Saturday, 18 October 2014

Book #28 Looking For Alaska by John Green

Looking For Alaska

Miles isn't a popular kid, and when the opportunity arises elects to go to his father's old boarding school Culver Creek 'to seek a Great Perhaps'. Once there he quickly makes friends with the cooler crowd by virtue of his new room-mate, and falls in love with a girl, the beautiful, unobtainable, Alaska  

Looking For Alaska is a genuinely lovely, well written, reflective novel about life, love, loss and the search for meaning.  What it feels like to be a teenage boy trying to become a man and find your place in the world.

In it's own right, for its own sake, I really enjoyed it. What struck me most though was how much it resembles Paper Towns,  which I happened to read first, published in 2008, 3 years after this, his debut.

Two very similar boys in Miles & Quentin, two very similar girls in Alaska & Margot, are the leads in each, and it somehow feels like Paper Towns IS Looking For Alaska rewritten with a different high school setting and a different ending.

This, though it diminishes Paper Towns as a book and makes it somewhat superfluous it should not diminish Looking For Alaska seeing as it came first, but I have to say, a) I wish I'd read these the opposite way around and b) if I had not also read The Fault In Our Stars I might conclude that John Green only had one novel in him, recycled.

That criticism aside, I have to say that though I liked Paper Towns I really, really, thought Looking For Alaska was fab, and moving and so very worth reading that I have started recommending it about the place already.

Though the similarities were overt, I did love it, and really admired it as a piece of writing.


Book #27 The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger

This book was one of my longest standing Kindle items in that I bought it in 2011, and read it this week, 3 years later. I had previously read Fingersmith, The Night Watch and Tipping The Velvet and enjoyed each to a different degree. I was utterly blown away by Fingersmith and stayed up all night reading it, but try as I might I kept false starting with The Little Stranger, not getting past the first 3 or 4 pages until my breakthrough the other day.

It concerns the Ayres family, once landed gentry, struggling to survive in the high taxation post World War Two landscape. Roderick, the son and heir is doing his best to hold back the tide, but Hundreds Hall becomes shabbier by the day. Dr Faraday is called in by chance to treat their one remaining live-in servant Betty, and thus becomes attached to their family, a frequent visitor to tea, and observer of events.

But something strange is happening at Hundreds Hall, things that go bump in the night, markings appear on walls and bells ring without anyone to ring them - does all this have a rational explanation as Faraday believes it must? Or is something more sinister at work?

I really liked this book, and read it finally, in two sittings, I think the end sentence is supposed to be ambiguous, an open ending, but I think if you've followed the clues well enough the answer will meet you. The book has an old fashioned ghost story and a riddle at its heart, but is more the sort of book to make you think and anaylse and make your flesh creep than to give you nightmares. Think The Woman In Black yet vastly better written. A lot of other readers have compared it to Turn Of The Screw but I have not read it and so don't know if its an accurate comparison.

As with Fingersmith I enjoyed the way psychiatric care was painted in a very sinister and ultimately abusive light.

There is also the real sense that we are bearing witness to the of the end of an era, not just of Hundreds Hall but of the torch passing from the likes of the Ayres, onwards into the modern age.

This is a really good book, though perhaps dry in parts


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Book #26 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch was read for my book club, but I had already bought it and would have read it anyway.
The third of Donna Tartt's novels, she appears to only bring one out every ten years. My prior experience with her novels was that her debut The Secret History remains in my opinion one of the best novels I've ever read and her second The Little Friend one of my most loathed novels as a reading experience in terms of hours spent versus satisfaction gained.

What then of her third? If The Secret History was love and The Little Friend hate, I would have to class The Goldfinch as indifference. I neither loved it nor hated it and found it somewhat 'meh' to coin a slang phrase.

The reason for this is simple. The book can clearly be split into four distinct zones, each of which feels like it's part of a different novel. New York Part 1, Vegas, New York Part 2, and Amsterdam.

New York Part 1, where the novel starts is great. An explosion at an art gallery kills Theo's Mum, during the aftermath he befriends a dying old man and steals a priceless artwork, before being sent to stay with the rich family of his best friend from school. Though he knows he should return 'The Goldfinch' it becomes a symbol of his last link to his Mum, and he worries about being punished. He contacts the loved ones of the dying man he met and becomes part of their world too. This whole section was such a good setup, all the characters introduced here are interesting and intriguing and you feel that this is the beginning a really beguiling novel. The family Theo stays with are a family of secrets and you wonder what you will find. But from here the novel takes a turn.

The plot moves us away to Vegas, a colourless landscape, with Theo wasting his potential with a Russian stereotype of a character named Boris with whom he bunks off school and takes drugs. It's all a bit been here read that.

