Audiobook review – “Ducks, Newburyport” by Lucy Ellmann

I reached a reading milestone recently – I finished Ducks, Newburyport. This humungous novel, which clocks in at a whopping 1030 pages (paperback) is easily the longest book I have ever read. I listened to it on audio, brilliantly read by Stephanie Ellyne, and it lasted over 45 hours, easily the length of six or seven “normal” books. I started it around Christmas time I think, so it has taken me months. I would probably have got through it more quickly in ‘normal’ times as I would have listened to it while driving, but I have hardly driven at all this last year. Mostly I listened to it while cleaning the house, which seemed very appropriate.

The un-named central character and narrator is a middle-aged American woman living in Newcomerstown, Ohio. She is a mother of four, cancer survivor, former college lecturer, and self-employed baker, who makes pies for a number of local cafes and restaurants which she delivers each day. The novel is a written in a ‘stream of consciousness’ style, almost entirely in the present, and many of the sentences begin with the phrase “the fact that…” as she tells us about the various aspects of her life, her family, her husband, her dead parents, their parents, baking, her past career, her cancer and American society. The ‘action’, such as it is, takes place over a short period of time, but, let’s be clear, very little happens in this novel.

A big image for a very big book!

It has been criticised for its length; indeed, I read that Lucy Ellmann’s usual publisher, Bloomsbury, declined to publish it for this reason, so instead she went with a small independent, Galley Beggar Press, which is based in Norwich.

The themes of the novel are emptiness and loneliness in modern American life, the dilemmas of being a woman, motherhood, loss. Our narrator commentates scathingly on Trump, on guns, and on the violence in society. She bemoans the decline of childhood, how young people have been lost to technology, social media and advertising and the inequalities not just in American society, but across the world. Yet at the same time, she is a woman who wants the best for her children and therefore perpetuates those inequalities. The essential dilemma. She laments climate change and the loss of the natural world while also contributing to it with her own lifestyle. (As do almost all of us). Yet another modern dilemma. She loves her children, but has a somewhat estranged relationship with her eldest daughter, Stacey, who has a different father to her three siblings.

Mostly, the narrator is grieving; there are frequent pained references to “Mommy”. Her mother died some years earlier after a long illness and the narrator cannot let go of her feeling that she should have done more for her mother, and, mostly, that she misses her terribly. The loss continues to blight her life, and she feels deeply the lack of nurturing she has in her own life. She seems to have a good and loving relationship with her husband, bridge engineer Leo, but it cannot make up for the loss of mother.

There is a parallel story going on in the narrative; a female mountain lion roams Ohio, creating fear throughout the state and leading to a frenzy of trackers and gun-owners who try to hunt her down. She is simply looking for food for her cubs and the reduced wild territory available to her means she trespasses on human occupied land. Our narrator is aware of the lion and fears for her children’s safety, while also virtue-signalling and taking positions on habitat destruction for wildlife. The cubs are captured and taken to the zoo, but the mountain lion continues to search, ceaselessly. Her drive to mother is all-encompassing.

This novel is profound and if you can stick with it, it will reward you handsomely. There is so much complexity, it is so multi-layered. The length also means we bond quite closely with the narrator, in a way that I don’t think would have happened if it had been shorter.

I recommend this book highly, while recognising that few will have the time and opportunity to embrace it. Take a year, six months at least. Get the audio – it is read brilliantly and you can at least do the vacuuming/ironing/cooking as you do so!

Book review: “Luster” by Raven Leilani

Luster has been causing a bit of a literary storm since it was published in the US late last year. It has won numerous prizes, was a bookshop favourite and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in the UK this year. It’s subject is similar to a couple of books I have already read this last year (Queenie and Such a Fun Age), but it does take a more unconventional journey through the experience of a woman of colour in a mainly white middle-class world. What lifts it above the other two books mentioned above, is the quality of the writing; this is most definitely in the ‘literary’ category and Leilani is a phenomenally talented writer.

Set in New York, twenty-something Edie is working as a publishing assistant, a job she finds boring. She has a very modest lifestyle, just about surviving on her salary, and her life seems without interest or stimulation. There are frequent references to her past, her family background, and, in particular, her mother who died relatively young in unhappy circumstances. Edie is still somewhat grief-stricken, something she expresses through her interest in art.

Fine praise indeed, from none other than Zadie Smith

Edie meets Eric, a forty-something archivist from New Jersey, and they begin a relationship. Eric tells Edie he and his wife have an “open relationship”, but it is clearly not something he is used to. When we meet his wife later on, it becomes apparent that she has, at best, mixed feelings about the arrangement, and it appears more like a compromise to him than something she is wanting to engage in too. Much to Edie’s frustration it takes some weeks before the relationship with Eric becomes sexual, but when it does, the sex is fairly graphic. This is certainly one of the features of the book that critics have commented upon!

