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review 2018-10-31 12:36
A beautiful, contemplative, and touching novel about what it means to be whole
House of Glass - Susan Fletcher

Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book. I was later contacted by Kimberley Nyamhondera suggesting I take part in the blog tour for the launch of the book, and as I knew the author I immediately agreed.

I had read and reviewed another one of Susan Fletcher’s books (Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew, you can read my review here) a couple of years ago and loved it. When I checked my review, to remind myself what I had thought about it in more detail, I realised I could use almost word by word the same title for my review, although the subject of the novel is quite different. “A beautiful, contemplative, and touching novel.” Yes, this definitely applies to House of Glass as well. This time the story is set in the UK right before the breaking of the First World War, and in fact, there are rumours spreading about its likelihood already when the novel starts. It is a fascinating time, and the life of the protagonist, Clara Waterfield, is deeply affected by the historical period she has to live in, from her birth in very late Victorian times, to what would be a very changed world after the Great War, with the social upheaval, the rapid spread of industrialization, the changing role of women, and the all-too-brief peace.

Clara, who tells the story in the first person, is a great creation, who becomes dearer and dearer to us as we read the book. This is not a novel about a protagonist who is fully-formed, recognisable and unchanging, and runs across the pages from one action scene to the next hardly pausing to take a breather. Clara reflects upon her past (although she is very young, she has suffered greatly, but not lived much), her condition (she suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, brittle bones, and that meant that she was kept indoors and not exposed to the risks and dangers of the outside world, the London streets in her case throughout her childhood), her family, and life experiences or her lack of them. No matter what she looks like, her short stature, her difficulty walking, her limitations in physical activity, this is a determined woman, make no mistake. She has learned most of what she knows through books (non-fiction mostly, although she enjoyed the Indian tales her mother used to read her), she has experienced not only pain, but other kinds of loses, and there are secrets and mysteries surrounding her, but despite all that, she is all practical and logical when we meet her. Her lack of exposure to the real world makes her a fascinating narrator, one who looks at everything with the eyes of a new-born or an alien suddenly landed in our society, who might have theoretical knowledge but knows nothing of how things truly work, while her personality, determined and stubborn, and her enquiring nature make her perfect to probe into the mystery at the heart of Shadowbrook.

Readers might not find Clara particularly warm and engaging to begin with (despite the sympathy they might feel for her suffering, something she would hate), as she dispenses with the niceties of the period, is headstrong and can be seen as rude and unsympathetic. At some point, I wondered if there might have been more to her peculiar personality than the way she was brought up (she can be obsessive with the things she likes, as proven by her continuous visits to Kew Gardens once she discovers them, and her lack of understanding of social mores and her difficulty in reading people’s motivations and feelings seemed extreme), but she quickly adapts to the new environment, she thrives on change and challenges, she shows a great, if somewhat twisted, sense of humour at times, and she evolves and grows into her own self during the novel, so please, readers, stick with the book even if you don’t connect with her straightaway or find her weird and annoying at times.  It will be worth your while.

Her point of view might be peculiar, but Clara is a great observer of people and of the natural world. She loves her work and she is careful and meticulous, feeling an affinity for the exotic plants of the glass house, that, like her until recently, also have to live enclosed in an artificial environment for their own safety. That is partly what enhances their beauty and their rarity in our eyes. By contrast, Clara knows that she is seen as weird, lacking, less-able, and hates it. She is a deep thinker and reflects upon what she sees, other people’s behaviours, she imagines what others might be talking about, and dreams of her dead mother and soon also of the mystery behind the strange happenings at the house.

The novel has been described as gothic, and that is a very apt description, even though it is not always dark and claustrophobic. There are plenty of scenes that take place in the garden, in the fields, and in the open air, but we do have the required strange happenings, creaks and noises, scratches on doors, objects and flowers behaving in unpredictable fashion, previous owners of the house with a troublesome and tragic past, a mysterious current owner who hides something, violence, murder, and plenty of rumours. We have a priest who is conflicted by something, a loyal gardener who knows more than he says, a neighbouring farmer who has plenty of skeletons in his closet, and a housekeeper who can’t sleep and is terrified. But there is much more to the novel than the usual tropes we have come to expect and love in the genre. There is social commentary; there are issues of diversity and physical disability, discussions about religious belief and spirituality, and also about mental health, women’s rights, and the destructive nature of rumours and gossip, and some others that I won’t go into to avoid spoilers.

