Tag Archives: British fiction

Miss Hargreaves: Frank Baker

Some readers may remember the 1985 film Weird Science and its premise that two high school nerds create the ‘perfect woman.’ Weird Science was a hit at the time of its release and is now considered a cult classic. And why not–the film reflects Hollywood’s obsession with high school (high school sexuality) and it’s also a buddy film. And that brings me to Frank Baker’s 1939 novel, Miss Hargreaves. In Weird Science, the two high school teens created, using a computer programme, a sexy, scantily dressed woman. In Miss Hargreaves, Norman Huntley and his friend, Henry create an ancient, indominable, eccentric elderly lady using just their imagination.

It happens like this: Norman and Henry go on holiday to Lusk, a small village in Ireland. They had a “grand month” in spite of the rain, mostly in the countryside around Lusk. One day they decide to visit Lusk church and Norman feels a reluctance to go inside. Unfortunately, the sexton, a man with a squint and a “grave-digging manner” lets them inside the locked church. As the sexton shows Norman and Henry around the church, both young men experience a sort of dread, and as a way of alleviating the mood, they start making up a story about a fictitious woman named Miss Hargreaves. A lively repartee is exchanged between Norman and Henry as they add colourful details about the eccentric Miss Hargreaves whose hobbies include writing poetry and painting watercolours. The merriment continues even after they leave the church and soon the two young men have created a vivid portrait of Miss Hargreaves, along with her pet parrot named Dr. Pepusch and a Bedlington terrier called Sarah. At the apex of the gush of creative joking, Norman dashes off a letter to the fictitious Miss Hargreaves and invites her to stay at his family home in the town of Cornford. And this is when the trouble begins. …

Norman returns home to his family. Oddly, very oddly as it turns out, Norman’s father, an eccentric bookshop owner, finds a book of poems for sale in his shop, and to Norman’s horror, the poems are the work of Miss Hargreaves. The appearance of the book of poems should be a warning of things to come. Imagine his astonishment when Miss Hargreaves arrives–along with her cockatoo and her Bedlington terrier. She is everything that Norman imagined. On one hand, he’s amazed and proud of his creation, but on the other hand, she’s so demanding that she causes a great deal of trouble in Norman’s life.

A shrill, imperious voice had cried, “Porter! Porter! Porter!” Simultaneously the cockatoo, with a sepulchral growl on a low D, stopped singing. By now everybody else had got out. A porter sprang to a first-class carriage and opened the door. With his assistance, slowly, fussily, there emerged an old lady. She was carrying two stick, an umbrella and a large leather handbag. Following her was a fat waddling Belington terrier, attached to a fanciful purple cord.

With no small difficulty, Norman persuades Miss Hargreaves to take a room at the local inn instead of following him home. At the inn, Miss Hargreaves wreaks havoc, demanding food that is not on the menu and buying up vases she thinks are so ugly, they must be destroyed. Norman tries to tell a few people that he ‘made up’ Miss Hargreaves but no one, apart from his completely dotty father, believes him. Henry leaves Norman in the lurch at crucial moments and Norman’s young lady becomes extremely jealous of Miss Hargreaves. Norman finds that he must be very careful what he says about Miss Hargreaves as the slightest thing he adds to her imaginary bio comes true. Sections of the story have a certain frantic energy, but this is in contrast to other sections which are overly wordy. Ultimately this is a romp which explores the power and danger of imagination.

“Calm,” I said, “be calm, Norman. You’ll have her in a straight jacket in no time if you play your cards properly.”

Advertisement

5 Comments

Filed under Baker Frank, Fiction, posts

The Miranda: Geoff Nicholson

It sounded like flattery. I never liked or trusted that.”

In Geoff Nicholson’s novel, The Miranda, Joe, a divorced psychologist whose work in cognitive behavior therapy led to employment with a government agency, buys a house solely for its 100 yard circular pathway. He intends to “act out a script that in some form or other, I’d had in my head for my entire life.[…] I would walk around the world, and I would do it without ever leaving my own yard.” He appears to be removing himself from society, but all of his neighbours begin to pester him in various ways.