One of the boundaries that Eric’s wife Rebecca had set, was that he should not bring his lover to their home. Eric breaks this fairly quickly and this piques Edie’s interest. Eventually, and inevitably, Edie ends up meeting Rebecca, and finds that Eric has a thirteen year-old daughter, who is adopted and black. Rebecca is a pathologist whose job is to carry out autopsies. She too finds she has an interest in Edie, rather like a scab she cannot help but pick. The two women seem drawn together in a mutual kind of hostile fascination. When Edie loses her job (and therefore her income and her home), Rebecca tells Edie that she can move in with them temporarily (while Eric is away at a conference and therefore blissfully unaware!).

The novel changes tack at this point as it becomes about the emotional dance between the two women and the effect this has on Edie. Unemployed and unable to find sustainable employment, she takes up her art in earnest. Edie also latches onto Akila, the daughter, who is at first resentful of Edie, but then grows warmer towards her when she realises what they have in common. Eric is mortified when he returns home and finds Edie has moved in. His sexual interest in her declines rapidly and he nearly becomes irrelevant at this point.

This is not a ‘plot’ novel, though I won’t say any more about what happens. It is a novel about psychological tension and about the growth of a young woman into someone able to express herself through art and not just through her sexual relationship to a white male, and this says something significant about the black female experience.

Recommended.

Book review – “Hot Stew” by Fiona Mozley

Fiona Mozley’s first novel, Elmet, was published in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year. Set in Yorkshire, for which ‘Elmet’ is an ancient pseudonym, it is a brilliant, dark portrait of a small somewhat disenfranchised family, threatened both by the authorities and by a shady underworld. I loved it and Mozley was, at the time, the youngest ever shortlisted author, until Daisy Johnson came along the following year and bested her by a couple of years. I wrote recently about the ‘difficult second novel’ when I was reviewing Splinters of Scarlet by Emily Bain Murphy. That novel was a little disappointing, but Fiona Mozley has well and truly cracked it with a stunning follow-up.

Elmet had a close focus on a small family (a father and his two children), but Mozley’s skill for creating a strong supporting cast of characters was being tested out even there, and in Hot Stew she has drawn her view back and created an ensemble of diverse characters among whom she moves with dexterity. The novel is set in Soho and Mozley’s interest in history is brought out once again as she weaves in information about the origins of that part of London, including how its name derived from a hunting cry “So Ho”. The novel opens with a conversation on a rooftop between two sex workers, Precious and Tabitha, the former active and the latter retired. Tabitha, we will learn later, is the assistant, companion and adviser in a relationship that defies convention and definition. The novel is populated by many others residing in the area, sex workers, itinerants, entertainers and those who belong in no other place.

The buildings they occupy and work out of are owned by Agatha, the half Russian, half English sixth daughter of a former property peculator whose last wife (the Russian one) managed to persuade her husband to leave all his wealth to their unborn child, whom she had convinced him was a boy. Agatha was born after her father’s death and so never knew the man to whom she owes all her privileges. She was sent to the finest schools, and has wealth beyond most people’s imaginings, thanks to her father having bought up much of derelict and undesirable Soho after the war. Agatha wants to get the sex workers out so that she can develop her holdings further. This tussle for dominance creates the premise of the novel, but in Fiona Mozley’s hands it is so much more than that.

We explore the many worlds of the full range of characters, while never losing a grip on who is who. Some are more relevant than others, but all have a part to play in the story. The reader is invited to examine their preconceptions about sex workers and sexuality as the different lifestyles are explored and complex moral conundrums are set up. There is a huge amount going on in the 300 or so pages of this book.

As with Elmet, the denouement of the novel is dramatic and just far-fetched enough to make us realise that the world we are in is somehow ‘other’. The catastrophe that brings the novel to its close resolves some of the thorny issues thrown up by the story. This does not make it ‘unbelievable’, however; there is gritty social realism here, contemporary social dilemma (how to deal with capitalism) and the dysfunctionality of attitudes to sex and sexuality.

I loved this book and it is a challenge to review because it is so ambitious in scope and so broad in its content. I listened to it on audio and it wasn’t the best narration I have ever heard – the actress was too young, it seemed to me, and there were a number of mispronunciations which should have been edited – that’s not the actor’s fault, more the producer’s laziness. Such things jar. I would recommend the book highly and will be surprised if this does not find itself on some literary prize shortlists this year.