I don’t want to give anything away, and although the story moves at a steady and contemplative pace, this in no way makes it less gripping. If anything, the beauty of the language and the slow build up work in its favour, giving us a chance to get fully immersed in the mood and the atmosphere of the place.

I marked a lot of passages, and I don’t think any of them make it full justice, but I’ve decided to share some, nonetheless:

She’d also said that there was no human perfection; that if the flaw could not be seen physically, then the person carried it inside them, which made it far worse, and I’d believed this part, at least.

For my mother had never spoken well of the Church. Patrick had said nothing at all of it. And my own understanding had been that imperfect bodies were forms of godly punishment; that imperfect meant I was worth less somehow. I’d disliked this notion intensely. Also, I was not a spare rib.

I could not taste fruit from studying a sketch of it, cut in half. What use was only reading of acts and not doing them? Knowing the route of the Ganges was not the same as standing in it.

 

The ending… We find the solution to the mystery, (which I enjoyed, and at the time I wondered why the book did not finish at that point) but the novel does not end there, and we get to hear what happened in the aftermath of the story. And yes, although at first, I wasn’t sure that part was necessary, by the end of the book proper I was crying and felt as if I was leaving a close friend in Clara, one that I was convinced would go on to lead a happy life.

Another fantastic novel by Susan Fletcher, one I recommend to fans of gothic novels, of Daphne du  Maurier’s Rebecca and her other novels, of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, and of inspiringly gorgeous writing. I do not recommend it to readers who prefer an action-laden plot with little space for thought or reflexion, although why not check a sample of the book and see for yourselves? I must catch up on the rest of the author’s novels and I hope there will be many more to come.

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review 2018-06-21 08:51
A challenging but satisfying book written in a unique voice that deals in momentous and relevant themes.
Just: A heart stopping thriller, full of emotion and twists - Jenny Morton Potts

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are interested in getting your book reviewed, you can check here) and thank her and the author for providing me an ARC copy of her novel that I freely chose to review.

I had read great reviews of the author’s previous book Hiding and when I saw that her new novel was available, I knew I had to read it. I’ve been lucky with most of the books I’ve reviewed so far. I’ve read many good books in recent times. Some have been well-written and entertaining genre books (and I love a good genre book. There is something reassuring and satisfying about reading a book in a genre we like. We know what to expect, and we can be pleasantly surprised when the book pushes the boundaries of the genre or is an excellent example of it), some I would count among some of the best books I’ve read on a topic or genre, some have managed to mix different genres, sometimes even genres that seemed hardly compatible and have pulled it off beautifully, and there are some books that have surprised me, because they seemed to keep wrong-footing the readers, challenging them, and demanding their attention. They are not for easy consumption and they do not reassure. But they can be very rewarding. Just is one of these books.

This novel is told in the third person from a variety of points of view. We have women who cannot move on and let go (of past relationships, or their past and their families), and can at times seem pathetic and self-pitying, whilst at others, they will not hesitate to sacrifice themselves for those their love (at a great cost). We have men who are ridiculously devoted to women (a close friend they’ve known forever, or somebody they’ve worked with but hardly know anything about), hopelessly romantic, and willing to go to any lengths to “save” or “help” this women (who might or might not need saving).  There are friends and relatives who will keep secrets that will cost them dearly. All the characters have very distinct voices, and the reader needs to pay attention at all times, as the dialogues are dynamic, and the author rarely uses tags, so it can be a challenge to know who is talking at times, especially when new characters are introduced.

