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Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England)

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The Mayor of Casterbridge (Wordsworth Classics)
The Mayor of Casterbridge (Wordsworth Classics)
by Thomas Hardy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Serve the husband well be-right, 7 Aug. 2015
This was, I believe, Hardy’s first full-length novel and some of the commentators so far rank it below such as Far From The Madding Crowd and the marvellous Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Being his first novel, however, his skill in working his plot is second to none, and while some of the developments are a little creaky, it still remains one of the best literary novels of its time. The stunning opening chapter as the drunken young man sells his wife and daughter at a fair is based on reality – amazing to realise that Henchard could act in this way and get away with it. But this scene carries within it the seeds of Henchard’s predestination – a feature of all Hardy's novels and working through the book is a sense that people are not always in charge of themselves, and that life can be cruel.

Henchard suffers for his faults through his overweening arrogance and indeed he comes close to murdering his rival, the good-natured Donald Farfrae. But something holds him back from the act and allows us to have some sympathy for a man with a passionate, unruly nature, who nonetheless can hold back from the worst when required. There are love affairs, fairgrounds, rural dances, hidden details that further advance and retreat across this marvellously imagined world. It is a wonderful novel, even if it does creak a little here and there and I would recommend anyone to give it a try. You won’t regret it.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 25, 2016 10:13 PM BST

Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars He collects books, women, but is he a murderer?, 5 Aug. 2015
Pleasurable in every way this book is a marvellously wicked tale about a wicked man. Matt De Voy is a philanderer with no morality except that which allows him to do whatever he likes, whenever he likes. We should find him beyond the pale, but I confess, I kind of like him. He is married to Ce, perhaps I pity her, but she is a tough character and he is rogue. Then the unthinkable happens, he falls in love with a woman of beauty and impeccable character. Claudia is beautiful and faithful to her husband.

We are among the moneyed, Jim Swanson, Claudia’s husband, is a stock exchange trader and has employed our anti-hero to provide him with a library (though what kind of people want a whole library of books provided by someone else rather than the books they actually want to read?). Well, okay, I can accept that there may be people unable to make judgements about books. Perhaps this is one of the ways that the rich are different, or some of them, at least. However Claudia is interested in books and she and De Voy eventually begin meeting to discuss them. Matt is now completely captivated by the beautiful Claudia and reason has left him.

There is one perfect moment in this book when Matt stands behind Jim Swanson on the crowded forecourt with murder in his heart. But can he, at this juncture, act on his urge to get rid of the parvenu Swanson? In fact he finds that other matters have occurred that may negate the need for such action. But although this may be the case, his obsession with Claudia may have already gone too far.

I found this book beautifully enthralling. I shall be looking for his earlier book, Nightclimbers.

No Title Available

5.0 out of 5 stars "Fiction is condensed reality.", 2 Aug. 2015
“Imagine a deserted estate in northern New England. Five hundred rolling acres, mainly forested with hemlock and white pine. Imposing stone gateposts, long sloping velvet lawns, brocaded with the moving shadows of clouds; a thirty-five-room stone mansion in Victorian-baronial style; picturesque old stables and outbuildings; two Italian marble fountains, one indoors; three large artifical ponds stocked with fish and water-lilies; and a once famous rose garden.” This is where various literary people come to write – a retreat, where, the theory is, they can leave their ordinary cares behind and spend their time with their muse, if they have one. There are artists, musicians, writers, even a critic. They can spend their time, so the theory goes, being productive in their chosen field, breaking off to walk the rolling lawns, play croquet, and judging by their age, that’s as athletic as they prefer. They are all midlife, most with a reputation to sustain. They are fed by Caroline Kent’s perfect little school of servants. There are rules to obey. Slightly eccentric ones, but it all works perfectly. This is Illyria. “There is only one Illyria and though it’s a wonderful subject, nobody will ever write about it. Because if they do (as Caroline Kent has somehow made clear), they can never come back. At Illyria one becomes one’s real self, the person one would be in a decent world.