Book review – “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro

I don’t buy very many hardback books, hardly ever in fact until I started this blog, tending to find them cumbersome and too heavy for a handbag. Most of my reading now, however, is done at home rather than on the fly and I find I enjoy the weight and feel of a hardback and the better quality paper. Perhaps that is also down to my age! There are just some books that are more of an event though – Hamnet, The Mirror and the Light and The Testaments come to mind – and simply deserve the gravitas of the hardback format. Klara and the Sun by literary giant Kazuo Ishiguro is one such book. Plus I just couldn’t wait for the paperback! There was great fanfare about its release on 2 March; a whole episode of Alan Yentob’s BBC arts programme Imagine was devoted to the author, and I was delighted to watch a Manchester International Festival online event where Ishiguro was interviewed by fellow writer and poet Jackie Kay. Kazuo Ishiguro comes across as such a lovely man – confident but humble, respectful and measured, subtly charming. And someone who it would not be too scary to meet, I suspect.

Klara and the Sun is Ishiguro’s eighth novel (in a forty year career), proving that you don’t have to be prolific to be great; he has won just about every major literary award going, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. I knew that Artificial Intelligence was the subject of the novel and knowing that Ishiguro is never afraid to try out new things, I feared this would be a ‘dystopian future’ book – not the kind of book I tend to enjoy. It is not such a book, however. Rather, it is an exploration of what it means to be human.

Klara is an “AF” – Ishiguro leaves us to work out what this stands for – an AI robot produced for the specific purpose of acting as a companion to young people. The pre-supposition here is that human beings have reached a point of evolution where teenagers need a robot to accompany them at this stage in her life. We first meet Klara when she is in a shop window, waiting to be purchased. Poor Klara always seems to be overlooked in favour of newer models, despite the special qualities that the shop’s manager believes she possesses. From her vantage point in the shop, Klara watches the sun each day, its rising and setting and computes that it has special powers. For Klara the sun is almost god-like; a futuristic AI robot that sees the sun in a similar way to some of our ancient ancestors. Klara is also given energy by the sun – her batteries are solar.

Klara is eventually chosen by a young girl, Josie. Josie and her mother take Klara away to their home outside the city in an isolated rural setting and Klara is at last given her task. It is interesting how the reader gets drawn into having feelings about Klara. Klara is the narrator and we see the world through her rather childlike eyes, except she is not childlike; there are just some bits of data she has not processed and stored yet. But it is hard not to feel for Klara when, for example, the maid at Josie’s house is suspicious and a little hostile towards her, perhaps because she fears for her own job. And when Klara stands silently in the corner with her back to the room because her presence is not required we cannot help but see her like the child who has been left out. Klara is not human and yet she is the closest thing to it.

It soon becomes apparent that Josie has special needs. She has a kind of ‘elevated’ academic status which seems to mean that her parents have given her some sort of treatment which means that she receives a different kind of education to children who have not had this done to them. One such child is Rick, Josie’s nearest neighbour and childhood best friend. It is clear that Rick’s mother would never be able to afford the special status that Josie and her peers have and so his chances of succeeding academically and professionally are slim. The reader can see that there is a very short hop between this world and the selective nature of modern education we have in real life (both as a matter of policy and a matter of social determinism), and indeed between this world and Huxley’s Brave New World. A warning has been fired across our bows here.

In order to attain this special status, however, something had to be done to Josie (we are not told exactly what) and this has put her in some danger – for parents, the decision whether to give their child an academic leg-up is not risk-free. Hmm. Klara is capable of some rudimentary feelings and feels protective and fond of Josie. When she realises that Josie’s life may be in danger, she sets about trying to save her, utilising the sun’s enrgy. What Klara has not worked out, however, is how this AF is being groomed for something very different altogether.

The plot of this novel is pure genius and Ishiguro has conjured some contemporary themes out of a futuristic premise. What he has also done, very cleverly, is create a world that does not seem very different to our own and yet presents some prospects that we should take care we don’t stumble into. AI is a fact of our present life and will be a fact of our future. Stephen Hawking believed we should be careful as it had the potential to be the “worst event” in human civilisation. It is not clear which side Ishiguro comes down on, indeed, Klara is one of the most likeable characters in the book, but perhaps that is the point; it is not necessarily what AI will become that is the threat, but what it will cost us in human terms to get there.

A brilliant, engaging, complex novel, I recommend this highly.

