Category Archives: Penguin Books

I’m The King of the Castle – Susan Hill

Writing about certain books can sometimes be a trepidatious thing. Susan Hill’s I’m the King of the Castle is one such example for various reasons. There is the fact that this has become a modern classic to the extent that is had been on the English syllabus for years, which also adds the threat that some youths might head here and think I know what the heck I am talking about and use me as part of their exam answers (if only the internet had been in existence when I was at school, I am so old) or coursework. Then there is the fact that Susan Hill is one of my favourite contemporary writers and so I put pressure on myself. Really I have to ignore all that, think ‘sod it and hurrah’ and, because this is a blog diarising my reading thoughts and adventures and not some lit-crit site, just write about the book – which I loved.

9780241970782

Penguin Books, 1970 (2014 edition), paperback, fiction, 224 pages, bought by my good self

When Joseph Hooper inherits the decaying familial home, a Victorian mansion called Warings, he feels he is finally the ruler of his domain. This all changes when his father advertises for someone to come and take care of the house and keep an eye on Edmund (despite the cold relationship they have he can clearly see Edmund is turning into an odious little oik) at the same time. The arrival of Mrs Helena Kingshaw is a double triple blessing as not only is she ideal she is also very becoming and has a son, Charles, who can become a new playmate for his own boy. Yet Edmund has taken a similar stance to Warings, with his father away so often he believes he is in charge of the house, likes it that way and isn’t keen on change.

‘Oh – what is it, what have you found?’ She was anxious that he should like it here, should very soon feel at home.
Kingshaw thought, I didn’t want to come, I didn’t want to come, it is one more strange house in which we do not properly belong. But he had dropped the lump of plasticine. ‘Nothing, it’s nothing. It’s only a pebble.’
Walking behind his mother, into the dark hall, he managed to open out the scrap of paper.
‘I DIDN’T WANT YOU TO COME HERE’ was written.
‘Now let me show you to your rooms,’ said Mr Joseph Hooper.
Kingshaw stuffed the message fearfully into his trouser pocket.

Edmund plots and creates as many cunning and diabolical horrors as he can (one involving a stuffed crow was my personal favourite) to try and get rid of Charles, not understanding that Charles would like nothing more to run away from this place and soon starts to plan just that. After a first humiliating attempt to flee, Charles soon ventures into (the perfectly named) Hang Wood with Edmund in hot pursuit. Once lost in Hang Wood the roles of power reverse as they become lost and cracks in Edmund’s domineering persona start to break. But can Charles resist revenge and can a bully like Edmund ever really change?

Many people say that I’m the King of the Castle is a case study in the cruelty that children can inflict on each other. (And kids can be bloody horrid to one another, I was bullied mercilessly by some horrors –who weirdly couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to befriend them on Facebook a few decades later anyway, this isn’t a therapy session for me it’s a review.) In some ways, particularly with Edmund Hopper who I thoroughly enjoyed despising,  that is the case but I think there is a lot more going on with this novel than just that.

In Edmund and Charles I felt Susan Hill creates the typical bully and the typical, and unfortunate, victim. The question it made me ponder were if children are naturally born into those roles in life or if the environment they are brought up in, be it place or how they are treated. Yes that old chestnut, the nature vs. nurture debate. Is Edmund a rotten so and so because he is allowed to be and because his father had a bad relationship with his father? Has Charles been molly coddled by his mother as he has been moved from pillar to post? Is it class? Or were these two boys just born with brains that developed their psyches into such? I can’t answer any of those questions (sorry to all you students hoping to copy and paste, ha, I admire your tenacity though) but it didn’t make me think about them.

A theme I picked up strongly on, and I actually think is the more powerful message from this book (aside from don’t be a bullying menace) is the fact that children are too often not listened to enough. There is the old adage that children should be seen and not heard, this takes that further to a level of neglect or naivety as two parents ignore their children’s thoughts and feelings too busy caught up in their own. Yet how often does this happen in real life? Hill amplifies the expression children hear of ‘not now’ as Mr Hooper and Mrs Kingshaw are blinded by love/lust, or potentially money and status, I could never quite work Mrs Kingshaw out. How is a child left feeling when they aren’t heard?

This is one of Susan Hill’s masterstrokes with I’m the King of the Castle she has an incredible insight and empathy with younger people. Unlike the parents of the piece she doesn’t patronise, simplify or underestimate the lengths that both of these boys, who are polar opposites in character, will go to. She also looks at those moments of pure darkness and those of pure kindness without shying away from them and the effect of all this is quite something.