Joe is no longer employed but in the not-so-distant past, he started treating torture survivors for PTSD and then that gradually morphed into becoming a torturer who prepped “volunteers” for torture. No pictures, diagrams or slideshows: Joe actually did the torturing.

I won’t go into the precise details of what I did. For one thing, I’m not allowed to, but the fact is, I don’t believe I did anything to the volunteers that would surprise you. I was going to say I did everything you can imagine, but that couldn’t possibly be true. Any of us, even the most innocent and vanilla, can easily imagine forms of torture that are far, far beyond anything that I did, that I was allowed to do, to the volunteers. I stayed within limits. I was constrained by laws and decency, and to an extent by my own inherent squeamishness.

A point came when Joe, after ‘breaking’ volunteer after volunteer “couldn’t stand it any longer,” and he walked away from the job, but it’s the sort of job that gets under the skin. At first he lives in a flophouse motel, but then crawling back from that low point, he decides to buy a house, and that decision grows into a project:

If your garden, by some chance, happened to contain a circular path that was exactly 100 yards long, you would need to walk around it 440,000 times in order to cover a distance equal to the circumference of the earth at the equator. To put it another way, you would need to make 17.6 circuits of your garden path in order to cover a mile. Repeat that 25,000 times and the job would be done. And that was exactly what I intended to do. That was my plan, my grand project.

Joe decides to set a goal of 25 miles for 1000 days, stating that “in other words, my entire journey [around the world] would take just 95 days less than three years.” It is his “grand obsession.” And while Joe spends his days walking, seeking solitude, various annoying neighbors and even the postman find creative ways to pester Joe. Soon he’s employed an eager woman whose bartending ambitions include creating a timeless drink called “The Miranda.” Trouble looms in the form of violent neighbours who move in the rental behind Joe.

In fact, over the next few days, evidence appeared that the new guys were practitioners of various marital arts. An old-school, leather punching bag appeared, hanging from a tree branch, and they set up one of those rubberized torsos on a spring-loaded base that you can kick and punch to your heart’s content and it always bounces back for more, and (probably more important) it never retaliates. There was much shadow boxing and sparring and the whiling of nunchucks. The boy’s training regime seemed undisciplined, though highly enthusiastic, and it required a lot of shouting.

Before long I also noticed that these new inhabitants had spray-painted the abandoned cars in the driveway with various tags, patterns and symbols, and again from what I could see, it appeared the work was more enthusiastic than skilled, though this was by no means my area of expertise. The boys played their music loud, and they owned a number of big, energetic, brutal dogs; about half a dozen of them, somewhere between mutts and monsters.

These new obnoxious neighbours begin a process of intimidation, but they have no idea what they are dealing with.

In general, I’m not one of those people who worries too much about things that haven’t happened yet. Worrying about what might happen strikes me as a waste of time, because absolutely anything might happen and absolutely anything might not. You can’t be prepared for an infinite number of events and outcomes. The skill, as I see it, is not trying to foresee every possible situation in advance, because that’s impossible, but rather be confident that you can handle any situation as and when–and if–it arises.

I laughed and marveled at the way Joe handles his neighbours, the nosy ones and the violent ones. He is, after all, a therapist specializing in cognitive behaviour therapy. Underneath Joe’s grand walking project there’s the idea that this scheme, while admirable, is just a way to pass the time. Joe is waiting for his past to catch up with him. …

In The Miranda, we find the classic elements of Nicholson’s novels: mania, obsessives, collectors, quirky misfit characters and a quest. The novel explores the theme of walking (one of Nicholson’s personal hobbies/obsessions), specifically “walkers who turned their geographical constraints into virtual projects.” Joe describes how Albert Speer “paced out a walking path” at Spandau Prison where he walked seven kilometers a day “virtually” from Berlin to Heidelberg. Later, Speer’s virtual walking goals expanded but he “fretted that any route he chose [to Asia] would involve walking through some dreaded communist countries. He couldn’t face that. Not even in his imagination.”

Joe discusses some famous walkers, walking as therapy, walking as meditation and even compares walking to sex.

