The Lessons – Naomi Alderman


Opening sentence: ‘For me it began with a fall.’

I was looking out in the library for Naomi Alderman’s The Power, but all copies were on loan. So in the meantime I thought I would try The Lessons to see if her writing appeals to me – and it really does. I’m always grateful to discover a book and writer like this. It could easily have passed me by.

The Lessons is narrated by James as he begins his life at Oxford University with all the pressure that brings. There is a prologue that hints of what is to follow.  James’ sister has been before him and by her own assessment has succeeded. The family message is clear – failing is not an option, making the right connections is as important as passing. Within the first few weeks James is falling behind on both counts – then he is rescued by kind and grounded Jess who takes him under her wing

Naomi Alderman does a great job of describing the angst of James, his feeling of exclusion from the outset; the challenge for the boys used to being top of the class now fighting for survival, the fantasy of being part of the in crowd led by the wealthy, privileged and troubled Mark; the euphoria of being accepted into the group – the reality of what that actually means – the impact on the rest of their lives.

Many of the reviews I’ve read mention the similarities this novel has with Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History – perhaps in a way that suggests the theme is not overly original. I haven’t read either of these but it did have a familiar feel in a Gatsby-esque kind of way. That didn’t worry me though, the writing style drew me in from the first page and I enjoyed the story.  James’ voice seemed real and genuine even with the bias that comes with a first person narrative.

And the lessons alluded to in the title? Perhaps it boils down to this, my favourite quote in the book..

See the source image…. But life teaches us who we are.See the source image

Published 2006

278 pages

Autumn Laing by Alex Miller


Autumn Laing

They are all dead and I am old and skeleton-gaunt. This is where it began fifty-three years ago.

Autumn Laing is coming to the end of her days. Frail and irritable about it. Losing her independence, she is reliant on Stony her gardener and Adeli her biographer to keep her out of the care home – somewhere she will not be going. She will end her life on her own terms, just as she lived it. Just as her dearest friends Freddy and later Barnaby, chose to do.

Autumn is looking back on the great love affair and tragedy of her life – with Pat Donlon, then a struggling and undiscovered artist – she seduced him and in doing so destroyed two marriages and deprived his young wife Edith and her unborn child of their future. At the time Autumn didn’t care – the affair played out in front of her husband Arthur – whose silence implied consent? Probably not, but Arthur is portrayed as a gentle, weak man – the wind beneath Autumn’s wings, as her passion for Australian art sees her building and supporting a community of rising talent in 1930s Melborne. Many nights of spirited debate took place at the Laings country house – encouraged by Autumn’s legendary cooking, plenty of alcohol and her passionate belief in her protégées. In Pat Donlon she saw talent, and admired his deliberate shunning of convention. A decade younger, he made her feel young again. She wanted him, and for a time she had him.

But all these years later, an unexpected sighting of Pat’s wife Edith causes Autumn to ask herself – perhaps for the first time – at what cost?

There is a re-occurring theme of identity. Both personal and cultural. Choices to make. Security or adventure? Passion or comfort? Australian or European? Traditional or modern? Painting or poetry?To live or to die? Choices and consequences. For Autumn the safety of her relationship with Arthur and the home they have built versus the visceral attraction she has for Pat and her vision of what they can create together.

Were Arthur and I – I asked myself as I stood there looking at him reading his newspaper and drinking his whiskey, waiting for me to serve him his dinner – were we cowering with each other in the shelter of our own timidity and weakness?

I have been slowly making my way through Autumn Laing over the past three weeks. I expect the essence of it to stay with me for some time. It’s not so much the details or the flow of the story, nor the fact it is based on real people and events, but the universal questions about life that the young and old Autumn ponders, and the importance of recollection, memories and truth. The blurb asks ‘what truth has to do with it?’ After reading this novel perhaps the answer is everything and nothing. Autumn’s truth is her truth, Arthur’s is his, Pat’s is his. It is as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Pat always said that the stuff we erase with our rewriting or repainting is more revealing of our truth than the stuff we overlay it with, our second and third thoughts. Our unconscious motive in rewriting and repainting, he claimed, is always to conceal ourselves.

And you no longer expect it at any age. To have your certainties contradicted by experience, I mean.

Alex Miller has loosely based his novel on the real lives of Sunday and John Reed and their patronage of and relationship with Sidney Nolan, who went on to become one of Australia’s renowned modernist painter. I hadn’t heard of them before or their home Heide, a fifteen acre property that has been the Heide Museum of Modern Art since their deaths in 1981. I am interested now to learn more.

I enjoy reading fiction based on real people. The trick for me is to enjoy the novel as fiction and not to try and figure out what is fact and what comes from the author’s imagination. I like to imagine there is a delicate blending of the two.

Thought provoking and quite beautiful.

