Tag Archives: Penguin Books

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik: ’We were rich…’

Cover imageRachel Malik’s debut has been sitting on my shelves waiting to be reviewed for quite some time. I was sent a copy a few months after its hardback publication when Malik approached me and I warily agreed to look at it. I’ve learned my lesson in this respect but an old friend had reviewed the novel positively in the Sunday Times which swayed me and Heavenali’s review sealed the deal. The old bookseller in me thought it would be better to hold back a review until the paperback edition appeared, and now it has.

Elsie Boston has run the family farm alone for many years. She’s a little eccentric and deeply introverted, living on the edge of the village in every sense. Struggling to keep the farm afloat, she decides to take on a Land Girl and waits nervously for her arrival, wondering how she will cope with a stranger. Rene Hargreaves is a Manchester girl who has left her gambling husband and three children, passing herself off as a widow. These two find a way to accommodate their very different habits, settling into a routine of evening Patience and listening to the radio with Rene spending her afternoon off at the pictures. By the time Elsie is forced off the farm by her opportunistic neighbours, their lives have become so entwined that they leave together, embarking on fifteen years as itinerant farm workers until they settle in Cornwall in 1958, almost two decades after they met. Life settles back into its usual routines – Elsie keeping herself to herself, Rene off to the pictures once a week – until Rene learns of the death of a close family friend to whom she owes a debt of gratitude. Despite her antipathy towards him, Rene knows she and Elsie must take in Bertha’s ageing, alcoholic husband who sets about disrupting their life. When Ernest finally dies it might almost seem a cause for celebration but then the police arrive.

In her historical note at the back of the book, Malik explains that Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is based very loosely on her grandmother’s life, knowledge which makes her novel all the more poignant for this is not always a happy story. Smoothly shifting perspective back and forth between Else and Rene, threading their memories through her narrative, Malik combines quietly understated prose with appropriately cinematic, vivid episodes. The passage in which Rene and her friend stumble onto a film set, charming the crew and triggering a life-long passion for the movies, is quite magical. The relationship between Elsie and Rene is delicately sketched, its changes subtly shaded in. Their lives were so very ordinary, except perhaps in one or two respects sums up these two women beautifully as it must have for many other couples like them, discreetly living their lives together. As Elsie says in court to much sniggering derision We were rich, and indeed they were. A touching, thoroughly absorbing novel – I’m looking forward to reading what Malik comes up with next.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy: A literary thriller with a social conscience

Cover imageI was delighted when I spotted Maile Meloy’s name in the publishing schedules. I’d enjoyed her previous novels, even going so far as to read her short stories – this was long before my conversion. Her writing is quite subtle, nuanced explorations of relationships and their dynamics. On closer inspection, it turned out her new novel might be a thriller, quite a few steps away from my usual literary territory but worth a try given how long it’s been since Meloy published anything for adults. The premise is reminiscent of those yuppie nightmare novels published back in the ‘80s: two families take themselves off on a cruise at Christmas, seduced by the idea of free time together while their kids are entertained but things go horribly wrong.

Nora and Liv are more like sisters than cousins. Liv even introduced Nora to her husband, recognisable to many from his movie performance as an astronaut. Nora has been hit hard by the death of her mother prompting Liv to suggest the cruise. At first all goes well. The kids take to life aboard ship, soon developing crushes on the teenage children of a glamorous Argentinean couple. All three families have avoided excursions until ‘the Switzerland of Latin America’ hoves into view, a country not only regarded as safe but comparatively liberal, satisfying the sensibilities of the Americans. Gunther invites the American husbands to a swanky golf club he knows while their wives take the children off on an excursion. When their guide’s car suffers a blow-out he proposes waiting for a replacement at a nearby beach. Liv and Camilla fall asleep, lulled by the soporific heat, while Nora disappears with the guide leaving the children busy building a raft. Soon they’re caught by a tide that washes them up quite some distance from the beach. Hector decides to swim back, telling the younger children and his sister to wait for him but when a jeep turns up driven by a woman they decide to take their chances and ask for a lift.