Sex and walking are things that some people like to do alone, that some people like to do with just one other person, and that some people like to do in groups of all sizes. Some prefer the company of men while doing it, some prefer the company of women, some are prepared to do it with either. Some will only do it if certain very specific conditions are met. A few require special clothing and equipment. Others are eager to to do it anywhere, any time, in any conditions, at the drop of a hat. A certain number, perhaps a surprisingly large number, really don’t like to do it at all.

Joe’s ex wife and his neighbours find Joe’s project troubling, unsettling and even looney. This witty, entertaining novel mines the idea of neighbours as a special kind of hell. We can’t choose who we live next to, unfortunately, and occasionally neighbours give us insight into our patience (or lack thereof) and what we appreciate and accept as ok behavior. simply to get peace. There’s irony here as Joe knows the intricacies of torture and understands the significance of intimidation and now himself becomes the target of bullying. He craves privacy yet interest in his solo walking in his own back garden makes people curious.

There are several virtual walking sights on the internet. Some cost, some are free, some require membership. Anyway, thanks to The Miranda which will make my best-of-year-list, I have started walking circuits in my back garden.

Virtual walking

5 Comments

Filed under Nicholson, Geoff, posts

First Love: Gwendoline Riley

Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms takes a cold analytical approach to the narrator’s toxic relationships with her parents. Children can’t escape their parents’ mind games until they learn the rules of engagement, and then they should refuse to play. Through shared features, First Love could be considered a tangential novel to My Phantoms. Both novels are narrated by young women, and the mothers in both novels share characteristics and geographic locations. The mothers in these two novels could be the same person, seen through a less critical eye in First Love, and it’s a toss up whether the father in My Phantoms is more repugnant than the father in First Love. The major difference between the novels is the emotional territory. The narrator in My Phantoms focuses primarily on her mother. In First Love, the narrator has two major relationships–both toxic, but the narrator’s relationship with her mother seems like party-time compared to her toxic intimate relationships.

The novel begins with the narrator, Neve, a writer/teacher who has moved to London, to live with Edwyn. When the novel opens, they have been living together for 18 months. There’s the sense that perhaps things were good earlier in the relationship (“I’d watch for Edwyn in the evenings.”) But the relationship has declined and consists of a barrage of emotional abuse. Edwyn is now a sick man; he’s middle-aged, is post-heart surgery, and is in constant pain. Neve remains in the home living under a barrage of insults. Neve and Edwyn even marry at one point on the advice of his lawyer. The scenes between Edwyn and Neve are dreadful–not just the insults, but the slow torture of one person slicing into another’s every word. There are times when Neve begins to chat, as one does to one’s partner, but Edwyn isn’t having it:

I was casting around for something to say, and then as soon as I’d said it–“Lonely”–I knew what was coming. Finding out what you already know. Repeatedly. That’s not sane, is it? And while he might have said that this was how he was, for me it continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I’d started making whenever he was sharp with me. This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling cautious creature. (Except it was.) I defaulted to it very easily. And he let me. Why? I wonder how much he even noticed, hopped up as he was. No, I didn’t believe he did notice. That was the lesson, I think. That none of it was personal.

Over time and some very painful, spiteful scenes, Neve learns how to cope. Numbed to the point of compliance, she knows when dealing with Edwyn, not to try and clarify. Instead she learns how to placate:

So it was both strange, and dreadful–I knew it–to feel that I was managing him, in a way. Beyond bringing him out of himself, or my genuine interest; that I was maintaining this keen and appreciative front as a way to keep him calm, or to distract him. Like –I don’t know–throwing some sausages at a guard dog.

Post Edwyn, Neve’s life is better for his absence, but still her life seems flat, stark and joyless. In the past is Neve’s ‘great’ love, a man named Michael. The affair did not end well, and for some reason, Neve reconnects with Michael when he drifts back into her life. Michael is a strange, self-focused man, and his relationship with Neve has fuzzy edges. Neve’s friendships seem more successful. Loved her friend Bridie whose texts leave Neve with a feeling of missing out, but when they finally meet, it seems that Bridie is prone to exaggeration and her life is a mess.

