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Claire Fuller – Bitter Orange

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When friendships sour.

Publisher: Fig Tree (Penguin)
Pages: 274
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-34182-7
First Published: 2nd August 2018
Date Reviewed: 30th July 2018
Rating: 4/5

When a historic estate is purchased in 1969, the new owner asks Frances to stay at the house for a time and create a report on a bridge in the grounds. Upon arrival, she meets Cara and Peter, a couple who are there so that Peter can report on the house itself. Cara’s moods change quickly, her stories fantastical, and Peter sometimes seems overwhelmed by her actions. Staying in the attic above the dilapidated rooms Cara and Peter have been assigned, Frances finds a Judas Hole that gives her further information about their strange relationship. The couple captivate her, Peter in particular, but as she starts to find her rooms amiss, she wonders what is going on.

Bitter Orange is Fuller’s very fine third novel. It’s a tale that balances the aspects of a great summer read with a fantastically subtle suspense thread that may well surprise you at the end but in a good, literary, manner.

The book revolves around Frances’ acquaintance and interactions with Cara and Peter but particularly the former. Told in the past tense, we see an older, very ill, Frances looking back on her life to the time when she was impressionable, feeling grown up but with mistakes and misunderstandings she was yet to mature out of, and easy to win over. Coming across at times as somewhat of an unreliable narrator, Frances’ younger thoughts of the couple can be at odds – though not too much, which is where the ‘somewhat’ of the ‘unreliable narrator’ comes in – with what the reader sees under the surface.

Suffice it to say the characterisation is very good. There is a lot of depth in Frances as a character – you see a lot of her personality, insecurities, and Fuller spends a good amount of time showing the effects of Frances’ childhood on her adulthood. Cara and Peter are well drawn, too, and only held back from being easier to read due to us knowing them through Frances’ understanding of them; Cara the self-described Italian who creates melodrama in church, tells stories of death, and makes awful threats, and Peter who, seen though Frances’ rose-tinted eyes which may or may not tell the truth, is constantly trying to keep the peace, stop Cara going off the rails, and saving himself.

Woven in carefully, the effects of Frances’ childhood are excellently explained. The older Frances speaks to the reader (or to herself – she is talking because an old acquaintance is asking about her life but whether she’s actually voicing the thoughts are not always known) of the emotional and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother – the major reason for her lack of understanding when it comes to reading the personalities and interactions of others and making the correct choices. It’s a sobering story that highlights how abuse that is often not recognised can impact someone’s sense of self so fundamentally and for years and years after the abuse has finished, defining the novel in a quiet way.

Set in August and published in August, late summer is a great time to read this sun-drenched book. It has all the breezy laziness of a heat-glazed day and all the fantastic history and surprises of a good historical fiction, the setting of the 1960s interlaced with stories and ideas of a house from an earlier period, with spooky goings on that would be right at home in a ghost story.

The fruits may not taste very good but the packaging is brilliant; Bitter Orange is a great novel that rewards its reader handsomely with luscious writing and literary pleasures… which is just as well because by the time you come to the end you’re going to want something sweet you help you mull over the final revelations.

I received this book for review.

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Patrick Gale – A Place Called Winter

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But a book as lovely as summer.

Publisher: Tinder Press (Headline)
Pages: 338
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-20529-2
First Published: 1st January 2015
Date Reviewed: 6th July 2018
Rating: 5/5

In the early 1900s, Harry is in an asylum and given forced bathing treatments until he is brought to a more holistic treatment centre for people whose lives and personalities do not fit the social norm. Now in hypnotherapy he has a chance to find out why he was in the asylum in the first place; the mental journey back will take him from Britain to Canada, from family man to outcast, inherited wealth to pioneering homesteader.

A Place Called Winter is an epic historical with a similar atmosphere (due to both time period and writing) as Anna Hope’s Wake, though the stories are very different. A book with a definite main plot but lots of supporting elements, Gale’s novel offers a sumptuous escape into history alongside a hard story of discrimination.

It would be impossible to talk about this book without revealing the main plot point, as it’s too important; Harry is gay – not always conscious of the fact, or at least not to the reader – living in a time when it was illegal to act on it. When his affair with another man is discovered, Harry’s given two options – leave his family and country or be turned in – and so the book moves on in its location but not its look at Harry’s sexuality. Gale has populated his novel with good characters, both people who are simply likeable – most who would welcome the changes we are making today – as well as those who make hassle; these ‘villains’ at good at presenting the problems and reasoning in the historical context. As much as this is a plot and situational-driven book, the characteration is superb.