Published 2013
446 pages

Freya by Anthony Quinn


Time has  passed and here I land, five years later. What to say…. I have missed  thinking about and remembering what I have read, and sharing – especially sharing, those thoughts with other book lovers. I have also forgotten how to blog it would seem – things look vaguely familiar, easier maybe? I’m hoping.

Freya – Love the name and loved the story. I thought early on that of the three Anthony Quinn novels I’ve read, I might like this the least. It took a bit of time but now it might just be my favourite. All I have read have been wonderful, transporting the reader in a smooth and entertaining way to various periods of historical London (I’ve yet to read The Streets or The Rescue Man), the characters are interesting, major issues of the time are woven in – important but not intrusive. The difference with Freya was that by the end of it – twenty years of living, dying, laughing and crying later – I felt invested in the characters lives. I cared about what was next for them.

We first met Freya as the twelve year old daughter of the painter Stephen Wyley in Quinn’s previous novel Curtain Call. Here, several characters were introduced whose lives came together against the backdrop of a serial killer on the loose in 1930s West End London. I highly recommend it. Atmospheric, elegant and funny – some of the dialogue had me laughing out loud. Three of these characters, I think, appear again in Freya – although both can easily be read as stand alone books.

Eight years have passed as Freya the novel begins on VE Day in 1945. Amidst the frenzy of the celebrations, Freya meets the younger and less worldly Nancy – the beginning of an intense friendship. Freya has served in the Wrens and finds the prospect of post war life a bit meaningless. But she wants to write, as does Nancy, and both find themselves at Oxford, starting on the path and meeting the people that will shape their lives. This is a novel about changing dynamics in relationships, the bond of female friendship and attitudes towards women – and men, as society adjusts to life after the Second World War. And a lot more. Reading Anthony Quinn is a full experience – history, music, architecture – the art of living.  And for all the elegance of his writing, he’s not afraid to offend his readers – which I like and am not offended by. Nothing is too perfect or predictable.

What do you think of using a photo like this for the cover of a story? Normally I would much prefer to imagine Freya for myself – we know she is ambitious, adventurous, independent, impulsive – yet loving and sensitive. But to me, this photo (of the beautiful Françoise Hardy) portrays the Freya I imagined perfectly. A brave and enhancing choice – I can imagine Freya the journalist making a publishing decision like this herself.

Read Curtain Call for the sheer joy of it and then read Freya and savour the journey…

Published 2016
464 pages

The Collini Case – Ferdinand von Schirach

If like me, you need a little push to get back on the reading and blogging saddle, then this could be the perfect book. It has 187 small pages with short chapters. The writing is understated and to the point, yet engaging, descriptive and emotive in parts. I thought initially it was a bit wooden and may not have translated well but that turned out to be one of the highlights of the book – few words, plenty of meaning.

Set in Berlin, The Collini Case is about a man charged with murder, an act he doesn’t deny and the attempts of a young lawyer to defend a client who will give him no information or clues as to motive. A client who on the surface appears to be an ordinary and respectable man, employed for the past 34 years by Mercedes Benz before committng a clinical and brutal murder. It’s such a small book that to write much more would spoil it I think. The fact that Ferdinand von Schirach is an experienced criminal lawyer himself brings credibility to the court room scenes, especially as the German legal system seems a little different from the UK at least.

The Collini Case covers a lot of ground, the characters are sensitively portrayed and well developed even though the book is short and the pace never seems hurried.

Very enjoyable and tempting to curl up with and finish in one sitting but I managed to stretch it out over three days on the train.

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

2011 (English 2012), 187 pages

Half of the Human Race – Anthony Quinn

Last week I was waiting for my work friend at Kings Cross train station as we were heading up to York for the day. I was early and started browsing in a lovely bookshop called Watermark. I gather Watermark is a well known book store in the U.S and Australia but this one at Kings Cross is the first in Europe. I really liked the layout and selection of books and was tempted by The Forrests by Emily Perkins which has gone straight onto my wishlist and this book Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn.

The most striking thing about Half of the Human Race is the sense of time and place Anthony Quinn is able to create. From the opening page, the story comes to life. Set amongst the homes, streets and parks of London, it is a story highlighting issues of gender, class, mental illness, friendship and love. It is about the world of cricket, women’s fight for equality and suffrage and the experience of war.

The year is 1911, the summer is sweltering, the city buzzing with the pending coronation of King George V. Constance, a free spirited budding suffragette meets Will, a rising cricket star. Will is intrigued yet apalled to discover that not only does Constance like cricket but she has the nerve and knowledge to coach him on his technique. And what’s more – it’s good advice!

Their individual lives go on, through friends and family their paths continue to cross. Love blossoms but can they overcome their differences and events outside their control. The suffragette movement gains momentum and the First World War looms.

