Monday, 20 January 2014

We Are Water, by Wally Lamb

Wally Lamb has done it again – produced another gripping page-turner that is impossible to put down until the eyes refuse to cooperate any more, and that’s saying something considering its doorstop size.  The reader, as always, gets maximum bang for the buck!
Mr Lamb tells us the story of the Oh family, using this family as metaphor for the modern face of America, its cultural and sexual diversity, changing racial divisions, and its response to great and terrible events.
Annie Oh is getting married for the second time – to a woman.  She was married for twenty seven years to psychologist Dr Orion Oh, giving birth to three children, twins Ariane and Andrew and later ‘the mistake’, Marissa.  Now she has fallen in love with Viveca, a wealthy New York Art dealer and Gallery owner, and the champion of Annie’s nascent artistic career.  They intend to marry in Three Rivers, a small town in Connecticut;  Viveca considers it charming and symbolic, for here in Three Rivers one of Annie’s works was judged Best in Show, giving her the impetus and confidence to continue with the burning compulsion she has to make Art:  unfortunately, Three Rivers is also the setting for the entire length of Orion and Annie’s marriage, the place in which their children grew up, and despite Orion’s despairing acceptance of a situation he cannot change, he draws the line at Viveca’s wish to have the ceremony in the Oh family home.
Every family member has a turn at narrating the story, a literary device which Mr Lamb uses very skilfully:  Annie is na├»ve, uneducated and wounded by a terrible childhood tragedy in the first section of the book;  later, as her career develops and her reputation grows she gains in sophistication and wisdom – but still is the keeper of childhood sorrows she can never share with anyone, let alone her husband and family. In time, those secrets have terrible repercussions for them all and how each family member reacts to each new trial that presents itself is beautifully and convincingly realised.
There is a fascinating subplot, too, involving the Oh family home:  more than fifty years before, a suspicious death occurs there.  A negro employee of the house owner is found dead, stuffed head first down a well on the property:  the death is never fully investigated, and to the outrage of the coloured community a verdict of accidental death is returned.  The rumour mill works overtime, but the truth is more awful than the most lurid gossip:  ugly racist secrets lie buried beneath a veneer of small town friendliness and respectability.
Mr Lamb has given his readers once again what they are accustomed to expect of him:  a superbly story that picks them up and carries them on the crest of its narrative wave until it dumps them on the shore, emotionally drenched but thinking ‘God, what a trip!’ 
This reader will ride the literary wave with Mr Lamb any old time: most highly recommended.

Bridget Jones - Mad about the Boy, by Helen Fielding

It gives me great pleasure to announce the return of Bridget Jones, calorie counter, Nicorette muncher, wine glugger and comfort food abuser in times of great stress – and Bridget’s life is constantly stressful.  She is also a Diarist extraordinaire and compiler of To Do lists upon which nothing gets crossed off:  so what, you might well ask, is new? 
Bridget’s life is still hopelessly disorganised, but with several crucial differences:  since last we met around ten years ago, Bridget has married her Mr. Right, Mark Darcy;  they are the proud parents of two beautiful children;  he has a successful career as an international human rights lawyer and they are more happy than a nuclear family has a right to expect – until Mark is killed whilst negotiating the release of two British hostages in the Sudan.
Bridget’s diary opens four years after she is made a widow.  She is now past fifty with two small children - ‘Heavens, darling – why did you leave it so late to have children?’ says her hopelessly out-of-emotional-touch Mum, who should realise without having a brain transplant that Bridget hadn’t fallen in love and married Mark until her forties.  Better late than never, Mum.
But Bridget is not coping well in her new role as a solo parent.  She is bereft, alone and lonely.  She misses Mark and yearns for him constantly;  his comforting and solid presence, perfect foil to her role as arch procrastinator and mistress of indecision:  now she has to make every choice herself and she is failing miserably.
Enter Bridget’s motley collection of loyal and loving friends, all in their own way living less than perfect lives but determined to see her restored to their idea of stability - put bluntly:  she needs a shag!
Our heroine is suitably horrified.  She couldn’t possibly!  A shag would be unfaithful to Mark’s memory.  She’s too overweight from all the comfort food consumed which didn’t do its job.  She has no idea, nor does she want to find out, about all those internet dating agencies or how to register with them.  There are no babysitters.  And besides (and most importantly) she has nothing to wear.  What’s a gel to do?
Feel the fear and do it anyway, that’s what!  The hapless Bridget’s adventures in the 21st century dating world are poignant, hilarious and sharply observed, as are her forays into the foreign field of screenwriting – a modern version, she decides, (set in gloomy Queens Park to lend to the tragic mood) of ‘Hedda Gabbler’ by Anton Chekhov.  Bridget still has a lot to learn about literature, life and love – even at her age – and sets out to do so in her usual endearing, laugh-out-loud and hamfisted fashion.