Section three finds Theo back in New York and my overwhelming feeling about this Section was that no-one besides Hobie was particularly likeable. Theo continues on a drug abuse spiral and commits a large scale fraud. He's in love but not with his fiance, and it's all a bit depressing, that angle of things. His best friends family due to events, have become incredibly altered from the people we met in Part One so much so in the case of his friends mother, a stoic if ever there was one, as to be unrecognisable as the same character. Again this seems like a different book.

The return of Stereotype Boris leads us to yet another section which feels disconnected to the rest of the book : a crime thriller in Amsterdam of which I was unenamoured.

The closing epilogue is a trite and somehow patronising treatise on The Lessons Theo Learned About Life From This Experience, a section which goes on for pages and doesn't really need to exist at the length that it does. It seems to exist purely to tell the reader what they should have inferred from the novel and what conclusions they should draw. Tiresome.

All of that said, it is well written and enjoyable to read as you go along, but the overwhelming thing we felt at Book Club was "what was the point of it all?" it doesn't seem to have a point, and is not dare I say it, a book literature as a whole would be lost without.


Book #25 A Life Of Contrasts by Diana Mosley

A Life Of Contrasts

When Diana Mosley's autobiography was published, a friend of hers wrote a review of it in which he accused her of "lacking a dimension" and they subsequently fell out. I only discovered this as I read the additional chapters tacked on to the end of the book, which she added at a later date and I thought it summed up perfectly what was wrong with it.

The 3rd oldest of the Mitford sisters - I was initially reluctant to read Diana's book being so personally at odds with her choice of politics, but I was encouraged to by someone I tweet with and was quite glad I did in the end.

There is a tone to Diana's writing which as her contemporary critics noted lacks something, a je ne sais quoi. if I was to characterise this lack I would call it a sense of normalcy, a sense of awareness of the real world, and definitely a lack of self awareness.

But these absences in her writing lead to a unique book, which is repeatedly unintentionally hilarious, as she laments the lack of a seaside "of their own" (you know as opposed to the norm where people have their own seaside) so they went with their Nanny to the visit her sister and the thrill was that "one might pass a Negro on the stairs"  OK....then.

A lot of the childhood reminiscences are familiar to those who've read other Mitford books, Farve's opinion on Romeo and Juliet and the nurse who said she was too beautiful to live etc.

I was more interested in later Diana and what I found was a seemingly endless round of houses and interior design and trips abroad on yachts with Daisy Fellowes and pals and that everyone from her cousins to Evelyn Waugh was in love with her.  Occasionally there is an astounding indolent vapidity to it in the later years. Her experience at Holloway prison where she was imprisoned without trial for nearly 4 years is the one event of real note and it does come across like the grim event it likely was. My favourite Diana anecdote remains that she bought a fur coat to wear in her cell from the money she got from suing a newspaper accusing her of living in luxury.

What is probably most staggering is her genuine attempt to blame the Holocaust on the Jews - who really should have seen the way the wind was blowing and left Germany. In almost the same breath she blames those Jews who did leave Germany for making things worse by drawing international attention to it. She points to other atrocities and leaders and defends Hitler as no worse than Mao or Stalin, and whilst she may have a point, it shows an utter lack of compassion and the same loss of perspective of which she accuses others of in the "two wrongs don't make a right" sense.

Being tarred with the Hitler brush she admits did ruin her life and her sister Unity's life and her husbands political career and yet she stands by her good opinion of him and the fact that in 1935 "there was nothing exceptionally wrong in wanting to have tea with Hitler". There is something almost disarmingly honest in that.

In letters between her other sisters it is said that she stood by her fascist beliefs not because she truly still held them but that to publicly abandon them would be an admission that she and more to the point Mosley had wasted their time, most of their lives and certainly most of their money,  pursuing political suicide.  If there is one certain thing about Diana it is that she loved Oswald Mosley beyond reason. To leave ones husband in the 1930s to become the mistress of a married man shows a kind of  bravery and/or foolishness rare for a woman of that era 

Which brings me to a further mystery, Diana and Mosley's finances. How they were able to move from fabulous house in England, to fabulous house in Ireland to fabulous house in France despite his losing most of their fortune in various follies baffled me. It's very hard to see what either one of them DID for a living after leaving Holloway, particularly Diana. When Nancy dies, Debo describes her life as sad, she only had her books, yet Diana doesn't seem to have anything except Mosley whom she propped up as he went from failure to failure. Whilst Nancy wrote, Pamela farmed and ran a stables, Decca had a series of normal jobs, and Debo was busy running Chatsworth as well as commitments associated to being a Duchess, Diana seems to have done little even her children and grandchildren were on the whole looked after by nannies. 

