Category Archives: Jennifer Johnston

Truth or Fiction – Jennifer Johnston

I don’t know about all of you but I do think Sundays should be quite a restful day, maybe lots of reading in bed and pottering around? So instead of doing my book thoughts in order of what I have read, which I tend to do but might go out the window as at the moment I am reading some proofs for later in the year as well as dipping into Deborah Devonshire’s memoirs, I would discuss ‘Truth or Fiction’ by Jennifer Johnston as it could be an ideal Sunday read being initially quite gentle and easily read in a long morning in bed. And yes, I did say it’s initially a gentle read.

‘Truth or Fiction’ is really a novel that looks into just what the difference is between people’s own truths and their own fictions. Caroline Wallace is a journalist in her forties who thinks she is fairly happy in her living with her partner Herbert, an author, living in Notting Hill. That is until Herbert proposes, a scene which actually made me laugh out loud, and it brings all the things that have been bubbling under the surface of Catherine’s mind to the fore. Around the same time her editor decides to send her to Dublin to meet and interview the rather reclusive ageing author Desmond Fitzmaurice whose works seem to have been forgotten and are deserving of resurgence.

You might think ‘oh this is obvious Catherine is going to fall for Desmond and that’ll be that’ which I might possibly have thought was coming only having read Jennifer Johnston before (thanks to Kimbofo who is a Johnston connoisseur and chose ‘The Illusionist’ for the NTTVBG last year) and knowing that she is far to clever for that, and indeed far too deceptive too as you have the feeling something darker is set to come. As we read on Catherine gets more and more entangled in Desmond’s life from his current wife, ex-wife and the one that got away, to his relationships with his children and to something in his past he did and cannot quite get over.

This is where I come into some slight conflict with the book however. Whilst I liked the way Desmond was quite quirky, the fact there was more to him than met the eye and the fact that Johnston used him to look at the feelings behind old age and the modern family with divorces and estranged children. I didn’t ever feel like I got to grips with the depths of the other characters, his first wife Pamela being a slight stereotype of the woman who needed to be free, and the same with the current wife Anna being the woman who became more and more embittered as she aged. Catherine herself was another character that I never quite formed fully in my mind, but maybe that was all me?

I thought the first three quarters of the book were rather brilliant in that observational writing style where little happens but much is said and passed on to the reader, a style I am quite a fan of and always impressed by any author that can do it so well and Johnston certainly can. Yet suddenly it seemed Johnston went from a fifth gear into first and so much happened within a few pages, which of course I won’t give away, that I was thrown before suddenly it was the final page and that was that. I don’t believe an author has to tie everything up nicely; in fact I really like authors who leave the reader to do some work themselves, here however I felt a few strands had simply been dumped and it bothered me a little especially as I was left wondering what in the last 152 pages had been fiction and had been truth. Maybe though that is the idea? 7/10

It sounds a little bit like I am moaning about this book reading it back and honestly I am not. Though I came away wanting a longer book and wanting to understand more of the peripheral characters (so that I could make sense of the big character of Desmond at the forefront of it all) I did come away still wanting to read much more Johnston. I really like her prose; Johnston’s writing has an honesty, humour and darkness to it which works for me. The fact Johnston trusts you to, and possibly thinks you should, work at the novel is a quality I admire and I will definitely be picking up another of her books in due course.  

I wonder if my surprised enjoyment of ‘The Illusionist’ and its becoming such a hit with me created a certain level of expectation in this one to some degree. Have you ever had that experience where you have read and loved an author’s book and then read another one, liked it a lot, but expected more? Has anyone got any suggestions of where to turn for another Jennifer Johnston novel?

I got this book from the library where they seem to do a good line in Jennifer Johnston, I shall have to get another!

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Filed under Headline Review, Jennifer Johnston, Review

The Illusionist – Jennifer Johnston

It almost seems contrived to constantly sing the praises of book groups (be they online or face to face) and the fact that they make you read books you never normally would, yet I am going to do that again today. One of the truest  joys of  a book group can be finding an author previously unknown to you that you enjoy so much you can’t wait to read more of their work, in fact you find yourself regularly looking at their back catalogue and wanting to own it all immediately. This happened with me in reading ‘The Illusionist’ by Jennifer Johnston for the latest meeting of minds of the NTTVBG last week.

