Book Review: “The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald

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A short and utterly compelling novel that I read within the space of a few hours. I simply could not sleep until I reached the final page… and then wrote a review.

Florence Green has a simple desire to open a bookshop in her quiet Suffolk town of Harborough. There’s an old, damp, unwanted building, stood empty for years and Florence has the idea to repurpose it as The Old House Bookshop. The old farts and local council botherers don’t like change and decide to kick up a fuss.

Mrs Green is an astonishing woman. Not in any sensational sense of fame or great feats of strength or ability. Hers is a quiet courage, juxtaposed with moments of delightful bluntness that the majority of her peers find intolerably rude. “Her courage, after all, was only a determination to survive.”

Half-baked officials for the Something-Or-Other Committee periodically appear out of the damp woodwork, as the self-important Mrs Gamart engages in ruthless tactics, determined to see the shop fail. Mrs Gamart, a petty woman and chair of various local committees, “always acted in the way she felt to be right. She did not know that morality is seldom a safe guide for human conduct.”

Some of my favourite moments in the book are the correspondence Florence is obliged to enter into it with the various officials that pop up. Letters filled with verbal parrying and barely concealed contempt are quintessentially British and delightful to read. When Florence’s decision to market a certain “unduly sensational novel” – Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov – gets a surprising amount of local attention, a certain prominent member of society sees fit to seek legal representation:

December 4 1959
Dear Mrs Green,
               I am in receipt of a letter from John Drury & Co, representing their client Mrs Violet Gamart of The Stead, to the effect that your current window display is attracting so much undesirable attention from potential and actual customers that it is providing a temporary obstruction … and that she, as a Justice of the Peace and Chairwoman of numerous committees (list enclosed herewith) has to carry out her shopping expeditiously.

 After much back and forth, Florence exhausts the pretence of polite correspondence and brings it to a close rather succinctly:

December 11 1959
Dear Mr Thornton,
Coward!
Yours sincerely,
Florence Green.

The descriptions of small town society and their petty commander-in-chief made me laugh out loud. While scenes shared with her ten-year-old assistant, Christine, and aging neighbour, Mr Brundish, are peaceable moments that deflate the barriers of age and status. The misanthropic Mr Brundish and the terse ten-year-old are her closest companions and biggest supporters of her bookshop. Neither of them are great talkers and Florence is fine with that. Moments of silence are used to great effect throughout the novel, demonstrating the ease with which mutual understanding can be found between kindred spirits without need for words.

Florence is quietest when among friends, while she is at her most effluent, ready with a quip, when confronted with her opposers, her letters being great examples of this. The silence also allows for the presence of the mysterious ghost that resides in the Old House, referred to as “the rapper”, as well as the absence of her husband, whose death is only briefly alluded to. Altogether creating a sense of lonliness to the novel, but it is not a self-indulgent or overwhelming. The silence, the lonliness, is an accepted part of her existence, and becomes a thing to be shared with her chosen companions.

“Lonliness was speaking to lonliness.”

The most touching stories are the ones that don’t try to be so. A Whole Life, The Book Thief, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. These titles are treasures because of their quality of being uncomplicated and reserved; their pages gently exude warmth and compassion with honest emotion, eschewing the kind of melodrama and tragedy that some authors pump into their chapters, determined that we should burst from the pressure of it all. No, the stories that stay in my heart, in my stomach, are the ones that creep up on me with their unassuming tones and humble offerings. To this list of pearls within oysters, I now add “The Bookshop”.

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a masterspirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such must be a necessary commodity.”

 

“Number 11” by Jonathan Coe – Book Review

Number 11

By Jonathan Coe

number 11

I read Jonathan Coe’s novel, What a Carve Up! while studying at university a couple of years ago. It was an excellent book – not to mention it lead to an essay worthy of a 1st (it got 2:1, but I’m not bitter or anything…) – so I didn’t need much encouragement in reading another of Coe’s titles.

I picked up Number 11 with a great deal of hope. I put down the book with disappointment.