Book review – “Seven Days in May” by Kim Izzo

When I began my Facebook reading challenge at the start of 2018, the monthly themes were fairly easy – a YA novel, a work of feminist fiction, crime fiction, etc. Over the last three years I’ve read some cracking books that I would probably not have picked up otherwise. Memorable titles have included The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin, Please Look After Mother by Kyook-Su Shin and The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. As time has gone on, I’ve been scraping the bottom of the barrel for themes and they have become a little more random, to say the least! Bereft of ideas, for May I decided it would be “a book with May in the title”. I don’t know what I was thinking – perhaps a touch too much sherry over Christmas when I was putting the list together, or months of lockdown making me go a bit loopy! Well, finding a title was challenge enough, but I did – Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo. This novel was first published in Canada in 2017. I never like to criticise a book, but I think it was not one of those which I would include on my most memorable list.

I love historical fiction and this book ticks that box since it is based on the true story of the sinking of the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania in May 1915. Most people will have heard of the Lusitania, but I wonder how many know the background to the story. The luxury cruise liner’s maiden voyage was in 1906 and she travelled the north Atlantic route between Liverpool and New York. At the time, she was one of the fastest vessels of her kind. It was almost at the end of her 202nd voyage on 7 May 1915, that she was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk a few miles off the southern coast of Ireland, near Kinsale. The wreck still lies there. Almost 1,200 passengers and crew perished, and 761 survived. One of the survivors was the author’s great-grandfather. The story of the Lusitania is important, historically, because it was instrumental in drawing the Americans into the first world war. Many conspiracies about the ship abound, including that Churchill (who was First Sea Lord at the time), placed the Lusitania directly in harm’s way, by failing to adequately warn or protect her; it has been said he calculated that the loss of American citizens would trigger the US to declare war on Germany. Kim Izzo explores some of these conspiracies in the novel, hinting strongly at Churchill’s negligence. 

There is more story than history in this novel, however, and the main plot of the novel concerns the relationship between wealthy American socialites, sisters Brooke and Sydney Sinclair, and English aristocrat Edward Thorp-Tracey. The elder Sinclair sister, Brooke, is engaged to be married to Edward. The match is a fond but loveless one, a marriage of mutual convenience; Brooke’s wealth will preserve the Thorp-Tracey seat, Rathfon Hall in Somerset, while Edward’s title will add status to the Sinclair name. When Edward finally meets Brooke’s younger sister Sydney, at the engagement party in New York, just before they set off for England for the wedding, he finds he is instantly attracted to her. Sydney is headstrong, passionate in her political beliefs and more down to earth than her sister. Brooke and Sydney have a falling out just ahead of the voyage which leads to Sydney refusing to share the suite her sister has booked for them, and instead booking a cabin in third class. Over the course of the voyage, Edward and Sydney find themselves falling in love with one another and Sydney’s separate and distant quarters make their clandestine meetings possible.

A parallel story is taking place in London. Isabel Nelson, also, it turns out, a passionate, headstrong and determined young woman, finds herself working in ‘Room 40’ at The Admiralty. She worked in service in Oxford, but after an affair with her employer, who, amongst other things, had arranged for her to obtain some clerical qualifications, was banished to London after his wife had found out about his infidelity from another servant. This turns out rather well for Isabel since she finds she likes the work. Room 40 was a real code-breaking unit, a prototype of Bletchley Park, so important to the Allied victory in the second world war. Isabel’s job is to type up and distribute the coded messages translated by the (all-male) code-breaking team. Isabel follows the movements of the German submarine captain who is said to have fired the torpedo which downed the Lusitania and a number of other vessels at the time. She becomes increasingly concerned about the passenger ship and fears it is a target and that not enough is being done to protect it.

There is a personal dimension to the Isabel story too when her former fellow servant, the ghastly Mildred, turns up at the Admiralty, also having got a job there, and threatens to undermine Isabel’s position, by spreading gossip about her past.

The book was not unenjoyable; it had some interesting historical detail. But I found the plot a little thin for my taste. I did not really warm to any of the characters, and found myself a little agitated by the cliched portrayal of the different classes of person, from the passengers aboard the ship to the civil servants in London. Kim Izzo is a bestselling author and her most successful book is The Jane Austen Marriage Manual.

Recommended if you want a little bit of uncomplicated escapism with some history thrown in.

Kids book review – “Splinters of Scarlet” by Emily Bain Murphy

I chose this novel for my Facebook Reading Challenge in April, the theme of which was a children’s book. I was delighted to have this as a theme; regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature and regularly post reviews of books for young readers. It has unfortunately been some time since I read a children’s book, however, so I was keen to get started on this one. Splinters of Scarlet is Emily Bain Murphy’s second novel. Her first, The Disappearances, was a huge success, both critically and commercially, and so her follow-up was hugely anticipated. I read The Disappearances as part of this very reading challenge in January 2018 and absolutely loved it. My elder daughter who I insisted read the book, rates it as one of her favourite novels of all time and has re-read it several times. Every music fan will be familiar with the concept of the ‘difficult second album’, and the same may be said of books, except that books are produced and marketed somewhat differently, and first-time authors rarely achieve huge first-time success in the same way that certain pop performers do. I fear, however, that Emily Bain Murphy has not quite pulled off the ‘difficult second novel’. Don’t get me wrong, it is good, but my expectations were perhaps a bit too high.