Neve’s mother is very like the mother in My Phantoms–a woman who throws herself into a frantic round of social activities while not enjoying it in the least. Her mother’s relationships with men are problematic–she invites herself to visit a younger man in America, and so the trip is destined to disappoint in a life full of disappointment and exclusion. The behaviour of Neve’s father, a man who ate himself to death, probably goes a long way to explaining why Neve stays with Edwyn. She has no idea what is normal, and there are no doubt financial reasons behind Neve’s continuing to live under Edwyn’s abuse. Sharp, dark and bitter, First Love makes my best-of-year list.

Review copy

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Riley Gwendoline

Shrines of Gaiety: Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Shrines of Gaiety is a change of pace. Set in 1920s London, the novel opens with the release from Holloway of Nellie Coker, “Old Ma Coker,” a middle-aged woman who presides over an empire of London nightclubs. It’s taken a lot of hard living for Nellie to climb to the top of this world, and it takes even more to stay on top.

Nellie’s brood of children feed off the empire in various ways. She has 5 total: Niven, Edith, Betty, Shirley, Ramsay and Kitty. The “three eldest girls were the crack troops of the family,” with Edith her mother’s “second-in-command.” Edith “understood business and had the Borgia stomach necessary for it.” Nellie’s eldest son, Niven, was conscripted into the army, and survived. Stepping outside of the family, he is now part owner of a car dealership and has various other business interests. With a German Shepherd as his constant companion, Niven is an “enigma” to his family. The youngest son Ramsey feels he’s left out of the family inner circle and is “continually beset by the feeling that he had just missed something. ‘As if,’ he struggled to explain to Shirley, his usual confidante, ‘I’ve walked into a room but everyone else just left it.‘”

One day, Niven assists Gwendolen, a young woman new to London who is mugged on the street. She gets a job managing one of Nellie’s clubs, the Crystal Club, but Gwendolen is a woman on a mission. She’s in London to discover the whereabouts of her best friend’s sister, Freda, who ran away to London with dreams of being a dancer. Gwendolen has connected with Inspector Frobisher to work undercover. The delinquent Coker empire is a house of cards that Frobisher aims to topple.

The filthy, glittering underbelly of London was concentrated in its nightclubs, and particularly the Amethyst, the gaudy jewel at the heart of Soho’s nightlife. It was not the moral delinquency–the dancing, the drinking, not even the drugs–that dismayed Frobisher. It was the girls. Girls were disappearing in London. At least 5 he knew about had vanished over the last few weeks. Where did they go? He suspected that they went through the doors of the Soho clubs and never came out again.

Shrines of Gaiety presents a giddy, tawdry world of 1920s London. Post WWI society craves fun, and dour Nellie Coker, a woman who doesn’t appear to know the meaning of the word, is there to provide it for those who can pay.

We get Nellie’s hard-scrabble back history which goes a long way to explaining the woman she has become. Atkinson based the tale on the real-life Kate Meyrick “The Nightclub Queen.” The novel introduces a lot of characters right away and the novel is best read in large chunks in order to keep the juggling points of multi plot and time lines in the air. The novel’s strength is in its recreation of the times and the atmosphere. And while there are a dizzying number of characters, the novel doesn’t do a deep dive on character but instead the narrative remains on the surface of life: light, dense and expository.

review copy

2 Comments

Filed under Atkinson Kate, Fiction

My Phantoms: Gwendoline Riley

Gwendoline Riley’s novel, My Phantoms, is a detailed painful look at divorced parents through the eyes of Bridget, one of two daughters. I came to this novel with no expectations, and found bitter observations and a blistering analysis of two flawed people who met and unfortunately had 2 daughters. While childhood and child-parent relationships are fraught with emotional issues, the author uses the precision skill of a practiced, emotionally detached surgeon to dissect these relationships. The father-child interactions here are toxic, but the decades longer mother-daughter relationship is even more so.

Bridget’s parents divorced when she and her sister, Michelle, were very young. So when Bridget begins her analysis of her parents, it’s post divorce and we are in the long bitter period of visitation. Bridget’s father, Lee, is a horrible man–no he doesn’t molest her or whack her; he harasses her and perhaps I’ll ‘generously’ say attempts to engage her by belittlement. He seems to be threatened by Bridget’s intelligence and education. “His company was something to be weathered.”

