped the heatwave in the UK last weekend, but exchanged it for very high temperatures in Paris, where nobody seemed particularly bothered. We spent a lot of time doing indoor things like enjoying the shops and visiting museums. It is very hot here in the Gironde today so I have chosen to stay inside for a couple of hours, fair-skinned English woman that I am. Thankfully the terrible fires that afflicted this part of France (and indeed Spain and Portugal) seem to be largely under control, or extinguished, and although it is hot here today, the termperature is set to drop to the (still very hot in my opinion) mid-twenties from tomorrow.

Preparations for my trip meant that I did not manage to write my review of Ross Welford’s latest book for children. Published earlier this year, it is his seventh and he has quickly become one of the leading authors for children in the 8-12 age group. I read his his first novel, Time Travelling with a Hamster (published in 2016), with a primary school book club I was running at the time and all the kids loved it. It was the first book we read in the club and I’m afraid they found every subsequent book a disappointment! I read Welford’s next two books, What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible and The 1,000 Year Old Boy, and loved those too, but he has written a further three books in the meantime that I have not yet caught up on. So, his latest novel felt like a good opportunity to dive back into Welford’s world.

Welford’s world is one that is familiar to me, the north east of England, the coastal area to the east of Newcastle upon Tyne, Whitley Bay, to be precise. Welford sets his books in the fictional area of Culvercot, equivalent to Cullercoats. I lived some happy years in Tynemouth, the next town along, and so I know the area well. I also love the fact that Welford’s character are really ordinary kids – they are not super clever with perfect lives. In Into the Sideways World, the narrator and main character Willa, who is twelve, has wonky teeth, is teased at school, her parents are stressed by their business problems and bicker constantly, and she is generally unexceptional. Wonderful! Kids can see themselves in this character without feeling they are somehow wanting.

Willa’s parents run a holiday camp in Whitley Bay that was set up by Willa’s grandfather, but which is now in decline. One of Willa’s closest confidantes is Maudie, on-site general handywoman and ageing hippy with a passion for learning and for chocolate. Maudie has worked on the site since it was opened and her main claim to fame is that she met briefly President John F Kennedy before he was assassinated and told him about her vision of a World Without War. The novel is set some time in the 2030s. Maudie’s vision seems even more poignant given that there is the threat of a third world war looming. References are made to “the great pandemic” that killed thousands, including Willa’s grandfather, and climate change is wreaking ever greater havoc.

Willa’s life seems mostly pretty dull and occasionally difficult, with more than a little sadness, until she meets Manny Weaver, a new boy at school who has spent his short life to date moving from one foster home to another. Manny is bolder and more confident than Willa and while he is not exactly delinquent he is more willing to push boundaries. When he learns about the Whitley Bay cog, a mysterious and shy sea creature, having been spotted in a cave on the beach at Culvercot, he encourages Willa to go searching for it with him.

Once inside the cave, Manny and Willa, experience a violent meteorological event and when they emerge, they do so into a very different world. The date is the same (this is not quite time travel), but it is most definitely a parallel universe where everything is different, where President Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and, influenced by the great and distinguished Lady Maud Fry, led the world to make different choices. In this new “sideways world” the worst effects of climate change have been averted, science has devoted itself to finding alternatives to fossil fuels and meat consumption, world leaders choose dialogue over conflict, and everyone is happy.

Once they have arrived in the sideways world, Willa goes “home” and finds the environment very different: firstly, she is now Mina, not Willa, she no longer has an older sister, rather her older brother Alex, who in her own world died as a baby from cardiac abnormality, has survived. Her parents are (embarrassingly!) still very much in love, their business is successful, and there was no pandemic so her grandfather is still alive. Cars as we know them have gone, rather there are strange floating scooters that run on some advanced hydrogen/solar technology. It is a utopian vision. Crucially, Manny’s longed-for mother, who in their own world disappeared for many years and has been tracked down to a psychiatric facility in Scotland, is getting well and they are about to be reunited.

Manny and Willa do not know what to make of the new world. It turns out that Manny is one of a very small number of people with a hypersensitivity to the moon and tides and who can switch between these different worlds at certain times. At the time of the novel, the moon, a Supermoon, is closer to the earth than it has been for decades or will be again for many years, which enables Manny to take advantage of the conditions to transport himself, and Willa, to an alternative reality.

