Sunday Silence: Nicci French

“After all, you’re a psychiatrist. You’re an expert in people’s dark sides.” 

Sunday Silence is the seventh novel in the Nicci French (husband and wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French ) Frieda Klein series. If you haven’t at least read some of the series, then you don’t want to start with this book. In fact you need to go back to the beginning, to Blue Monday, the first Frieda Klein novel, which introduces the complicated world of our London-based psychotherapist Frieda Klein, and also her arch-nemesis, Dean Reeve.

Sunday Silence

Sunday Silence opens with Frieda’s world becoming (once again) the object of public scrutiny. A body is discovered under the floorboards of her London home, and since Frieda’s house/office has become a crime scene, she finds she must relocate, at least temporarily, to her friend, Reuben’s house.

The prickly Chief Inspector Petra Burge is in charge of the investigation, but the crime pulls Detective Chief Inspector Karlsson, who’s out on leave due to a broken leg, and Constable Yvette Long back into the game. Other returning series characters include: builder Josef (who discovered the body during renovations) and Frieda’s troubled niece, Chloe. It’s always satisfying to reconnect with series characters and see how their lives have progressed. In Reuben’s case, he’s suffering from cancer.

The body is identified as ex-policeman Bruce Stringer who was hired by Frieda to find Dean Reeve, so of course, the finger points towards Dean Reeve as the murderer. Dean Reeve was thought to have committed suicide years earlier, but Frieda has always insisted that he’s still alive. This murder seems to prove that she’s right.

Frieda is as complicated as ever, and as usual, she never reacts as she is expected to react. As the case gains national attention and reporters circle, there’s one scene that takes place during a press conference. She’s been groomed as to how she should behave.

Frieda opened her eyes. “There are psychiatrists who are interested in violence and evil but I’m not one of them. I’m a therapist and I deal with ordinary unhappiness. I don’t have any big theory about Dean Reeve. At a certain point in his life, I just got in the way.”

Months pass, and the furor over the crime dies down, and then attacks begin on people in Frieda’s life. … Frieda, a character full of contradictions, must curse the day she ran into Dean Reeve. And while she says she ‘just got in his way,’ we can’t help but feel that there’s a bit more afoot. It’s a terrible thing to become a psychopath’s object of interest, and the more he understands about his victim, then the more vulnerable that person becomes. Will this page-turner (one of the best of the ones I’ve read in this series) bring a close to the near-invisible cat-and-mouse relationship that’s existed between Frieda and Dean?

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for books about therapists, so I enjoyed this one.

I always thought it was a mistake for Frieda to live AND work in the same place. Just saying…

There’s an eighth book in the series: Day of the Dead scheduled for July 2018 in the US

Cleo also read and enjoyed the book. (UK title: Sunday Morning Coming Down)

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, French Nicci

Painfully Rich:John Pearson

“A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you’re a business failure.”

Author John Pearson’s non fiction account of the Getty family begins with the death of J. Paul Getty. J (Jean) Paul Getty (1892-1976) was worth billions, yet, in life and in death, he was notoriously stingy. There’s the incident of how he installed a pay phone in his mansion and then his long-time faithful servants and employees who had served him faithfully for years “received scant crumbs from America’s richest table.” For all the wealth this man had, it certainly didn’t seem to make him happier, and as the stories of his children and grandchildren unfold, we can see that money didn’t make his life less complicated. J. Paul Getty comes across as an isolated, idiosyncratic man.

Painfully rich

Great wealth is, IMO, a burden, and while we see some wealthy people such as Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos and Bill & Melinda Gates creating foundations with millions of dollars, we get the sense almost immediately that Getty was definitely all about himself.  He had a large number of love affairs and he was married five times. He had five children from four of those marriages. Perhaps you’d think that you’d hit the jackpot if you met and married J. Paul Getty, but after reading this book, I had the sense that for each of Getty’s wives, it just wasn’t their day when they met J. Paul Getty.

His real love was not for women, who were incidental, but for money, which was not. And he had proved himself a faithful and romantic partner during his lifelong love affair with wealth, jealously acquiring it, and making it increase, in massive quantities, across a period of more than sixty years.

His avarice was an incidental aspect of this love. How can one bear to waste the object of one’s adoration?