Bridget’s almost reptilian nature coldly records her father’s petty, predictable behaviour. He nurses an image of himself as authentic, a “swashbuckling bandit.” He brags about not paying maintenance to his X, and “could never hear enough about the inadequacy of people who weren’t him.” Yes a real winner.

Later, when I applying to universities, he told me that at his job interviews he always put his feet up on the desk, lit a cigarette and asked the panel what they could do for him. Was that from television? I wonder. I’m afraid that one might have been taken from life.

It is strange when somebody talks to you like that. When they’re lying, but somehow you’re on the spot. Was he trying to impress us? But that could hardly be the case: you couldn’t value someone’s good opinion while thinking they would buy this kind of crap. And then there was the fact that no one was required to respond to his grandstanding.

After hearing about Bridget’s awful father, we learn about Bridget’s mother, Helen. ‘Hen,’ is also a difficult person. Post divorce Hen begins a “programme of renewal” in Liverpool which involves chaotically throwing herself into hobbies, outings, and events which hold little or no interest. Bridget notes that her mother “was never not out, it seemed. She was never not busy.” Yet “the fabled friends never materialized.” The one person who remains in Hen’s life is a gay man, Griff:

They were a sort of old-style double act, with him the tyrantacolyte and her in a state of perpetual effort.

The novel is almost in 2 parts: Bridget’s childhood and then Bridget as an adult. While reading Bridget’s childhood memories I hoped things would improve with time, but adulthood doesn’t seem much better. However, it must be admitted that Bridget’s adulthood is seen only as it pertains to her mother Hen. In childhood Bridget was subject to her parents’ whims and fancies, and in adulthood tensions remain and games–oldies but goodies–are played.

Bridget’s mother lives in Liverpool and later in Manchester so their meetings are, mercifully few, but nonetheless the annual birthday date is an arena for challenges, snide observations, and sly criticisms. The book is beautifully written, and I felt as though I knew Bridget’s parents. I had tremendous sympathy for Bridget the child–many of us must endure parents who appear to have no genetic connection to us, but by the time Bridget the adult appeared, I wanted her to lighten up. Bridget’s mother is a flawed sometimes frustrating human being but honestly… is she that bad? OK so you have little in common with your mother, but is that her problem or your problem?

She painted a beguiling picture, if you were susceptible to that kind of thing: lonely only child; breathless little girl who had to do this and had to do that. I was not susceptible, but then nor did I ever quite feel that I was the intended audience when she took on like this. There was some other figure she’d conceived and was playing to. That’s how it felt. Somebody beyond our life.

Slowly we see the lines of Bridget and Hen’s carefully crafted relationship–adversarial, toxic, petty. Why isn’t Hen allowed to meet Bridget’s long-time companion, John? Why isn’t Hen allowed into Bridget’s home? Who has the problem here?

This is the sort of book that can get under your skin and one which will generate a range of opinions. One of the most fascinating things here (and I’ll admit I was fascinated by several–it’s like watching a slow poisoning) is the underlying idea of the narratives we give our lives and the lives of others. The novel was, for this reader, a intriguing read. It raises some great questions about the cross generational transference of toxic behaviour. Bridget initially is the recipient/observer of her parents’ behaviors and games, but then when she is an adult, she’s into the games too. I cringed at several points when she lodged a pointless barb like a poison arrow at her mother.

