Facebook Reading Challenge – May’s title

The twists and turns of life are unexpected and as I sit down to write this blog, having not opened WordPress for about two weeks, I was presented with my last post and the photo of our lovely cat who, I’m afraid, has not returned. Seeing him there set me off again. We have no idea what has happened to him and, since it is now almost three weeks since he went missing, we are pretty resigned to his disappearance. The worst thing is the not knowing.

Kazuo Ishiguro was interviewed about his new novel, Klara and the Sun, by Jackie Kay for the Manchester Literature Festival

Alas, it happens and we must move on. It is already May 5th and not only have I still not completed last month’s book (Emily Bain Murphy’s Splinters of Scarlet), which is fairly par for the course, I haven’t even posted May’s choice! Just as well it’s a thirty-one day month. I must admit that Splinters of Scarlet is not grabbing me as much as I’d hoped. I’m only about halfway through and my daughter assures me it gets better, so I will post a review next week, by when, I hope, I will have finished it. I need to because I’ve got so many books to read at the moment – I need to get my book club book finished and read Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun by the 17th – I bought a ticket to the online talk between him and Jackie Kay, which was part of the virtual Manchester Literature Festival. I was unable to watch it on the night it took place, but I can still access the recording, but only for another twelve days! I prefer to read a book before attending a talk about it, don’t you?

Anyway, back to my Facebook Reading Challenge – what was I thinking when I chose May’s theme?! ‘Something with ‘may’ in the title?!’ I thought there would be loads of books to choose from, but, guess what, there aren’t! There are a few though and there is one I have stumbled across which could actually be really fascinating. So, I have chosen Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo, and I’m pretty sure this would not have crossed my radar had it not been for my rather randomly selected theme, but isn’t that what reading challenges are all about?

Seven Days in May is a fictionalised re-telling of the story of the luxury cruise ship the RMS Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, just a few miles short of her destination following a transatlantic crossing from America. Almost 1,200 passengers and crew were killed. I have of course heard of the Lusitania, but I could not have told you anything about it, so I have learned a lot just by reading the blurb. This is author Kim Izzo’s third book, and her first (The Jane Austen Marriage Manual) was a bestseller.

So, having initially despaired that I would find anything decent to fit my theme, I now feel quite excited and I would love for you to join me.

Happy reading!

PS There is another book of the same name, a political thriller written by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey II in 1962, which was made into a film.

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.

Facebook Reading Challenge – April choice

I’m a bit late posting my April choice for the reading challenge this month, which is ironic given that I finished the March book ages ago! I hope your Easter weekend was a good one. Mine was strangely very busy and had been preceded by a very busy, I would even go so far as to say an intense week, so that is my excuse for my tardiness and I am sticking to it.

This month’s theme is a children’s book (always a joy!) and I am delighted to be returning to an author whose first book was the very first January choice for my very first reading challenge in 2018! Emily Bain Murphy’s wonderful debut novel The Disappearances was a resounding success and almost everyone who joined me on the reading challenge that first month loved it. My elder daughter, who is now almost seventeen read it at the time and considers it one of her favourite ever books. She has re-read it at least twice since! Emily Bain Murphy’s new novel is called Splinters of Scarlet and it was published in July of last year by Pushkin children’s books. My daughter devoured it within days of getting it, and it comes highly recommended from her. She says it is a slower burn, not quite as compelling as The Disappearances to begin with, but it gets much better.

Look out for my review of last month’s book in the coming days – Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. I did enjoyed this book very much, but, as many others have pointed out, it was a hard read to begin with.

I would love for you to join me on the reading challenge this month or to hear your thoughts if you have already read this book.

Happy reading!

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!

Book review – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by John Le Carré

Oh my goodness, Rebecca is taking some very strange and unexpected turns – I wish I could write about them here but that would be unkind to anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the film. I’m not sure how I feel about the plot twists, at this point, but I’m like a junkie in my reading of it, just dying to get the next ‘fix’! But back to something much more sober – Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, a book that has been described as Le Carré’s “masterpiece”, and which you will recall was my Facebook Reading Challenge choice for February. A Cold War novel for a cold month!