Author John Pearson takes us back into Getty’s childhood. J. Paul Getty’s parents, Sarah and George, were deeply religious, George had intended to be a schoolmaster, but Sarah, three years his senior, made him promise that he’d go to law school, using her dowry to pay the fees. It’s through J.Paul Getty’s parents that we see the drive and ambition for social improvement, but in their case it was tempered and harnessed by their strict religious beliefs. When J. Paul Getty arrived, his parents had lost a ten year old child to typhoid, and so this late-life son was born to a 40-year-old indulgent mother. Yet even this wasn’t simple:

Paul, though cosseted and protected, had a lonely and loveless childhood. His mother actively discouraged contact with other children from fear of fresh contagion. And while over protective with her son, she was careful not to show him too much love in case she lost him as she had lost his sister.

Years later, Paul told his wife that as a child he was never cuddled-nor did he have a birthday party of a Christmas tree. 

As the Gettys’ wealth grew from oil, the family relocated to Los Angeles. J. Paul Getty showed an early predilection for amorous adventures and could not apply himself to formal higher education. I loved the story of how he set sail to attend Oxford in August 1912 and arrived in November, armed with a letter of introduction from the President of the United States. Exactly what Getty achieved academically is muddied (he says he got a diploma). This period was the root of Getty’s love affair with England–a love affair second only to his love affair with money, and a love affair that lasted far longer than any relationship with a woman.

It took J. Paul Getty’s father putting the squeeze on his dilettante son to turn his son from a man who spent money to a man who made money. And when J. Paul Getty’s mother got a whiff of her son’s misbehaviour (“marital fever,”) and as she saw it, his risky business tactics, she set up the “irrevocable spendthrift trust” in order to protect the “interests of his children against the possible results of his business speculation.” 

The trust sounds like a good idea, and it certainly had its tax advantages. (At one point the author states that J.Paul Getty bragged he never pay more than $500 a year in taxes.) But the trust treated the children from Paul’s various marriages unfairly with unequal division and also stated that the grandchildren would not inherit their share until the last of J. Paul’s sons were dead.

The book details the way J. Paul Getty basically ignored his children as he moved on from marriage to marriage, love affair to love affair, and how then when they were grown, he slotted them into various positions within his empire, creating rivalry and division amongst his sons.

Of course, there’s also space given to the scandals. The eldest son, George, stabbed himself  with a barbecue fork and died of a drug overdose. There’s there’s the hippie period of Eugene and the mysterious death of his second wife. And then of course, there’s the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson, John Paul Getty III. His kidnappers underestimated his grandfather’s stinginess

I have fourteen grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, I’ll have fourteen kidnapped grandchildren.

The kidnappers sent Paul’s ear to his mother, and negotiations for a $3 million ransom gelled with Paul’s grandfather kicking in a loan of $800,000 to his son to be repaid at 4% interest.

Painfully Rich conveys the idea that Getty’s fortune served as a curse on the family. Who wouldn’t want billions, and yet with the Gettys, it came with a price. But one final thing… J. Paul Getty can’t have been all bad. Mention is made of the Getty Museum, and I’ve been there. It’s fantastic and if you’ve never been and you get a chance, go.

Review copy

 

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Just What Kind of Mother Are You?: Paula Daly

So I’m back for my third Paula Daly novel. I thoroughly enjoyed The Mistake I Made for its bold voice, but The Trophy Child didn’t quite get my attention in the same way.  Just What Kind of  Mother Are You? has been lingering in one of my TBR stacks and for some reason, it was the sort of book I needed to read over the New Year.

Just what kind of mother are you

The book is set in the Lake District–a place where the real estate values make affordable housing difficult, but it’s also an area that attracts the well-to-do.

Gone are the days of the cheap and cheerful B&Bs, the fifteen-quid-a-nighters, including a full cooked breakfast. That doesn’t exist any more. The Lakes have a different clientele now. The walkers, hikers and outdoorsy types still frequent, but the place caters more for the country-retreat brigade. They want marble-tiled bathrooms as big as Joanne’s house. They want Michelin-starred restaurants. They want midnight cruises with pink champagne.

Lisa Kallisto is a working mother-of-three, a woman who runs a local animal rescue (more of that later). The novel opens with a scene depicting her harried life, so it’s easy to understand how some things just slip out of her grasp. Her daughter Sally had arranged a sleepover with friend, Lucinda, but then Sally cancelled at the last minute. Lisa failed to follow through on communication, so when Lucinda is reported missing the next day, some of the blame falls on Lisa’s shoulders.

Scenes of Lisa’s chaotic household are contrasted with a dinner party that took place months earlier at the home of Lucinda’s family: Guy and Kate Riverty. There’s a huge class divide which is embarrassingly clear from the time Guy opens the door and glances at Lisa and husband Joe’s clothes. And Kate’s bitchy sister, Alexa makes sure that the class difference is rubbed into Lisa’s nose.