The brilliancy here is embedded in Bridget’s description of her mother’s life narrative. Most people tend to have a narrative of their lives–some are spot-on and some are wildly inaccurate. In this novel, Bridget has a narrative of her mother’s life–Hen’s life is one of disappointment and exclusion. Hen has tried throwing herself into a social whirl but somehow never is included, and her life long friendship remains with Griff who seems alternately tickled and frustrated with Hen. Bridget seems to take a perverse delight in poking her mother for reactions that will then slot into that grim narrative. Additionally Bridget contributes to that narrative by excluding her mother from her life, refusing to let her visit her home to meet her long-time boyfriend, and keeping contact to a superficial minimum. My Phantoms is an excellent–albeit depressing read.

review copy

4 Comments

Filed under posts, Riley Gwendoline

Funny Girl: Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby’s novel Funny Girl follows the life of Barbara Parker, a young woman from Blackpool who idolizes Lucille Ball and dreams of becoming a comedienne. It’s 1964 when Barbara enters the Miss Blackpool beauty pageant, and even though she gains the title, she knows it’s not what she wants. Society favours looks over talent all too often and Barbara decides she can’t trade on her looks. So off to London where she gets a job at Derry and Toms on the cosmetic counter. Many of the young female employees, would-be actresses, read The Stage. Barbara is “anxious for news of anyone who had found some sort of secret show-business tunnel out of the store.”

Living in a grimy bedsit with a flat mate and working a boring job only leads to more acting dead-ends until she meets agent, Brian Debenham on a night out at Talk of the Town. Brian signs Barbara for her stunning blonde good looks and voluptuous figure, and while many consider these assets, Barbara runs the risk of being type cast. At first Brian doesn’t understand that Barbara really wants to act. He tells her to “smile. Walk up and down. Stick your chest and bottom out.” Brian sees Barbara as cheesecake:

Sweetheart, you only have to stand there and people will throw money at me. Some of which I’ll pass onto you. Honestly, it’s the easiest game in the world.

Barbara’s faith in herself leads her to a casting call for Comedy Playhouse where she meets writers, Bill and Tony, Dennis the junior comedy producer and actor Clive. It’s meeting that marks the turning point of her life.

Success comes to Barbara when she is cast in Barbara (and Jim) as a Northern girl from working class roots who meets and marries a posh London tory. The series smashes norms of the times by cashing in on class, education, and political differences through its two main characters. The novel draws in many cultural icons of the times, Till Death Us Do Part, Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son and that perennial favorite, Radio Times. Hornby recreates the shifting social scene of 60s Britain with the BBC facing ITV as a competitor, and formerly taboo subjects making their way onto the TV screen.

It’s all very well done and it’s a great trip down memory lane. The novel is expository so we don’t get into Barbara’s head as much as follow her life, her career, and her personal choices. It’s a fun light read but will have more appeal to British readers for its cultural references. All I could think of was Barbara Windsor….

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Hornby, Nick, posts

Elizabeth Finch: Julian Barnes

Elizabeth Finch, from Julian Barnes examines the relationship between the narrator, Neil, and his one-time professor. The novel explores the problems of memory and biography and asks how well can we ever know a person–especially a multi-faceted, private person such as Elizabeth Finch.

Elizabeth Finch teaches an adult education course, “Culture and Civilisation.” The students range in age from 20-40, and there’s a great deal of speculation about Elizabeth, a curious woman of contrasts, and her private life. Neil notes that it easy “to stray into fantasy.” As a lecturer/professor, Elizabeth Finch, or EF as Neil later refers to her, is challenging, yet she provides a reading list which is “optional” and notes “I may well not be the best teacher, in the sense of the one most suited to your temperament and cast of mind.” That last sentence, which seems so casually spoken on the first day, turns out to have great significance.

She appeared to have settled on her look some time ago. It could still be called stylish: another decade, and it might be antique or, perhaps vintage. In summer, a box-pleated skirt, usually navy; tweed in winter. Sometimes she adopted a tartan or kiltish look with a big safety pin (no doubt there’s a special Scottish word for it). Obvious money was spent on blouses, in silk or fine cotton, often striped, and in no way translucent. Occasionally a brooch, always small and, as they say, discreet, yet somehow refulgent. She rarely wore earrings (were her lobes even pierced? now there’s a question). On her left little finger, a silver ring which we took to be inherited, rather than bought or given. Her hair was a kind of sandy grey, shapely and of unvarying length. I imagined a regular fortnightly appointment. Well, she believed in artifice, as she told us more than once. And artifice, as she also observed, was not incompatible with truth.