Amongst the plot points related to Harry’s sexuality is Gale’s study of other aspects of life that were deemed inappropriate. Time is spent on Harry’s friendship with Ursula, a cross-dresser who in their Native Canadian tribe was living a life revered by their kin. As Canada was taken over by the British, Ursula’s ‘wrong’ way of living meant she was moved to an asylum.

Gale’s writing is wonderful; it adds to the historical atmosphere and is just a joy to read. The information he provides on homesteading and the beginnings of the changed Canada is fascinating, giving more time to a part of the American continent that’s often overlooked in this way.

The novel, told in two narratives, comes to a head as Harry remembers why he was sent to the asylum. It’s not as strong an answer as you might expect, but the threads tied by its revelation are lovely and Gale gives his character a good end, despite everything that has happened previously. And whilst the reason for Harry’s treatment isn’t as strong as the rest of the book, the previous chapters, which constitute an ending themselves, are. Harry finds his people, Gale demonstrating what we know from historical evidence, that social rules didn’t fit everyone. It’s a story that has hints of Kate Chopin, and the better concepts of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and it’s great.

A Place Called Winter is brilliant. Go and pick it up; it’s engaging from the first few pages. Any more words included in this review would be superfluous.

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Laura Pearson – Missing Pieces

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When everyone feels they are to blame.

Publisher: Agora Books (previously Ipso Books)
Pages: 273
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-912-19475-9
First Published: 21st June 2018
Date Reviewed: 29th June 2018
Rating: 4.5/5

Southampton, 1985: Phoebe has died at three years of age, and Linda, Tom, and their eldest daughter Esme all feel the blame lies with them. As the days pass and Linda’s pregnancy advances, the loss will prove to have as much of a consequence on their futures as Phoebe’s passing.

Missing Pieces is a novel told in two time periods – the months after Phoebe’s death and several years in the future – that looks at the differing effects of grief and the ways people cope with loss.

I’m going to have to start with the setting because I know it too well and as such as much as I read the book as I do any other, it was naturally quite a particular experience due to the location choices. The use of location and the world-building is fantastic – the family clearly live somewhere in the Burgess Road/Swaythling/Bassett Green area and it reads well. When it comes to the bookshop Tom owns, the location isn’t as real; understandably there is some fiction here to create the travel bookshop: for the section set in 1985 it works, but for the section of the book set in 2011, reality needs to be suspended – a genre bookshop, particularly on the High Street at that time, would have been barely treading water and heading for closure – in reality the various independents and small chains all were. (Sadly we have only two bookshops left now, in 2018 – one Waterstones, and an independent in a nearby suburb that has a particular ethos, a good following, and other items for sale that help it stay afloat. Until a few months ago we had an additional two more – an Oxfam which has obviously closed, and a second, longer-standing, Waterstones that was gutted by fire.) In sum, the use of location is excellent and fiction has been applied thoughtfully. And quite frankly, a travel bookshop on the High Street is a wonderful dream to have.

Back to my usual mode of reviewing, then, and to follow on from the bookshop it must be said that, yes, this is a book about books. There are few specifics – more references to books on beaches and people ending their day with a coffee and a book on the sofa – but it means that the book always has a cosy, welcoming feel to it whilst you get through the story.

This said, the story is not difficult, per se. The subject is sad but Pearson’s writing of it is wonderful and all about showing. Of particular note is the way the author depicts Linda’s continued depression; Linda gets to that point where people expect her to perk up a bit and get back to family life, give birth to the baby that was growing when Phoebe died and be a mother to the child, but she can’t. The death affects her to the extent that she shuts everyone out most of the time and Pearson stays with this situation, letting it unravel where it will to show plainly how grief and the depression it can cause should never be on a timeline. In her grief, Linda makes poor choices and Pearson goes right into the thought process. The conclusion here succeeds in showing the need for tailored support and just more thought from others in general.