But let’s get back to Lucinda’s disappearance. This is the second teenage girl to go missing (the first was taken and then later dumped still alive), and even as DS Joanne Aspinall searches for Lucinda, a third girl goes missing….

This is a pageturner. Part of the narrative is told by Lisa in the first person, and then sections concern Joanne (a very compelling police character) and the investigation. Small sections are told by the perv, and these brief sections included a bit more info than I wanted to know.

Anyway…

Lisa’s voice is compelling and drives the action forward. Some of that action occurs at the animal shelter, and also there’s a scene when Lisa makes a house call to rescue cats from a hoarder. I don’t know how Paula Daly gathered the information to create these scenes, but in my unpleasant experience, Paula Daly nailed the commodification of animals perfectly.  But the story is primarily  about the kidnap and rape of teenage girls who are being hunted by a predator who lives somewhere in the Lake District and moves freely, using his charm and looks to prey on the naive. There’s a subtext about appearances and how a good front can cover so much unhappiness:

It’s a strange thing to see these people’s lives displayed in this way, a hidden insight into the real workings of the family, but I suppose that’s what happens after a catastrophic event such as a child going missing. Or an overdose. The layers of respectability and properness are removed and, in an attempt to get to the truth, the family is stripped bare. Left exposed for all to see.

The ending was wrapped up a little too quickly, but I did not guess the outcome of the story. While I thought Joe’s reaction to something he’s told by Alexa (no spoilers here) was a little unbelievable, overall if you are looking for an absorbing crime read full of nasty people, then this is for you.

Cleo’s review

TBR challenge

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Filed under Daly Paula, Fiction

Death of Anton: Alan Melville (1936)

“When the circus was here last year I was away, helping to bury my brother-in-law. It was the only thing I ever did for my brother-in-law that I didn’t immediately regret afterwards.” (Dodo to Minto)

Crime blended with humour can work well–and it can also be a tasteless disaster. Rest easy crime fans, Alan Melville’s Death of Anton from British Library Crime Classics is a delight.

Death of anton

As the cover indicates, this is a novel that focuses on a circus– Joseph Carey’s World-Famous Circus and Menagerie to be precise, which arrives in town for a number of performances. Also in town is Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Minto who is dealing with family problems (namely a younger sister with a penchant for trouble who insists on marrying a gormless vacuum cleaner salesman).

Detective Inspector Minto strikes up a conversation with a man in the hotel dining room, and the man, who is the circus clown Dodo, mentions, before he realizes that he’s confiding in a Scotland Yard police detective, that the circus is a hotbed of crime:

No, Mr Minto, if it’s crime you’re after. Carey’s is the place for it. Theft, immorality, blackmail-you’ll find all the pretties there.

This incident turns out to be significant when the circus lion tamer, Anton, is found dead in the lion cage. First appearances indicate that he was mauled to death, but in reality, he’s been murdered, and someone’s made a clumsy attempt to cover up the crime.

Minto becomes an instant fan of the circus, and when he’s also befriended by some of the circus workers, naturally he becomes embroiled in solving the crime. There’s no shortage of suspects. Scraping away the facade of the circus as some sort of ‘family,’ we see that there was some funny business between Anton and the womanizing owner, Joseph Carey who makes many enemies through his “amorous adventures.” Anton stirred the jealousy of a another circus performer, and there’s also Anton’s ex-partner, Miller, who was kicked out of the lion act. Before Anton’s murder, there’s a wonderful section which details Anton’s performance in the ring with the tigers, and the tension and very real threat of violence is well conveyed. Circus life may be non-traditional, but it’s also portrayed as slightly claustrophobic, distilled into a microcosm, full of rivalries and tensions. The married trapeze artists, Loretta and Lorimer are perfect examples of this; husband and wife squabble over her behaviour, and whereas an ‘ordinary couple’ might stew in silent rage, we see how trust is so important when you are swinging, passing from one trapeze bar to another, 100s of feet up in the air without a net below.  ‘Mistakes’ in timing are fatal, so trapeze performers need marital bliss or risk death.

The delight here comes in the humour, and we see the dynamics of the Minto family set within the construct of the crime. Early on in the novel, the murderer confesses to Detective Inspector Minto’s brother who is a priest. Father Minto won’t reveal the confessor and DS Minto wishes that his brother “had stuck to his original idea of becoming an engine driver.” 