The novel can be sliced into 3 sections: the introduction (and departure) of Elizabeth Finch, the middle section which is Neil’s long-delayed student essay on Julian the Apostate, and the final section which covers the end of Elizabeth’s career and Neil’s conclusions about his former professor.

I loved the first part of the book as Neil charts his relationship with Elizabeth Finch. Sometimes it’s the hard to define relationships that are the most interesting. EF rather uncannily reminded me of a professor who later became a friend for several decades, and so when I read that Neil intended to become EF’s biographer, I was fascinated. Unfortunately, when Neil delivers his student essay as some sort of post-death tribute to Elizabeth Finch, this entire middle section threw me in the Slough of Despond. I probably wouldn’t have minded reading about Julian the Apostate if I’d sought a book on the subject, but as is, the plot seems hijacked…no … abandoned. In the final section, Neil returns to the subject of EF and the novel revives as he discovers that he was not the only student who maintained a relationship with this very private, exacting person. Meanwhile, Neil tries to excavate details of EF’s private life and finally talks to a former student who has an entirely different opinion of the professor. Ultimately, we are left with more questions than answers, and the mystery of a professor who became one of the most significant people in Neil’s life, while another student remembers her as rather ordinary. What does that say about our perceptions, our biases, our memories?

Review copy.

7 Comments

Filed under Barnes Julian, Fiction

Reputation: Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan’s Reputation takes a look at the life of British MP, Emma Webster, a divorced woman in her 40s who makes a number of bad decisions. When the book opens, we know that something very bad has taken place, and then Emma goes back through her recent past to the moment when things started to go wrong in her world. Emma pinpoints the first bad decision, the one “that started everything,” as the magazine photo shoot in which she is swayed by flattery and the presence of a male photographer to assume an aggressive, sexy posture.

Was I subliminally so desperate for male admiration? At forty-four, so conscious of becoming sexually invisible that, despite everything I stood for, I let myself be flattered by and play up to his uncompromisingly male gaze?

This scene sets the stage for all that is about to go wrong in Emma’s life, plus it reveals her Achilles’ heel. Politicians seem to fall on their own petards–most commonly a sex scandal petard. Politicians are not unique in their embroilment in sex scandals, but since there are journos watching, participants who may sell their stories, and enemies lurking in the shadows, there’s a good chance that the secrets of politicians will be exposed. Political sex scandals are highly leakable and who doesn’t like to read about a good, meaty sex scandal?

Since Emma’s divorce, the family home was sold and Emma now lives with two other female MPs. Emma shares custody of her daughter, Flora, with her ex. Meanwhile Emma’s ex, David, seems to be flourishing with his second wife Caroline, who was Flora’s piano teacher, no less.

Caroline, who had encouraged me to stand as a politician, then moved with alacrity to fill my space once I got into office.

A veritable viper in the bosom. David, with his new wife, has had a make-over, he’s fitter, lost weight, and sports a beard while Emma. … well she’s marching on and ploughing herself into her political work. The fact that David’s appearance has improved may partly explain why Emma is flattered into presenting the ‘sexy’ side of herself to the public through the magazine spread. Not, as it turns out, a good decision.

I liked the way we see Emma’s reaction to the new David–it must be a bit of a ego blow to see one’s former spouse dusted off, spruced up and flourishing in another relationship. Emma is not a particularly appealing character–this may possibly be because Emma really has no idea who she is, and while she is passionate about one political cause, Revenge Porn, she is a rather typical politician when it comes to issues that don’t fit her agenda (veteran’s mental health). Now there is no law against stupidity and Emma makes some really stupid decisions. Emma’s stupid decisions work plot-wise as the author laid the groundwork to make those decisions plausible, but still, I found it hard to care one way or another what happened to Emma–the loose cannon on the political payroll. The story unfolds through Emma’s eyes and is punctuated with vicious, reductive social media comments. How pathetic that worlds begin and end with the largely unaccountable actions of social media gladiators.

review copy

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Vaughan Sarah

Permission: Jo Bloom

“I just like the idea of a little sexual adventure. You can understand that, can’t you?”

In Jo Bloom’s novel, Permission, a happily married couple decide to grant each other permission to step out of the confines of monogamy. With clear rules laid out, what could possibly go wrong???