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is the first in Le Carré’s so-called Karla trilogy in which he pits our hero, retired senior Secret Service operator and later chief, George Smiley, against his Russian opposite number and great nemesis, codenamed Karla. The novel opens at a minor public boys school to which former spy Jim Prideaux has been retired following a botched operation in Czechoslovakia where he was shot, captured and tortured by the Soviets.

The head of the Secret Service in London, known as Control, long suspected there was a mole in the outfit and shared some of his suspicions with Prideaux – the fateful mission to Czechoslovakia was partly intended to try and flush out the mole; Control has whittled down the candidates to a handful of the key operators in the Service whom he names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and so on.

Control dies of a heart attack, but more senior officials have learned of his suspicions and call in George Smiley from his rather bleak life of retirement to investigate secretly. Smiley has his own troubles; his wife has left him and it turns out she was having an affair with one of Smiley’s former colleagues (the inference is that she was lively and vivacious while George has become plump, tired and dull). Smiley is given support from an insider, a trusted current employee, Peter Guillam, to help him pursue the investigation that Control was never able to finish and they set up an undercover base operating out of a small hotel.

What ensues is a cat and mouse chase where Smiley gradually explores the motives and capacities of each of the suspects – Percy Alleline, Toby Esterhaze, George Haydon and Roy Bland. The investigation has to be conducted covertly to ensure none of the individuals learns of the suspicion surrounding the work of the Service. For Smiley, the investigation involves not only figuring out methods to get the information he needs and to reach the people who may be able to shed light on the murky inner workings of the organisation, but a sometimes painful reliving of past events which have brought him to his present state of lonely and purposeless existence.

The investigation also, of course, has the potential to breathe new life into Smiley and restore him to a position of status and importance. If he succeeds.

The plot of this novel is sometimes complex and difficult to follow – you really have to pay attention! I found it slow to start with, but then I got very sucked in and found it extremely compelling. The theme of last month’s reading challenge was something that has been adapted for screen and I had watched the film before reading the book. This was the wrong way around! As I was reading, the characters in my mind were the actors from the film and when these actors are Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kathy Burke, to name but a few, it is hard to forget them. The characters in the film did not quite match up with the way they were portrayed in the book, which was frustrating. Also, some elements of the plot were changed for the film (including the ending, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexuality!), presumably to make it a bit easier to squeeze into two hours, so that was confusing for me.

However, all in all, a very good read. In a previous life I worked for the Civil Service in Whitehall (nothing as exciting as diplomacy or intelligence, I’m afraid), and the book caused me to reminisce about those days a little. The atmosphere created in the book was one I recognised even though it was set over twenty years before my time (things don’t change very fast).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first in a trilogy, and there are many other Le Carré novels that feature George Smiley and many more screen adaptations to explore. Having previously not felt too interested in Le Carré I have to say that this book has whetted my appetite!

Recommended.

Facebook reading challenge – March choice

In the last week or so of the month, I usually start to give some thought to the book that I am going to choose next for my Facebook Reading Challenge. I will remind myself of the theme. Sometimes, I already have a title or two in mind. And sometimes I have to do a bit of searching. This invariably throws up two or three choices and I will spend a few days ruminating before making a decision and posting on here.

Last month’s theme was “something that had been adapted for screen” and I had two titles in mind. I chose John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy because I had just seen the 2011 Gary Oldman adaptation and had enjoyed it. After a few opening doubts (the plot of the book seemed much more complicated than the film), I really got into the book and loved it. I finished it quite quickly, so I decided to try and read my February reserve choice as well, Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 classic Rebecca. I had seen the trailer for the new film version starring Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas and Armie Hammer, which looks really good, but I wanted to read the book first. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but, oh my, HOW have I not read this before!? I cannot put it down. Look out for my reviews of both books soon.