The cost is never mentioned, though I would estimate it is something near to expensive by anyone’s calculation. On the other hand, Caroline makes exceptions and Charlie Baxter, a long-standing friend of Caroline’s who has an alcohol problem and is an compulsive gambler, is tolerated, though he is prone to long maudlin moods of despair.

The introduction into this privileged enclave of Anna May, the young niece of Caroline somewhat puts the cat among the pigeons. There are various events which I will leave the reader to discover. Indeed, self-discovery is not the least of them. Activities are variously shocking and eventful.

Janet, the narrator, discovers several things about herself, the most revealing being that she is a mediocre writer because she hasn’t known how to tell the truth in her writing. She realises that “… the only reason for writing fiction at all is to combine a number of different observations at the point where they overlap. If you already have one perfect example of what you want to demonstrate, you might as well write nonfiction. Indeed you should, because any changes made just to avoid similarity to persons living or dead, or for other extraneous reasons are bound to be wrong… Fiction is condensed reality.

“But” Janet reports: “it’s like Nick said when he was talking about why he put mud and broken glass into some of his paintings; you can’t write well with only the nice parts of your character, and only about nice things. And I don’t want to even try any more. I want to use everything, including hate and envy and lust and fear.

“Not only do I want to – I must. If nothing will finally survive of life besides what artists report of it, we have no right to report what we know to be lies.”

All this comes as the culmination of many things that have gone on, including Janet’s reawakening to sexual fulfilment. This delightful, funny, brilliant and, for Janet, highly dangerous book carries within it the real reasons that people write.

After You'd Gone
After You'd Gone
by Maggie O'Farrell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars "I am somewhere. Drifting, hiding...", 31 July 2015
This review is from: After You'd Gone (Paperback)
This is the story of John and Alice who meet and fall in love. There is a problem: John is a Jew and his father is implacably orthodox and cannot accept Alice as a suitable daughter-in-law. Nevertheless they continue to live together in John’s house and for a time all is well between them and they decide to get married. Then John is killed in a pub explosion and Alice goes off the rails.

Here is Alice with all her dreams like dead air around her: “Once again Alice is struck by the fickleness, the blank callousness of mirrors. As she is passing from the sitting room into the hall, she catches sight of her reflection, as white-faced and large-eyed as a frightened ghost. It stops her short and she stands in front of the mirror gazing at herself. Her eyes seem unnaturally bright and the skin around them bruised-looking and sunken. She has lost so much weight that her cheek-bones protrude sharply, giving her a worn, skeletal look. The golden-skinned cherubs on the frame mince and smile around her.“

The writing is fine and sensitive and this is a good novel, and there is a sliver of hope for Alice in the enigmatic ending. I liked this novel, but the it left me feeling slightly underwhelmed. Her best novel for me remains "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox."

The Children Act
The Children Act
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "She could not bear to hear herself explain her situation...", 29 July 2015
This review is from: The Children Act (Paperback)
Again, McEwan excels with this story of Fiona Maye, a high court judge and the difficult and supremely excruciating judgements she has to make. Her husband asks her casually, if she knows when precisely they last made love. She doesn’t know, but he does. “When did they? He had asked this before in moods plaintive to querulous. But the crowded recent past can be difficult to recall. The Family Division teemed with strange differences, special pleading, intimate half-truths, exotic accusation. And as in all branches of law, fine-grained particularities of circumstance needed to be assimilated at speed… And waiting offstage, boys and girls first-named in the court documents, troubled little Bens and Sarahs, huddling together while the gods above them fought to the last, from the Family Proceedings Court to the High Court, to the Court of Appeal.

This brilliant book goes some way to making the proceedings in which people fight with each other in statement, brief and judgement and it is a triumph of the greatest order. The central case is one which sets the fiefdom of religion in the form of the Jehovah’s Witnesses against the pragmatism of hospital treatment which runs against the insistence that blood transfusions may help a young man, not yet seventeen, beat the horror of leukaemia.