The boy looked towards the bed. His skin was already dead, he thought, it is old and dry. But he saw that the bones of the eye-sockets, and the nose and jaw, showed through it, and gleamed. Everything about him, from the stubble of hair down to the folded line of sheet, was bleached and grey-ish white.
‘All he looks like,’ Edmund Hooper said, ‘is one of his dead old moths.’

Finally, and most importantly for me, what made me love this novel is that it is overall simply a brilliant dark gothic yarn. It has a grumbling old house complete with collections of old moths, it has a brooding wood, it has an evil cunning child, psychological warfare, vengeful crows, a wicked sense of humour and an ending that will leave you feeling emotionally bruised and with questions that cause a sense of unease to linger on your psyche. It is not a book that wants to be nicely wrapped up and dependent on its reader will leave you feeling hopeful or a small sense of dread at what might come after. I was in the latter category, which probably says quite a lot about me.

Having read it I can completely understand why I’m the King of the Castle has become a modern classic and why it is being taught all around the UK, though I am thinking most parents should be given this around their first child’s ninth birthday too, just as a small warning. Ha! Not only is it a fantastic gothic story, it is one of the best insights into being and understanding a child’s mind that I have read. Yup, even better than Lord of the Flies, possibly because it is on a smaller and I think more intense scale. If you haven’t read it yet then I strongly recommend that you do.

I should add I chose this book for an episode of Hear Read This, if you would like to listen to Rob, Kate, Gavin and my additional thoughts head here. Who else has read I’m the King of the Castle and what did you make of it? Have any of you had to study that and how was it compared to reading it because you just wanted to?

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Filed under Books of 2015, Hear... Read This, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review, Susan Hill

How to be both – Ali Smith

When the lovely folk at the Bailey’s Prize asked me if there was a book I would like to champion from the shortlist that I hadn’t read yet (or you know it would be The Bees) I instantly, and quite cheekily, asked them if I could read Ali Smith because I am a big fan of her work. I have actually been a big fan of her work since before this blog was born when I read The Accidental and loved it just as much as I was occasionally baffled by it. Since then I have loved Girl Meets Boy, The First Person & Other Stories, There but for the and Artful. Now with How to be both I think Ali Smith has encased everything I love about her writing in one book, though I am also aware that it won’t be a book for every reader out there…

Penguin Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the lovely lot at the Bailey’s Prize

How to be both is a clever novel in that is is made up of two narratives/novellas/stories which form a whole novel, yet can be read and have indeed been printed in either order creating a slightly different book. Before we get too involved in how that works, let me tell you more about the two stories. First up, well in my editon, is the tale of George whose mother has recently died and whose life and death along with the things she was interested in have become a kind of obsession with George whilst coping with the grief and loss of her mother, one being the art of an Italian 15th century fresco painter, Francesco del Cossa. The other story is the tale of the artist del Cossa who of little is known and indeed until a specific fresco and letter were discovered wasn’t a known artist at all. It may seem like the link between the stories is obvious however the more you read the more the narratives are connected, occasionally mirrored and interweaved.

But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?
The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done.
But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?
George sighs heavily. Her mother points across the way, to the castle wall. A bus goes past. Its whole back is an advert for something in which there’s a Madonna and child picture as if from the past, except the mother is showing the baby Jesus how to look something up on an iPad.

Now I left in the last paragraph of that quote because if you are worried that this novel might be too clever or maybe a little to conceptual it is honestly not. Yes Smith is an amazingly gifted and clever writer, yes she is also an author who is brimming with ideas and her novels can have an unusual concept to them, in no way is she a writer who alienates, comes across as pompous or likes the sound of her own voice or opinions. Her writing is as enjoyable as it is experimental and she has as much sense of humour as she has ideas, admittedly the first part of the Italian section made me do a ‘what?!?’ but I trusted her and read on more of that shortly. What I love about her writing the most is the way that she will play with words, flip them and their meanings about and show you just how blooming amazing this language we all have is.

There is also much more to love about her writing. Layers mainly, in fact layered is a very good word for Smith as she does this with themes in her novels, gender, beginnings, art, culture, stories, spirit & essence, death, grief and more are in this novel. Smith is clearly a people watcher. She has the ears for dialogue and the eyes for character. Any conversation you read in a Smith novel be they set now or be it set several centuries ago is exactly how people speak. I know this sounds really obvious because all authors write dialogue, yet even when that dialogue is good it isn’t as brimming and astute and layered with meaning as when Ali Smith does it, in particular (and this almost beats one of the best dinner party conversations in fiction ever in There but for the) there are conversations between teenage George and her mother that we know we have all had when we were being pedantic clever clogs and one scene with George and her father having to discuss a pornographic  video with its undertone of two people who have become alien to one another since grief hit, is utterly brilliant.