This month’s theme is “something for spring” in keeping with the fact that meteorological spring started yesterday on the 1st. In the three years or so that I have been doing this challenge, I have never had more difficulty choosing a book. There are a couple of obvious choices – Ali Smith’s Spring or Karl Ove Knaussgard’s Spring – but they were too obvious for my liking. I brainstormed: growth, renewal, uplifting, Mother’s Day, World Book Day, International Women’s Day, Mars, gardening, baby birds… But, alas, this bore very little fruit. There is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, but, hmm, set in Russia in 1913…this does not feel sufficiently optimistic to me, and I feel we need some positivity at this point.

So, my choice has only a very tenuous link to spring – Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. My rationale? Well, it’s World Book Day this Thursday (4th March). Books can be found in libraries. It has been described as ‘uplifting’. Tick. Plus I really like Matt Haig. The central character is Nora, whose life is not going well. On the stroke of midnight of her last day on earth she finds herself transported to a library where she is given the opportunity to explore all the alternative lives she might have lived. If nothing else, one good thing that has come out of this pandemic is that many of us have reflected on our lives and thought about what we might want to change. And spring is a great time for change.

So, I think that’s a wrap! Looking forward to this one.

Now, back to Rebecca

Restrictions lifting soon – how do you feel?

Here in the UK, the government announced last week a so-called ‘roadmap’ out of the Covid restrictions. They are emphasising the need to be guided by ‘data not dates’ so nothing is guaranteed of course. Like most people, I am looking forward to being able to see family and friends again; my own parents are both dead, but I have some elderly aunts and uncles I am anxious to visit, and my in-laws are in Dublin and we have not seen them for fourteen months. I am well aware that there is always someone worse off, and I am so sorry for all those who have lost loved ones in this pandemic, in so many cases, without having had the chance to say goodbye.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Yes, like many, I am looking forward to booking a holiday, but it’s actually the smaller things I miss more: seeing friends, going to the cinema or an art gallery, a concert or a play. I want to eat in a restaurant again, cheek by jowl with other diners, and go shopping without a mask. I want to get in the car and drive to the coast for the day, or walk up a mountain, or visit my son at university. I would even be happy providing a taxi service to my daughters, ferrying them around to meet their friends. I want to get on the tram and go into town, or go for a swim or browse in a bookshop or the library. All those things I took for granted and sometimes sighed at having to do. I want them all back.

But there is a prevailing narrative that I feel I must challenge; my daughters will return to school sometime after the 8th of March (when the Department for Education gets around to clarifying how schools should implement rapid Covid testing). Yes, they need to get back, see their friends and be in a classroom again, but they are apprehensive. Working from home has been quite good for them – they do not have to contend with the naughty and disruptive kids. We seem to have forgotten that these things cause anxiety in normal times and that some children get bullied or suffer in a crowded classroom or playground. This is going to be worse when they all return, because so many children will have forgotten how to behave in the classroom and I feel for teachers having to manage discipline once again.

And I am a bit sick of hearing people on television, radio and my neighbourhood telling us how bored we all are and how they have been forced to take up macrame, or whatever. To those people I say, try home-schooling, or working from the kitchen table! I never seem to have the time to be bored! I am rushing around less, that is true, and I will miss this pace of life actually. I know that once restrictions lift life will speed up again.

I will also miss the time that we are sharing as a family – we watch films together, play board games, go out for a walk together every Sunday, and my husband, who used to be away several nights a month for work, has been home all the time. Everyone has time to cook, bake, chat, run, walk, and play. We have grown closer as a family and there is less pressure in life, having to be somewhere by a certain time for a given activity.

I will miss barely using my car. My car is quite old and for a while there I fancied something newer, less scratched, that didn’t scream ‘Mum’. Now I don’t care. It’s been weeks since I put fuel in it and that feels great. I bought a new coat in the sales, but apart from that, I haven’t desired any new clothes. I’m sorry for the fashion industry I suppose, but I’ve learned to be very happy with the wardrobe full that I already have, re-discovered some things I haven’t worn in a very long time and learned to love comfortable.