Meloy puts to good use the skills I found so appealing in her previous fiction, deftly exploring the tensions between her adult characters pulled tight by the disappearance of their children. The narrative’s perspective shifts smoothly from the parents to the children and back again, effectively cranking up the suspense. It’s as page-turning as a thriller should be but there’s an undercurrent of social conscience running through the novel. Meloy draws sharp contrasts between rich and poor – the North American children are horrified at what Central Americans take for granted. She uses the fallout from the children’s disappearance to demonstrate that no matter how much their wealth may cushion their families, fear cannot be escaped. It’s not a match for Meloy’s previous work for me but then I’m much more of an Anne Tyler kind of gal which is where I’d rank Liars and Saints, and Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it. That said, if you’re looking for an intelligent but easy read, this one’s well worth considering.

Blasts from the Past: Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore (1996)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog you may have noticed that I’m a huge fan of Helen Dunmore’s writing. She’s the one I always turn to as an example of the way in which male writers still manage to eclipse women in terms of coverage and kudos. Inevitable, then, that one of her books would crop up in this spot eventually and it had to be this one: it’s the book that got me my first freelance gig writing reading guides for Bloomsbury’s website when it was awash with Harry Potter money and generous enough to feature other publishers’ titles. For me, Dunmore’s writing is hard to beat and Talking to the Dead showcases it beautifully.

Nina has gone to help her sister Isabel, weak from the difficult birth of her first child and in retreat from the rest of the world. Both Nina and Isabel’s husband are deeply concerned for her mental and physical welfare but eventually find themselves drawn into an obsessive affair. As the heat of the summer intensifies so do relationships within the household. Nina begins to remember scenes from her childhood with Isabel, in particular disturbing memories of their brother who died at three months supposedly of cot death. The pace of the narrative quickens as it works towards its shocking climax when Isabel goes missing.

For such a slim volume, Talking to the Dead is a richly complex book. On one level it has the pace of a thriller with clues scattered throughout the plot. On another and almost contradictory level, it is a long prose poem written in language which is as sensuous and languorous as the heat which seems to permeate every page. On yet another level it is packed with insight into the complications of family life and the secrets which may lie hidden for years but which can both shape and destroy our lives. Dunmore’s writing is richly poetic (she’s said that poetry is a more natural medium for her than fiction, although she excels at both) and her sensuous descriptions of both food and sex in Talking to the Dead are fine examples of it. It’s still one of my favourite books after all these years, and not just because it got me my first break.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Aren’t We Sisters?: A lesson in not judging a book by its cover

Cover imageAren’t We Sisters? put me in a bit of a quandary. The author contacted me asking if I would review her novel, not an unusual experience as I’m sure fellow book bloggers know only too well. Usually, I politely decline but she’d heard of me through a mutual acquaintance whose opinion I trust and I’d enjoyed her Orange Prize longlisted Peripheral Vision, still on my shelves which says a great deal given the overcrowding issue. So I said ‘yes’ then looked it up and saw the cover. Not my style, I thought, and after long years of reading unappealing books for work I’d vowed not to do that with this blog. What to do? Well, read it for a start and I wouldn’t have written this post if I hadn’t enjoyed it enough to recommend it to you. Phew!

Set not long after the First World War, it opens with Lettie Quick. Proud proselytiser of contraception, she’s a nurse working for Marie Stopes whose work is widely regarded as that of the devil. Lettie is smart, sharp and likes the good things in life but her judgement in men is poor. She knows it’s time to ditch her latest and when she spots a photograph of her childhood home town she decides to set up shop there. She’s soon ensconced with Norah – genteelly poor, virginal and completely ignorant of anything remotely sexual despite her thirty-six years – and not long afterwards has found herself another unsuitable man: Dr Philip Hayward, married, comfortably confident in his entitlement, ‘good at a party, good in a shipwreck’. Lettie has a sideline in discreetly delivering the children of expectant mothers who find themselves in embarrassing situations. Soon she has a rather inconvenient customer in Rae, a movie starlet installed in a crumbling old mansion, once an orphanage. Rae’s story intertwines with Lettie’s and Norah’s in what soon becomes a novel full of secrets and lies.

