Tag Archives: Simon & Schuster

The Hourglass Factory: A rollicking good read

Cover imageSometimes what you need – particularly at this time of the year when the weather’s dire, Christmas jollifications are over and the bills are rolling in – is a rollicking good read. Nothing fancy in the writing department, no phrases to savour and linger over – just a good old-fashioned piece of storytelling with a bit of suspense and some nifty plotting which is what Lucy Ribchester’s The Hourglass Factory delivers with the added interest of a suffragette trapeze artist.

It opens with a moment of high drama as Ebony Diamond launches herself into the Albert Hall just as Prime Minster Asquith begins his speech, unfurling the distinctive women’s suffrage banner behind her. Surely worthy of grabbing every headline worldwide given the new Reuters machines spewing out stories as soon as their reporters can type them but she’s pipped to the post by an even more dramatic event. The story’s picked up six months later in November 1912 when Frankie – trouser-clad, cigarette-smoking girl reporter – is sent off to take a portrait of Ebony for the London Evening Gazette, tracking her down to Olivier Smythe’s, a Mayfair corsetier, where she finds her quarry in no mood to have her picture taken. When a woman is found murdered later that day wearing a tightly-laced corset, it seems that Ebony’s efforts for women’s suffrage have been brought to an abrupt end. Then another body is discovered, also corset-laced. Soon Frankie’s caught up in mystery which seems to uncover more questions than answers – as all the best mysteries do – aided and abetted by young Liam and Milly, a snake-charming dancer with a noble pedigree.

The Hourglass Factory romps along, picking up corset fetishists, an ex-courtesan, men in tiger suits, mad aristos and a policeman with a heart of gold along the way. Clues are spilled – there’s an ingenious bit of plotting with playing cards and gunpowder – and the plot thickens nicely, all coming together in a suitably frenetic, white-knuckle finale. It’s all a great deal of fun but there’s much to enlighten if you’re interested in the women’s suffrage movement, all neatly stitched into the story with an historical note at the end. Altogether, a very enjoyable piece of escapism and cheers to Simon & Schuster for publishing it in paperback original format, nicely affordable despite the Christmas hole in readers’ pockets.

It always comes as a shock to me whenever I read anything about women’s suffrage to remember that universal suffrage was not enacted until 1928 – only women over thirty who fulfilled a property requirement were granted the vote in 1918 which narrowed the field down considerably. My mother made sure I knew that votes for women were hard-won and that I should always use mine, and I do even if it’s to spoil it which I’ve only resorted to once. The thing is, if you don’t vote you can’t really complain about the things our politicians get up to.

Books to Look Out for in January 2015

I know you’ve all get your minds on Christmas but I thought it might be time for a little taster of what 2015 has to offer before we get overdosed on carols and all that malarkey. It’s a good month, too. No huge names leap out for me but there are several interesting looking treats nevertheless.

Cover imageI’ll start with the appropriately named debut, The Winter War,  by Finland’s answer to Jonathan Franzen according to its publishers but I’m not letting that put me off. Middle class Helsinki couple Max and Katriina appear to have a perfect life but as we all know that can’t be true. Katriina no longer loves Max, their adult daughters both have problems and as he nears his sixtieth birthday, Max strides off into dangerous territory. It’s compared to ‘a big, contemporary, humane American novel, but with a distinctly Scandinavian edge’ which sounds just the ticket to me.

Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is about Bjorn (bit of a Scandi theme going on here, I know) a discontented bureaucrat who finds a secret room in his office in which he feels wonderfully empowered, performing to the exacting standards demanded by the Authority with ease. Everyone else, however, denies its existence. It’s an intriguing idea which could easily backfire but it sounds worth a try.

I remember reading Emily Woof’s first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty, and not getting on with it very well but I like the sound of The Lightning Tree enough to give her another try. Set in Newcastle in the mid-1980s it’s about Ursula, raised on big ideas and keen to start the adventure of adult life, and Jerry, a class warrior with an altogether different sort of upbringing, who fall in love with each other. She heads off to India while he goes to Oxford – will their relationship survive? Recommended for fans of both The Line of Beauty and The Marriage Plot, – two very different novels, make of that what you will – it’s described as ‘lyrical and funny’.

Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is another title that could go either way. Jonathan Franzen describes it as ‘hilarious…cracklingly intelligent…and original in every sentence’, apparently, but as you may have noticed I’m not a fan of Mr Franzen. It sounds a little like an early Paul Auster which is where the attractions lies for me. Narrated by Ben, a writer who has just secured a big advance after the ecstatic reception of his first novel and is now writing his second narrated by ‘Ben’, 10:04 ‘charts an exhilarating course through the contemporary landscape of sex, friendship, memory, art and politics’, apparently. Not lacking in ambition, then.

Let’s end with what I hope will be a highly entertaining nineteenth-century romp, the wonderfully named LucyThe Hourglass Factory Ribchester’s debut  The Hourglass Factory, which takes us to the circus with the equally wonderfully named Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist, tiger tamer and suffragette, who’s stage getup includes the tightest laced corset you’ve ever seen and certainly wouldn’t want to experience. When Ebony disappears mid-performance, intrepid girl reporter Frankie George – fascinated with all things circus-related – is determined to find out what’s happened to her. Sounds like a rip-roaring tale, just the thing for fireside reading.

That’s it for January books. As ever a click on a title will reveal more information at Waterstones website and if you want to know what I’m hoping for in my Christmas stocking just click here.

A Separate Peace: Hard lessons in life

Cover imageThis is the second American classic I’ve read in a month; the third if we’re counting discrete works rather than volumes. There must be something in the publishing air. This one’s very different from Nella Larsens’s Quicksand and Passing which explore race and identity in the 1920s in a very personal way. Written in 1959, John Knowles’ novel is set in a New England boarding school during the Second World War.

Gene, our narrator, has come back to Devon School fifteen years after he left. It’s not a reunion, nor is it the kind of visit when you’re held up as an example to the current inmates – he has an urgent need to revisit the site of events which have left an indelible mark on him. His story of the summer of 1943 and the events that ensue from it is set against the background of America at war. Gene and Phineas are unlikely roommates: Gene is the A-student both flattered and awed by the friendship of the athletic, impulsive and charismatic Phineas. Phineas involves the slightly nerdy Gene in all his shenanigans – inventing ridiculous games, engaging the summer school teachers in surprising conversations, seemingly unaware of the impression his impulsive behaviour has on anyone else. The dark turn events take during – and after – the ‘gypsy summer’ when the usual rules are barely enforced or flagrantly flouted, is the crux of this novel but their full shocking extent is not revealed until the final few pages.

Knowles paints a picture of an idyllic New England summer in which only a few shortages and the knowledge that ‘seniors’, just a year older than Gene and Phineas, have gone to war impinge. He tells his story in simple direct language, powerfully summoning up the claustrophobia of a small institution which thinks itself important: personalities which might otherwise be diminished in the outside world loom dangerously large. Gene’s insecurity and his failure to understand Phineas are deftly drawn – the schoolboy’s impression of the excitement of war and its reality powerfully conveyed. The final chapters of the novel are extraordinarily tense as Gene begins to understand the consequences of his misunderstanding. It’s a slim book but it packs quite a punch.

House of Ashes: ‘Power is Love’

House of AshesI’ve long been a fan of Monique Roffey’s novels – all of them very different, from the slightly fantastical Sun Dog to Archipelago with its lovely descriptions of the natural world. House of Ashes is no exception – a powerfully political novel which makes some cogent points while maintaining the pace of a page-turner.

Bookish and diffident, Ashes seems an unlikely revolutionary but the brother he idolised was shot dead for fomenting unrest on the corrupt little island of Sans Amen, seemingly unable to shake off the remnants of British colonialism. Their nights as boys spent whispering about their dreams for a New Society have left him uncritical of the Leader and his plans to overthrow the government. One Wednesday, Ashes and his motley band of ‘brothers’ storm the House of Power while the Leader makes for the TV station. Shots are fired, a woman dies inside the chamber but the Prime Minster remains defiant ordering the Army to attack. Soon the hostage-takers are being held hostage while the island’s people run riot, looting whatever comes to hand rather than joining in the revolutionary fervour as the ‘brothers’ had expected. Five days of siege ensue in which both sides of the divide begin to see things differently.