The novel is set in Copenhagen in 1866-67, initially in an orphanage and then in the home of a wealthy mining widow Helene Verstergaard. The central character is Marit Olsen, an orphan seamstress. Her closest friend is Eve, a younger fellow orphan with a precocious talent for ballet, who is about to be adopted by the famed former ballerina Mrs Vertergaard. Marit adores Eve, loves her friend like a sister, even as a mother might, and has mixed feelings about the likely adoption. She is happy that her friend is happy, but it will be a poignant outcome for her since her father was killed in a Vestergaard mine and she remains bitter at the callous way she and her sister were treated; Helene Vestergaard’s late husband was the owner of the family mining dynasty and Marit blames him for her father’s death. When her father died, Marit’s older sister suddenly became responsible for the two of them, and Marit believes this burden, in turn, killed her.

What we also learn in the opening chapters is that certain people in the country have magical powers. Marit does for example and uses these in her job as a seamstress, and especially in the costumes she makes for Eve. Marit’s sister did too and ‘over-used’ her magic in trying to provide for the family. The over-use of magic is dangerous for its owner as it can lead to that person’s death if they are overtaken by ‘the firn’.

Eve is adopted and Helene Vestergaard decides that in addition to a daughter she would like a talented seamstress and so decides to take Marit from the orphanage too. Despite her mixed feelings Marit agrees so that she can be with Eve. Her lifestyle will be very different to her friend’s, however, for she will be a servant and live among the staff.

Marit becomes close to a number of the servants, most of whom it seems possess magical powers – Marit realises this is no accident; Helene has chosen her household carefully. A foreboding presence in the Vestergaard household is Helene’s brother-in-law Philip. Marit quickly begins to suspect something sinister is going on in the Vestergaard mines and that Philip is linked to it. She also begins to suspect a link with her father’s death and her quest for the truth drives risk-taking investigations.  

Marit shares her suspicions with the servants she has become close to and they agree to help her. Thus they set about various surveillance operations to try and find out what is going on in the mines and what exactly Philip Vestergaard has to do with it. The remainder of the book concerns Marit’s activities, for which she uses her magical powers extensively, as well as her increasing concerns about ‘the firn’ and whether she will fall victim to it. Philip Vestergaard senses Marit’s interest and begins to see that she and some of the others are a threat. He sets about silencing them, even killing one of the servants. The scene is set for the denouement – a showdown between the two opposing forces in the novel – truth and lies.

This novel has quite a complex plot and wide cast of characters, some of whom I found it hard to distinguish. The Disappearances also has a complex plot and a wide cast of characters and yet the author, in my view, handles it more deftly in that book and with greater imagination and coherence. For me, this novel is sometimes confused, and there are some non-credible twists which seem to be made to serve the plot. It is perhaps unfair to compare this novel to the earlier book, which was so good. If Splinters of Scarlet had been the first novel I would possibly be looking upon it more favourably. As it is, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much. I suspect this book would suit a younger reader, perhaps 11-13 year olds, whereas The Disappearances is more suitable for 12-14 year olds. However, I think it is less good than other books in this age group.

Competent and her fans will love it, but for me it was not as engaging or brilliant as this author’s first novel.

Book review – “Frenchman’s Creek” by Daphne du Maurier

You will recall that I read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca a few weeks ago. I devoured it, could hardly put it down, loved the film too. Once I had written my review I went to put the book away and, being  a strictly alphabetical storer of books, discovered I had another du Maurier tucked away on the shelf that I had completely forgotten about. It looks like I bought it in 1989 (I used adhesive book plates in those days) so I was still at university and must have picked it up in a secondhand bookshop. It’s a 1965 Penguin edition, which means it has a very small typeface and is only a little over 230 pages long. I was very excited about this find and could not wait to get stuck in.

My vintage, pre-decimalisation copy!

I assumed that as the book appeared to be so short it would not take me too long to read. It took me the best part of three weeks! I kept falling asleep reading it, which may have been due to the fact that my life has been a bit topsy-turvy this last month or so and I have been tired, or the fact that 1960s typeface is actually impossible to read and a tremendous strain on the eyes. Or perhaps it is just that I was so decidedly underwhelmed. I think that is the kindest thing I can say about it. It was the first novel published after Rebecca, (the latter published in 1938, while Frenchman’s Creek came out in 1941) and yet it reads like it could have been her first, practice or unfinished novel, discovered posthumously. I was so disappointed.