I knew very early in this novel that I was going to love it. Here’s Minto questioning Mr. Carey

“What did you find?” asked Mr. Carey. He seemed a little worried about this.

“Never mind. And stop asking me questions. It’s most disconcerting. I’ve lost the place now–where were we? Oh yes. Anton, for the third and last time, was killed during the party–probably between midnight and one-thirty. So that anyone who wasn’t at the party at that time is under suspicion. Clark Gable, for instance. The Emir of Transjordania, for example. Or the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Or you… You left the party about half past twelve, didn’t you? You’d any amount of time to do it. Much more time than Mr. Gable or the Emir of Transjordania. In fact I think we can safely wipe them out. I’m not so sure about the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. He might have been addressing a meeting in the district, and nipped over and done it.”

I follow several other crime bloggers and they all reviewed this novel enthusiastically too, so I’d say if you are at all interested in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction or British Library Crime Classics, give this one a go.

Cross Examining Crime

The Invisible Event

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

(I thought Catholic priests were required to report crimes as serious as murder so I looked it up and apparently they aren’t. They keep quiet about child abuse, so why was I surprised.)

Finally for animal lovers, the tigers don’t fare well, and reading the book was a painful reminder about the lives of some of the animals (and an argument for the closing of all animal acts.)

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Melville Alan

Uncle Paul: Celia Fremlin (1959)

Three sisters under pressure and the vagaries of love and marriage are under examination in Celia Fremlin’s novel, Uncle Paul. Meg is the main character here, and when the novel opens, she receives a telegram from her sister Isabel regarding their older half-sister, Mildred. Isabel is on holiday in Southcliffe with her new-ish husband and her sons from a previous marriage. Mildred, the most troubled sister of the three, is also on holiday, but in Mildred’s case, she’s left her current husband (yet again) and Isabel is worried.

Uncle paul

So it’s Meg to the rescue, but first she asks for advice from her boyfriend Freddie (an Oscar Wilde-ish character who lounges around in a scarlet silk dressing gown and who is the book’s greatest character):

“Quarrel with them,” came the instructions down the wire, decisively. “It’s the only way with families. Quarrel with them now, while you’re still young. If you leave it till you’re older, you’ll find that you owe them all so much money that you can’t afford to. So quarrel, girl, quarrel for your life! And then come round and have a drink. In about half an hour.”

Meg packs up and goes to join Isabel at the seaside. Isabel and her sons are holed up in the grotty family caravan, and Isabel’s hubbie…. well he’s nowhere in sight.

As for Mildred, she booked a holiday rental, a remote cottage which happens to be the same place she stayed 15 years earlier on her honeymoon with Uncle Paul. But the honeymoon went horribly wrong. Paul went to prison, and Mildred went on with her life. Staying at the cottage again brings back painful memories for Mildred, but there’s something else afoot. Has Paul returned and does he seek revenge?

Uncle Paul is a slow burn novel with fear, suspicion and hysteria built slowly, so don’t expect a page-turner. Meg is the sensible, most solid sister, Isabel is scattered and nervous, and Mildred, with her tendency towards drama and self-involvement, is the most unstable of the three. At first, Meg dismisses Mildred’s concerns as yet another play for attention, but after spending a night in the cottage, Meg has cause for alarm.

Author Celia Fremlin juxtaposes the simple, sometimes tedious activities of the day (sitting in the hotel with other guests and playing on the sand with the children) with the nameless fear that awaits in the night. The plot emphasizes how suspicion can undermine even the strongest bonds, and that concern can easily grow into hysteria. There are so many weird things going on in the lives of these sisters; Isabel seems overly anxious about her husband’s imminent arrival, and Meg even begins to question who Freddie really is.

Uncle Paul, a Woman in Peril novel, is a precursor to the extremely popular Domestic Thrillers of today–the books where wives start to question who their husbands really are. Uncle Paul’s strength is its characterizations. I was impressed by how women dominant this story, and how the men, for the most part, are almost entirely absent. There’s some wonderful humour here especially when author Celia Fremlin dabbles with hotel life, the precocious child Cedric and the dapper Captain Cockerill.

I’ll be reading more from this author.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Fremlin Celia

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018

AWWBadge

I don’t often participate in blog challenges, but I’m plunging into the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve signed up to read and review six books for 2018.

In 2017, I read 8 books by Australian authors –7 by women:

Black Teeth: Zane Lovitt

A Loving, Faithful Animal: Josephine Rowe

The Puzzleheaded Girl: Christina Stead

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts: Toni Jordan

The Newspaper of Claremont Street: Elizabeth Jolley

My Last Confession: Helen Fitzgerald

The Dyehouse: Mena Calthorpe

A Little Tea, A little Chat: Christina Stead.