Ms Fielding writes as ever with great comic style, ruthlessly chronicling our texting and twittering world yet still achieving that fine balance between comedy and tragedy so crucial to this story.  It may be that this is the last time we read about Bridget and her friends, which is a shame:  what a story!  What a gel!  What fun!  Highly recommended.             

Monday, 13 January 2014


The New Countess, by Fay Weldon

This is the third book in Ms Weldon’s historical trilogy of early twentieth century manners and mores, (see review below) and what a delight it is, charmingly written yet effectively skewering the hypocrisy and double standards of the age in every chapter, particularly with regard to the plight of women at all levels of society.
Much has happened but little has changed since Chicago heiress Minnie O’Brien wed Viscount Arthur Hedleigh, eldest son of Lord and Lady Dilberne.  It is now 1905;  Minnie has dutifully produced two boys – the heir and the spare – and whilst she loves her husband and sons dearly, chafes at the boredom of being Her Ladyship.  Arthur has his head perpetually buried in the innards of the Jehu, the car he has constructed (with her money) and hopes to produce;  he has time for nothing else and is impervious to Minnie’s unhappiness at having her decisions regarding the upbringing of her little sons ignored.  The boys are cared for by his old Nanny, who should have  retired years ago but has been brought back into service by the Countess, Arthur’s mother who trusts every decision the old harridan makes.  As  Minnie’s concerns are regarded as American nonsense, the situation is ripe for disaster. 
Enter Rosina, Arthur’s younger sister, intelligent ‘but without charm’, a round peg in a square hole, who rushed off to Australia with an immensely rich (but common) Australian sheep farmer, there to endure extremes of heat and cold and a life utterly alien to that which she had previously been accustomed – exactly what she craved until she was tragically and unexpectedly widowed:  now she has returned, independently wealthy and full of dreadful feminist ideas – not only that, but she has written a book about the sexual customs of the Aboriginals, due to be published any day. 
For pity’s sake!  Will this girl never cease creating tidal waves in polite society?  The Dilbernes are appalled, particularly as King Edward VII has expressed a wish to visit their country estate for a week’s shooting in December, four months away, accompanied by Mrs Alice Keppel, his mistress – and her husband, for forms sake.  Lady Dilberne is suitably outraged:  forced to welcome That Woman as her equal in her drawing room;  forced to turn a blind eye to ‘sleeping arrangements’;  and spend tens of thousands of pounds bringing Dilberne Court into the Modern Era – not just new furnishings but electric light, hot running water, and flushing toilets:  she is seething with resentment at the social injustice of it all.  Life has suddenly become enormously difficult for the Countess.
Therefore, she regards as tiresome the fact that Minnie has fled to London to stay with Rosina after finding Arthur in a compromising position with a lissom stranger:  Minnie is a whiner, thinks the Countess,  and needs to grow a thick skin.  Men always have mistresses, but it is their wives ‘whom they respect’.  Perhaps, but the Countess has a lot to learn.  She has not bargained on Minnie’s resourcefulness in her attempts to see her children and retrieve them from the clutches of their ancestral family and the awful Nanny, nor did she expect to have Minnie’s Irish mother creating a dreadful scene on the steps of their Belgravia home, the common Irish harpie – oh, it is all too awful to contemplate.
Ms Weldon’s sparkling prose effortlessly takes the reader back more than a hundred years to the birth of feminism, engendered of necessity by a man’s complete control of his wife’s wealth (Minnie is shocked to learn that she, a rich heiress, has no money:  Arthur’s family has it all.), his control over her education;  (no need for that – she’s there to run home and family) and most insulting of all, refusal to allow women the vote.
‘The New Countess’ is a smart, funny book – and a pitiless view of the way society functioned all those years ago.  And as to What the Servants Knew:  well, as usual they knew everything -  and didn’t hesitate to discuss it.  Highly recommended.