So, though I will not mourn the end of the pandemic (we have lost too much for that) I hope that we will all reflect a little and think about what we learned was important.

How do you feel about the end of restrictions?

Book review – “Queenie” by Candice Carty-Williams

Most of my reviews recently seem to have been of quite high-brow books. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m any kind of snob when it comes to reading it’s just that it has all been quite literary of late. I’m currently reading Claudia Winkelman’s Quite in the crevices of my life (when the complex plotting of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starts to make my head hurt!), my book club’s choice  and which one of my friends described as ‘hubba bubba’! If you are old enough to remember what that is, well, it is describes the book perfectly! Look out for my review of that soon.

A novel I read recently, which was at the more popular end of the spectrum (no judgement intended), was Queenie, the debut novel by Candice Carty-Williams. It was shortlisted for a number of prizes, including the Waterstones Book of the Year and the Costa First Novel Award, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize last year and won in two categories of the British Book Awards in 2020 – Book of the Year and Debut Book of the Year. So, it was quite a sensation, and its thirty-two year old author seemed to be everywhere!

Rightly so, because it is a super book, very readable. In my head I thought it was a YA novel, the cover and the marketing scream YA, but it’s really quite adult; I’m not sure I’d be giving it to my 16 year-old for another year or so, for example. Lots of quite graphic sex.

Queenie Jenkins is a twenty-something Londoner of Jamaican origin and the novel begins with her break-up from long-term (white, middle-class) boyfriend Tom. He initially tells her it is a “break” but it becomes quite clear that he is simply trying to let her down gently. Or failing to be honest with her, depending on your perspective.

Queenie’s life soon spirals out of control. She has to move out of the apartment she shared with Tom into a much more shabby and smaller room in a house. She also finds herself engaging in a series of brief and bruising sexual encounters. Some are literally bruising – one affair with a junior doctor leaves her with a physical damage and a STD. Almost worse, however, is the work colleague who seems nice, approaches her with sensitivity and understanding, but, guess what? He just wants the sex and turns out to have…other commitments!

This is more than just a break-up novel, however. The book has been described by some as the ‘black Bridget Jones’, but it is far more complex than that. Queenie experiences gaslighting of the nastiest kind, and you can’t help but notice the racial dimension to that. But it’s not exactly a ‘race’ novel either…it is more complex than that too! It is a novel about sisterhood because it is friendship that gives Queenie the leg-up she needs to get her life back on track, her relationships with ‘The Corgis’ – the title of the Whatsapp group she invites her three closest confidantes to join. 

This book is a good read. I don’t want to say ‘fun’ (like Bridget Jones) because it is at times deeply harrowing, although the author has a deft comic touch that quickly lifts you out of the gloom. It’s snappily written, with a style that a younger readership will recognise and engage with, but which is not too beyond the comprehension of this middle-aged reader either!

So, proof – I’m not just into classics and high-brow!

Recommended.

Audiobook review – “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

I have probably spent more time listening to audiobooks in the last twelve months than in all of the previous four years of subscribing to an audiobook service put together! There were in fact times in those previous four years when I suspended my membership because I was building up so many credits. I mainly listened to them on long drives alone and these were relatively infrequent. Last year, however, I found myself, like many people, going out for a walk or run daily. I haven’t walked more in the last twelve months than I did before, but my walking these days is less about purpose (going somewhere to get something) and more about pleasure, nature and exercise, and, well, let’s be honest, because when something is rationed you realise how important it is to you.

I’ve reviewed a number of my particular favourite audiobooks on here: Andrew Taylor’s Ashes of London series (I listened to three out of the four last year), Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain, and of course David Sedaris’s Santaland Diaries. I have yet to review the audiobook that was the absolute standout for me in 2020, though, and which I listened to in the autumn – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I can only put my reticence in posting a review down to being in complete awe of Tartt’s genius as a writer, and the feeling that I could never write anything that would in any way do justice to the mastery on display in this book.