The same brilliance with dialogue applies to Smith’s characters. George is a wonderful, wonderful character who I loved seeing the world from the angle of. Like in There but for the (sorry to mention it again, it remains my favourite Smith book and I loved this) in How to be both Smith uses a younger character to show us the reader how utterly bizarre we are as adult human beings. She does this with the way her mother uses language, yes her own mother, and she does this when she is thinking about death, about art, about pornography, all without it ever sounding precocious. I was utterly charmed by George and it may have been leaving George behind, and initially the very unusual way the start of the second section (in my version of the book) that made me a little hesitant and a little cranky initially when we went to 15th Century Italy.

Don’t get me wrong, once I had warmed up to and got used to the way del Cossa tells a tale I was into the swing of it. There were three particular highlights in this section firstly the wonderful and rompy tale of del Cossa’s rise to painting for the aristocracy, which takes us via a wonderful and vivid whore house, secondly her tale of friendship  and finally, yet most incredibly of all, the way Smith writes about painting. You’d think creative types writing about other creative types would be easy, quite the opposite and some novels about artists or musicians can go horribly wrong (oh hello Richard Powers’ Orfeo) or come across as pretentious drivel. Not for Smith. I was worried I might get bored when she wrote about del Cossa painting or feel like it was a lecture, I was captivated.

It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even a imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and it told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.

I also think the Italian section is very integral to another thing Ali Smith likes to toy with and that is our assumptions. If there is one thing I have learnt in the case of an Ali Smith novel it is to have no preconceived ideas about it, other than it will be very good, and also to assume nothing. For those of you who have yet to read it I will say no more for fear of spoilers, for those of you who have read it you will know what I mean and we can talk about those and much more in the comments below – after all I promised this would be like a book group, this does mean there may be some spoilers in the comments, be warned. I did wonder how it would work if I had read the two parts the other way around and tried playing the ‘if I had read it that way’ game, I am wondering if too much would have been given away too soon. More to discuss below I feel?

I really liked How to be both. I think it takes all the best parts of her previous novel, mixes them up  and produces something wonderful. Occasionally this does mean that How to be both will have a familiar feel to its predecessors in some way (I so wanted to call this post Artful: The Remix) yet it is also a completely original novel and concept too. As I said before, Smith is as enjoyable as she is experimental and long may she keep writing books like this and gaining a much deserved wider and wider readership. I think she could be one of the most interesting contemporary writers of our time whilst also being one of our most accessible, if you are prepared to put the work in and leave your reading inhibitions by the door. Marvellous!

So normally it is over to you and I ask if you have read the book and what you thought of it, plus ask you what else I should read of Ali Smith’s and indeed from the Bailey’s shortlist. I still want all that but I want a little bit more (and I feel I am worth it, ha) as I said this would be like a book group discussion so to get us all going I do want you to tell me what you thought, I have also asked a few questions in the first comment below… let’s get discussing!

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Filed under Ali Smith, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Penguin Books, Review

The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells

Before I read it, I had some really odd preconceived ideas about H. G. Well’s The Invisible Man. First up I thought that it was a tome of some several hundred pages, wrong, it is a novella. Secondly I thought that it was set in the 1970’s (impossible as it was written in 1897) and involved some old man in a mackintosh who smoked, wrong, that is just something I naively surmised from an old 70’s edition of the book my mother had on her shelves. Thirdly I didn’t think I would enjoy it in any way shape or form, so wrong. I absolutely loved this book.

Penguin Classics, paperback, 1897 (2012 edition), fiction, 176 pages, bought by me for me

Most of you will have read The Invisible Man already, but for the few of you like me who have put off held back from reading it until now possibly because you assumed it was about some weirdo in a flasher mac, or about some boring scientist in a laboratory made of glass (where do I make these assumptions up from?) here is what the book is actually about…

One night, during a snow storm, a stranger going by the name of Griffin, arrives at an Inn in the small village of Iping looking for somewhere to shelter a while from the world let alone the weather. Strangers come and go in any inn and yet this stranger is stranger than any previous stranger (I have written the word stranger too many times and its gone weird in my head, like when you say a word too much) as he is covered in a long cloak, darkened glasses and his hands and the whole of his face are covered in bandages. The local folk, in particular the landlady, become very interested in Griffin, but interest is the last thing he wants and so locks himself away from prying eyes. Yet as the strangers’ arrival coincides with some odd goings on in the village, and a bout of sneezes from nowhere, the people become more and more obsessed with Griffin until events get out of control.