Along the way there are several other cases which demonstrate the fine line a High Court Judge must tread if she is able to deliver a judgement sound in law as well as morally astute.

But Fiona Maye is also going through a profound moral dilemma of her own, as her husband has insisted that he is going to have an affair with a young statistican that that he has met.

These dilemmas form a background of competing urgency and exemplitude throughout the novel, which is, in my opinion, one of his finest and most testing and heart-rending novels. This is absolutely compelling from beginning to end.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
by David Wroblewski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars ... a black petal-shape boiling endlessly outward..., 28 July 2015
The best thing in this book are the dogs. They are bred in the best conditions, trained to within an inch of their lives, all by kindness and sensitivity. Almondine is the best dog, the only one who does not live in the barn. Edgar, the son of Gar and Trudy, was born without the ability to use his vocal chords, so the dogs are trained to take their orders by sign language. Gar does not sell his dogs to just anyone, he is very particular and insists on visiting the houses of anyone who buys one of his dogs, sometimes more than once, until he is satisfied that they are faring well. One day when he and his father are alone in the house Gar has a stroke, and dies. This is a terribly fraught moment for Edgar, who cannot summon help.

From this moment they cannot get along with the business of dog training without the help of Claude, Gar’s estranged brother, who takes over the role of his sibling. But all is not well, as under the surface of their lives Edgar is implacably against the relationship developing between Trudy and Claude. After an incident in the cellar Edgar leaves with four of the dogs. His adventures are all a little too fortunate to quite believe, and there are some moments which suggest a supernatural explanation for some of the terrible incidents to come, and I could have done without these. Nevertheless, I loved the dogs.

The Miniaturist
The Miniaturist
by Jessie Burton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.20

4.0 out of 5 stars "The image of Johannes and Jack Phillips thrummed for days inside Nella's skull", 24 July 2015
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This review is from: The Miniaturist (Paperback)
Petronella Oortman arrives at her husbands house in the city of Amsterdam and is given a grudging welcome by her new sister-in-law, Marin Brandt. Her husband is travelling in pursuit of business, though he knew the date of her arrival. She has her beautiful little parakeet in train, and the hopes of an 18 year-old for a loving home. The signs are not auspicious, but at first she is still hopeful that she and her husband will make a home together. It is not long before she is sadly disabused of that hope. He rejects her approaches but he also promises never to hurt her. Marin is uncommunicative and the servants are more familiar than those she had at home. She is discomforted by his wedding gift, a house in miniature that echoes all the features of her husband’s home. Peebo, the parakeet is the first to come to grief when someone leaves a window open.

Nevertheless she settles in quite well, hopeful that her husband will eventually want to sleep next to his very young and beautiful wife. She is to be disappointed. It is not her last disappointment, but she orders some furniture for her wedding gift and receives the exquisitely devised results. She hardly knows what to think when she receives items such as a cradle and beautifully created dolls which consist of the members of the household. Her husband is affectionate, but does not sleep with her and meanwhile more beautiful effects arrive to be placed in the house within the house. Marin is more reconciled with her but then things begin to go wrong and her husband is accused of a serious crime.

Beautifully written, this is a strange book, which hovers on the edge of the supernatural without ever quite spilling over into something more definite. Eventually the ending comes as a shock and the birth of a child. It is enjoyable, perhaps a bit too melancholy but very well put together.

by Noelle Harrison
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars "We need a few more artists like you," she says., 23 July 2015
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This review is from: Beatrice (Paperback)
A sad story with some romantic elements, this is set in Ireland and, for a time, in Majorca and concerns a mother, Sarah, and her two daughters Beatrice and Eithne. It is a chopped up tale with nothing following chronologically, but it does get beneath your skin if you can stand never knowing where you are in terms of the time, setting and story. It does make a complete whole by the end and the central problem of what happened to Beatrice makes sense eventually.