The first Australian book I ever read (I think) was Joan Lindsey’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. It took a while to sink in, but over time I realized that while I was hungry for Australian film and would actively seek out new titles, I was doing NOTHING to find and read Australian books. I also reasoned that since I loved this country’s films, I’d probably love their books too. Plus somewhere, in an alternate universe, I am an Australian. Dad took that trip to Australia House, but Mum nixed it… what could have been?…

But it’s very difficult to break into a country’s books (harder if there’s another language involved) but this is where Text publishing and fellow bloggers enter the picture. Text publishing has brought many wonderful Australian titles to the N. American market, and now I follow Gummie over at Whispering Gums  and Lisa at ANZLitlovers for tips. Lisa and Gummie: if you ever falter and wonder if you’re wasting your time blogging, be assured that you are not.

I also follow the blog of a genuine Australian writer Gert Loveday 

So I’m in for the count. Who will I read? Haven’t made my mind up yet but probably some Helen Garner for one.

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In the Fall They Come Back: Robert Bausch

“Every choice is a step into the moral arena.”

I wasn’t really ready for another book set in a private school, but since In The Fall They Come Back came from the mind of American author Robert Bausch, I decided to take the plunge. Told in retrospect by Ben Jameson, who is now, twenty years later, a lawyer, this is the tale of two years spent teaching English to high school students. Freshly graduated, Ben needs “an emergency job” and needs money so that he can “save up for bigger and better things.”  He takes the job teaching in Virginia at Glenn Acres Preparatory School, and for Ben, he admits even decades later, these two years “changed the world for me in ways I’m still contemplating.” The story examines the boundaries between teacher and student–when caring goes overboard and involvement becomes entanglement. I have a feeling that teachers who read this may identity (and wince) with some of the scenarios here as our (then) idealistic narrator makes some formidable errors.

This is a story about caring a little too much; or maybe about not caring enough. I really don’t know which.

It’s 1985 Ben is just 25 years old and lives with his extremely attractive girlfriend, Annie when he’s hired by the indomitable owner/headmistress of Glenn Acres, Mrs Creighton. The idiosyncratic nature of the school is immediately made clear through Mrs. Creighton’s behaviour with her dogs. They are locked up in her office at night and then the following morning, Mrs Creighton cleans up their poop. Only an owner could do this, and while this seems like a small observation, it’s indicative of how Mrs Creighton runs her school.

In the Fall they come back

Ben is hired on the spot with the caveat that he read his students’ journal pages: the pages that are supposed to be private and unread. He’s supposed to report anything troubling back to Mrs Creighton. Of course, this rings alarm bells for the reader, but Ben is young, needs a job, and is also inexperienced when it comes to employment.

It doesn’t take long for Ben to begin to wonder how “anybody could be a teacher for his whole life.” He also details the monumental burden of reading thousands of pages of student writing a week (a conservative estimate is 1,250 a week). So it’s not long before Ben finds himself not reading everything and making generalized comments in the margins. Ben forms a close relationship with a much older teacher, Professor Bible, and together they compare concerns about student George Meeker who bears the brunt of his father’s misplaced conceptions of masculinity.

Ben isn’t a sloucher; he genuinely wants to get his students involved, and he embarks on almost suicidal missions to ‘awaken’ his students’ moral consciences. He introduces the subject of Hitler and the Holocaust and then later, he invites the students to write about God.

While Ben’s choices make ‘sense’ as he explains them through his narratives, the reader also understands that Ben is treading on thin ice. According to Annie, who understands Ben all too well, he has a “Christ Complex,” and is deliberately placing “little traps” for himself by introducing such controversial subjects into the curriculum. Of course, Ben protests these accusations, but Annie is onto something as it turns out, and for this reader, it’s clear that Ben’s idealism contains a streak of subconscious self-sabotage when it comes to imagining teaching as a life long career.  It’s also clear that something is going to go horribly wrong….

Bausch tells us that what happens is based on a “true story,” and I believe it. There’s the sense of lingering pain in the tragedy that takes place, and the novel’s strength lies in the sincerity of the narrative voice. The intriguing and paradoxical thing here is while the narrative voice is sincere, it isn’t always honest. Take Ben’s comments, for example, about Annie who is also “smirking.” Yes, Ben wants to ‘open’ students’ mind with the subject of the Holocaust, but that also allows him to sit and watch films in the classroom for hours on end. And then there’s the beautiful Leslie, and while Ben professes to have no sexual feelings for her whatsoever, he certainly crosses more than one line in this relationship.