I liked that the characters were allowed to soften and reassess their points of view as they matured. Living through imprisonment, death and war allowed them to see things in a more flexible way. Priorities change.

Despite the intensity of the experiences of the characters, despite being suprised, entertained and amused and encouraged to learn more, I was never really emotionally moved reading this story and it felt like the mental health storyline in particular was quite abruptly introduced. That didn’t stop me really liking it though and I’m going to look out for Anthony Quinn’s debut novel The Rescue Man

368 pages, 2011

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky – Simon Mawer

Picking up The Girl Who Fell From the Sky last week – I had one of those ‘library love’ moments. Another reminder of the wonderfulness of libraries – I had been looking out for this novel since it was published in May and there it was – in a similar place to where I found Julia last week. For anybody in London who has access to an Ideas Store library – I can recommend taking a look.

This is the third of Mawer’s books I’ve read since discovering him this year; The Glass Room (loved it), Swimming to Ithaca (liked it quite a bit) and now The Girl Who Fell From the Sky which I loved. That is a simple summary but it is actually easy to do as the stories are all quite different. The are all set against a background of war or conflict but the style of each is unique – and all enjoyable to read.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is Marian, also known as Alice or Anne-Marie or Laurent. British and a fluent French speaker, this is the story of her recruitment,training and eventual mission in France as a Special Operations Executive during World War II. It is such a fun story to read with a straightforward narrative style. Marian is a likeable, gutsy character and by keeping control of the scope of the story, the author creates time to spend on the little details making Marian seem all the more authentic. I won’t write too much about her mission, Operation Trapeze, except to say it has all the danger and multi layered intrigue you might expect. This is a mission of such importance that nothing is off limits, including family bonds and personal relationships.

This is the simplest telling of the books I have read so far by Simon Mawer. The Glass Room was arty and haunting and there was a dual narrative in Swimming to Ithaca. Apart from the title which I didn’t especially like (fairly or not, it reminded me of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series), The Girl Who Fell From The Sky was my favourite of the books to read – if things like sleep and work hadn’t got in the way, I would have read it in one sitting.

Julia – Otto de Kat

I have a soft spot for translated books, slim books and books with a wartime setting. At 168 pages, Dutch author Otto de Kat’s Julia, ticked plenty of boxes. The copy I read was a brand new one from my library which was an added treat.

Julia is a story that is as elegant and sparse as its simple title suggests. Throughout there is a sense of regret and melancholy and by the end, real sadness.

In 1938, Chris Dudock is living and working in Lübeck Germany. He is Dutch, has a girlfriend and family business waiting for him back home. The rise of Nazi power is evident, beginning to infiltrate the daily life of the German people. Chris meets and falls in love with Julia, a vibrant and free spirited German engineer who isn’t afraid of speaking out against the regime. When her brother is arrested, she pleads with Chris to leave Germany, claiming he is putting her at risk by remaining. Chris makes the biggest mistake of his life and returns to Holland.

Fast forward many years and the mature Chris Dudok has done what was expected of him. He married and took over his father’s business. On the outside he has lived a reserved yet fairly ordinary life. On the inside, there has been real emptiness – he left part of himself behind in Lübeck all those years ago.

Light on detail, Julia is a book about living with loss and the impact that one decision had on Chris Dudock’s life. The narrative (always in the third person) flicks between 1938 and the present time (1980s) with snippets of the years in between. The mood of the book reminded me of Sandor Marai’s Embers and Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl – both intense stories on the subject of loss.

This story won’t be for everyone as it has a slow, reflective style rather than one with a lot of plot. I thought it was dignified and quite beautifully written. I read it as part of Iris on Books Dutch Literature Month. It looks as if it has been a popular choice.

Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke

2011, 168 pages

Therapy – Sebastian Fitzek

Head down and totally engrossed, I missed my train stop this week. Getting off the train at the end of the day is a bit of a priority so that is a real endorsement for this book. Therapy (A slim, page turning crime mystery/psychological thriller – clever and entertaining.

It doesn’t seem that easy to get hold of but I was lucky enough to pick up a copy in the library after discovering it at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life.

As well as being an excellent thriller, Therapy allows us to step into a mentally unwell mind – a combination that makes for a genuine page turner.

The story is about Viktor Larenz, a world renowned psychiatrist who suffers a breakdown after the mysterious disappearance of his 12 year old daughter Josy. Four years on,with his life in tatters, he retreats to an isolated North Sea Island to deal with his grief. Here he encounters a woman suffering from schizophrenia, begging Viktor to take her on as his patient. Her case is unusual. A novelist, she claims her characters come to life. One of her characters is a 12 year old girl who has disappeared – the details make it impossible for Viktor to turn her away. As inconceivable as it seems, could this woman know something about the disappearance of his daughter?