There were some elements that were unpleasant, but sadness is the overwhelming theme. It might be beautifully written but I didn’t like being continually dragged back and forth in time. The characterisation is what saves this from the rather ragged delivery. Beatrice herself is the strongest character, but Sarah and Eithne are equally vivid in one’s imagination. I found myself quite caught up in the end.

Sins Of The Fathers
Sins Of The Fathers
by Susan Howatch
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Elfrida's just accused me of murdering her father..., 22 July 2015
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This review is from: Sins Of The Fathers (Paperback)
660 pp. A blockbuster; interminable angst in New York where Vicky and her father are ultimately locked in oppositional trauma. My god, the melodrama, the wickedness of the father! It is rich in dialogue, some of which is frankly overwrought and unbelievable. They all make great long speeches trying to justify their positions in the family bank. As someone who read every word, I think I deserve a medal.

Do not get me wrong, I enjoyed some of it inordinately. Howatch is well known for her long, rich, blockbusters and here she tackles a family saga that plumbs the depths of wickedness and self-aggrandisement where the fathers are sometimes shamelessly selfish not to say narcissistic monsters. The family bank is the richest in New York and they slyly manoeuvre and shift their impenetrable finances to do each other down.

The book is divided into six parts. The first involves the story of Sam, who is discomforted to be asked to marry his bosses daughter, Vicky. This sets the convention of the dynasty in that the women of this family are often married off to whomever Corneilius, the paterfamilias manqué who decides should receive the honour. At first he will not, and then he does. It does not go well. The characterisation is always capable of being second-guessed and this does not make the stories run smoothly. There are sexual difficulties between Corneilius and his wife Alicia. Corneilius had mumps and though he is not impotent, there are difficulties and they settle for a platonic relationships, although later they rediscover true harmony. For a while.

The main problem for all of them is the nature of Corneilius who cannot resist meddling in family affairs. Scott is the most sympathetic of the men in this family, but long ago, during the war or just after it, Cornielius did something so wicked to Scott’s father that when it is discovered you realise that he and Scott can never be reconciled. The book ends on a note of sententious romanticism. But let us just be glad that someone ends up happy.

Harriet Said...: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC Book 211)
Harriet Said...: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC Book 211)
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars What Harriet did next., 18 July 2015
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Harriet is quite a clever girl, but where does cleverness leave off and hatred and slyness and lying and casual cruelty take over? Not that any of the adults in this strange little story are free from calumny of the worst kind. Harriet knows how to manipulate the species of male involved. There is the elderly yearning of the man they have christened The Tsar and his perky younger acolyte, Mr Hind who, along with some of the other men of the seaside village, would like to be involved, but are not. And sitting at the centre of her web is the spidery Harriet.

The girls are thirteen. I checked my own memory for how it felt to be thirteen – it is too long ago. There was no-one like Harriet in my secondary school. We all wanted to be film stars or air-hostesses, or something other than what we were – it did not matter what, just something other than schoolgirls. I wondered how it came to be that Harriet hated The Tsar, a gentlemanly man, inoffensive, certainly no predator. It might be that she saw his weakness more clearly than anyone else. That she came to despise it, and Harriet used her friend (who as far as I can see is never named, however central she is to the story, being the narrator). I do wish she had given her narrator a name. She has a sister called Frances so why not name the narrator?

So she is thirteen and she has persuaded herself that she’s in love with The Tsar and here it all becomes rather murky. Bainbridge is not worried that we don’t know what happens between her and the man. She has very cleverly shrouded it in one or two moments, though the narrator does say at one point that losing her virginity was no worse than going to the dentists. Yes, this is a story about child abuse. But the most sympathetic figure in the book is the predator the gentle, elderly, yearning paedophile. And though this novel ends on a note that suggests he receives his just desserts, it strikes me that no one will be particularly gratified. As for Harriet – I’ve never quite come across a fictional character more deserving of contempt. Sheer wickedness from start to finish.

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