Ultimately, the novel wrestles with moral questions regarding the teacher’s role in student lives. Mrs Creighton sets Ben on a disastrous mission when she asks him to read the students’ private journals. Where is the cut-off when it comes to involvement and concerns? Over the novel, there lingers the sense that still, twenty years later, Ben is attempting to justify his actions, and while this justification fails, perhaps this is a stronger novel because of Ben’s failure to convince the reader and himself.

Review copy

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Filed under Bausch Richard, Bausch Robert, Fiction

2017: It’s a Wrap

One station awayCatalina

Before I sat down to write this post, I briefly thought about the past year in reading. I had a feeling that it had been, to quote Frank Sinatra, “a very good year,” and I also thought that it was probably going to be harder to pick my favourite books.

I was right.

Catalina by Liska Jacobs

This is the story of a self-destructive young woman who flees New York and returns home to California. Connecting with old friends, Elsa pops pills, drinks too much and generally wrecks everything around her.

One Station Away: Olaf Olafsson

A neurologist whose research focuses on MRI studies of patients in vegetative states wrestles with questions of subconscious, the conscious, denial and avoidance.

The Done Thing: Tracy Manaster

A novel that explores our darkest behaviours. After her sister is murdered by her husband, Lida adopts her niece, Pamela. Now decades later, as the day of the scheduled execution nears, Lida assumes an internet identity to connect with her brother-in-law who’s on Death Row.

The Arrangement: Sarah Dunn

A young married couple, feeling trapped (and bored) by life and with middle age on the horizon decide to try an experiment and give each other carte blanche when it comes to extra marital relationships. What could possibly go wrong???? I enjoyed this one very much indeed, so special thanks to author Sarah Dunn for making me laugh out loud.

The Confusion of Languages: Siobhan Fallon

This novel has a very unusual setting–the US ex-pat community in Jordan. The novel examines the relationships between two very different cultures through two married couples who are forced, by proximity, into a pseudo friendship. While we are expected to modify our behaviour in a different country, do we also modify our morality?

A Lovely Way to Burn: Louise Welsh

Ok, so an Apocalypse novel–not normally a genre I care much for, but I LOVED this novel.

The House of Paper: Carlos María Dominguez

A cautionary tale for any book lover.  This a short, playful tale which tells the story of the ultimate book lover, a man who bought so many books, they destroyed his life.

The Blinds: Adam Sternbergh

This one has to be the most unusual premise I read this year. The novel concerns an experimental witness protection programme out in the middle of nowhere. The residents, who’ve been accused and convicted of the most heinous crimes, agree to have their memories wiped and live out their days in this ad-hoc, miserable, primitive western-style town. Oh but wait … someone is murdering residents.

The Newspaper of Claremont Street: Elizabeth Jolley

I love Elizabeth Jolley’s dark sense of humour. This is the story of a hard-working charwoman who plans to retire to the country. And nothing is going to get in the way of her plans.

The Executioner Weeps: Frédéric Dard

Dard has been a relatively new find for me. In this short novel, a man finds a woman, in mysterious circumstances, who is suffering for anemia. Morally, he becomes obligated to help her and discover her identity.

The Locals: Jonathan Dee

A post 9-11 state-of-the-nation novel which explores the unity and then the divisions within North America. A big, bold novel.

But A Short to Time to Live: James Hadley Chase

A short noir novel with a femme fatale and more than one desperate character

Hotel du Lac

I could call 2017 the year of Anita Brookner. I read 9 of her novels this year, and stopped myself from going any further in order to save some titles for the future.

This year, I didn’t use categories. I just picked the books that have stayed with me–the ones that I remember the most. As I look over the list, one thing strikes me: I prefer books about people behaving badly, but this isn’t news.

Disclaimer: These are the best books that I read this year. I’m sure I missed many other great books, but such is life.

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Filed under Brookner Anita, Chase James Hadley, Dard Frédéric, Dee Jonathan, Dunn Sarah, Fallon Siobhan, Fiction, Jacobs Liska, Manaster Tracy, Olafsson Olaf, Sternbergh Adam, Welsh Louise

One Station Away: Olaf Olafsson

“But the brain is a maze, made up of so many parts, so much that is mysterious.”