‘Leave the hat,’ said her visitor in a muffled voice, and turning she saw he had raised his head and was sitting looking at her.
For a moment she stood gaping at him, too surprised to speak.
He held a white cloth – it was a serviette he had brought with him – over the lower part of his face, so that his mouth and jaws were completely hidden, and that was the reason of his muffled voice. But it was not that which startled Mrs Hall. It was the fact that all his forehead above his blue glasses was covered by a white bandage, and that another covered his ears, leaving not a scrap of his face exposed excepting only his pink, peaked nose.

What I hadn’t expected The Invisible Man to be was such a wonderfully gothic mini Victorian horror of a story and I absolutely revelled in it. With a snowstorm, a village out in the middle of nowhere and a mysterious stranger just for starters I knew that this was going to be one of those books that I just devoured and indeed I sat and read this in one greedy sitting actually feeling emotionally wrung out and bereft by the time I had finished.

You see what I was expecting (apart from an odd scientist who might flash you any moment after he had spent the day in a glass laboratory and then driven home in his Ford Capri, seriously that was what I thought) was a book about a scientist who had gone invisible and then become a helpless victim of circumstance. Now, without much away as you soon learn this, Griffin has been a victim of sorts yet he was doing something calculated that went wrong. Oh and he is pretty much going utterly bonkers loop-the-loop crazy.

What is wonderful with the way Wells handles Griffin’s character is that you go from moments of genuine horror to moments of genuine laughter (Wells must have had a wickedly dark sense of humour) and then back to horror again. Marvellous! A prime example of this is with the ‘sneezing from nowhere’ what starts off as something which reads as wonderfully comic, which made me laugh out loud, to something that marks a forthcoming dome and builds this real sense of foreboding. On several occasions I had the full on hairs on the back of your neck standing up with fear. This also creates a really interesting relationship between the reader and Griffin, is he the misunderstood hero of the piece or is he a despicable genius?

Is it the element of ‘hero or monster’ that I also found fascinating in the way that the story is told. We initially think the arrival of Griffin is where all the drama and action of The Invisible Man happens, yet as we read on we find out about the occurrences that lead him there and the plot thickens and Wells plays with us and what we think morally. I shall say no more. Oh, well, apart from the fact that the ending had me genuinely upset, I may have even wept. Clever old Wells, now I really will say no more in case I accidentally spoil things.

If you hadn’t guessed by now I absolutely loved The Invisible Man. It completely surpassed my, admittedly low, expectations and all the assumptions that I had made about it. It has everything I love in it; mystery, murder and mayhem. It is a little gothic masterpiece. If you haven’t read it yet then please, please, please get your mitts on a copy. I now want to read absolutely everything else that Mr Wells has written.

As you are all observant folk, you might be wondering why I ended up reading a book I really wasn’t keen to? It was Rob’s choice for a past episode of Hear Read This, you can hear our thoughts plus Kate and Gavin’s here. Now what about you lot? Have many of you already read The Invisible Man and what did you make of it? Which, now that I have been and binge bought them all, of Wells’ classic should I read next?

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Filed under Books of 2015, H.G. Wells, Hear... Read This, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

A Month in the Country – J.L. Carr

There is something rather wonderful in the fact that Granny Savidge is still influencing my reading almost a year, in fact it is a year tomorrow, since she died. As someone who I talked about books at least three times a week there is a void left now yet through having inherited some of her books my thought was that some of her favourites, as they were the only books she would keep unless a random gift like the Barbara Cartland I once bought her as a joke, would become my future reads and maybe some of my favourites. Well luck struck first time with J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, which I tried to read when she was ill (on her recommendation) yet just couldn’t yet have been much, much more successful this time around.

9780141182308

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1980 (2000 edition), fiction, 112 pages, inherited from Gran

In A Month in the Country Tom Birkin reflects several decades later on the summer of 1920 when he ended up in the village of Oxgodby for a single month. Here on a mission left by recently deceased spinster Miss Hebron he is being paid, begrudgingly by the Reverend Keach who is only allowing it as Hebron left the church money if he did, to uncover a possible medieval wall painting inside the church. Birkin reflects upon that summer, the place he was in mentally in his life at the time and thinks about the place he was in physically and those who peopled it.

Ostensibly it sounds like there isn’t really much to this novella and in some ways you would be right, plot wise there are no twists and turns. Yet somehow Carr creates a novel where very little happens and yet everything happens too. We learn through reflections he had that month which he reflects upon (bear with me) of his failing marriage, yet we also get hints of what happened after that summer. We also get glimpses of what he had to face during the war which has left him with shellshock and a nervous twitch. We learn of the friends he makes; Charles Moon who also fought in the war and is on another of Miss Hebron’s missions, Alice Keach the younger wife of the Reverend who feels like she isn’t accepted, Kathy Ellerbeck a young girl who befriends Birkin and whose family are the first to welcome him properly into the area.