The rest of the novel follows the two children as they try to make sense of what has happened to them. They make a couple of journeys back and forth and it becomes clear that, although the sideways world is, in countless ways, better and happier than her own world, Willa comes to the conclusion that the world she knows is where she belongs. She also realises that she has switched places with her doppelganger, Mina, who will be finding the old world extremely challenging compared to what she has been used to. For Manny, the decision is less clearcut – the old world has nothing to offer him, but he has a life with his mother to gain in the sideways world.

Thematically, the book is similar to the other Welford novels I have read, although I love the way he has incorporated climate change and the pandemic into this one. At this difficult stage in history, I also love the way he is showing children that things can be better, change is possible, they can be hopeful of a better world in the future, and the power will soon be in their hands to make it so. Welford achieves this without being preachy though, because he wraps it in yet another brilliant story with great characters, adventure, action, a chase (of course!) and all the little references that will draw children in, the social media and technology references, sibling rivalries and relationships with parents.

Highly recommended, brilliant summer reading for kids, and for me too!

#KeepKidsReading book review #1 – “The Fire Cats of London” by Anna Fargher

I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour accompanying the launch of Anna Fargher’s latest book The Fire Cats of London, which was published just a week ago. This is Anna’s third children’s book; I reviewed her first book The Umbrella Mouse (published in 2019) on here and thoroughly enjoyed it. The follow-up, Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue, came out in 2020, reprising the same central character and historical period (the Second World War).

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS SINCE IT IS MEANT AS A GUIDE FOR PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS

Anna’s latest book introduces us to a new, feisty central character, Asta, a wildcat, and explores a different historical period, the 17th century and specifically the Great Fire of London. Asta is a young wildcat living in the forests on the outskirts of London with her twin brother Ash and their mother, when hunters capture the young pair (killing their mother in the process) and sell them to a shady London apothecary, Rathder. He plans to use the wildcats to harvest their whiskers, blood and fur, which are rare and valuable ingredients in the potions he makes and sells to his customers. Rathder has his own pet cat, a wily British Blue named Beauty, who flirts with Ash and wins him over, convincing him that he will be safer in captivity with Rathder than in the outside world. Asta refuses to be drawn in, however, and maintains a strong desire to escape back to the wild.

The Great Fire occupies only the last quarter or so of the book. In between the wildcats’ capture and the Fire, Asta is used as a fighting cat at the Bartholomew Fair, where she makes friends with a bear and her young cub. The bear, Tilia is also desperate to escape captivity, most especially for the sake of her cub Lipa. Asta and Tilia plot a daring escape, aided and abetted by their raven friend Jet. Jet lives with Miriam, a wealthy widow and a herbalist, protege of the famous Culpeper, whose mission is to free animals that are used for human sport and quack remedies. She hears about Asta and the bears and determines to help them in whatever way she can.

Asta and Lipa do escape the Fair, though sadly Tilia dies in the attempt, and they make it to Miriam’s. She is a sworn enemy of Rathder and his accomplice Moore, both of whom suspect that she is behind the chaos caused at the Fair and the escape of the animals. This has had a direct financial impact on them both and they are determined to make her pay.

Miriam hides Asta and Lipa and plans to take them to Epping Forest (in Essex) to release them. Their plans are thrown into jeopardy however, when the Great Fire begins in Pudding Lane and they are forced to make a much more hasty departure. All the while, Asta has never forgotten her brother Ash and wants to free him from Rathder and Beauty’s clutches. This leads her to make a bold and high-risk move at the very last minute when she is close to safety.

Anna Fargher is a clever writer and as with The Umbrella Mouse has created a charming cast of animal characters in the tradition of Charlotte’s Web and The Wind in the Willows. Asta is a powerful central character, brave, loving, principled who, when faced with adversity, rises to the challenge and emerges triumphant, all good characteristics in a role model! I think she also weaves in some brilliant history lessons, about the period in London, the Great Fire and the various social tensions between different religious factions and races.

There is a lot of peril in the book – at the beginning when the wildcats are hunted, at the Fair, where the animals are brutally treated, and at the end with the Fire itself. There is also the fact that two mothers die! (Tilia the bear, and Ash and Asta’s mother). Younger children might find aspects of it challenging, or indeed triggering. There is something to be said for not sugar-coating the world for our children, especially our history, but some readers may need a bit of support.