‘The Illusionist’ is an intriguing and unsettling tale of the meeting, marriage and separation of Stella (a publisher) and Martyn (an illusionist – not to be confused with a conjurer, especially not in front of the man himself) who meet as strangers on a train in the summer of 1961. Initially unimpressed by this random man who wants to befriend her Stella is soon won over by what she believes is love and accepts his swift proposal of marriage, once married though Stella is bound into a world of secrecy, not just of her husbands but also of her own, and an ominous side to her husband begins to show through.

It isn’t giving anything away to say that the book is set after Martyn’s untimely death (he is blown up along with hundreds of doves from his infamous act in an IRA bombing) and funeral as Stella’s estranged daughter Robin comes to visit her when the book opens. As the two women discuss Martyn, Stella is reminded of the past and we switch between the present and the past and discover how the couple’s relationship developed and changes over time. The mystery that initially attracts and draws Stella to Martyn soon fades becoming secrecy and a calculated, controlling and subtle bullying behaviour of his true character starts to submerge which is in some parts quite dark and disturbing for the reader. It will also make you so angry in parts that you almost can’t speak, but that to me showed me I was deeply involved with the story and the characters.

It’s hard to say anymore without ruining the book because it’s a book that slowly but surely hooks you in and leaves you wanting more even once the final page is turned. It is certainly a book that will stay with me for quite sometime. I will fully admit I had some slight trepidation with the book initially as Johnston alternates between time periods suddenly and often with the same narrative, yet with the end result its well worth muddling through the first ten pages as the book will win you over with its subtle brilliance.

I have to say from initially feeling unsure about the book I was soon completely engrossed and had finished the book in a sitting or two and I can’t imagine there are many people that couldn’t be spell bound (pun intended) by this novel. I would highly recommend this to any of you who didn’t join in the NTTVBG and a huge thanks to Kim for putting this book and indeed this author on my reading radar, I will be looking out for much more of Jennifer Johnston’s work in the future. Has anyone else read this or any of Johnston’s other works? Do you have any particular recommendations for what I should read next?

Don’t forget that the NTTVBG is having a week off so we will be back on the 11th to discuss Neil Bartlett’s ‘Skin Lane’ right here at Savidge Reads, hope to see you all then.

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Filed under Headline Review, Jennifer Johnston, Not The TV Book Group, Review

NTTVBG – Series One, Book Four… (Feedback Wanted)

It’s a lovely sunny Sunday so what better to do this fine day than take a lovely brisk spring walk from this part of London along the Thames and over to Kimbofo’s of Reading Matters place to discuss the fourth title in the Not The TV Book Group first series/season ‘The Illusionist’ by Jennifer Johnston. I am of course not going to give any of my thoughts away on here instead you will have to make sure that you pop by and join in with the discussion and see how everyone else got on etc, etc.

Before you do though I thought I would ask for a quick favour. Seeing as this is book four we are actually (bar some bank holidays in between) now halfway through the selection and so I thought it might be a nice idea to get some feedback off you dear readers on how it is all going. The discussions are proving very lively and successful and people seem to be having a good time and some of you are lurking, watching and not yet chipping in so I thought I would just ask anyway, so if you could answer these… 

How are you finding the NTTVBG so far?
What do you think of the selection of books that have been discussed so far?
Have you joined in the discussion, if not why not (apart from not having the book)?
If you have, how have you found the online discussions?
How does the NTTVBG compare to any other book groups you are in online or face to face?
How are we all doing as hosts?
What don’t you like about the NTTVBG?
What do you love about it?
What would you like the NTTVBG to do next (don’t say retire, ha)?

I look forward to hearing all your thoughts! Right I best be off to Kimbofo’s to grab a nice cup of tea and settle down on the sofa for some delightful debate and discussion.