Through all these friendships Carr creates very condensed additional stories. With the Ellerbeck’s he looks at how the families and people in the countryside were as affected by the war as those in the cities, only in a different way, and also looks at class. With Moon, whose storyline is sharply bittersweet, we get another side of the war and also another side to social mores of the time. Through Alice Keach we look at marriage, a mirror of sorts to Birkin’s to an extent, and indeed lust verses love and how love and marriage connect or don’t.

See it is brimming and what makes this all the more masterful is that fact that Carr does this all so succinctly. The story is in itself only 88 pages and yet there is all of this life within it. The prose is magical, not something I say often yet is so true in this instance. Within a line he conjures a character completey, a situation is a mere paragraph or so. Sometimes within very few lines he can capture the things we ponder about life and just put them plainly and simply, in terms we wish we could, it is just marvellous.

I never exchanged a word with the Colonel. He has no significance at all in what happened during my stay in Oxgodby. As far as I’m concerned he might just as well have gone round the corner and died. But that goes for most of us, doesn’t it? We look blankly at each other. Here I am, here you are. What are we doing here? What do you suppose it’s all about? Let’s dream on. Yes, that’s my Dad and Mum over there on the piano top. My eldest boy is on the mantelpiece. That cushion cover was embroidered by my cousin Sarah only a month before she passed on. I go to work at eight and come home at five-thirty. When I retire they’ll give me a clock – with my name engraved on the back. Now you know all about me. Go away; I’ve forgotten you already.

One of my favourite things in fiction is looking at difference and also the relationship between the outsider and the insider. Interestingly it is books with a rural setting where this can be used to its full potential. In villages things are rarely missed or go unnoticed, in cities you can lose yourself, others or things. With A Month in the Country Carr adds even more levels to this. The metaphor of the outsider is tripled as not only is Birkin an outsider to Oxgodby, he is an outsider to some of the religious views of the villagers and in many ways in his present state an outsider to life. This is doubly felt as he uncovers the wall painting, seemingly learning about the villagers (possibly uncovering their secrets) and himself at the same time, and of course there is the image that the walls depict, but I won’t spoil that for you.

The other things that I loved so much about the book are firstly how awash it is in the sense of nostalgia and secondly the way the atmosphere and place are so well depicted and come to life. I left the book feeling as if I had been wandering away and hour or two reflecting on that summer, as I had walked it’s streets, seen Miss Hebron’s spooky old house, witnessed a sermon in the church, has dinner with the Ellerbeck’s and tea with Charles Moon when these moments are just a sentence here and there within.

If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around the corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.

I think it is safe to say, and very apparent, that I adored A Month in the Country. I think it is easily one of the best things that I have read in years and a book that will not only last with me for years to come but also be read by me again and again for years to come. It is the kind of rare book that makes you look at your life and tells you not to waste it, not to have regrets and to do all the things you want to do, not what people want you to. If you haven’t read it, which is possibly unlikely, then you must. I can see why so many authors have it as a firm favourite, it is a perfect piece of prose. A little gem of a novella.

Inscribed by Gran

Inscribed by Gran

My only real regret with the novel is that I can’t talk to Gran about it. As soon as I had finished it I felt the age old urge to phone her and rave about it all (yes, a year down the line this still happens when I read a book I really love) and discuss it further. However, not to get too nostalgic and melancholic, I just sat and thanked her for a moment for having led me to it, plus I have all of you to discuss it with now don’t I?

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Filed under Books of 2014, J.L. Carr, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

One of the biggest joys of reading is the moment when you find a book that you know is going to remain one of favourite reads for years and years to come, if not the rest of your reading life. It may be that the prose simply sings to you, the subject matter may chime with something in your own life, it may hit you emotionally, or the characters walk off the page and into your brain nestling there leaving you thinking about them and their story long after you have finished the book. In the case of Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey’s debut novel, it was all of these things and more.

Penguin Viking Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Take two mysteries; the recent disappearance of one of your closest friends and the disappearance of a family member in the past, and tell their stories through an 82 year old narrator suffering from dementia and you might have a very confusing and rather daunting read ahead of you. Not in the case of Elizabeth is Missing which, as you may have guessed, is based around that exact premise.

From the start of the novel we meet Maud who, when she is not repeatedly going to the corner shop and buying more (and more) tinned peaches, is always finding notes in her pockets that remind her that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She may sometimes forget the name of the women who come and make her tea or clean her house but with these notes everywhere possible she cannot forget this and she must find out where she went, why her house is empty and why Elizabeth’s son never seems to care. At the start of the novel Maud also discovers a compact mirror, where we are not initially sure, which suddenly brings back the disappearance and mystery of what happened to her sister Sukey 70 years ago.