The plot is a simple one – set in Restoration England, wealthy Dona St Columb, bored with the frivolousness of London life (and also bored with her husband), decides to take herself, her two young children and the nanny to the family’s estate in Cornwall, Navron House. The house has been locked up, unoccupied for some time, looked after solely by a single mysterious servant William. There is much gossip around the town in Cornwall about a French pirate, terrorising the locals, and jeopardising the noblemen whose fortunes are made through maritime activity. Dona is intrigued by the stories. At the same time, Dona begins to notice some strange things in her house: a jar of tobacco and a volume of French poetry in her private bedroom, and the feeling that there is more to the servant William than meets the eye.

When Dona confronts William she learns that he is in fact an associate of the infamous Breton pirate of the La Mouette, Jean-Benoit Aubery, who, between raids, lays his ship at anchor in the hidden creek below Navron. Dona is clearly immediately attracted to the idea of the mysterious pirate, and when she does finally meet him, he does not disappoint. They begin a fairly passionate (by the standards of the time!) love affair, and…well, I won’t give you any more spoilers. Suffice it to say, that Dona finds herself torn when her fellow Cornish nobles decide that they want to capture the Frenchman and hang him for his crimes. She will have to use all her feminine wiles to help her lover evade capture. This event is slightly comic (due largely to the ineptitude of most of the men invovled), but the threat grows somewhat darker when Dona’s husband Harry decides he will join her in the country and brings his friend, the rather sinister Lord Rockingham, who is not so gullible as Harry. Not only does he suspect that Dona is hiding something but is clearly intent upon using his suspicion to get what he wants out of her.

I feel like I have just outlined the plot of a Mills & Boon and I’m afraid that’s how I felt reading it. The novel is set in the Restoration era, presumably because that is when pirates were around terrorising coastal communities, but there is very little sense of either time or place in this novel, something that du Maurier does so brilliantly in Rebecca. The love affair between Dona and her pirate is so extremely implausible as is the interaction with the servant William, as are the key events of the novel. None of the characters are fully developed and our Breton pirate (himself a nobleman in his part of the world, but who, like Dona, is a restless soul who likes a bit of high-seas adventure) speaks impeccable English!

I read that du Maurier was often dismissed as a “romantic novelist”, but that she resisted this pigeonhole. Certainly, Rebecca, is so much more than a romance; perhaps not even a romance. But Frenchman’s Creek, in my view, is a poor follow-up to that novel, a throwaway romance that has little of real substance. I’d be interested to know what du Maurier fans think of it and how it is perceived critically. I’m going to try more du Maurier and hope that this novel is an aberration.

Read this book if you love Rebecca and are as intrigued as me by the contrasting quality!

Book review: “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig

This was the March choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. Some members of the Facebook group had already read it and it’s fair to say that there were some mixed feelings. It was described as “triggering” since it concerns a woman suffering from severe depression, some loved it, while another found it predictable. The central character is Nora Seed, a thirty-five year old woman from Bedford whose life seems to be in a deep rut. The book opens with a neighbour delivering her dead cat, Volts, who he has found in the road. Nora assumes the cat has been hit by a car. This would be upsetting enough on its own, but there follows a cascade of bad news: she loses her job at a music shop, she learns that her brother, from whom she is estranged, came into the shop on her day off (to avoid her she assumes), she loses her only private piano pupil, she has an argument in a shop with an old friend, with whom she was in a band with her brother. To make matters worse, everyone else’s life seems to have moved on to bigger and better things – all her social media contacts seem to be leading great lives and her best friend Izzy is in Australia. When her elderly neighbour, Mr Bannerjee, whose medication she collects regularly, tells her that he no longer needs her to do this for him because the pharmacy will deliver, it is the final straw. Nora feels her life is pointless and she decides that she will end it.

This is the triggering part, the first twenty or so pages. But if you can get beyond this section, the book changes quite dramatically. On the stroke of midnight, Nora finds herself transported to ‘the midnight library’ where the librarian is a person from her past, the school librarian Mrs Elms, who had had a strong an influence on her. When she was younger, Nora had had a lot of potential; she was bright, something that Mrs Elms had recognised and encouraged, and went on to do a philosophy degree. She was also a gifted swimmer, encouraged by her father, and had she not quit, might have had significant sporting success. Nora also had musical talent, both as a performer and songwriter, and had been in a band, The Labyrinths, with her brother Joe and another friend, Ravi (with whom she has the confrontation in the shop). All of this potential came to nought, however. Her mother’s early death affected her badly, she quit swimming, disappointing her father, she quit the band (too anxious), leading to the falling-out with her brother and her partner left her two days before their wedding.