Roffey narrates her novel through the voices of Ashes and Aspasia Garland, one of only two women cabinet members. Ashes is horrified by what he sees – his books of political theory have not prepared him for bloodshed, nor the ineptitude of his comrades. His respect for the politicians who conduct themselves with as much dignity as they can muster changes his view of them. In her turn, Aspasia begins to feel that she has some responsibility for events understanding that poverty, ignorance and anger are at the root of these street boys’ actions, boys who remind her of her son. Her political life has been devoted to leatherback turtles rather than the island’s children failed by successive corrupt governments who have turned a blind eye to burgeoning crime. The novel’s last section takes Breeze, one of those boys who played a significant part in the botched coup, and picks up his life twenty-three years later. Redemption may be possible but at a price.

Written in simple direct language making it all the more powerful, House of Ashes is rooted in the Caribbean – it’s based loosely on the failed 1990 coup in Trinidad and Tobago – but in many ways it could be anywhere in which poverty, lack of education and corruption provide rich pickings for older men with enough charisma to scoop up angry young boys ripe for conversion to any cause which appears to offer them a future. Its theme of power – its use and misuse – is universal and in that respect it makes uncomfortable reading.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A rattling good yarn

Cover imageIf you fancy a good old-fashioned piece of storytelling with beauty, the beast, freaks of nature, love stories, redemption and a faithful, loving pit bull who doesn’t know how to fight I have just the book for you. Alice Hoffman’s new novel has all this plus a hefty helping of suspense. What’s not to like? I have to admit that I’d stopped reading Hoffman’s novels some time ago. I’d read and enjoyed Turtle Moon, sliding her into that smalltown American novel pigeonhole alongside Anne Tyler, but there was a strand of the fantastical in her later books that was a shade too whimsical for me. Very little of that in The Museum of Extraordinary Things set in 1911 against the backdrop of Coney Island, its amusement parks and sideshows.

Coralie is the daughter of Professor Sardie, the proprietor of the eponymous museum always on the lookout for new attractions and not above visiting the morgue, eyeing up deformed children and displaying his own daughter tricked out as a mermaid. Times are hard: Dreamland, his hated rival, is expanding and Sardie is busy cooking up ideas to lure the punters in, most of them unsavoury. One such scheme involves Coralie swimming far out into the Hudson at night, painted to resemble a monster in the hope of spreading rumours which Sardie can capitalise on as he frantically searches for an exhibit he can bill as the Hudson Mystery. On one of these nocturnal swims, Coralie sees a young man – a photographer setting up his equipment on the beach. This is Eddie, née Ezekiel, who has turned his back on his Jewish Orthodox upbringing and his grieving father whose apparent suicide attempt disgusts him. The narratives of these two crisscross in a string of coincidences as they each tell their stories eventually coming together in an edge-of-your-seat storyline which takes in political corruption, unions and the tragic inferno of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory which consumed many lives thanks to its locked doors.

It’s a masterclass in storytelling: a love story peopled with colourful characters vividly drawn, replete with period detail and with a breathlessly suspenseful ending. Hoffman’s descriptions are vibrant. She deftly summons up both the grinding poverty of early twentieth-century Brooklyn and the tawdry sordidness of Sardie’s schemes. At times it feels almost Dickensian but there are elements of the fairy tale, too, although whimsy is avoided, thankfully. As, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 1911Hoffman points out in her acknowledgements, there’s a strong historical basis to her book: both Dreamland and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burnt down in 1911 with a terrible loss of life. It would make a wonderful film, or perhaps a TV series – a neat combination of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Carnvàle without the wackier bits. Hugely enjoyable and thoroughly recommended.

It was my weakness for the sideshow/circus backdrop in fiction and film that got me reading Alice Hoffman again: Kevin Baker’s Dreamland, Robert Hough’s The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and, of course, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus have all hit the spot for me. I already have a copy of Will Davis’s The Trapeze Artist waiting to be read but if you have any recommendations for novels I may have missed I’d be more than happy to hear them.

The lovely people over at Shiny New Books have added a short interview with Alice Hoffman to their website in which she not only talks about The Museum of Extraordinary Things but spills the beans on what she’s working on now. Well worth a look.