Whilst we find the mysteries fascinating and are eager to follow Maud as she tries to work it all out, giving the book the element of a thriller and mystery yet being very much a literary novel, those around her do not feel the same, in fact they find it infuriating.

Helen sighs again. She’s doing a lot of that lately. She won’t listen, won’t take me seriously, imagines that I want to live in the past. I know what she’s thinking, that I’ve lost my marbles, that Elizabeth is perfectly well at home and I just don’t remember having seen her recently. But it’s not true. I forget things – I know that – but I’m not mad. Not yet. And I’m sick of being treated as if I am. I’m tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say. My heartbeat quickens and I clench my teeth.  I have a terrible urge to kick Helen under the table. I kick the table leg instead. The shiny salt and pepper shakers rattle against each other and a wine glass starts to topple. Helen catches it. ‘Mum,’ she says. ‘Be careful. You’ll break something.’

It is through this that Healey wonderfully creates both the angles of a double edged sword of Maud’s current situation, which alongside the mysteries at its heart create a stunningly crafted novel. On the one hand we feel for Maud both in terms of her utter assurance that her friend has gone missing and in the frustration she feels at forgetting things and not being believed. On the other we see how hard it is for the carers of someone and how tough it can be despite how much you might love them. The situation is written and described so honestly, sometimes you feel infuriated with Helen being infuriated with Maud, that it hits you with an emotional wallop.

Having personally been a carer for someone who was terminally ill and someone who used to visit their great uncle with dementia the book really struck chords with me but I think it would with any reader who has a heart to be frank. Healey doesn’t stop there though as she adds depths plus light and shade by giving Elizabeth is Missing both some darkly funny parts (I cackled) and also some utterly gut wrenching ones (I cried three times both times I read the book – yes I have read it twice I loved it so). One minute we will be laughing as Maud goes to buy another tin of peaches, then crying as she is unable to work out where home or her toilet is. Or laughing at a visit from the police before wanting to weep as her condition worsens, another devastating yet brilliant thing for Healey to show, and she realises she is forgetting those around her.

My stomach seems to have dissolved inside me. I didn’t know my own daughter, and it feels like a reproach to hear her call me Mum.

The star of the show is Healey’s writing; in her creation of such an unflinchingly vivid situation and putting us through all the emotions that come with it and her creation of Maud. Both as an elderly woman with dementia and as a young naïve girl in the (brilliantly created) 1940’s, she is one of my favourite characters in years and spending time with her was an absolute joy even when the book takes its darker twists. I still think of her and this book often.

In case you hadn’t guessed I think Elizabeth is Missing is an incredible novel. It is also a novel that looks at the elderly, of whom there are more and more as we live longer and longer and yet we seem to shy away from discussing. Emma Healey creates an insightful, funny, touching and often heart-breaking tale of Maud and the mysteries of her life in a world she is struggling to remember. I laughed. I cried. I wanted to start it all over again the moment I had turned the last page. Highly recommended, in fact I couldn’t recommend it more, easily one of my favourite books of the year. Read it.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Emma Healey, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

Some books need to be read at just the right time, sometimes whim chooses its moment and others it feels like fate has stepped in slightly. I have been meaning to read Graeme Simsion’s debut novel The Rosie Project for ages and ages, since it came out in fact and had lots of glowing reviews from its home turf of Australia, indeed even being featured on The First Tuesday Book Club. Yet for some reason I was never quite in the right mood… and then Adam at my book club chose it and so it seemed fate had intervened. This I should add was back at the end of February but I thought I would hold off reviewing it until Kim of Reading Matters (who shared her shelves with us all yesterday) delightful ANZ Literature Month which runs throughout May.

Penguin Books, trade paperback, 2013, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Professor Don Tillman is a man who is going to get married, to who, well he doesn’t quite know yet. What he does know is less who she might be but much more who he doesn’t want her to be. Don has actually gone the extra mile and designed a questionnaire to find his ideal partner which he calls The Wife Project. This he feels will be a winner, yet the options for a possible wife don’t seem to be very forthcoming. Occasionally he does get a first date, alas there always tends to be some slight issue that throws Don off kilter and rather off his date. Don, we soon discover, is very particular character from liking to spend exactly 94 minutes cleaning the bathroom to being very sure that anyone and everyone should know the difference between an apricot sorbet and a peach one.

Cycling home, I reflected on the dinner. It had been a grossly inefficient method of selection, but the questionnaire had been of significant value. Without it, and the questions it prompted, I would undoubtedly have attempted a second date with Olivia, who was an extremely interesting and nice person. Perhaps we would have gone on a third date and a fourth and fifth date, then one day, when all the desserts at the restaurant had contained egg, we would have crossed the road to the ice-cream parlour, and discovered they had no egg-free pistachio. It was better to find out before we made an investment in the relationship.