I was unaware when I started reading that Number 11 features a great deal of narrative strands connecting it with his previous novel, What a Carve Up! (WACU). The wealthy and loathsome Winshaw family, who meet a gruesome end in WACU, have some grandchildren and extended family members yet to be culled. Number 11 appears to be Coe’s way of tying up these loose ends.

I have not read any other Coe novels, but his tendency to be self-referential is known, and as such I cannot be certain if “Number 11” is intended as a sequel to WACU, or if he is just sticking to his regular habits by reusing character names and referencing his own work. Even if it is a sequel, Number 11 can certainly be read independently, you’ll just miss out on the occasional giggle when something familiar pops up.

In any case, I can only judge from what I have read myself, and what I think is this: Number 11 is a lazy sequel to What a Carve Up!.  Before, there were fantastically clever twists and turns, infuriating but exacting use of metafiction; all leading to a tumultuous and harrowing conclusion which looked into the very soul of modern classism and cultural degradation. And now? Some lame attempts at self-referencing and unrevealing examples of Continue reading

Review: “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind

By Patrick Rothfuss

5-stars

name of the wind

I have found my new fantasy series. “The Name of the Wind” is the first in “The Kingkiller Chronicle” series by Patrick Rothfuss.

“I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during the day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make minstrels weep.

My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.”

I haven’t had a good fantasy series to get addicted to since I was reading Anthony Horowitz as a teenager. “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss is surely a fantasy for adults. The most sophisticated of its kind I have come across. The language is rich and beautiful and the world Patrick Rothfuss has lent himself to flourishes under his care.

Any book preceded by a fictional map already has my attention. Why? Because it is an indicator of how rich this fictional world is; of how much thought has gone into its construction.  There is a sense of careful management that dictates the movement of the narrative as well as the development of characters.

At 662 pages, it isn’t a paperback that you can snugly fit into your handbag. The creased spine and dog-eared corners of my copy – an upsetting thing for any booklover – is proof of my need to make it fit into my handbag and carry it everywhere until I had finished. Its length might sound intimidating, but the lyricism and storytelling carried me through hundreds of pages without even noticing.

If I were to criticise this book, it would be to say that occasionally the language is so rich with imagery that it is slightly treacly. My other minor criticism is that the majority of the book consists of our protagonist, Kvothe, telling his past life story, neglecting the present of the story. And when I passed the 600th page, I realised that the story had barely progressed at all.

BUT, having said all this, I do not care. My criticisms fade into insignificance. I hope “The Name of the Wind” will be the extended preface to a long series of novels that will continue to capture my imagination for years to come.

Review: “The Reader on the 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

The Reader on the 6.27

Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

9781447276494The Reader on the 6-27

This book is the antidote. To cynicism, to the everyday drudgery of existence. I cannot recommend this book enough to you, my reader.

“The Reader on the 6.27” will reignite your hope and redeem every bad book, every disappointing ending; every over-pretentious pit-stain of a novel you have ever had the misfortune to encounter. This book will remind you of your faith in literature.

Guylain Vignolles hates his job; Guylain works in a book-pulping factory. His only joy is his morning ritual, where he boards the 6.27 train and reads from the fragments of books he has saved from the teeth of the monster. He reads aloud to his fellow passengers, who “show him the indulgent respect reserved for harmless nutters”. Nevertheless, he is the ray of sunshine that briefly illuminates the dullness of their 9-to-5’s.

“He was the reader, the bearer of the good word.”

Guylain appears to be suffering from the Nausea, as Sartre would define it: that indefinable feeling deep in your gut that life is pointless. Then one day, he happens upon a USB memory stick that changes his life forever. What is on the USB? The diary entries of a 28-year-old toilet attendant, named Julie.

How, you might ask, can this bored young woman, who sits outside toilet cubicles all day, help Guylain? How can accounts of what other humans are literally experiencing in their guts save him? Isn’t she just another sufferer of everyday drudgery, like him? Well, Julie is no ordinary toilet attendant.

Humanity abounds – glorious, at times stupid and disgusting, but glorious humanity. There is nothing high-flown about this honest, forthright account of how words can, sometimes, save people. Of how people can save each other.