A life of contrasts indeed, and a book of contrasts, on the one hand the carefree lifestyle of the rich against the status of pariah in ones own nation state. The writing, joyous and carefree, often funny, and then by turns completely offensive and deluded; do make this book and Diana Mosley as a character unique.   She was almost certainly the only woman in history to be well acquainted privately with both Winston Churchill and Hitler which is remarkable of itself.

An interesting and intriguing addition to the Mitford cannon well worth reading. 8/10

Book #24 The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell

The Mitford Girls

I read The Mitford Girls a biography by Mary S Lovell on the back of their collection of letters between each other just because I wanted "more" and I found myself disapproving of it from the off.
To understand why requires a prior knowledge of the sisters for context which a reader has if they've read their letters first but not if they read this first.

Most important of these is when this book was conceived and written because at the time four of the six sisters (Unity, Nancy, Pam and Decca) were dead leaving only Diana and Debo alive. Both agreed to cooperate with the book although letters indicate they found the interest in their family tedious. Reading this made me wholeheartedly believe that they cooperated with it in "exchange" for certain things and that the author of the book agreed to their terms.

Though Debo remained in contact with Decca following her elopement and emigration, Diana did not as their polar opposite politics drove them apart. Debo remained angry with Decca over issues she had with her autobiography, namely that some anecdotes were outright lies and the portrayal of their mother was excessively negative. Diana shared this view and had written to newspapers to object to Decca's memoir, in later life a flurry of letters critical of Decca was exchanged.

What I felt most about this book is that it was The Mitford Girls according to Diana and Debo as opposed to an objective all seeing eye of the author.  Their mother Sydney is championed as a wonderful mother whose views on education (she did not allow her daughters to go to school) were not as backward as they had seemed. The governesses she employed were of a first rate kind espousing the highly thought of at the time PNEU system. The book is gushing about her both at the beginning and the end.

Contrast this view to Diana's own autobiography in which she more or less confirms Decca's assessment; Sydney is described as "disinterested" and that she learned more in 6 months at her French finishing school then she learned at home in six years and it doesn't add up well.

Decca it is repeatedly implied was a liar, a fantasist, a thief, and a bad mother. Yet, when it becomes clear that Diana herself spent very little time with her older sons, Jonathan and Desmond leaving them home alone with a Nanny whilst she jaunted off all over Europe, this is dismissed as typical for women of that class in that era, and that she "simply adored her sons".

Given that Evelyn Waugh was in love with Diana - I did end up wondering if he took some inspiration from her divorce from Bryan Guinness for A Handful Of Dust. Diana cheated on him, but Bryan had to 'commit an indiscretion' in order that Diana could be the one to file for divorce so as not to ruin her own reputation. Pretty much exactly what happens to the characters in Waugh's novel.

This book is also massively critical of Decca's first husband Esmond, who admittedly does come across as a bit of an idiot in Decca's own autobiography.

A pivotal moment concerns Unity. Esmond writes a letter to his in laws threatening to expose her, and this threat is dismissed by the author of this book in a footnote as "some nonsense invented by Decca" 

Yet when Lovell writes the story of Unity's friendship with Hitler she shillyshallys around the 'did they or didn't they?' question. First Unity is just a starstruck fan, and Hitler in any case wouldn't have slept with her because she wasn't German, then they are clearly more than just good friends with pet names and gifts and spending alone time together, then Unity 'is probably in a relationship with a friend of Tom's' then Hitler is paying her bills, then Diana is saying they were just friends, but if Hitler had asked her she would have said yes....At one point, Lord Redesdale is described as liking Hitler much better than the spouses of his daughters 'the man Mosley, the boy Romilly and the bore Rodd' thereby equating Hitler among them. the hovering around the question suggesting then dismissing, suggesting again then dismissing again, seems to be trying to point the reader at the hints between the lines.  Though it does not concretely state she was his mistress, it implies it to a great degree in my view, perhaps as though Lovell uncovered something in her research yet didn't want to offend the family; though others might not see it the same way.

Stylistically too, the author does something infuriating, and starts to almost think of herself as one of them, adopting the nicknames they gave others in a way that seems presumptuous, Nancy's husband Peter Rodd for example is referred to throughout as Prod, their own name for him. I think what I'm trying to say is that it lacks the professional distance one expects from a biography.

As a result I felt that this biography was a jaundiced one, and really, that readers are much better served by reading the sisters in their own words through their letters and their own autobiographies
There is also not a lot of "new" detail in this book except that both Decca and Diana had abortions something nobody really needed to know.