Nora is full of regrets. Her life seems to be one long series of ‘might have beens’. When she reaches the midnight library she is given the chance to experience what might have happened in some of these lives, had she pursued them. She meets herself as an Olympic swimmer giving a speech at a conference, as an international pop superstar, living in Australia with Izzy (another chance she turned down) and married to Dan her former lover. Of course, Nora learns, that life is always complex and nothing is ever completely good or completely bad, that even in these other lives, about which she fantasises, there are downs as well as ups.

The book is an interesting one, a really original idea. I like Matt Haig’s work, both his fiction and non-fiction. I found this an enjoyable read, but I don’t think it is his most creative or interesting book – I prefer How To Stop Time. I did find it a bit predictable and after the third of fourth ‘life’ which Nora gets to try out, you work out where it is all going. It is quite simplistic in some ways, but it also lays out some simple truths very powerfully, and that is its main strength. Matt Haig is regularly scathing about the effects of social media and he has plenty of digs in this book too about its damaging effect on the mental health of so many people:

“Nora went through her social media. No messages, no comments, no new followers, no friend requests. She was antimatter, with added self-pity. She went on Instagram and saw everyone had worked out how to live, except her.”

Nora has been sucked into the fallacy that life is only real if it is lived on social media. If it’s not on Facebook it didn’t really happen. There is a lesson in here for all of us, regardless of our mental health status.

I would recommend this book, although some people might find the beginning quite challenging.

Book review – “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid

This was my book club’s choice for last month. When I first read the blurb it was not what I expected from the title – I thought it would be about teenagers, which tells you a bit about where my head is at right now! But no, the blurb tells us that a young black woman in Philadelphia, twenty-five year old Emira Tucker, is out at a grocery store late one evening with the small girl she looks after when a fellow shopper raises her concerns with the in-store security guard. What is a young black woman, dressed as if she has just come from a party (which in fact she has), doing out at that hour with a fair-skinned white-haired toddler? She must be up to no good, the fellow shopper concludes, and the security guard concurs. The guard challenges her, rudely, and when she resists his challenge, he over-reacts and threatens to call the police. The whole incident is caught on mobile camera by another fellow shopper, thirty-something white male Kelley.

What none of the spectators or the other participants know is the background: Emira is the child’s babysitter (not ‘nanny’ because that would make her employment more formal than the child’s parents have so far allowed) and they have called her for help at this late hour because someone has thrown a brick through their window. The police have been called and Peter and Alix Chamberlain do not want their little girl, three year old Briar, to see the police officers in the house. So they have asked Emira to take Briar out. And the reason that a brick has been thrown through the Chamberlain’s window is that Peter, a television presenter, made a racist comment during a live broadcast. So, you can see where the story is going – layer upon layer of casual racism, the kind where people say “I’m not racist, but…”

The incident I have outlined above is what opens the novel. It ends fairly anti-climactically, actually, whereas from the blurb I half expected our heroine to be thrown into jail for a made-up crime she did not commit (a plot along the lines of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage). Instead, Emira calls Briar’s father, Peter, he of the on-screen racist remark, who arrives at the store promptly, claims Emira and the child, and the security guard calms down and everyone goes home. The woman who originally alerted the guard apologises, expecting, of course, absolution for her own racist preconceptions. How could she have known? Wasn’t she just being a conscientious good citizen? Kelley, the young man who filmed the whole scene, encourages Emira to alert the networks and sell her story. She doesn’t want to, however, she seems resigned to this level of everyday racism, and prefers a quieter life, claiming that she is quite cool with it all. Kelley emails her the video, just in case she changes her mind, deletes it from his own phone and they part company.

That is the incident over, on one level at least, except that it sets off a chain of events which will lead Emira through a series of dark and challenging times. She bumps into Kelley again, a few weeks later, on a train and the two start dating. Encouraged by Kelley, Emira begins to take a long hard look at her life, comparing herself to her friends, who all seem to be developing their careers, while she barely makes ends meet as an informal babysitter and part-time typist. A major preoccupation is that when she turns twenty-six, she will no longer be eligible for healthcare under her parents’ insurance policy, so she needs to find a way of earning enough money to afford her own cover.