This book is the antidote to modern life. Continue reading

Book Review: “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant

by Kazuo Ishiguro

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My first reading of an Ishiguro novel has shown me how his masterful storytelling has succeeded in capturing readers around the world.

A mysterious mist covers the land of medieval Britain and robs the inhabitants of their memories. Borrowing from Arthurian legend, Ishiguro takes us on a journey of discovery that meets with adventure and the heart-breaking account of what it means to love and to remember.

By elegantly weaving memories with present action, the passing of time becomes an impeccable example of writing style working in step with the narrative themes. In the quest to find the source of the mist, the memories of our characters come and go and we, as readers, glide imperceptibly between past and present. Quiet revelations permeate the story as they remember things forgotten, and uncover the truth of their present. These revelations are precious moments of truth and clarity spared of ostentation or announcement. You could almost miss them if it weren’t for the rapt attention that Ishiguro conjures with his gently powerful style.

There is not a single moment in this novel that doesn’t feel considered and concise. Every line, every sentence, every moment is integral. All the components are perfectly in tune with one another, like the internal workings of a clock. Busily, steadily, the cogs wind onward and we are comforted by the sense of considered purpose that sustains the entire novel.

As I neared the end, I felt a genuine desire for a quick resolution, a knot somewhere in my chest as I hastened to toward the last page. But, as throughout the rest of the novel, Ishiguro neither slows cruelly – as some authors do, stretching out our anxiety – nor hastily rushes his conclusion. He simply continues, steadily, unswervingly, with the measured pace of a practised storyteller. He trusts in the story to make its own impact and not once does he employ any cheap keep-away tactics.

“The Buried Giant” is a story that stays with you. Moving and gripping, but never pushing, pulling or grabbing, it is a style that invites you in but knows precisely when to let you go. Even when you implore him to continue.

“He felt as one standing in a boat on a wintry river, looking out into dense fog, knowing it would at any moment part to reveal vivid glimpses of the land ahead. And he had been caught in a kind of terror, yet at the same time had felt a curiosity – or something stronger and darker – and he told himself firmly, ‘Whatever it may be, let me see it, let me see it.’”

 

Book Review: “Eleanor” by Jason Gurley

Eleanor

By Jason Gurley

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When tragedy befalls the Witt family, young Eleanor is left to pick up the pieces of her grief-stricken parents. And just when it couldn’t seem to get any worse, Eleanor is pulled out of her world and thrown, bewildered, into a netherworld, before being flung back again with terrible consequences. Like Alice falling through the rabbit-hole, Eleanor dangerously traverses the line between the real and the other.

“Eleanor” by Jason Gurley is classified as sci-fi/fantasy. It would be better to describe it as a realistic drama set against a surrealist dreamscape. Sci-fi and fantasy novels can reflect reality as much as a naturalistic novel, but fantasy looks at the world through a prism that promotes an alternative focus. Like walking through a corridor of distorted mirrors at a fairground, Gurley chooses to inflate or relocate aspects of known reality, forcing specific themes and ideas to come into sharper relief. In the case of “Eleanor”, it is the deeply complex experience of grief that thrives in the freedom of a sci-fi. Continue reading

Book Review: “Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Good Omens

By Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

good omens 1

The world is coming to an end. The armies of Heaven and Hell are assembling. The Four Horsemen are gathering. And the Antichrist is playing make-believe with his friends and his hell-hound, Dog. An unlikely group of heroes converge on Lower Tadfield, Oxfordshire. Agnes Nutter’s prochecies are finally coming true, but this “ineffable Plan” business isn’t quite what everyone expects…

Have you ever been enjoying a book so much that you couldn’t put it down, but then found yourself reaching the end too soon and had to slow down so the adventure could continue for just a bit longer? “Good Omens” is the first book that has ever made me do this. Rushing towards its conclusion too quickly, I wanted to stay on the journey. I didn’t want it to end.

The characters, the language, the narrative – flippant and somehow bluntly logical in the face of utter nonsense. It is vivid, colourful and hilarious.