I’ve seen some comments about the book that mention that none of the characters are sympathetic. Leaving to one side personal preferences and the fact that unsympathetic or downright unlikeable characters can be protagonists as well, as long as they engage our curiosity (why are they as they are?, can we connect with them at some level, even if we don’t like what they do?), in this case it is clear that the author has carefully chosen how to tell the story, and this contributes to the way we feel.  Although the book is written in the third person (and that puts us in the role of the observer), we do see things from inside the heads of these characters, and, as we all are, they can be mean, cruel, egotistical, and truly annoying at times. Personally, I wanted to slap some of the characters sometimes, but there were some I quite liked, and by the end of the book, I definitely felt I had gained an understanding of most of them. As the book evolves we discover that we don’t know as much as we thought about all of these people, and only then do we realise how carefully constructed the novel is, and how its structure creates a whole that is much more than its parts.

The book touches upon important, controversial and difficult themes, both at a general, societal level (terrorism, emigration, wars, international aid and charities, adoption, indoctrination…) and at a more individual one (new models of family, friendship and love, letting go, romantic love, parenthood, family bonds…) and  I doubt any readers will remain indifferent to the plight of the protagonists. When I finished the book, I felt I had gained insight into subjects I had read about or seen in the news often, but the novel managed to make them feel much more personal and immediate.

There are wonderful settings (from Cambridgeshire to Libya), and scenes (beautiful and poignant) that I won’t forget. (I don’t think I’ll be able to look at shoes again the same way). The book is not evenly paced, and there are some contemplative moments, and some when we are taken from one scene to the next and left hanging on, trying to make sense of what just happened. A lot of the book deals in serious subjects but there are some light moments and plenty of humour, some witty, some dark, that bring some relief while underscoring the gravity of the issues at hand.  If some of the scenes might stretch the imagination and require suspension of disbelief (too romantic or contrived, or so I thought when I first read them), we are later obliged to re-evaluate them, we come to see them in a new light and they make sense.

I highlighted many sentences, but I thought I’d share a few:

Muduj had a weak stomach behind her strong heart.

Where once there were honey bees, now the metal drones buzz. Everything good has been replaced by manufactured evil.

Her body now was a foreign attachment to her head. Her heart was beating in her gums. Her eyes felt like transplants.

And so you don’t think it’s all very serious:

I always think it’s a worrying sign, when someone starts to read poetry.

I always recommend that prospective readers check a sample of the book to see if they feel it suits their taste, and this is especially true in this case. As I have warned, this novel treats in serious themes and is not a feel-good book (I will not discuss the ending, that I loved, but is not traditional, as it pertains such a book) for somebody looking for a light read. But if you are interested in discovering new talents and don’t mind harsh content (some sexual scenes as well) and are up for a challenge, this is a treat.

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review 2017-08-01 22:02
For discerning readers who enjoy books about the human condition
A Horse Walks into a Bar: A novel - David Grossman,Jessica Cohen

Thanks to NetGalley and to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Jonathan Cape for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is the first book I’ve read by David Grossman. I hope it won’t be the last.

The description probably gives a fair idea of the plot. Yes, we are in Netanya, Israel, and we are spectators of the act of a stand-up comedian, Dovelah Greenstein (or Dov G.). He is 57 years old (as he repeatedly reminds us through the evening), skinny (almost emaciated), and seems to become increasingly desperate as the night goes. He tells jokes, anecdotes, makes comments about the city, the spectators, Jews (yes, the self-deprecation readers of Philip Roth, for example, will be familiar with), says some politically incorrect things, tells a number of jokes (some really funny, some odd, some quite old), and insists on telling us a story about his childhood, despite the audience’s resistance to listening to it.

The beauty (or one of them) of the novel, is the narrator. Yes, I’m back to my obsession with narrators. The story is told in the first-person by Avishai Lazar, a judge who was unceremoniously removed from his post when he started becoming a bit too vocal and opinionated in his verdicts. The two characters were friends as children, and Dov calls Avishai asking him to attend his performance. His request does not only come completely out of the blue (they hadn’t seen each other since they were in their teens), but it is also quite weird. He does not want a chat, or to catch up on old times. He wants the judge to tell him what he sees when he looks at him. He wants him to tell him what other people see, what essence they perceive when they watch him. Avishai, who is a widower and still grieving, is put-off by this and reacts quite rudely, but eventually, agrees.