I will try and summarise the plot as briefly as possible. We first meet the main character Theodore “Theo” Decker when he is thirteen years old. He lives with his mother, who works on an art journal, in New York City, his alcoholic father having left the family some years earlier. Theo is in some difficulty at school and he and his mother have an appointment with the Principal. To kill time before the meeting, Theo’s mother takes him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A terrorist bomb explodes while they are there, killing Theo’s mother and many others, and devastating the building. In the middle of the wreckage Theo spots an elderly man, whom he had noticed earlier on in the visit because he was accompanied by a sullen, but ephemeral looking young girl of about Theo’s age, carrying an instrument case. Theo goes to the old man, who is dying from his injuries. The old man gives Theo a ring from his finger and a curious message which it will later transpire refers to an antique shop that he Welty Blackwell, ran with his partner James “Hobie” Hobart. During their brief time together, in what was a room devoted to Dutch paintings from the 17th century, Theo finds himself captivated by a tiny picture by Carel Fabritius called The Goldfinch. Welty notices Theo’s fascination and with his dying breath seems to encourage Theo to take it. The explosion scene is compulsive listening, jaw-dropping.

Theo takes the painting and manages to find his own way out. He takes cover back at home, not knowing if his mother is alive or dead. Eventually, the authorities track him down and he is placed in temporary care with the family of a school friend, Andy Barbour, a slightly sickly, precociously intelligent boy, who, like Theo, does not quite fit in at school. Andy’s family is from the Upper East Side – wealthy, formal, slightly odd, and more than a little dysfunctional. But after a period of adjustment Theo and the family gradually get used to one another, until, at the point the Barbours announce that they would like formally to adopt Theo, the boy’s life takes a dramatic turn.

I wish to say nothing more of the plot, because it is simply too delicious and too clever and if you have not read the book yourself and are tempted to do so, I want you to enjoy every single moment of shock and drama.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius dated 1654

Theo does not reveal that he has the painting for many years. And it burns in his conscience, influences almost all his actions and decisions. The plot is a joy, an absolute roller-coaster, and the character of Theo is complex and brilliantly-drawn. He is in turns damaged and damaging through the book, but all the while the two things that constantly influence his life are the catastrophic loss of his beloved mother in such traumatic circumstances, and the concealment of the painting, an extremely valuable internationally renowned piece, which becomes the subject of a worldwide search. Theo’s increasing paranoia in relation to the painting, has echoes of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In addition to Theo there are a clutch of other superb characters: Boris, his Nevada schoolfriend who becomes a major influence on events in his life; Hobie, the business partner of the old dying man in the museum who Theo tracks down; Pippa, the young girl with the music case, Welty’s granddaughter; and, of course, Theo’s mother, who, although she dies early, is a constant presence in the narrative.

This book has everything: brilliant characters, brilliant plot, action, reflection, literary merit. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Donna Tartt in 2014 (my second Pulitzer Prize-winner reviewed in a week!) and was adapted for screen in 2019. I’m not sure I want to see the film. There is surely no way it could do justice to the book? Although I note that it has Nicole Kidman and Sarah Paulson among the cast so I’m tempted.

I have no idea why I have not read this before; The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s debut novel, published in 1992, is one of my favourite books of all time, a masterpiece, so you would have thought I’d be hanging on everything she has ever written. She is hardly prolific though – her second book, The Little Friend, did not come until ten years after her first, in 2002. That was the start of my childbearing, aka reading wilderness, years, so I’m not really surprised I didn’t get around to that one. Tartt’s books are long – The Goldfinch is 880 pages, or 32 hours of listening joy, and The Little Friend is almost 600 pages – there was no way I would have got through that with a two year old!

