Category Archives: Fiction

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.

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John Reed, Sidney Nolan and Sunday Reed at Heide. Photo credit:

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

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Freya by Anthony Quinn

Freya

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 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.

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

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

Russian Winter – Daphne Kalotay

1930’s Moscow – a warm summer’s day in June will prove to be a significant one for nine year old Nina Revskaya. Along with her childhood friend Vera, this is the day she first auditions for the Bolshoi Ballet School. It is the era of Stalin and sadly by days end Vera’s parents will have mysteriously disappeared. It will be many years before Nina sees Vera again.

By stark contrast it is also the day Nina glimpses what life outside the Soviet Union could be like. A glamorous American woman in beautiful clothes exits an expensive hotel as the girls and Nina’s mother walk by. Nina is mesmerised by the delicate diamond ear rings the woman wears – she has never seen such beautiful jewels, never known such a life existed.

Boston – seventy years later, Nina, the world famous prima ballerina, has decided to auction off some of her formidable jewellery collection. Of particular interest is an amber bracelet and ear rings – along with the matching necklace annonymously donated to the auction house. Nina is a woman with secrets, secrets she intends to keep to herself. As the story flashes back to Nina’s life in Soviet Russia, it becomes obvious why. From the sacrifices required to remain a top ballerina, the oppression and suspicion of life under Stalin and the love Nina has for her artist friends and her beloved husband the poet Viktor Elsin – runs a common thread of betrayal and tragedy.

Charged with tracing the provenance of the jewellery is Drew Brooks, the young auctioneer organising the sale, who herself has Russian ancestory. Assisting her is Grigori Solodin, a Professor of Russian studies and a man with questions about his own past.

I liked this book. I liked the main story, the part that took place in Russia – I found the current day story set in Boston less engrossing but it did grow on me. I’m not usually the biggest fan of dual time periods in a book for that reason, so I’m not suprised to have found one story stronger.

Daphne Kalotay spent six years researching and writing Russian Winter. She makes clever use of her research to provide an intriguing historical setting, enough detail to enhance but not engulf the story. I came away entertained rather than overwhelmed. For readers looking to delve further into the world of ballet, jewellery and life behind the Iron Curtain, there is an excellent list in the authors notes and sources at the end of the book. I would like to read all of them!

2010, 459 pages

Thank you to Arrow Books and to tour host Trish for sending me a copy of Russian Winter which I read as part of this TLC Book blog tour.

To check out other stops on the tour, pop over to the readers below:

Monday, February 6th: She Reads Novels
Wednesday, February 8th: Reading With Tea
Thursday, February 9th: Fleur Fisher in her World
Tuesday, February 14th: DizzyC’s Little Book Blog
Wednesday, February 15th: Pining for the West
Thursday, February 16th: Chuck’s Miscellany
Monday, February 20th: one more page
Tuesday, February 21th: I hug my books
Wednesday, February 22th: The Sweet Bookshelf