Long live the King, by Fay Weldon         reviewed June, 2013

This is the second volume of Ms Weldon’s ‘Love and Inheritance’ trilogy, following ‘Habits of the House’ and once again, the reader is in for a treat as they follow the fortunes of the aristocratic Dilberne family, recently rejuvenated financially by the arranged marriage between son and heir to the Earldom, Arthur, and Minnie, a very rich but ‘low-born’ young Chicago heiress.
The old queen has recently died and all of London is agog at the arrangements for the impending coronation of Edward VII, formerly Bertie, Prince of Wales, the gambler and profligate now a Monarch determined to prove to his nation and government that he can rule with wisdom, power and dignity:  his ministers and courtiers are eager to assist him in that regard, but the pomp and ceremony demanded by him are making big dents in the public purse and any objections are met with the assertion that the Empire ‘expects a good show’, so a good show must be arranged.
Isabel, Countess of Dilberne expects to make a good show of her family and is gratified to know that she and her rich daughter-in-law Minnie will walk behind Queen Alexandra in the Abbey procession – her social standing can rise no higher – until by a series of misadventures, three extra seat invitations to the Abbey are lost, first sent by her to the Earl’s feuding, hateful younger brother Edwin, a parson in Somerset, then irretrievable when the rectory is burnt to the ground  a couple of days later.  Even worse, she and her husband are expected to take into the family fold the only survivor of the conflagration, Adela, 15 year old daughter of Edwin, an act of charity too hard for the Earl who flatly refuses to have contact with anyone connected with Edwin.  Fortunately or not, Adela disappears and is thought to have committed suicide, causing her reluctant relatives to heave sighs of pity and relief:  they no longer feel an obligation through blood – no matter how odious – to be responsible for her:  they can devote their considerable energies to Coronation etiquette, costumes and who is permitted by rank to wear more inches of ermine than others – and who will be sitting where, and next to whom, because the vexed question of the missing invitations has still not been answered.
Ms Weldon enjoys herself thoroughly – as does the reader – guiding her characters through the perilous waters of English society high and low, and there is no more shrewd observer of the double standards that prevailed at the beginning of the twentieth century (as illustrated so ably in ‘Habits of the House’), and no writer who could intersperse her fictional characters with the real-life luminaries of the time more successfully. 
Ms Weldon writes in elegant prose of the great new ideas of the thinkers and  literary titans of the day;  George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Arthur Balfour, Ford Madox Ford, and that lone, formidable female Beatrice Webb, champion of women’s rights, creating such sparkling dialogue between them and their enormously wealthy society patrons that the reader is utterly convinced that Ms Weldon was actually present whilst great plans were hatched.
This is a vastly entertaining trilogy:  I was sorry to come to the end of both books and as before, am looking forward to reading the next episode – and sad that it will be the last.  Ms Weldon doesn’t always hit the jackpot with me, but with this charming series, all the bells are ringing!  Highly recommended.

The Phoenix Song, by John Sinclair.

