Howard’s End – EM Forster – (AUDIOBOOK) – 10.09.20

Howards End was written in 1910 and set in that contemporary era. It’s a novel that made thoughts boil over in my head as I listened – about the English class system and imperialism and sexism – at times I was so angry with the characters, and not sure whether the writer was sympathetic with one group or another (having just finished I’ve been reading the Spark Notes summaries of the chapters and even they admit that Forsters betrayal of the rights and wrongs of the issues raised are ‘nuanced’). The book follows three families – the Wilcox family: for the most part (in my mind anyway) hateful, arrogant, hypocritical, unimaginative, all round awful upper class prats that typify all that’s wrong with the entitled gentry classes that unfortunately still exist today. The Schlegel family – two young lady daughters and a teenaged son being raised by an aunt, also comfortably well off, but with a much more poetic and thoughtful outlook on life – they want to explore and if possible help with the injustices raised by the class system, while at the same time being pragmatic and realising that they only have the freedom to enjoy art and philosophy because they never need worry about having enough money to get by. And Leonard and Jacky Bast, a married couple from the working classes. Leonard Bast aspires to better himself by reading and visiting cultural events, but at the same time is suspicious and resentful of the very types he is trying to emulate. These three families become entangled in what is (according to the Spark Notes!) a metaphor for the time of upheaval between the old England of rural communities ruled over by landed gentry, and the changing times of industrialisation and more urban living and is a treatise on what effect this may have on the class system. Perhaps because of my modern sensibilities, I found it impossible to see why Margaret Schlegel would agree to marry Henry Wilcox when he was such a hateful chauvinist and she had to hide her greater intelligence in order not to upset his world view of ladies being dim but nice (if a little hysterical). It’s certainly an interesting read (or listen) and I loved the voice of the narrator (Edward Petherbridge) who is terrible posh (which usually puts me off a narrator) but who read with great sensitivity and, I though, gave perfect portrayals of the different characters’ voices, which made the experience very enjoyable.

From a Low and Quiet Sea – Donal Ryan – 08.09.20

Hmmm, what to say about this book… I have mixed feelings. It is clearly well written, with lyrical prose and a richness and depth of characters, but why are the characters all so angry and sad and broken?? My book group read The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, and I was just looking back at my review, to see that I also found it to be beautifully and interestingly written, but depressing with angry broken characters (!). From a Low and Quiet Sea is divided into four parts. The first three seem to be unconnected novellas each following a different (sad, angry and broken) male character – a syrian refugee, a young Irish man with a broken heart and an older Irish man thinking back over all the terrible things he’s done in his life. In the fourth part the three characters come together and we see that they are in fact connected, which I liked although I see some other reviewers found this to be too forced and sudden. I think I’m glad that I read it, and I feel somewhat enriched by the experience, but I’m also glad that’s over now. (I really like the title though!).

House of Many Ways – Diana Wynne Jones – 06.09.20

I’m still loving Diana Wynne Jones! I wish I could go back in time and introduce my childhood self to these books (not that I don’t love them as an adult, because I do!) because I feel like I should be nostalgic about them as if I did love them as a child. This third installment in the Ingary trilogy focusses on a girl who loves books and discovers she has magical talent (what’s not to love about that?!) Again there is interesting character development, humour and lots of magic and folklore. I realise that I’ve used the word ‘love’ about a million times in this review – terrible writing on my part, maybe, but I’m just saying it like it is, baby. Luckily for me, Diana Wynne Jones wrote lots of books, so I’ll be catching up on lost time and ordering oodles of them from Amazon.

Castle in the Air – Diana Wynne Jones – 04.09.20

This second book in the Ingary trilogy by Diana Wynne Jones initially felt a little different to the first book. If you’ve read C.S Lewis’s Narnia chronicles, then it was like The Horse and his Boy, in that it is set in the same world as the other books in the series, but at first none of the familiar characters seemed to be in the story. With a feel like Arabian Nights, (or Disney’s Aladdin!) the story follows a young man who comes into possession of a Genie and a magic carpet, and falls in love with a princess, but must overcome perils to rescue the object of his affection. I enjoyed the whole book, but especially the ending when the denouement makes everything make more sense! Again I loved how Diana Wynne Jones gives her characters complex personalities with both light and shade, and has a slightly wicked sense of humour!

Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell – (AUDIOBOOK) –03.09.20

Wow – this is a big book. I listened on Audiobook and it took just over 25 hours. It’s the story of a band in the 1960s and follows each of the four band members as well as their manager giving them all a rich and in depth backstory and character development journey. There are many cameo appearances from famous musicians of the era, and although I’ve read some angry reviews on Amazon from people who lived through the sixties that this young whippersnapper born in 1969 didn’t capture accurately the feel of the times or the personalities of the real people, I thought it was fun (I was also born in 1969 and I’m not an aficionado of the 60s music scene!). Each of the five characters had difficulties to overcome, and I really felt like I got to know them and lived the journey with them, and I listened with chortles, gasps and even tears. My favourite character was Jasper de Zoet who is a direct descendant of Jacob de Zoet (from David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). Jasper is a lovely plain speaking man with high functioning autism as well as schizophrenia (or is he actually possessed??). Apparently there were lots of appearances from characters out of David Mitchell’s other novels, and although I have read and loved all of them, my memory for names is so terrible, that a lot of that was lost on me. David Mitchell has said that all of his novels fit together in one huge metanovel, with interwoven themes, plots and characters, but that each can equally be read as a stand alone with no knowledge of the others. Almost every aspect of the human experience is lived through by the characters (and therefore vicariously the reader) from mental illness, suicide attempts, drug abuse, unplanned parenthood, bereavement, family relationships, homosexuality, love, friendship, failure, success, camaraderie, etc, etc, and the cherry on the cake, for me, was the stream of magical realism. I feel like my life has been enriched by listening to this book and I really enjoyed it.

Howl’s Moving Castle – Diana Wynne Jones – 01.09.20

I can’t believe I’m only reading my first Diana Wynne Jones novel now, at the age of 51! This is exactly the kind of book I have loved since early childhood, and I have no idea how they managed to pass me by?! This is a dark, witty and thoughtful look at traditional fairytale/fantasy storytelling. I’ve always wanted to watch the film, and never got around to it, although after reading some people’s reviews who have both read the book and seen the film, it seems like the film makes the characters nicer and less complex, and it was the fact that the characters had both light and dark in their personalities that I liked about the novel (or at least that was one of the things I liked!). Once or twice, the book seemed to suddenly burst into an action sequence and I’d get a bit confused and have to stop and read over the previous few pages to get my bearings again, but other than that (and perhaps that’s because I’m getting old, bless me) I loved every minute of it.

Lanny – Max Porter – 27.08.20

Like the fabulous Grief Is a Thing With Feathers, also by Max Porter, this book is a beautiful merging of poetry, prose, magical realism and raw human emotion. It uses the technique (which I had to google but is apparently called concrete or visual poetry) where the arrangement of words on the page is part of the overall artistry of the book. Told with snippets of lots of different voices, including a mythical persona called Dead Papa Toothwort, it introduces a very special, insightful and artistic little boy, Lanny, his parents and a family friend, local controversial artist, Mad Pete, who gives him art lessons. When Lanny goes missing, the worst and best of human nature is brought out both searching for him and blaming and pointing the finger at those closest to him. It’s a lovely thought provoking and moving book.

The Last – Hanna Jameson – 26.08.20

I’m just back from a visit with my daughter and her boyfriend in Wales, and we had the clever idea to swap kindles for the visit and read each other’s books. When flicking through her kindle my finger accidentally lingered on this book which opened it. I started reading, and was instantly hooked. It’s a postapocalyptic novel, with its main protagonist as a middle aged American at a conference in Switzerland when Nuclear war happened. The book follows the few people who didn’t try to flee the remote hotel. With phones and internet down, they have to come to terms with not knowing what’s going on and deciding what to do next. There’s also a bit of a murder mystery as they find the body of a small girl who must have been killed before the bombs. I enjoyed the book and found it a fun holiday read.

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig – 19.08.20

I have loved everything I’ve read by Matt Haig, even his self-help type books, when normally I wouldn’t go near that sort of book. This is a novel, with a bit of self-help thrown in for free. During a suicide attempt, Nora finds herself in the state between life and death in a mysterious library with her beloved old school librarian, Mrs Elm. All the infinite number of books represent possible lives she could have lived. Mrs Elm shows her a book of regrets, which lists all the things she has done that she wishes she did differently, from major life decisions to minor little things. Nora is given the chance to experience what her life would be if she’d made the other choice – she can visit as many of these alternate lives as she likes until she finds one where she wants to stay. The story is fun and wise and thought provoking and actually made me feel better about my life – the takeaway sentiment from the book is not to live with regret because whatever choice you make you will end up with a life that has both joy and sorrow and seeing what might have happened makes you both appreciate the life you have and feel excited for the potential for what is yet to come.

Everything Under – Daisy Johnson – 14.08.20

I wish I knew how to capture or even quantify the quality that makes some books just so darn beautiful. Like dipping my toes into water that is just the right temperature I knew right away that I would relish swimming through this book (am I stretching this metaphor too far?!). It’s similar in feel (I thought) to the lovely ‘Where The Crawdad’s Sing’ although it’s set in England with the riverboat community rather than in the swamplands of Florida. The book examines the complexities of family relationships, specifically mother/daughter relationships and the unreliability of memory – one character trying to piece together the truth from her patchwork of childhood memories, and another losing perspective as alzheimer’s steals an ‘orange sized chunk’ from her own mind. Themes of gender and language and fate pervade with different strands of the plot nibbling at the reader’s consciousness like fish nibbling a lure before being reeled in and slotting into place with a satisfying clunk. I really loved this book.