Icelandic author Olaf Olafsson’s novel,  One Station Away arrived at the end of an excellent reading year, and although the competition is tough, this incredibly rich, complex novel easily makes my best-of-year-list. This is the story of a British neurologist, a transplant to New York, whose complex relationships with the women in his life challenge his notions of perception and delusion.

One station away

Neurologist Magnus Colin Conyngham  works in Cold Harbor Connecticut, part of a team of doctors researching brain activity on patients in a vegetative state being kept alive on ventilators. The American team shares research with similar teams in Cambridge and France, and the three teams follow the same procedure: patients are placed in MRI scanners and asked to imagine playing tennis and then walking through their homes. Each of these mental activities light up different areas of the brain, so, in theory, doctors can communicate with vegetative, yet conscious, patients and with some simple training patients can give answers to yes/no questions.

If you think this is far-fetched, then check this out. 

(Ads will pop up you have to close)

When the novel opens, Magnus is finding it hard to concentrate on his research which hasn’t been that successful, and his inability to concentrate can be explained by the sudden death of his Argentinean lover, dancer Malena, a warm and yet strangely remote woman. Magnus is sliding into an abyss when two things happen: his father, Vincent, asks Magnus to return to England for his mother’s 70th birthday, and a new patient arrives: a young, unidentified woman with significant head injuries who was left abandoned at the site of a horrendous motorcycle accident.

Magnus returns home reluctantly, and we gradually learn about his relationship with his parents. His mother Margaret, is a pianist, who, according to herself, and her devoted, single-minded husband, has been slighted and overlooked in her career. Magnus, who was the unwanted child of a neurotic, self-focused woman (according to his mother, he’s partly to blame for her failed career) has moved on from his parents and their pathological scene building of the thwarted monumental musical talent, but still, he finds it trying to be in their toxic, delusional company.  He worries that he has inherited his mother’s worse traits.

But the fact was, my mother had never fulfilled her potential, or rather, she had never received the recognition which she and Vincent felt she deserved. Many things, and people, were to blame, most notably the cliques controlling the world of classical music behind the scenes, who had systematically prevented her from enjoying the acclaim she was due. It was they who kept her from giving recitals in the most prestigious concert halls, they who wrote disparaging reviews about her in newspapers and magazines, although without being too harsh, for that might arouse suspicion, they who awarded grants to other pianists, not half as good as she, they who took every opportunity to push her side, knowing that she was indomitable and served no one but art, no matter who they were, what position they held or what the consequences might be. 

Magnus’s co-worker, Simone, who’s secretly in love with Magnus, has covered for him in the past, but now she’s very concerned about his behaviour. Magnus’s new patient sparks new life into this doctor who is beginning to question whether or not his research has any purpose, and soon he’s spending hours alone with this mystery  “Jane Doe.”

I sensed it the moment I saw her face. This wasn’t a suspicion or a hunch–it was an absolute certainty. The woman was conscious: she could hear me walking toward the bed, she could feel my presence. I was expecting her to open her eyes at any moment and speak to me. I imagined her voice echoing in my head, her accent when she asked where she was. I even saw her raise her hand and brush away the lock of hair that had fallen across her brow, before turning to me and smiling. 

One Station Away focuses on perceptions and delusions. Events occur which cause Magnus to question everything he thought was true. Is his mother extremely talented? Is she the victim of a thwarted career as she’s argued for decades? And if that’s true, shouldn’t she be treated with more compassion? Sometimes we manage to block out what is right under our noses, but, as the novel argues, we can also delude ourselves into believing what we want. MRIs reveal brain activity but how does that compare to the depths and intricacies of motivation? Olaf Olafsson explores this brilliantly in this incredible novel through Magnus’s relationship with the four women in his life: Malena, his patient, his mother, and Simone.  I cannot praise this book highly enough.

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Olafsson Olaf

Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (1768-1800): Chateaubriand

I’d intended for a long time to read Chateaubriand’s (1768-1848) memoirs, and a new translation from New York Review Books sealed my resolve. But wait… at over 500 pages, this is only a section of his memoirs–the first of four parts, and there I was feeling all proud of myself.

The memoirs start with a 77 year old Chateaubriand writing a preface as he looks over his long life. He talks about being “forced” to sell his memoirs for financial reasons, and he even expresses the idea that he wishes they could be “suppressed.” I’m not an expert on French history, or Chateaubriand, so I can’t tell if his wish for his life to remain private is sincere. But whatever the truth is, these memoirs are a gift to the world. I’m not sure that I would have liked Chateaubriand if we’d met (he mentions at one point that he is “not much interested in wit; it is almost repugnant to me,”) but this man had an incredible life and fortunately kept detailed records of incredible events and journeys.

memoirs from beyond the grave

The memoirs begin somewhat heavily with a history of the aristocratic Chateaubriand family and their family estate at Combourg, Brittany. François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand was the last of ten children, and there’s the sensation as you read the memoirs that he fell into the cracks of family life. While Chateaubriand loved his mother dearly, his strongest relationship was with his sister Lucile. Chateaubriand’s father was a distant, morose figure, but Chateaubriand was a good son and loved his family very much.

