Category Archives: English author

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.


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

The Glass Room – Simon Mawer

I have just loved reading The Glass Room this week. It’s a book to be read slowly if possible although it’s tempting to rush ahead, the chapters are short, the writing elegant and understated as well as sensual, gripping and tragic.

Simon Mawer’s eighth novel was short listed for the Booker prize in 2009 – the winner being Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall. My thoughts after finishing The Glass Room are that Wolf Hall must be absolutely fantastic to have taken the prize. Not that I have any book judging credentials and of course it’s all subjective but I’m going to make the effort to read Wolf Hall to satisfy my curiosity. I have it on kindle but have been a bit intimidated by the size of it.

I first heard of The Glass Room with this excellent review by Tom at A Common Reader. I thought then that it sounded wonderful and it really is. So much so that I knew after the first couple of pages I would love it and so much so that I gave up trying to remember things to write about it later and just fell into reading it.

Set mostly in 1930’s Czechoslovakia, the Glass Room is the name of a house and the term is used loosely and is open to interpretation depending on the language used (Czech or German). There is nothing loose about the actual house and it is in fact the anchor for all that happens to its various inhabitants throughout the following years. It is the one constant in a time of upheaval and devastation in Czechoslovakia and throughout Europe, reflecting the changing times and attitudes of the people that pass through it.

Viktor and Liesel Landauer are honeymooning in Venice in 1929 when a chance meeting with a German architect results in a commission. He will build them their dream home, a forward thinking functionalist style building, without conventional walls, filled with glass and a stunning onyx wall. A house for the future; minimalist, free of ornament and association with the past. This house whilst ridiculed at first is soon claimed a masterpiece, the Glass Room becomes host to gatherings and recitals – the Launder’s are a wealthy family and for a time life seems good although times are changing.

Viktor is Jewish and eventually the Landauer’s are forced to flee their home, friends and family to seek exile abroad. They must leave their precious home to its fate and await their own. The fate of the characters, of their home, is such that by the end of the book it really does seem like many years have passed and much has changed.

Just a beautiful book on so many levels. There is a lot I have left out including some factual details about Mawer’s inspiration for The Glass Room and other crucial characters and details. Plenty to discover. As the saying goes ‘read it and weep’ – it had that effect on me.

2009, 404 pages

Greenbanks – Dorothy Whipple

Greenbanks was one of two books I was given by Santa for Christmas. My Santa very thoughtfully made his way into Persephone books for the first time and picked the exact book I would have chosen myself as well as No Surrender by Constance Maud. Great choices – so I feel very lucky.

Reading Dorothy Whipple is like revisiting a comfortable and cherished friend. The ordinariness of her characters and their lives makes it so easy to relate to and to step into their shoes. You wouldn’t expect it to be escapist reading but in a way it is – somehow she manages to include her reader in the story, it’s like being in the same room as the action is taking place. Whipple’s insight into human emotions and family dynamics is spot on, I haven’t yet read a book of hers and not felt accutely what at least one of her characters was feeling.

Greenbanks is the name of a house or more accurately a home in . Three generations live or have lived there – Louisa, her brood of children and their children – in particular Rachel, a 6 year old when the story begins in the years approaching the First World War – nearly coming of age as it finishes. Rachel is Louisa’s favourite grandchild and these two are the heart of the story. Their goodness balances out the weaknesses in the other characters. The story is about the people who inhabit the house – Greenbanks being the hub where at one time or another, everyone returns to.

Each of Whipple’s stories seems to have a man who is a villian of sorts, not so much in the criminal way but in the way he treats people, especially women. In Greenbanks this task is enthusiastically tackled by Ambrose, husband to Louisa’s daughter Letty and father of Rachel. Ambrose is a fantastic character, so infuriating – controlling and thoughtless, yet vulnerable too.

Through her male characters and sometimes through less than wonderful female characters, Dorothy Whipple highlights the plight of women in a subtle way but one which leaves no doubt as to how difficult it could be in the first decades of the 20th century to be a woman. There is a scene in Greenbanks where Ambrose tries to interfere with his daughter going to universtiy – I was outraged and that was just reading about it – imagine actually living it!