The author has brought in some fantastic contemporary themes – the unequal and controlling relationship between Ash and Beauty, showing children that not all friendships are good ones even when someone seems to be nice to you. The importance of true friends and family, filial love, the importance of believing in yourself and standing up for what you believe is right. The impact of humans on the environment, the animal world in particular, is another powerful theme and one which is clearly close to the author’s heart. She has spoken of the decline of biodiversity in the British Isles, and the plight of Britian’s wildcats in particular seems to have captured her imagination.

Wildcats are Britain’s rarest mammal. They are now found only in Scotland. On the brink of extinction, only 30 native cats remain. The decline began with Henry VIII’s and Elizabeth I’s Vermin Acts, where Bounties were paid for culling animals believed to pose a risk to livestock and grain.

No wildcats have roamed England and Wales for at least 150 years, and although the current numbers are woefully low, there is hope. Rewilding programs are in motion, and the more we know about them, the more we can fight to preserve them.

Anna Fargher, 2022

There is much in this book for children to learn about, as well as a cracking good story for them to enjoy. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for an advance review copy of this title.

#KeepKidsReading

Summer is here and school is almost out so it must be time for another #KeepKidsReading week. Many parents and teachers know all about the phenomenon of ‘learning loss’ and after two years of disruption to school this may be a very acute problem this year more than ever. The rigours of school life can also bring pressures so many children need and deserve a break from formal studying.

The long summer holiday can be an opportunity for many kids to discover the joy of reading for pleasure. Choosing a book because they like the look of it and not because their teacher tells them to. I have long been a fan of the summer reading challenge for children that is run every year by council libraries. When they were young my children always loved the weekly visit to the library to choose a new book, getting stickers and tracking their progress on a chart. Oh for the simple pleasures! A visit to the library is free and therefore even more attractive with pressures on family budgets as they are at the moment.

The theme of this year’s summer reading challenge is ‘Gadgeteers’, which will appeal to youngsters with an interest in science and technology, who may perhaps think they are less interested in books! Kids can sign up at their local library, which may also be running tandem events, and if they have internet access there are various online activities they can do too.

If you are looking for ideas for books, I have a couple of reviews for you to look out for this week. On Friday I will post a review of Anna Fargher’s new book The Fire Cats of London. My review will be part of the book tour this week.

At the weekend I’ll have another suggestion for you, the latest from one of my favourite children’s authors writing at the moment, Ross Welford.

So, if you have any children in your care this summer, do get them along to the local library (they need our support, use them or lose them, not everyone can afford to buy books), get them signed up and #KeepKidsReading.

Non-fiction book review: “The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance” by Edmund De Waal

This was my my fourth non-fiction book of the year and, very helpfully, also my book club read for June (now only two behind!). I have to admit I was a little sceptical at first. It was suggested by one of my fellow book club members and I had not heard about it before. I thought it would be just another rich family  memoir, but it seemed to have a bit of history about it, so I was game.

The author is a British ceramicist whose grandmother was part of one of the richest Jewish families in Europe, the Ephrussi banking dynasty, before the Nazis confiscated their property and they were forced to flee their native Vienna in the late 1930s. At the start of his journey the author apparently knew very little of his family history and it is only through the discovery of a collection of ‘netsuke’ tiny Japanese carved figures of people and animals in ivory or wood, that he decides to explore further. The author was on an academic sabbatical in Japan, where his great uncle Iggy (Ignatius) lived when he sees the collection for the first time. He is fascinated by the netsuke and this prompts him to dig deeper into their history and how they came to be in his family.

The book does begin as something of a rich family memoir. Originally from Odessa, the accumulation of wealth through banking enables them to live variously in Paris and Vienna, mixing with the highest-calibre thinkers and artists of the day. It is Charles Ephrussi, an enthusiast for ‘japonisme’, which was popular at the time, who put together the collection of netsuke. Later, they would be considered more like minor trinkets (compared to other parts of the collection), played with by the children of the family, as taste for japonisme waned and the market became saturated with lower quality objects. Because of the family’s wealth and importance, the author has been able to compile a detailed history of the family and imagines the scenes and events at their various homes, the salons they held with the famous people of the day present. It is fascinating but a touch sterile for me.