I still savoured it though, the Mitfords being my new obsession, and I still, thankfully have plenty more to read.


Monday, 14 July 2014

Book #23 Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park

I find my relationship with young adult fiction has its ups and downs, but every time I start to think : "I'm really too old for this sort of thing now" - a book does come along which proves that no matter how old you are or which target market the publisher is aiming at, if a book is something special then it doesn't matter what section of the book shop they sell it in, it will still resonate.

Eleanor is a new girl, overweight and badly dressed, with wild ginger hair, no-one wants to let her sit with them on the bus. Park isn't so popular either, but people respect him and he's always flown under the radar of the bullies - and when Eleanor is left standing in the aisle Park takes pity on her, and from there - a genuinely lovely and touching romance emerges.

Though the novel is a dual narrative which tells its tale from both their perspectives, I found that for me this book was just all about Eleanor. Her story consistently has this darkness to it as her love for Park is overshadowed by the her sinister stepfather, the failings of her biological parents and the tragic poverty she lives in. It really does often feel like Park is her only light in an otherwise dark world.        

I found that towards the end when I had about 80 pages left to go that I was in this constant state of anxiety over Eleanor utterly convinced that something terrible was going to happen to her and feeling powerless to stop it.

And then I reminded myself that I was feeling intense anxiety for A FICTIONAL CHARACTER.

That is how good this book is. How it effects you inside.

It ends on something of a cliffhanger and I was vexed, and I genuinely tweeted the author with BUT WHAT HAPPENED AFTER??? angst - she didn't reply, she's probably used to this sort of thing by now, though probably not from women approaching 33.

It's an unlikely choice from me but I think Eleanor and Park is my favourite book so far this year. It made me feel. I felt like its characters were real and I didn't want it to end.

It was nice to see a novel were the romantic female lead did not fit traditional stereotypes about image. Also, I need a sequel to this book and I needed it pretty much the second I finished it, I surely can't be alone in this.

Lovely : 10/10

Monday, 23 June 2014

Book #22 Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

Hons and Rebels

As my growing obsession with The Mitfords continues my next stop was Jessica Mitford's autobiography Hons and Rebels which runs from her childhood through to her husbands departure to fight in World War Two, a conflict he died in.

I read Hons and Rebels in one sitting and it doesn't read at all like a standard autobiography more like a quirky novel about posh people, and as such is eminently easy to read. Autobiographies can prove difficult, particularly celebrity ones and the Mitfords were that in their day, as the author can often be disingenuous particularly if fellow subjects are still living.

In Charlotte Mosley's collection of the Mitford sisters letters, Debo and Diana are both scathing of Decca's portrayal of their parents which they see as hostile. For my part I couldn't really see that, both Muv and Farve come off as eccentric but no more so than anyone else of their era with their suspicion of doctors, anyone who wasn't Upper Class and the lack of merit in educating women. Muv herself was said to have enjoyed it, so I can't really see what the problem was.

Inevitably the first two thirds of the book are the best those parts which cover the girls childhood and then Decca's elopement.

She reveals a closeted, isolated existence as the Mitfords, careful who their aristocratic daughters could associate with, largely only allowed them each others company and the company of cousins. Inevitably this led to all the girls developing the eccentricities which they became famous for, Decca recalls being kept in the schoolroom or the nursery as loud battles raged on over something that Diana or Nancy had done, and being clueless as to what was happening.
Bored and frustrated she was desperate to run away, Unity was desperate to meet Hitler,  and Debo was desperate to marry a duke, all of which, bizarrely came to fruition. Particular highlights include how all three girls ran off a succession of governesses, until one came that was a useless teacher but whose one significant contribution to their education was to teach them to shoplift, so they made her life easy so that she would stay; all of their efforts to embarrass their mother when she takes them on a cruise and Unity's habit as a teen of giving the Nazi Salute and shouting Heil Hitler to everyone including those who served her in the post office.   

To be honest if anyone comes off badly in this autobiography it would be Decca's first husband, her cousin Esmond. This doesn't seem to have been intentional on Decca's part either. She becomes infatuated with Esmond before ever even meeting him via reports of his Communist exploits and subversive underground newspaper for Public Schoolboys.

When she does finally does meet Esmond from the start he comes across as financially motivated and largely self-interested. My low opinion of him increased once they emigrated to the States whereupon the narrative gets a little dull. Decca's account of their elopement is quite brilliant though, particularly how a British Captain was sent on a destroyer to bring her home and tried and failed to lure her aboard with a Roast Chicken!

Many people enjoy reading autobiography above fiction and if you are one of these people I heartily recommend this one, if you do have a preference for fiction anyway this autobiography is written and reads like a good novel anyway.

Marvellous 10/10