But – and this is one of the loveliest things about Whipple’s characters, she doesn’t judge and no matter how difficult, there will always be people in her stories who shine, who find a way to flourish regardless – that’s what makes her reads so satisfying I think and also important. They are more than just a pleasant read about domestic life. They also reflect the constant changes and progression of their times. Life is not the same before and after the war.

Greenbanks is a slow burner – I wondered early on if this was going to be the first Dorothy Whipple that I didn’t love. I should have had more faith, she hasn’t let me down yet. The story gathers momentum and gets better by the page towards the end.

392 pages, 1932 (republished 2011)

All the Nice Girls – Joan Bakewell

I almost did one of those embarrasing whoops of joy last week when I spotted this book at the library near work. It’s been on my radar for a couple of years now ever since seeing an interview with Joan Bakewell and thinking how fascinating she was. For those who like me don’t know of Bakewell, she is an English journalist and tv presenter, well known in the 1960s and beyond – beautiful, intelligent and not afraid to report on controversial topics – sounds like the perfect heroine for a story doesn’t it?

Unfortunately I think this might be one of those times when the author appeals more than the actual story.

All The Nice Girls is set in 1942 in a fictional English town near Liverpool. It is the story of a girls school who take part in the community initiative to “adopt” a naval warship, meet some of the crew and correspond with them while they are at sea. This was based on a factual scheme that Bakewell herself took part in when she was at school. 1942 wasn’t a good year for the Allies and as well as boosting morale, the scheme was designed primarity to raise funds for the war effort (the communities and schools were assigned a particular ship dependant on the money they had saved and raised).

Inevitably bonds are formed and secret liaisons arranged. In the present day, 60 year old Millie contemplates the relationship she has with her daughter whilst exploring old papers left behind by her recently deceased mother.

The strengths of the book for me were the character of Cynthia Maitland, the unstereotypical headmistress of the school and the picture Joan Bakewell paints of wartime Britain. Little points she makes such as none of the girls wanting to learn German, to the married women going back to their single lifestyles with the men away – helped to set the scene well. In fact, the whole issue of women’s roles during the war is subtly addressed throughout the book.

The weakness for me was the current day story – it was vague and I didn’t feel anything for the characters at all. It was obvious there would be a link between the two time periods but I was only mildly curious as to what that was.

It was an easy read, some parts were nicely done but for me a bit light. Opinion on the book seems to be split, I have read some glowing reviews and some that are more lukewarm.

So what next? I haven’t finished with Joan Bakewell yet – definitely interested to read her autobiography The Centre of the Bed. She has a new novel She’s Leaving Home due out soon, set in 1950’s and 1960’s London – again a time period I’m interested in so I might give this a try.

2009, 352 pages

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte

“My object in writing the following pages was not simply to amuse the reader; neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it…. ”
Anne Bronte, Preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, July 1948

Last week we headed out of London and up to Yorkshire for a few days. We didn’t make it to Bronte country this time but I thought it would be nice to read a book set up that way anyway and one with a vivid description of the landscape (on our travels we did visit the incredibly atmospheric Whitby Abbey, one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula – more on that another time).

I read Jane Eyre in 2009 and just loved it and have Wuthering Heights pencilled in for Autumn this year so it seemed a novel by Anne Bronte was the perfect choice.

I don’t know very much about the Bronte’s, only that Anne’s sisters Charlotte and Emily are perhaps better known and more critically acclaimed – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was however an instant success when it was published in 1848 although not without its critics, including Charlotte.

The story is written in the first person by two narrators; Gilbert Markham and Helen Graham – the hero and heroine of the story I guess. Helen is beautiful, talented, forthright and brave and to me a true heroine but I had a few problems with Mr Markham, he seemed a bit bland and considering how crucial the question of character is in the story, there is one incident especially that seemed at odds with the sort of man he was supposed to be. Or perhaps the sort of man that I wanted him to be?

The narratation starts with Gilbert Markham and is in the form of a letter to his friend. He explains the arrival at the nearby run down Wildfell Hall of the widowed Mrs Graham and her young son and the reaction of their community to the arrival. Mrs Graham is secretive and reclusive, declining most offers of hospitality and raising suspicions amongst the host of characters around her social standing and the true identity of her child’s father.