Chateaubriand notes his sisters being married off, and loving long solitary walks in the countryside, he begins to feel the first inklings of wanderlust as the family disperses. But the Chateaubriand family have other plans for this tenth child, and he’s intended for a life in the church. Fortunately, his mother offers him a moment to reflect on his future, and instead of the church, Chateaubriand comes up with a “harebrained scheme” to travel to Canada or India. Chateaubriand’s father announces he’s dying, gives him a hundred louis, and basically tells him to get his act together.

The memoirs reach a turning point at this stage. Chateaubriand leaves Combourg and nothing is ever the same again. Of course, we know that the French revolution is on the horizon…

Chateaubriand recalls travels to America, the beginnings of the French revolution, the Reign of Terror, and finally exile in England. While Chateaubriand was a Royalist, he was also a realist and understood the political scene well:

Aristocracy has three successive stages: the age of superiority, the age of privilege, and the age of vanity. Once through with the first, it degenerates into the second, and dies out in the third.

At times the memoirs are not easy reading. Chateaubriand assumes he has an audience who knows what he is talking about. The sections are dated for the time he wrote them, and that adds to some of the confusion. He also mentions many people I’d never heard of (my fault not his) but when I tried to find out more information, there was very little available. The memoirs take flight, however, when Chateaubriand begins his amazing travels.

These memoirs really are an incredible read, so I’m glad that I finally got to them. There’s too much to detail, but the highlights for this reader are Chateaubriand’s brilliant observed moments such as when he visits the castle of Potsdam, the home of King Frederick the Great:

Only one thing held my attention: the hands of a clock stopped at the minute that Frederick expired. I was deceived by the stillness of the image. The hours never suspend their flight; it is not man who stops time, but time who stops man. In the end it matters little what part we have played in life. The brilliance or obscurity of our doctrines, our wealth or poverty, our joy or pain: these things have no effect on the measure of our days. Whether the hand moves around a golden face or a wooden one, whether the dial fills the bezel of a ring or the rose window of a cathedral, the length of the hour is still the same. 

That’s a brilliant quote.

Chateaubriand’s travels in North America are incredible. He lived with various tribes, and slept with various Indian women. He often solicits sympathy from his audience–for example he’s married off to an heiress for her fortune only to discover that she’s not that wealthy after all. Throughout the memoirs, Chateaubriand hears the call of duty to his class–even though, at times, he realises that his class is guilty of folly. I’d never heard of the hearth tax before, but Chateaubriand explains it well.

At one point he sees Marie Antoinette and remarks how pretty she is, but even as he writes this, there’s the shadow of death across the page. There’s a tremendous sense of loss running through the memoirs–loss for the world he knew which disappeared, loss of the family members executed during the revolution, and loss of the past.

Since that day, I have seen Combourg three times. After my father’s death, the family met there in mourning, to divide our inheritance and say our goodbyes. Another time I accompanied my mother to Combourg, when she was busy furnishing the castle for my brother, who was to bring my sister-in-law to live in Brittany. My brother never arrived. Beside his young wife, at the executioner’s hands, he was to receive a very different place to lay his head than the pillow that my mother prepared for him. Finally, I passed through Combourg a third time, on my way to Saint-Malo, before I embarked for America. The castle was abandoned, and I had to spend the night in the steward’s house. When, wandering on the Grand Mall, I looked down a dark alley of trees and saw the empty staircase and the closed windows and doors, I felt faint. I dragged myself back to the village and sent for my horses. I left in the middle of the night.

The sections of his adventures in North America are wonderfully contrasted with scenes of the Revolution. Is it possible to get two more dissimilar worlds?  These were two worlds that were both disappearing. At times this reads like an adventure story as he sees a bloodthirsty mob looking for aristocrats or when he flees to England. The memoirs end with Chateaubriand returning from exile. He’s lost everything and arrives “in France with the century.”

I brought back nothing from the land of exile but regrets and dreams. 

Translated by Alex Andriesse

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Filed under Chateaubriand, Non Fiction