However things change slightly when Don’s friend Gene, a man who is currently doing his own project on the differences between sexual intercourse with women from every country, a project we are never sure he has been fully honest with his wife about, steps in. He sends Rosie in Don’s direction, she is almost everything that Don wouldn’t want yet she needs some genetic help in finding her real father (another project) which slightly begrudgingly Don agrees to, leading him on a journey of detective discovery and one of self-discovery too.

I will admit that it does all sound a bit cute and schmaltzy, and at times it often is. It all sounds rather predictable and you can probably guess what is going to happen, even the twists and turns that come along, with all the characters and the genetic hunt (though with the latter I was rather wrong footed) yet even a big old cynic like me found himself enjoying it rather a lot as I was reading on.

The main reason for that is Don himself. Initially I didn’t think I was going to get on with the narration because it is (and this is a good thing but it could put some people off) very unique. Don is a professor in genetics which has rather an irony as, we assume as it is never made official, he has some form of Asperger’s Syndrome which is one of the things that he himself deals with but cannot spot in his own, very precise, behaviour. This makes his narration initially seem very matter of fact, quite distant and sometimes rather cold. As we get to know him though we see it as just a quirk in his personality which warms us to him and we often find ourselves laughing at the honest way in which he will view a situation or person. Simsion does something very clever here as we never laugh AT Don, we just laugh at the way his thinking highlights some of the ridiculous ways in which we behave as people. It’s a difficult balance to create without making Don the joke of the book, Simsion does it deftly.

Then she interrupted my thoughts. ‘Anyhow, I’ve got a genetics question.’
‘Proceed,’ I said. I was back in the world I knew.
‘Someone told me you can tell if a person’s monogamous by the size of their testicles.’
The sexual aspects of biology are regularly in the popular press, so this was not as stupid a statement as it might appear, although it embodied a typical misconception. It occurred to me that it might be some sort of code for a sexual advance, but I decided to play it safe and respond to the question literally.
‘Ridiculous,’ I said.
Rosie seemed very pleased with my answer.
‘You’re a star,’ she said. ‘I’ve just won a bet.’

I have to admit as the book went on I did have a few wobbles with it. My first question was why the book had to go to New York, which isn’t a spoiler as I haven’t told you why? It seemed a bit unnecessary and was the first time that I felt like it was a screenplay which had been turned into a book to then make a film, which is apparently how the book came to fruition. It had that slight ‘must appeal to Hollywood and the American market’ rather than actually being needed for the story I felt. The second thing was that Don starts to change, again I won’t say why or in what way, yet this too didn’t feel quite right, the whole point of the book to me (and what makes it so quirky and original in the genre it is in) was about how Don was different and how we should celebrate it, I couldn’t quite decide if in the end that was the case.

Either way, I enjoyed The Rosie Project. It made me think about how we perceive and judge people in a nice easy way – if that sounds patronising I don’t mean it to. Sometimes we need books you don’t have to think too much about (not in a snobby way) you just simply read them for the enjoyment and, in this case, the giggles (I laughed out loud at a scene involving a full sized modern skeleton) that they provide along the way, being entertained as you go.

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Filed under Graeme Simsion, Penguin Books, Review

The Witches of Eastwick – John Updike

Being one of my favourite films I have always wanted to read John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick because the general rule is that the book is always so much better than the film, so in my head this meant the book was going to be amazing. I have also meant to read Updike again ever since I read Couples which was a choice at my old book club back in 2010. So I admit that I entered into the spirit of reading this one in high hopes. I have to tell you whilst The Witches of Eastwick has some similarities to Couples it has very little similarity to the film other than the characters names, it was quite unexpected.

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1984 (2007 edition), fiction, 320 pages, bought by me

There is something in the air in the town of Eastwick that turns women into witches, generally when they leave or are left by their husbands. Alexandra, Sukie and Jane are three such witches and as they have become friends, with their Thursday nights of cocktails and gossip, they have formed rather a powerful bond and indeed a rather powerful coven. These three ‘independent’ women sleep with the married men of the town, seemingly casting a spell over them, until a stranger by the name of Darryl Van Horne arrives taking over the local Lennox Mansion and wetlands and soon the three witches are competing to vie for the attentions of one mysterious man.

What initially, and I should add pleasantly, surprised me about the novel was the fact that these three witches were just that, witches. They could cast spells on the people they didn’t like (which at various points becomes very important and quite horrifying), throw fortune in their favour, hex you, levitate, create storms and quite literally drive men mad. Yet brilliantly Updike just makes this all part and parcel of a life in a town in Rhode Island in the 1970’s with the Vietnam War making its presence felt in the background. No one in the town seems to really bat an eyelid, what they don’t like it change and Daryl Van Horne is very much change, magic they barely bat an eye to.