When I was a child my father was an ardent communist, embracing that philosophy with all the zeal of the admirer from afar.  In fact, he was so enthralled by the concept of equality for all and the death of Capitalism that I was named after a Russian lady my parents met on a ship that called into Auckland during the war, and my elder sister was named after a fearless communist revolutionary, murdered in Berlin in 1918:  our humble origins transformed by lofty names! 
All things Soviet inspired him but he particularly admired Mao Zse Dong, and as we grew up my sister and I were browbeaten daily with endless examples of Mao’s pearls of wisdom.  We were exhorted to read ‘Soviet Union’ and ‘China Reconstructs’ - surely an awful exercise in boredom for anyone, let alone children – but it was unthinkable to  refuse:  we ploughed obediently through that propaganda, eyes rolling like religious martyrs but miraculously suffering no lasting damage to our ability to form our own opinions.
Imagine the nostalgia I felt when I read ‘The Phoenix Song’:  there were all the old fiery propaganda speeches, the same slavish, unquestioning belief in the new God of China Chairman Mao and his magical ability to solve China’s vast problems with rousing speeches and exhortations to take a ‘Great Leap Forward’.
The communist struggle is told by Xiao Magou, born in Harbin in 1942 and the daughter of one of Mao’s companions on the Long March, Comrade Lu, and a young medical student fostered by two refugees.  White Russian Jewish musicians Piroshka and Kasimir provide an island of love and security for Magou and her mother in anarchical times;  they tutor Magou in the violin and soon realise they are teaching a prodigy, and there begins the climb to fame for Magou as the face of the new China, a symbol of its rebirth, both musical and intellectual and a glorious example of the great communist ideal.  Until she is told, because of her fluency in Russian, to spy on her Russian tutors at the Shanghai Conservatory.
Magou reports faithfully everything she hears to her superiors, including the fact that the Russians are well aware that tens of millions have starved executing Mao’s grandiose plans for the Great Leap Forward:  the seeds are sown for her own disillusionment and rebellion, especially when her loyal parents are disgraced and excoriated as ‘rightists’.  Defection is inevitable.
Mr Sinclair is an elegant writer.  In the first half of the book He recounts with fast-paced verve and stark lucidity the tumultuous events of communist China’s beginnings;  his characters, particularly Magou’s loving music tutors, are beautifully drawn, and his knowledge and expression of music is breathtaking.  BUT.
I wish there wasn’t a but, but there is:  the story seems to get away from Mr Sinclair in the last third of the book;  Magou becomes no more than a colourless narrator of her own life and her defection – and destruction of her prized violin, given to her by her tutors – is the weakest part of the story.  The reader is also asked to accept that Magou, a virtuoso musician, never plays again after escaping communist clutches and ending up in New Zealand.  It was definitely a bridge too far for me, and about as believable as one of The Great Helmsman’s speeches.  What a disappointment, for in this reader’s humble opinion Mr Sinclair is a writer of great skill.  Perhaps in his next book he will exercise his talents for the entire story, not two thirds of it.  