It’s a style I’ve grown to love from reading Pratchett’s Discworld series, but it is my first reading of a Gaiman  story. I couldn’t tell you when it was one or the other that had the reins from chapter to chapter. The narrative voice was consistent throughout and I honestly felt like I was reading a Pratchett. But I will definitely be getting stuck into some Gaiman very soon as a result of reading this book.

This is one of those books you could keep going back to and reading over and over again and finding more and more hidden gems that will keep surprising you for years to come. The imaginative powers of these two brilliant authors are seemingly endless. Endless and bottomless. Keep plumbing the depths of this book and the world they create will only get bigger and brighter. Whether you decide to focus on the story, the clever use of language and syntax or the ideas that bounce around like a rubber ball inside a perpetual motion machine, the delights do not stop coming.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the essence of what fiction should be. A world of play and an open invitation.

In this present moment, I wish I weren’t writing this blog; I wish I were reading “Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman. A book that proves these two men deserve the title of Legend. Modern philosophers and linguistic philanthropists, this book is a gift for me and you and generations to come.

 

 

P.s. I finished reading my copy two days ago. I gave that same copy to a friend yesterday. Pass on the joy!

The F Word & The F Word

“I’m sorry, which one?”

It is a strange thing that modern vernacular now has two possible answers to this question: Feminism or Fuck.

“The F word” is a phrase born of censorship. Keep the nasty words out of the earshot of innocent minds and out of polite conversation. The notion of contracting a word to its first initial and a series of asterisks as a means of hiding it’s meaning, is itself a ridiculous notion. We all know what it means. Children know what it means. That cannot be avoided. The word is still there, you’re fooling no one with your asterisks.

But censorship is its own debate. What is relevant here is that another word is apparently now worthy of being censored to the same level as “Fuck”. And that word is “Feminism”.

How has that happened? How has Feminism become a nasty word to be half-hidden and whispered in conversation for fear of reproach? Feminism is being treated like a dirty word and that is unacceptable. I know that I have personally felt like I need to mumble it under my breath with a tone of apology, to ward off anyone who might roll their eyes and lean back in their chairs wishing they hadn’t started the conversation. People are afraid of arousing debate. And, really, why is that? Why are people scared of talking about important issues, as though it is going to ruin their evening? “I just wanted to have a quiet drink in the pub. I wasn’t looking for an intellectual debate at this time of night!”

Political debate does not equal argument. Sharing opposing ideas can be a passionate experience, yes. But passion, when exhibited by generally reasonable persons, should not lead to negative results. Especially, a word like Feminism – a word that means equality for everyone, everywhere. There is too much misunderstood about this word, but in the words of Caitlin Moran, Feminism is: “Not all the penises being burned in a Penis Bonfire. Just women being equal to men.” And everyone else in between.

So don’t be afraid of this F word. Don’t mumble it under your breath, but say it proudly, with the appropriate decibel level. Of course if you want to go shouting it from the rooftops, then be my guest. You won’t be arrested for public indecency or disturbing the peace, because Feminism is NOT a dirty word. Feminism is a fucking beautiful word.

 

(Quote from Caitlin Moran found here: http://www.esquire.co.uk/culture/advice/a9641/things-men-dont-know-about-women-caitlin-moran/)

Book Review: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

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The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

the book thief

This is a beautiful book. Exquisitely heart-breaking.

Germany is in the hands of the Führer, and Liesel Meminger is a book thief. Both Hitler and Liesel know that words have power. Words can save a person’s soul or inspire people to do unspeakable things.

In this novel, Markus Zusak is our omnipotent and benevolent wielder of words. His ability to capture the imagination is powerful and gentle. Master of the concise metaphor. I was drawn into the Book Thief’s world within the opening paragraphs and could not put it down. It begins simply and proceeds in uncomplicated terms. Its gentle twists and turns develop into a fully formed and complex story without you even realising. But I will not allow myself to over-analyse; I wish to leave this story unbroken.

Liesel stole books. And Death was her friend. Discover the rest for yourself.