It took me a little while to get into this book, not because it has a slow start but because it’s busy with storylines running through its often very short chapters. Once I’d got those straight I found it quite gripping, and all the more so as the tension ratchets up. Wrapped up in what becomes a page-turning thriller is a deep concern about women’s reproductive health and sexual ignorance. For Lettie, who knows from bitter experience that it’s so rarely the case, every child should be a planned child. For Norah, even the basic mechanics of sex are a mystery. And for Rae, childbirth and how it can possibly work, is not something to be thought about no matter how imminent the birth of her baby. It’s very much about women – male characters are thin on the ground and, with two honourable exceptions, nasty or clueless. This may sound a little worthy but Ferguson’s skill and clever plotting is such that her novel is completely absorbing. Not a great cover – at least for me – but a brilliant title which proves to have a multitude of interpretations and answers.Those of you alreadyCover image acquainted with Silkhampton will know that this is a sequel to The Midwife’s Daughter but although there are clearly many references to characters in the first novel they’re handled so deftly that you don’t need to have read it to enjoy this one. If Aren’t We Sisters? is anything to go by, adapted for TV they’d both fill the Sunday night drama slot beautifully.

There’s particular scene in Aren’t We Sisters? that brought to mind Gabriel Weston’s Dirty Work, a fine novel much overlooked last year. It explores a very different present day dilemma through the experiences of an obstetrician who performs abortions – legally, of course. I’m sure Lettie would have approved despite the ethical questions it poses. How far things have progressed in the years since Marie Stopes was roundly abused on the streets of London.

Quiet by Susan Cain: A vindication

Cover imageI’ve been reading Susan Cain’s Quiet, and feeling much better about myself. In it Cain posits the idea that the modern world is designed to be lived in and run by extroverts. We’re all made to feel we should be out there bouncing around the world, meeting as many people as we can and having lots of fabulous experiences then telling everyone we know all about it. When we’re at work we should be pushing ourselves forward at meetings, shouting our ideas from the rooftops, leaving no room for silence or contemplation. However, as Cain suggests, based on a range of studies, one third to a half of us are introverts. We don’t cope well with constant stimulation but need solitude or quiet time in which to think and replenish our energies. I say ‘us’ because I’m an introvert, albeit a fairly sociable one. The prospect of a party does not fill me with joy, even when I know everyone who’s been invited – I’d far prefer to sit over supper with a few good friends and get stuck into discussion. Cain – a fellow introvert, unsurprisingly – qualifies her thesis with a great deal of research both derived from case studies and hands on. There’s a wonderful description of a weekend course run by that doyenne of management gurus, Tony Robbins, who works up his adoring audience to such an ecstatic pitch that he actually has them jumping onto their chairs and dancing – this would make me want to run screaming towards the nearest exit, I’m sure, but Cain almost feels herself caught up in it. It’s an enjoyable read – enlightening and rather sobering in its conclusion that the skewing of our world towards the extrovert view dismisses the value of the kind of quiet contemplation that might make it better. Quiet makes me proud to be an introvert, and who wouldn’t want to be counted alongside the likes of Rosa Parks whose quiet, determined action brought about enormous social change.

When discussing all this with H – another introvert but one who’s learnt to work the room after attending umpteen academic conferences – I asked him if he thought most readers were introverts to which he replied an emphatic ‘yes’. I tend to agree, although the book trade is a highly sociable, party-orientated bunch of introverts if that’s the case. What do you think? Would you class yourself as an introvert, an extrovert or perhaps an ambivert? Cain is definite that there is such a thing. When it comes down to it, would you rather go to a party or read a book?