Sunday, 5 January 2014


Light of the World, by James Lee Burke

This is the first of Mr Burke’s books I have read involving his two Southern protagonists, New Orleans Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux and Robicheaux’s dearest friend and colleague, private investigator Clete Purcel.  They have shared many hair-raising and desperate adventures, and despite me making their acquaintance so late in the piece, Mr Burke manages to give a good synopsis of the traumatic events of their respective pasts so that no reader is in doubt as to what kind of men they are:  flawed, broken more than once by life’s vicissitudes, but still honourable men according to their own lights – which do not always follow conventional and acceptable moral standards, especially when their families are threatened.
Dave and Clete are on an extended visit to Montana with their families, staying with old friend professor Albert Hollister and all is well until Dave’s daughter Alafair is shot at with an arrow that barely misses her.  Dave is outraged that his complaints to the local sheriff’s department are regarded as a nuisance, but the police have bigger fish to fry:  the adopted 17 year old granddaughter of one of the richest men in the U.S. has been murdered not far from her home (Billionaire granddad has many homes and at least two in Montana), and in their fawning efforts to show Mr Younger that they are on the case, the police discard as mischievous Dave and Clete’s own detective work, showing that an escaped serial killer, Asa Surrette, could be behind the granddaughter’s death and the attempt on the life of Alafair. 
For Alafair has met Surrette before:  she interviewed him for a series of articles she wrote about the mindset and motivation of serial killers, and Surrette has never forgotten or forgiven her for her excoriation of his narcissism; in fact, the overpowering evil of his presence and his smug satisfaction at the success of his grisly deeds caused her to write that she had never espoused the death penalty – until she met Asa Surrette:  only then could she see the need to remove such evil from the earth.
Now he is coming for her and anyone else who stands in his way, including Clete’s daughter Gretchen, retired Mob assassin.  And this is where the plot descends into farce – at least for me:  perhaps it would have been more credible if I had read some of the other books, but coming in cold as I did, I found it very hard to accept that coldblooded murderer Gretchen has now turned her life around and has just finished a course at film school so that she can make documentaries about the rape of the earth by big business – particularly big business as practised by Mr Younger. 
I am bound to say that the numerous, confusing directions in which the plot veered were a major disappointment, especially as Mr Burke is an accomplished, cerebral writer of suspense;  for the most part his characters are wonderfully entertaining and some of the dialogue is a delight to read, whilst his descriptions of the physical world are superb.  Sadly, Alafair and Gretchen come across as comic book Superwomen, two-dimensional and unconvincing; hardly the effect intended.  That said, (and I had to say it!) ‘Light of the World’ is still a classy read and Mr Burke’s beautiful imagery makes me wish I could travel to Montana to see all that beauty for myself.

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

‘Beautiful Ruins’ was one of the New York Times Notable Books for 2012 and deservedly so:  it is a lovely story and merits all the glowing tributes from its myriad other reviewers.  Well, it’s my turn now – and I confess that I heard about this book, not by reading the blurbs, but by that tried and true source:  word-of-mouth.  Better late than never. 
Starting in 1962, Mr Walters’ novel spans fifty years in the lives of Dee Moray, a beautiful American actress, and the lasting connection she has with Pasquale Tursi, a young Italian called home from his university studies in Florence to a dying fishing village at the end of the Cinque Terre. His mother is very ill and unable to manage the tiny Pensione which is now his responsibility, and despite his lack of business experience he makes up for that with a boundless enthusiasm that increases hugely when Dee Moray is booked by 20th Century Fox  into his humble establishment – supposedy terminally ill with cancer.  She has been working on ‘Cleopatra’, the arch flop of 1962, as the only blonde lady-in-waiting (!!) to Liz Taylor’s Egyptian siren but unbeknownst to Ms Taylor, currently wed to Eddie Fisher, Dee is engaged in a passionate affair with Richard Burton, Liz’s latest Appasionata.  And despite a diagnosis of terminal stomach cancer (from Ms Taylor’s Doctor) it transpires that Dee is actually pregnant to Burton, who suffers from fleeting pangs of conscience when he’s not ruining his liver and staging monumental battles with Liz.
Pasquale is disgusted by the way Dee has been spirited away by the studio and hoodwinked into believing she will die, all to prevent a scandal and keep Liz happy:  he becomes her champion and eventually lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of Michael Deane, reptilian Fixit Man for 20th Century Fox, but it is up to Dee to decide what she is going to do with her life, and her unborn baby.  Richard is too heavily involved with the breathtaking Liz in the long term, so Dee must make her own decisions:  have an abortion and a career, or have the baby and leave her life to fate.

Mr Walters has written a tragicomedy of the first order;  all his characters are deftly realised and their lives over fifty years are portrayed in flashbacks and forward leaps in time that are beautifully managed.  He also provides the reader with a ruthless portrayal of Hollywood, birthplace of the Art of the Deal and the sale of the Perfect Pitch, where small men live like the heroes of the movies they make – and the people they destroy to achieve that.  Mr Walter unashamedly admits that it took him fifteen years to write ‘Beautiful Ruins’.  It was the novel that he kept leaving and coming back to, but its lengthy gestation is well worth the wait:  it’s a gem, and – ironically - is now being made into a film.  Highly recommended.