There are two major plot twists in Therapy. One of these is hinted at fairly early on and to really enjoy the story, requires acceptance of this twist. Not everything is as it seems though and the other excellent twist occurs right at the end.

A very enjoyable read.

Translated from German by Sally-Ann Spencer

352 pages, 2008

The Other – David Guterson

With all the books many of us are fortunate enough to have access to, I’m always interested in how we come to choose our next book to read. Up until a few weeks ago I hadn’t heard of David Guterson, I was aware of the acclaimed Snow Falling on Cedars but not who had written it or what it was about and I’d never really felt the need to find out. Now it’s right at the top of my wish list and I’m hoping to read it soon. It’s amazing how one little thing can lead to another and all of a sudden a whole new literary path is opened up. That’s one of the things I love about books – exploring and learning new things.

I’ve been attracted lately to the idea of reading books set in nature and the idea of simplifying life. I’m also keen to read some US authors and learn a bit about the different US states. The Other fits the brief perfectly as well as being set in the Washington/Portland area where my husband is likely to travel to for work in the future.

So that’s how I came to choose The Other and despite it being a month since I last posted, it hasn’t taken quite that long to read it! 272 pages sounds small but it felt more like 500 reading it. The pace is slow, totally appropriate for the theme of the story but about 20% too long I thought. I didn’t find it a labour to read but I can imagine some people might. This is a story that needs to strike a certain chord, if it does it’s very good. If not, it could seem too much like hard work.

Starting in 1972, two college boys meet as competitors in a track race. They strike up a friendship, based on a love of the outdoors, mutual respect and several coming of age type experiences. Narrated by Neil Countryman, one of the boys, the face of the story is his retelling of his friendship with John William Barry. Both boys are drawn to the idea of rejecting consumerism and living in the woods – following the teachings of Henry Walden. Neil Countryman remains interested but carries on to live a fairly conventional life. He begins his narration as a married man with a son and working as a high school teacher. John William Barry’s interest becomes a staunch commitment as he withdraws further from society but maintaining contact with his closest friend throughout.

I knew I was reading a book set in America in a different time. David Guterson is a descriptive writer, he explores deeply the physical environment and actions of his characters. I especially liked the feeling of expanse, the wide open spaces he uses as his setting and it seems nature also features prominently in his other novels – I like the idea of this.

272 pages, 2009

Swimming to Ithaca – Simon Mawer

The concept of a dual timeline or narrative in fiction fascinates me. I often write about it not being my favourite way of reading a story but it seems every second book I pick up does exactly that! Either it’s a very common choice for an author or on some level I am attracted to books that delve into the past – a message of sorts in that no doubt but I think I’ll leave that be for now.

The main part of Swimming to Ithaca is set in Cyprus during the 1950’s. Dee is an army wife, stationed with her husband and small daughter Paula while her son Thomas has remained in England at boarding school. Thomas is a central character in the story, the current day story focuses on his life and his attempts to uncover his mother’s past. In the 1950’s he visits from boarding school and picks up on subtle shifts in his mother’s behaviour. Dee’s husband is almost a non character in the novel, away a lot, leaving Dee alone to find her feet and to develop a relationship of sorts with three different men. These men are all involved in the rising tensions between the Greek Cypriots and the British army.

The 1950’s was a time when Cyprus was under British rule, and saw the emergence of EOKA – a Greek Cypriot nationalist movement – fighting for independance. Dee finds herself reluctantly becoming involved in this fight. As he did in The Glass Room, Simon Mawer uses an aggressive setting for his story which contrasts beautifully with the gentle way he allows his characters and their relationships to evolve. I liked this aspect of Swimming to Ithaca very much and would have been happy if the whole book had been set in this time frame. The soldier, the freedom fighter and the spy’s relationship with one woman made for intriguing reading.

By contrast I found the present day story of Dee’s son Thomas quite ordinary and uninspiring. Years later and shortly after his mother’s death, Thomas comes across some papers and tries to make sense of what happened to his mother all those years ago in Cyprus. He is able to speak to those who are still alive, and also analyses the reliability of his own memories. Running parallel to this is his blossoming relationship with one of his students and her daughter. I should say though that there wasn’t anything really wrong with this story, it just didn’t appeal to me. There was also a twist at the end of the book which was a bit of a shock – it seemed to come out of nowhere and didn’t quite fit in somehow.

Putting aside the part of Swimming to Ithaca that I wasn’t so keen on, I’m really pleased to have discovered Simon Mawer. There is something about his style I really like. He is not afraid to take risks with his characters and throw in the odd unorthodox scene or opinion. The settings of his books are important and affect the actions of his characters but don’t overshadow them – clever writing, and I look forward to reading more of his books.

What do you think of a book cover that has a fairly clear picture of the characters? My imagination and the cover of the version I read definitely didn’t match!

2006, 352 pages