Meanwhile, Emira’s boss, Alix Chamberlain, has decided that Emira is essential to her; Briar adores her and Emira seems to fill in some of the gaps in her own parenting. Plus, having Emira on hand means that she can pursue her own career as a lifestyle blogger and consultant. Alix determines to befriend Emira, to make her a part of their family, using the incentive of a more formal employment contract as the carrot. There is the unmistakeable suggestion that Alix wishes to ‘own’ Emira, and that her own success is on the back of her babysitter. Alix grows increasingly paranoid about losing Emira and takes ever more desperate steps to retain her.

One key aspect of the story is slightly far-fetched (I won’t reveal it) but the whole plot turns on it really, so you have to just suspend disbelief. Doing so is worth it because the author explores deftly and cleverly, a whole series of issues and themes, not just around race, but also the nature of privilege more generally, and autonomy. Who has the power to make the decisions? Which of us really has choice? This could have been a really straightforward novel about racism, but the author makes it about much more than that.

I and my fellow readers in my book club thoroughly enjoyed this book and I recommend it highly.

Book review – “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier

Last week I posted my review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the February book in my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was something that had been adapted for screen and I had been torn between that book and Rebecca. This was famously adapted by Hitchcock, of course, in 1940 (starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine) and now there is a new production on Netflix, starring Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas. With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy I watched the film (the 2011 version, not the television series) first. With Rebecca, however, I did it the other way around and I am so glad to have done so. It is such an extraordinary novel and the impact of the plot and the narrative are thrilling – I would have so missed out on so much if I had known the ending.

Rebecca opens with the well-known words “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” A short chapter, where our main female protagonist (whom we only ever know as Mrs De Winter) is recounting a dream she had of her first time visiting her husband’s family estate. She recalls, in particular, the long drive through the park, the plants and trees, which seem hostile, almost monstrous, and the setting of the house itself, in an imposing position high above the rocky Cornwall coast. It is described less in terms of realism and more in terms of how it made her feel. But our protagonist’s dream is very much past tense. We know that she is no longer there.

The second chapter goes back a number of years to the Hotel Cote D’Azur in Monte Carlo where Mrs De Winter (at this point a young spinster, though we never know her name, she is without her own identity) is serving as a ‘ladies companion’ to wealthy American Mrs Van Hopper, a vulgar, bully who shows complete contempt for her young employee.

Mrs Van Hopper hears that English aristocrat Maxim De Winter is in residence and is eager to renew her acquaintance with him. De Winter is recently widowed and Mrs Van Hopper explains that he has never got over his wife’s death. Mrs Van Hopper is suddenly taken ill which means that her companion finds herself with some spare time alone. Mr De Winter notices her one day and invites her to lunch. They embark on a whirlwind affair while Mrs Van Hopper convalesces, which ends with Maxim proposing marriage when it appears that his lover will be whisked off to New York with her employer. They marry, quickly and quietly while Mrs Van Hopper is nothing short of appalled at the match and promises her young friend that she will live to regret the decision.

The new Mrs De Winter returns to Cornwall with her husband, to his ancestral home, Manderley.  She is introduced into a household where the influence, of her predecessor, Rebecca, the first Mrs De Winter is everywhere. Her memory is kept alive by the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, a cool and sinister figure, whom we come to learn was devoted to her mistress, having served her since she was a child. The new Mrs De Winter finds Rebecca’s presence everywhere, from her clothing in the boot room, to her notepaper in the morning room, and the expectations of the staff at Manderley who expect the new Mrs De Winter to simply pick up things as they were left, whether that be menus, social events or flowers in the house.

Although it is painful to her, Mrs De Winter becomes increasingly obsessed with finding out more about Rebecca, whilst also loathing how she continues to dominate the domestic sphere, the society, even her marriage. It is as if she is picking at a scab. We learn that Rebecca, an experienced sailor, drowned in her small boat. Mrs De Winter comes upon Rebecca’s small cottage on the beach, still filled with all her things and her discoveries and questions cause tension in her relationship with her husband. She comes to the conclusion that Maxim is still in love with Rebecca, that Mrs Danvers is scheming somehow to get rid of her and that she can never match her predecessor for beauty, accomplishment, charm or status. The myth of Rebecca takes over her completely.

I cannot say any more without giving away too much. Each new revelation and plot twist in the novel is delivered with jaw-dropping skill. This book had me reading far too much, far too late at night because I couldn’t put it down. It is also an emotional roller-coaster as the reader is forced to confront and re-confront assumptions, prejudices, expectations and moral values. It is a book that will leave you questioning what is right and wrong, who you are rooting for and who is the baddie. It’s an extremely complex and challenging novel that is far more than just its story, but what a story! British author Clare Mackintosh is quoted on the book jacket saying “It’s the book every writer wishes they’d written” and I could not agree more.

Highly recommended. And now for the film!