As the narrative moves into the twentieth century, and the inevitable decline of the dynasty, I felt it became more interesting. The first world war changes everything, of course, for that stratum of society, but the author writes most movingly when describing the decade or so before the outbreak of the second world war, with the gradual demonising of Jews, particularly the wealthy ones. As various members of the family see the writing on the wall and flee the continent, the dynasty begins to break down. The final humiliation comes when the Nazis confiscate their mansion in Vienna and all its contents. The netsuke only survived this process because the family’s long-serving maid, Anna, who was kept on at the house, gradually spirited them away and hid them in her mattress. Later they were smuggled out of the country.

This part of the book is also most moving because it is within the author’s living memory almost, his grandmother having been one of those to flee Vienna, arriving in Kent with next to nothing and having to start her life again. De Waal also becomes increasingly reflective as the history gets closer to the time of the war and to his living family members. It is as if he becomes able to feel their pain. He is also philosophical about how relatively lucky his family were – yes, they lost everything (and they had a lot to lose), but they survived and prospered, unlike many other European Jews. Their wealth meant they were able to leave more easily than most. He is also deeply moved by the loyalty of Anna, the family maid, who risked her own life by trying to save something of the family’s collection, the netsuke.

I listened to this on audio and it was beautifully read by Michael Maloney, but it would have been useful to have the family tree that is in the print edition to refer back to as I did lose track of the members of each generation. The book won the Costa Book Award in the Biography category in 2010. Since its publication, some historians have challenged some of the facts in the book, I gather, for example suggesting the standing of the Ephrussi family has been overstated. I suspect some misrepresentation is inevitable in this kind of book, where the author has fleshed out bare facts with imaginings about day to day life, and this does not detract too much.

It is a fascinating account – recommended.

My next non-fiction read is a book I have had for a while now, Margaret Atwood’s Burning Questions – a collection of essays and comment pieces. It is another big book, so I suspect I am not going to be catching up too easily on my non-fiction challenge for the year, but I plan to take it on my summer holidays so we’ll see!

Summer reading book review – “The Break” by Marian Keyes

The second holiday reading recommendation I’d like to share with you is The Break by Marian Keyes. For years I eschewed Marian Keyes (though I always enjoyed hearing her whenever she popped up on the radio) in the mistaken belief that her books were a bit too ‘chick-lit’ for me – I say this completely ironically, since I loathe that term – it’s so pejorative and patronising! I would argue all night that no genre is better or worse than any other, it’s all just about what you enjoy reading. I might just draw the line at ghost-written autobiographies by very young minor celebrities, but that would be a personal line, and I would be happy to be proven wrong. Back to Marian; my book club read Grown Ups a couple of years ago, after which I was completely hooked and vowed that I would work my way through all of her eighteen novels and five non-fiction books – I’ll write that again…EIGHTEEN novels! She has apparently sold more than 35 million books worldwide. She is one popular writer, and deservedly so.

As with Grown Ups I listened to The Break on audio, and I absolutely loved it. It wasn’t Marian herself narrating this time, but Aoife McMahon does an excellent job. The plot is simple but effective. Amy and Hugh are seemingly happily married with three daughters – Niamh is from Amy’s first marriage, Keira is their own and Sophie is her niece, who came to live with them after her own two parents (Amy’s feckless brother and his equally feckless Latvian girlfriend) separated and showed no ability to care for their daughter. Hugh hits a difficult patch after the death of his father and best friend, and announces to Amy that he wants to take a complete six month break. He doesn’t just want a holiday on his own, he wants to spend six months in Asia with a backpack living as if he was single, with all that this entails.

Naturally, this comes as a tremendous shock to Amy. By the time he tells her, Hugh has already made most of his plans and so there is little time for her to influence his decision. He insists that he loves her completely and fully intends to come back and resume their life as it was before, he just needs this ‘time out’. After he leaves, Amy goes through something like a bereavement, trying to come to terms with the practical and emotional implications of his actions. Amy’s family (sprawling, loving and a bit chaotic, typically Irish, you might say, and a common characteristic in Keyes’s work) has challenges of its own – her father has dementia, which puts a strain on the offspring, there are sibling rivalries and each of Amy’s daughters is going through their own turmoil, partly connected and partly unconnected to Hugh’s departure.

Amy has a job as a PR executive, working two days a week in London with her two partners in their small company. Life as a single parent therefore presents her with many practical challenges; even though the girls are old enough to look after themselves on one level, it is clear that they still need a lot of support. Amy’s life is busy and Hugh has left her in the lurch.