The Goldfinch is highly, highly recommended. And the painting, a fragment of which is shown on the cover of the book, is utterly beautiful. That’s it, I’m out of superlatives.

In praise of short stories

Last week, I wrote on here about the difficulties so many of us are having dealing with the pandemic and all its ramifications, and how reading can provide an antidote to that. I had some nice responses to that piece so I’m glad it struck a chord with a few people. This week in the UK we have surpasses the total of 100,000 lives lost to Covid-19 (although some argue that the data show we actually reached it two weeks ago). And it seems there are likely to be many more deaths before the pandemic is over and many more people whose lives will have been altered by contracting the virus.

I don’t know about you but one of the things that I have found most challenging in the last year is a shortened attention span. That has at times included my reading too, and, talking to a friend earlier this week, who shared my feeling on this, I think it’s down to being surrounded by fear and a sense of danger. We are in ‘fight or flight’ mode so much of the time, feeling uneasy in the presence of an unseen threat that could be deadly to ourselves or our loved ones. Our biology is not allowing us to relax into all the spare time we have because we need to be constantly alert.

So, don’t feel guilty if, like me, you cannot focus on anything for very long, haven’t cleared out the loft yet or completed that novel! And if a big chunky novel is beyond you, why not try something more petite? Over Christmas, (which was also crazy busy, for me, felt like I was feeding the five thousand, not five!) I did something I rarely do – I read a load of short stories! It is not a genre I have embraced very much, to be honest, and I realise now what I have been missing. They can be perfect little gems that give you exactly what you need in a small package without weighing too heavily, like one of those lovely little snacks you get in Italian coffee shops.

I read the following and loved them!

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

This was a revelation! Of course, I knew about Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of my favourite books, seeing the film for the first time years ago gave me a lifelong girl-crush on Audrey Hepburn, and I loved also the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the biopic Capote, which covers the period during which the author wrote In Cold Blood. I have learned the term ‘Southern gothic’ which Capote is said to write, and the stories in this volume are superb! An absolute joy to read any time of the year. My favourite was Jug of Silver, written in 1945, about a poor young boy from the wrong side of the small town of Valhalla in Alabama, who takes part in a competition at a local drugstore to guess how much is in a glass jug. The boy pays his fee to take part and tension builds over several weeks as he sits and stares at the jug, his little sister convinced he is going to win the prize. I won’t tell you what happens, but it will warm your heart! There are four other stories in this collection and they are all excellent.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

I’m not a huge murder-mystery fan (though I am a recent convert to Agatha Christie!) so have never got around to reading any Conan Doyle, but I loved these. Perfect little nuggets to sit down with if you have a spare half hour. You can get lost in the Victorian setting. There are twelve stories in this collection and you can pick volumes up very cheaply (particularly on Kindle). Some of the scenarios are very contrived, but that just makes them fun. The best part of them is the development of the characters of Holmes and Watson and their relationship. I am minded to move onto one of the full-length novels now, to see how this plays out in a longer form. I have also lined up the television series Sherlock on my streaming list!

A Maigret Christmas & Other Stories by Georges Simenon

My husband is a French speaker and a Simenon fan, and I have read many reviews on the Red Lips and Bibliomaniacs blog which have piqued my interest. There are three stories here, all set around Christmas-time, evoke brilliantly a seamier side of Paris, especially one cold and deserted for the festive season. Simenon explores the dark underbelly of society in these stories. Only the first of the three is a Maigret story and I would like to read more, though this wasn’t my favourite in the volume. I liked Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook where the central character is a rather geeky loner, under-estimated, but whose vigilance solves a crime where his own nephew is a missing person and his brother is accused of murder. It’s clever, portrays the characters and their relationship really empathically, and has a nice ending.

After dabbling with these, I will definitely read more short stories. It was nice to be able to sit and read something quite short, without it being a huge commitment and feeling a sense of both achievement and satisfaction at completing a story in one sitting.

Highly recommended.