The novel begins explosively with married couple Steve and Fay involved in a fight between friends Mike and Katie In an evening spent between the two married couples, Mike discovers that Katie has been cheating on him; things quickly escalate and Steve and Fay must intervene. The incident leads to a discussion between Fay and Steve regarding monogamy. They’ve been married for over 20 years, finally have a nice home, have 2 kids together, and while sex is good, somehow Fay thinks she is missing out on life. She brings up the idea of giving each other ‘permission’ for extra-marital sex. Steve is reluctant but agrees mainly to keep Fay happy. Big mistake. We all have certain morality boundaries, and those boundaries are sometimes invisible and untested until a situation arises. It’s clear that Steve has no interest in Fay’s suggestion, and it’s an ego blow. Fay meanwhile has her eye on the first extra-marital lover. …

British author Jo Bloom shows how a couple who actually have a decent life together screw it all up when Fay, feeling bored and a bit short-changed by a lack of sexual experience, decides she wants to branch out. Reading Permission is like watching a train wreck. You can see collision ahead and know it won’t be pretty, but your eyes are drawn to it nonetheless.

I don’t think Permission is meant to be funny, but there were sections I found savagely, grubbily funny. Other parts were just sad. There’s Steve gloomily scrolling through Tinder and then actually writing and printing out ‘the rules’ of the arrangement for extra-marital relationships for both he and Fay to sign. Probably not a good analogy here, but imagine writing out rules for animals at the zoo and then letting them out of their cages. That analogy probably says a lot about my opinions of marriage and human nature–two things which are inexorably intertwined. When a monogamous couple decides to step out of the boundaries of marriage or some other exclusive relationship, you can write as many rules as you want. It simply doesn’t matter because whatever rules you dream up, you cannot predict the consequences going forward and the rules are not going to fix things once those boundaries are crossed. Neither Steve nor Fay conceive of the issues they will face post monogamy. So in that sense, this is a cautionary tale.

Review copy

Leave a comment

Filed under Bloom Jo, Fiction, posts

The Heights: Louise Candlish

Louise Candlish’s novel, The Heights, is a story of revenge told through several voices including a mother who lost her son in a senseless car accident. It’s the sort of book that causes readers to question how we would act in the same circumstances.

The story is mostly told by Ellen Saint, but there are also sections that are written by a journalist who is sitting in a writing class also attended by Ellen. Middle-aged Ellen Saint is married for the second time to Justin. They have a daughter together, Freya. Ellen, an interior designer, also has a son, Lucas, by her ex-husband, Vic. When the novel opens, Lucas is dead. He died in a horrible car accident in which his friend, Kieran, drove.

So here’s the backstory: Lucas attends an upscale school, Kieran, the product of a broken home is placed at the school by his foster mother, Prisca. Kieran, with a history of drug problems, learning difficulties, and rough edges riles Ellen immediately. She resents Kieran and his friendship with Lucas. To Ellen, Kieran leads Lucas astray; under Kieran’s influence, Lucas skips school, takes drugs, lies to his parents, and begins failing classes. So in other words, Kieran is every parents’ nightmare. Following Lucas’s death, Ellen is driven by only one thing: revenge.

As far as Ellen knows, when the novel opens, Kieran is dead and she begins with the statement.

It can’t be Kieran Watts, I tell myself. And if anyone can be sure of that it is me.

Because I’m the one who killed him.

Then why is Kieran alive and well in London? Or is Ellen, who has had other mistaken ‘sightings’ of Keiran in the past, wrong once again?

That’s enough of the plot…. It was hard to be in Ellen’s head. She is so full of hate and rage, that her mind is not a pleasant place. On one hand, since she lost her son due, rage is one option, but the majority of the novel dwells in this rage-filled place and it’s tiring. I had issues with Ellen almost immediately. There are indications that she’s a bit ‘off.’ The way she turns to her EX. The way Lucas is never at fault. … Anyway, this is a compulsive read–if only to get to the basic truths of this situation. I wish Ellen had been a bit more sympathetic.

Review copy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Candlish Louise, Fiction