Although the novel is about Dov’s performance and his story (his need to let it all hang out, to explain his abuse but also his feeling of guilt about a personal tragedy), that is at times light and funny, but mostly sad and even tragic, he is not the character who changes and grows the most during the performance (his is an act of exorcism, a way of getting rid of his demons). For me, the story, sad and depressing as it can be at times (this is not a book for everybody, and I suspect many readers will empathise with quite a few of the spectators who leave the performance before it ends), is ultimately about redemption. Many narrators have told us in the past (The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness) that in telling somebody else’s story, they are also telling their own. This is indeed the case here. The judge (at first we don’t know who is narrating the story, but we get more and more details as the performance advances) is very hostile at first and keeps wondering why he is there, and wanting to leave. But at some point, the rawness, the determination, and the sheer courage of the comedian, who keeps going no matter how difficult it gets, break through his protective shell and he starts to question his own actions and his life. If this might be Dev’s last performance, in a way it is a beginning of sorts, especially for the judge.

Readers become the ersatz club audience, and it is very difficult to stop watching something that is so extreme and desperate, but it is also difficult to keep watching (or reading) as it becomes more and more painful. It is as if we were spectators in a therapy session where somebody is baring his soul. We feel as if we are intruding on an intimate moment, but also that perhaps we are providing him with some comfort and support to help him go through the process. Although other than the two main characters we do not get to know the rest in detail, there are familiar types we might recognise, and there is also a woman who knew the comedian when he was a child and, perhaps, plays the part of the therapist (a straight faced one, but the one he needs).

The book is beautifully written and observed. Grossman shows a great understanding of psychology and also of group interactions. Although I am not an expert on stand-up comedy, the dynamics of the performance rang true to me. I cannot compare it to the original, but the translation is impressive (I find it difficult to imagine anybody could do a better job, and if the original is even better, well…).

As I said before, this is not a book for everybody. Although it is quite short, it is also slow and intense (its rhythm is that of the performance, which ebbs and flows). None of the characters (except, perhaps, the woman) are immediately sympathetic, and they are flawed, not confident enough or too confident and dismissive, over-emotional or frozen and unable to feel, and they might not seem to have much in common with the reader, at first sight. This is not a genre book (literary fiction would be the right label, if we had to try and give it one), there is no romance (or not conventional romance), no action, no heroes or heroines, and not much happens (a whole life happens, but not in the usual sense). If you are interested in characters that are real in their humanity (for better and for worse), don’t mind a challenge, and want to explore something beyond the usual, I recommend you this book.

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review 2017-07-13 12:13
For lovers of historical fiction and the French Resistance, a novel based on a true episode of cruelty and destruction that should never be forgotten.
Wolfsangel - Liza Perrat

This is the third book by Liza Perrat I have read, and it won’t be the last one. After The Silent Kookaburra set in Australia in the 1970s, I read the first book in the Bone Angel Series, Spirit of Lost Angels. (Read the review here). This is a series that follows the women of a French rural family through the generations, with big jumps in time. The name comes from a little bone angel talisman these women wear and inherit down the female line, together with a skill and talent for nursing (including knowledge of herbs and natural remedies) and midwifery. While Spirit of Lost Angels is set around the time of the French Revolution, this book follows the main character, Célestine (Céleste) through the difficult years of the German occupation of France during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.

The book is again narrated by its protagonist, a young girl, eager to prove herself and to lead an interesting life away from her seemingly uncaring and cold mother, in the first person. I know some readers do not like first person narrations although they bring an immediacy and closeness to the proceedings, and help us understand better the main character (well, to the point she understands herself). This device also means that we share in the point of view and opinions of Céleste and we are as surprised by events as she is, as we do not have any more information than she does. I am fascinated by narrators, and although Céleste is not an unreliable narrator by design (she does tell things and events as she experiences them), her rushed and unthinking behaviour at times, her quick reactions, and her youth make her not the most objective of people at times. Of course, if readers cannot manage to connect with Céleste at some level, the novel will be harder to read, but she is a likeable character. She is young, impulsive, and enthusiastic. She is eager to help and will often do it without thinking about the consequences and risks she might be taking. She helps a Jewish family very early on, hiding them on the farm, even when she is convinced her mother will not be happy. She wants to help the Resistance cause and is frustrated by the assumption that she is incapable of making any meaningful contribution to the war efforts because she is a woman. She works hard to prove she can be as useful and courageous as a man and runs incredible risks to achieve her goals.