The Burgess Boys: A Baileys contender

Being a bit of an Elizabeth Strout fan, I was delighted to see her latest novel long listed for Baileys PrizeCover image last week. The Pulitzer-prize winning Olive Kitteridge was greatly admired in the States but I’m not sure it made much of an impression here in the UK. She writes the sort of quietly understated, astutely observed novels about everyday life and how we live it that remind me of Alice Munro, Carol Shields and Alice McDermott. The Burgess Boys is no exception. It tells the story of the eponymous brothers: Jim, a hot-shot lawyer, and the anxious Bob, employed in a far more lowly position, adoring of his arrogant, bullying brother. Both live in New York and see each other regularly thanks mostly to Jim’s wife Helen, fond of Bob and missing her children who’ve all left home. They rarely if ever see Susan, Bob’s twin, who still lives in Shirley Falls where the three of them grew up. Divorced, raising a son and almost perpetually angry, Susan carps about the burgeoning Somali population which has found its way to Maine where no one has much of an idea of where they’ve come from or what they’re doing there. A frantic phone call from Susan sets in train a series of events that changes all their lives – Zachery has thrown a half-frozen pig’s head into the Somalis’ mosque and may find himself charged with a hate crime.

Strout explores the Burgess family and how they came to be who they are through the people who make up their immediate world – Pam, Bob’s ex-wife with whom he is still close friends; Helen, Jim’s slightly complacent, entitled yet well-meaning wife and Mrs Drinkwater, Susan’s elderly lodger who has listened worriedly to Zach’s lonely tears from her room. She’s a master of ‘show don’t tell’, conveying a great deal with the lightest of brushstrokes making her acute social observation – often spiced with a gentle humour – all the more striking. Bob continues to idolise his hectoring older brother who greets him as ‘slobdog’ as if it’s a term of endearment until Jim makes a startling revelation. Jim continues to live off the glory of his celebrity trial days until it proves useless in protecting his nephew. Helen can’t help feeling it’s all a terrible nuisance interfering with her pleasant if vaguely unsatisfying life while Pam looks at her own privileged life and wonders if it’s the one she should be leading, fantasising about the scientific discoveries she’d hoped to make. All this against the background of the Somali refugees’ plight, many of whom have fled danger and torture only to be met with total, if well-meaning, incomprehension or worse. Just one small gripe – the novel begins with a short prologue narrated by the writer of the Burgess boys’ story and I’m still puzzled as to why. Let me know if you’ve read the novel and have any ideas about it – perhaps I’ve missed something.

Of Love and Other Wars: A different sort of war novel

Cover imageThere’s an awful lot of war around at the moment. Sadly, the real kind is always with us but it seems to be more widespread in fiction than usual, an inevitable result of the First World War centenary I suppose. Having already reviewed Anna Hope’s Wake and Helen Dunmore’s The Lie I’d sworn off war novels for a few months but Sophie Hardach’s Of Love and Other Wars caught my eye. I’d enjoyed her first novel so much that I dodged my own rule – already broken as I’d started Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room which is excellent but I’m sure you’ve read more than enough reviews of that to want another. Hardach’s novel is about the Second rather than the First World War and although, as you’d expect from its title, there are number of love stories running through it, its central theme is unusual: conscience and pacifism.

Beginning in 1937, Hardach’s novel takes her characters up to the day the war in Europe ends in 1945. Paul and Charlie Lamb are Quakers, the sons of a father imprisoned in the First World War for his conscientious objection. One year older than Paul, Charlie is sure of himself and his pacifist beliefs, pressing Peace News on all who will read it but a reluctant Quaker for all that. Paul, less articulate, is more muddled in his thinking and finds his pacifism challenged by Miriam Morningstar, the daughter of his Jewish statistics teacher who is called back to the lab where she worked as a crystallographer decades ago to analyse the effects of the bombing campaigns. Paul and Charlie’s friend Grace works with kindertransport children alongside Max, a Jewish refugee from Vienna who is lodging with the Morningstars. As the war unfolds Hardach explores the moral dilemmas of war and pacifism through these characters and their stories.

If this sounds a little clunky that’s my fault: Hardach’s novel most certainly isn’t. Indeed, she’s a master of subtlety in the ‘show, don’t tell’ tradition. Max gently corrects Grace’s rebuke of his apparently draconian approach to the children’s table manners explaining that he is only trying to do what their parents would have wanted for them. Paul and Charlie each take a different stand, both equally challenging and courageous, while Miriam’s passionate determination to do something for the war effort is later counterbalanced by her mother’s guilt at cheering her brothers off to the last war and her work in this one. It’s a novel with serious themes but it’s also a story well told. Hardach’s characters are vividly real, and her treatment of them compassionate. A box of tissues might come in handy.