Alexandra counted the seconds until the thunder: five. By rough rule this made the storm she had conjured up two miles in diameter, if these strokes were at the heart. Blundering thunder rumbled and cursed. Tiny speckled sand crabs were emerging now from their holes by the dozen and scurrying sideways towards the frothing sea. The colour of their shells was so sandy they appeared transparent. Alexandra steeled herself and crunched one beneath the sole of her bare foot. Sacrifice. There must always be sacrifice. It was one of nature’s rules.

Yet these are not the sort of witches I would want in my neighbourhood because, rather surprisingly to me because of the film, these women are not that nice, more often than not they are actually quite nasty witches and quite nasty bitches. In some ways this is rather fascinating as we see these women who have become friends, though I was never quite sure why as they had slept with each other’s husbands in the past and could be quite malicious about the other, turn against each other and several people of the town.

At the same time though I found this confusing. What was Updike trying to say about women? You see initially Alexandra (in particular), Sukie and Jane seem like thriving independent women who are getting the most out of life. That I found a really positive and feminist stand. However soon enough not only do we discover they are sleeping with most of the married men around the town, as I mentioned including each other’s husbands before they ridded themselves of them. Then as Darryl turns up they turn on each other and become calculating and manipulative man eaters (especially Jane who I despised) who will trample on each other to get the man before realising they are going to have to share and so start having group sex regularly, to please their man – classy. Oh and heaven help any woman who then tries to get in on the act. Where is the sisterhood then? The book soon becomes the polar opposite of feministic as it twists and turns.

Like most good school teachers he was a tyrant, unctuous and insistent; in his dank way he wanted to sleep with everybody. Jane was sleeping with him these days. Alexandra had succumbed a few times in the past but the episode had moved her so little Sukie was perhaps unaware of its vibrations, its afterimage. Sukie herself appeared to be chaste vis-à-vis Neff, but then she had been available least long. Being a divorcee in a small town is a little like playing monopoly; eventually you land on all the properties. The two friends wanted to rescue Jane, who in a kind of indignant hurry was always selling herself short. It was the hideous wife, with her strawy dull hair cut short as if with grass clippers and her carefully pronounced malapropisms and her goggle-eyed intent way of listening to every word, whom they disapproved of. When you sleep with a married man you in a sense sleep with the wife as well, so she should not be an utter embarrassment.

As I read on I became more and more frustrated for the book as it became more and more apparent that Updike’s novel for feminists, with a little research I discovered that is what he called it, was more like an evocation of his ideals of feminism. Also known as women who will basically sleep with each other and all the men and don’t mind overall but if one puts a toe out of line then you might end up with a terminal illness hexed on you, or worse.

Updike’s prose, as with Couples which interestingly has similar themes and similarly vile characters, is wonderful. The descriptions of Eastwick and its inhabitants are marvellously created and you feel you have walked the streets, chatted to the locals and headed out to the wetlands once you have finished. He also really looks at the society of certain times and how the world was changing far faster than people wanted it to. Again, magical goings on are fine, but building a tennis court (the scene in the book is even better than the film) or changing the name of a street is an utterly heinous idea. Change is not good.

Felicia’s beady eyes furious eyes flashed. “No you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t think Shithouse Square had such a bad ring to it either. You don’t give a damn about the world we pass onto our children or the wars or the we inflict on the innocent or whether or not we poison ourselves to death, you’re poisoning yourself to death right now tho what do you care, drag the whole globe down with you ith the way you look at it.” The diction of her tirade had become thick and she carefully lifted from her tongue a small straight pin and what looked like part of an art-gum eraser.

I am torn with The Witches of Eastwick as a novel. Unusually I much preferred the film. I guess on the level of a tale of three witches in a small town who are pulled apart and against each other over a new man on the scene it is a darkly entertaining read. I also loved all the magic in such a suburban setting. Not that you have to with a book by any means, but don’t expect to like any of the characters or find any real redemption anywhere, well maybe with Sukie, maybe. As a feminist work it falls flat, really it’s a male chauvinists view of what the fantasy, or maybe even nightmare, of feminism is – the twist almost at the end really highlighting that. Puzzling indeed.

Who else has read The Witches of Eastwick and what did you make of it? Did you dislike the witches as much as I did? If you want to hear more about the book Gavin, Kate, Rob and I discuss it on the latest episode of Hear… Read This! so do have a listen. Which films have you seen that are better than the books, or give the characters and situations of a book a better context, do many of them exist?

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Filed under John Updike, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review