She is not perfect, though, and her youth is particularly well reflected in her romantic attachment to one of the German officers. As is often the case for young lovers, Céleste seems to fall in love with her idea of romance, having only very limited and furtive contact with the officer. If at first she tries to convince herself that she is only playing a part to gather intelligence (and even her sister Felicité encourages her to try and obtain information), soon things turn serious, proving that she is not as calculating and mature as she would like to believe.

Céleste develops throughout the novel, moving to the city, becoming a true resistance fighter, helping the war effort as a nurse, feeding the prisoners at the station on their way to the camps, spying and passing secret information, and becoming a determined and independent woman. She also proves her strength and determination and survives a terrible ordeal and severe losses.

The cast of secondary characters is also exemplary. Céleste’s family (except for her father that we don’t know much about) are well-drawn and fascinating. The relationship mother-daughter is one of the strongest points and it reminds us of the strong bonds and connections between women (not always straight forward) the series is built on. Felicité, Céleste’s sister, is an amazing character, brave beyond the call of duty and, as we learn later, based on a historical figure. Her actions and her courage are very touching. Her brother is strong and supportive, and also a member of the resistance, and we get to know her friends, the doctor, the priest, and to understand that a lot of the population supported the resistance (some more openly than others), although there were collaborationists there too.

The author creates a great sense of place and historical era. The language, the foods, the clothing, the difficulties of an occupied nation trying to survive and resist are vividly brought to life thanks to the detailed descriptions of the landscape and the events, that make us share in the experience, without burdening the novel with extraneous information. The research is seamlessly incorporated into the story and it reminds us of how close the events are to us and makes us reflect on historical similarities with current times. The style of writing is poetic at times (the descriptions of the forest, Céleste’s love for her home and her pendant…), dynamic and flowing, and it has psychological depth and insight too.

The novel is harrowing and realistic as it describes death and tragedy on a big scale. The events that took place in Oradour Sur Glane in 1944 (and that inspired the novel) are horrific and reading them in the first person helps us understand more fully the kind of horror experienced by the victims and also the survivors.

The ending ties all loose ends together and is perfect for the story.

This is a great book for anybody who loves historical fiction and is interested in the French resistance from a more human perspective. It personalises and brings the readers closer to the experience of the era, at the same time helping us reflect on events and attitudes that are all too familiar. If you prefer your history close, personal, and in the first person, this is your book.

 

 

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review 2015-09-15 03:53
Fairly trite romance
Taken Away - Patricia Yager Delagrange

“I never wanted to be pregnant. I want to paint. I don’t want to burp a baby, feed it bottles, change dirty diapers. Shit! You know that.” – Serena Middleton, wife of Dr. Jessee Bradford

 

Serena never wanted to be married. Never wanted to have a baby. But, she did both. Sophia is a beautiful child, and Serena seems to settle. She is painting, Jessee is working as a veterinarian in a 24-hour emergency animal hospital, and they are happy.

 

Then one day Jessee comes home to an empty house. And neither the FBI nor private investigators can find Serena and Sophia. Kidnapping? Or did Serena simply run, taking Sophia with her? Jessee doesn’t know and, subject to panic attacks and severe depression he decides to leave Santa Monica and return to his home in Iowa to take over his grandfather’s veterinary practice.

 

There, he learns to relax. To enjoy his grandparent’s company, and even finds someone to love. But then? A visit to a gallery changes everything. Is Jessee’s life destroyed? Or will all his dreams come true?

 

There are things I liked about the story, and other things that didn’t quite work for me. The book it written in first person, which sometimes works, but in this case simply led to “telling not showing.” It made the story slow going, and I found myself flipping pages to get past the boring parts. Delagrange also devolves into the trite and corny much too heavily for my tastes. For example, there is an instance at the very end, involving Laura, that was just too ‘smarmy on steroids’ for me. It was OK, but not a book I will keep in my stash.

 

I received Taken Away from the publisher in exchange for a realistic review. All thoughts are my own.

Source: soireadthisbooktoday.com
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