Amy’s friends encourage her to embrace her own bit of single life while Hugh is on the other side of the world having his fun. (Amy cannot help stalking his Facebook account and when she sees him with another woman, it is a devastating blow.) Amy’s relationship adventures turn out not to be as easy or exciting as might be expected, and neither do Hugh’s.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but needless to say, the book is not just about what each of them does while they are apart, but also what happens when Hugh returns, how they are changed and what the implications are for the relationship. Keyes keeps you guessing and it does not pan out quite how you expect. Part of this author’s skill, I think, is in taking the everyday mundane aspects of life and making out of them something special. It is so engaging because the characters, and therefore the events that befall them, could easily be us. There is an impressive cast of characters in this novel and yet they are all distinctive, well-drawn and multi-faceted. The narrator of the audiobook does very well also to give a slightly different voice twist to each one.

So, another ‘highly recommended’ for your summer reading!

Audiobook review – “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

For many of us (lucky enough to have a passport and the funds to do so), thoughts are turning to summer holidays. Even if you are not getting away this year, perhaps you will have some relaxation time to enjoy the warmer weather from the comfort of your own garden or a local park or beauty spot. I am seeing quite a few ‘best books for the summer’ type features in newspaper supplements, magazines and in online newsletters so I thought I would join in and share a couple of my own recommendations this week.

What do we want from summer reading? Well, I read Ulysses on a trip to Spain many years ago, but life has changed somewhat since then and that would be a bit ambitious for me these days! Generally, holiday reads should not be too taxing, can be picked up and put down as we take a dip, that we don’t mind getting sand over and which we might just leave on the holiday let bookshelf to make space in our luggage when we leave. Oh, and long enough that they will definitely last the whole trip plus any potential waiting time in stations or airports!

The first book I’d recommend is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This was actually recommended to me by sixteen year old daughter who read it cover to cover in days, could not put it down (AND she was revising for GCSEs). It tells the story of the life of ageing film star, Evelyn Hugo, giving a rare and possibly final interview to accompany the auction of a number of her gowns for a cancer charity. Evelyn agrees to the interview (a major scoop for the magazine Vivant) on the basis that it is conducted by one of its least-known writers, Monique Grant, a condition which irks the magazine’s editor.

Monique, who is going through some difficult life events herself, her husband having recently left her, is surprised when at their very first meeting, Evelyn reveals that she has in fact hand-picked Monique to write her biography, NOT to do a magazine interview, though she will not reveal the reason. Evelyn begins to tell Monique the story of her life, from the very beginning when she lost her mother and as a teenager married Ernie Diaz (husband number one), as a way to escape Hell’s Kitchen in New York and her violent father and go to Hollywood where she plans to find fame and fortune. She quickly finds roles in a number of films and after divorcing Ernie she marries her handsome and popular co-star Don Adler. Evelyn is a huge success and is nominated for an Oscar for her role in an adaptation of Little Women. She finds herself embroiled in scandal however, when she leaves Don who, after a brief honeymoon period turned out to be abusive. But as a woman, it is Evelyn who is publicly ostracised and the Oscar goes instead to her co-star Celia St James, with whom Evelyn will go on to have an important friendship.

The story goes on, with Evelyn recounting the events of her life, how she came to have seven husbands and the circumstances behind each of her marriages. She had a daughter, the result of her fifth marriage to Hollywood producer Harry Cameron, one of her very few true friends. But Connor, their daughter dies of breast cancer, hence the sale of Evelyn’s gowns to benefit the charity. Evelyn tells her story in parallel to the reader learning of Monique’s relationship troubles. Through her meetings with Evelyn, Monique gains a certain courage which enables her to confront some of the issues in her life and begin to take control of her destiny rather than being the victim of circumstances.

I listened to this on audiobook and it far exceeded my expectations. My daughter told me that I would “never get the plot twist”. There are in fact quite a few very clever plot twists, some of which I foresaw (and felt rather smug about) and one or two jaw-droppers I did not. The book has become an international bestseller of course, since its publication and the author, Taylor Jenkins Reid has had other popular and critical successes, most notably Daisy Jones and the Six (which I picked up secondhand the other day and which might be one of my own summer reads). Monique and Evelyn were voiced separately and both were very good, I felt.

The book is everything you could want from a summer read – doesn’t require too much brain power, engrossing, a fantastic plot, great characters and an interesting premise. Highly recommended.

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