A large portion of the story is narrated by Helen Graham (thankfully, as the first part was quite hard going) and is in the form of her ongoing diary. It is her story of her marriage and recounts the circumstances which preceed her arrival at Wildfell Hall. This is a detailed account and the strongest part of the book with all sorts of insights into the expected behaviour of women and the accepted behaviour of men in 19th century marriage – it is perhaps a little wordy and is definitely intense but it serves the author’s purpose, leaving the reader in no doubt about the state of affairs.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a story of love, duty and religious faith with its accompanying sacrifice. Helen Graham is the epitome of Christian goodness in the story but despite her faith, her eventual actions were considered extreme and scandalous when it was first published and there was question at the time as to the suitability of the story for women readers.

It now appears to be considered one of the early examples of feminist writing. Along with the individual and combined stories of the Bronte sisters and their brother Bramwell, I find it all fascinating.

I did feel the ending was quite weak, not the content but the way it was written. The story was dark and intense but the ending seemed almost matter of fact. I was hoping for more of a reward for 576 pages of dedicated reading!

1848, 576 pages

Leaving Home – Anita Brookner

Thank you to Thomas and Simon who invited us to join them in reading for International Anita Brookner Day today – to celebrate English author Anita Brookner’s 83rd birthday.

I chose Leaving Home, the 23rd of her 24 novels because my library had a copy and also as it is partially set in Paris, I thought it would fit in well with reading for Paris in July.

This is my third attempt at a book by Anita Brookner. The first was Hotel Du Lac which although slim I started but never finished. It was a couple of years ago now and I remember finding it just ok before something more appealing came along and I never went back to it. Not a good start considering Hotel Du Lac is her most praised novel having won the Booker Prize in 1984.

Next up was Strangers, Brookner’s latest novel published in 2009. I thought it was beautifully written but a bit melancholy for me.

So I was hoping with Leaving Home it would be third time lucky.

Leaving Home is a very intimate slice of life type story told in the first person by Emma Roberts, an introverted young woman who lives at home in London with her widowed mother. Everything about their lives is carefully controlled and predictable. Their roles are unspoken yet firmly fixed, their interactions superficial and routine, nothing out of the ordinary happens. Emma is a sensitive and insightful woman, if overly reflective and introspective, and she is acutely aware that she is living her life this way but thinks she is the sort of person for whom nothing riskier or more exciting will be possible. She is by her own admission the sort of person people take advantage of and whose life choices to date have been made by other people. In short, Emma Roberts does what other people want Emma Roberts to do.

The tiny part of her that craves something more takes her to Paris to study the seventeeth century gardens in the city, of which she plans to write a book. She takes a modest room in a hotel and despite her discomfort with this unfamiliar set up, she branches out a little, making a friend of sorts in Francoise, a flamboyant librarian and being accepted into Franoices’ beautiful family home and by her rather formidable mother Mme Desnoyers.

Emma finds herself blossoming in Paris but her upbringing and the comfort of what she knows exert a strong pull – she makes several trips between Paris and London, dealing with the deteriorating health of both the mothers, trying to decipher the relationships she is building in each city and her and other people’s expectations.

As her story evolves, she becomes stronger, more confident and more accepting of herself and her life.

Leaving Home has a timeless feel to it, it could have been set any time within the past 40 years or so and there is actually only one brief reference to the time period in the book.

With both Strangers and Leaving Home, I felt almost honoured in a way to be privy to the most private thoughts of the main characters, to share their fears and insecurities which touch on the purpose of our lives, such a personal and fundamental thing for us all.

Once again though I finished this book feeling it was all a bit gloomy.

So was it third time lucky? Perhaps it was – I suspect this won’t be the last of Anita Brookner’s books I read but I can’t quite put my finger on why! This reminds me of the way I feel about Penelope Fitzgerald, something hasn’t totally clicked but I keep going back for more….

Now I can’t wait to visit some more seasoned readers of Anita Brookner and see what they have to say about the books they read today.

Happy birthday Anita Brookner.

2005, 168 pages