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Filed under Jennifer Johnston, Not The TV Book Group

Not The TV Book Group… The List

So if you guessed that the short list of books for the Not The TV Book Group might include; a Vampire with amnesia, a girl turning into glass, an environmental data collector in post-war France and Virginia Woolf… then well done you! If you hadn’t guessed that intriguing combination then you will be as surprised as Kim, Kirsty, Lynne and myself were after a ‘meeting of minds’ that started at 12pm and finished at about 3pm.

Yes finally we have come up with what we hope will be eight unusual and interesting reads for us all to discuss over 8 Sundays in the next 18 weeks – we decided to take out bank holiday weekends – each one of us inviting you round to our blogs to have a good old chat, maybe some banter and possibly some heated debate. Enough of me waffling on, you just want to know what the books are so without further ado…

I hope you will agree it’s a rather eclectic mixture of genres, authors, stories and publishers and one that you will all want to join in with as we have all very much had you in mind whilst doing this. We have held of starting the first read too soon so you can get to your library, a book store (new or old) or any online places of note to get copies and we really hope you join in. In case you are wondering why I have put links to a certain site on, its just so you can see covers and blurbs etc not because we are affiliated with it, just so you know.

How did I choose from so many books? Well I read maybe the first 20 pages of almost any book that fitted the criteria (out in last five years, hadn’t already written about etc, etc) and then looked at what was a bit different, what would make for good discussion and what would also be readable to more than just me but might take you slightly off the beaten bookish tracks. I then whittled them down till I got four books that matched all that criteria and yet were all very different. I have to say I am really quite pleased as my two favorites were the ones that got chosen from my final four.

I have been hankering after Ali Shaw’s ‘The Girl with the Glass Feet’ ever since I heard the title, which sounds a bit random but it’s the truth. The fact that it has been described as a modern adult fairytale and frankly it was almost  job done. Then reading the synopsis I was sold 100%. It also helped that I won this very recently from the lovely Gaskella as it was a book I had been hankering after for ages, it isn’t physically in the building yet but is on its way!

A mysterious metamorphosis has taken hold of Ida MacLaird – she is slowly turning into glass. Fragile and determined to find a cure, she returns to the strange, enchanted island where she believes the transformation began, in search of reclusive Henry Fuwa, the one man who might just be able to help…Instead she meets Midas Crook, and another transformation begins: as Midas helps Ida come to terms with her condition, they fall in love. What they need most is time – and time is slipping away fast.

Neil Barlett is an author who has quite a cult following but I don’t personally think that he has had enough attention. ‘Skin Lane’ is his third book and is described as a “taut little psycho-shocker” by none other than Will Self an author I really enjoy. I also liked the idea of a thriller being thrown in the mix and it sounds like this will be thrilling and creepy.

At 47, Mr. F’s working life on London’s Skin Lane is one governed by calm, precision and routine. So, when he starts to have frightening, recurring nightmares, he does his best to ignore them. The images that appear in his dream are disturbing – Mr. F can’t for the life of him think where they have come from. After all, he’s a perfectly ordinary middle-aged man. As London’s crooked backstreets begin to swelter in the long, hot summer of 1967, Mr. F’s nightmare becomes an obsession. A chance encounter adds a face to the body that nightly haunts him, and the torments of his sweat-drenched nights lead him – and the reader – deeper into a terrifying labyrinth of rage, desire and shame.”

Do pop and see Dovegreyreader, Kimbofo and Other Stories to find out which were their choices and how they chose them – they will probably be more insightful than me as I feel utterly shattered! Book short listing is fun though tiring, who’d have known? What were the other two… I can’t say I might need them for series two if this one goes well!

I will be posting a new page tomorrow morning with the list, all their covers and their blurbs, so keep your eyes peeled for that. Oh, I have only just realized that both my final chosen books were Costa Award Nominee’s, I am hoping that is a good sign!?! I hope you will be joining in be it here or there or for the whole run. I am now off to have a bookish break; I am truly booked out and so will hand over to you, what do you make of my choices, and of course the list as a whole?

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Filed under Ali Shaw, Jennifer Johnston, Jon Canter, Mary Swan, Neil Bartlett, Not The TV Book Group, Octavia E. Butler, Philippe Claudel, Susan Sellers