Related to this is Pearson’s depiction of how parental favoritism towards one child can have long-term consequences for the child who isn’t the one most loved. Part of Esme’s struggle is in her mother’s utter – in her depression – neglect of her, her eldest daughter, and the way that Phoebe’s death means that Linda shuts everyone else out, which is added to the situation before the situation wherein Esme felt that there was a lot more interest, from Linda, in Phoebe, than Linda had ever had for her. (This is in turn backed up by Linda’s thoughts.)

Tom’s grief gets looked at in terms of his decision to be elsewhere for much of the time, in his feeling that Linda is pushing him away. The new baby, Bea, is the subject of the second part of the book, wherein Pearson looks at however things that affect a person indirectly can still have a big impact.

Due to the ‘showing’ Pearson does, the ‘reveal’ as to how Phoebe died is drawn out until the last few pages of the book; you know that Linda feels Esme is partly to blame, that Linda feels that she herself should have been there, and that Tom should have been at home. The lack of knowledge can be frustrating on occasion but only when the subject is brought up – the lack of talk on the events that led to the death mean that you can concentrate on the rest of what Pearson is trying to show.

Missing Pieces has a commendable aim and it reaches it with flying colours. The reading experience is good, the attention to detail excellent. You may not remember the characters themselves as much – some detailing there has understandably been left out in favour of the story – but the essence will remain with you.

I received this book for review.

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Nicola Cornick – The Lady And The Laird

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A little more conversation.

Publisher: Mira (Harlequin)
Pages: 370
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-01628-7 (ebook; paperback out of print)
First Published: 30th July 2013
Date Reviewed: 22nd June 2018
Rating: 4.5/5

Lucy’s twin died in love and now Lucy is afraid to fall herself; happy as a near spinster, she writes erotic letters for her brother’s friends to give to the ladies they wish to woo, donating the money she makes to those in poverty. But her last letter hits the mark a bit too close to home – in helping her brother, she unwittingly ruins the upcoming marriage of Robert, the man she kissed some years ago. Robert needed to wed the lady in order to gain his inheritance and Lucy may be the only possible bride left.

The Lady And The Laird is a very well-written regency romance that includes conflict but never at the cost of a good story.

It is the defining feature of this work that allows the rest to flow so well. The Lady And The Laird sports a good handful of problems that keep the story going without ever going too far. This is to say that the main conflict that prevents the romance moving forward – as you would expect such a thing in romance – carries on only until a very realistic point wherein the characters open up to each other and communicate their problems. Communication is a big element of this book. The characters have trouble at first but they give it their all; there is no situation where a lack of communication is used as a device.

That said, there is one area that could have been tied up a bit quicker, and that is the story behind Alice’s death. It’s not a conflict in itself – the conflict is the result it causes for Lucy as explained above – it’s that it’s one of those times when the reader can tell very quickly what’s gone on but the narrative takes a while to fully inform.

The romance is well done; with the characters given a lot of time to progress and with the realism included (away from the obvious fantastical perfection and coincidences that create a story) it’s steamy not just in the scenes themselves but otherwise. The characters are on a par with each other and whilst there are times when Lucy is undermined by others, Cornick quickly flips the tables and puts her in a position of strength.

There is plenty of history to be had both in terms of the Scottish Highlands and a Scottish version of the Bluestocking society, both of which this reviewer can’t determine the reality of but whether fact or fiction provides a good representation of the real life. (Cornick refers to the ‘Golden Isles’, which may be a nickname for a real place.)

For all of the above then, the book is a fun, quick read. The world-building is often such that you find yourself immersed in the scene, with the running and repairing of inherited land written with aplomb. There are some editing errors but these are mostly confined to the opening chapters. The only thing missing is one possible thread – there is some dialogue and a long-term quarrel between two secondary characters that is presented in a way that suggests the two will discover a romantic connection, but which is not ‘completed’; it could be that it was just a quarrel, it’s simply that it’s referred to a good few times but doesn’t get an ending besides the characters returning to their respective homes.

This book is pretty damn good. It brings refreshment to the staid idea that a romance must have a continual conflict, shows the importance and positive result of communication. The characters themselves may not be the most memorable – because the novel itself is so good.

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Valeria Luiselli – Faces In The Crowd

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Stories can haunt you.

Publisher: Granta
Pages: 148
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-847-08507-8
First Published: 2011; 2nd May 2013 in English
Date Reviewed: 18th June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Los ingrávidos (The Weightless)
Translated by: Christina MacSweeney

A woman – generally unnamed but briefly described as Dolores – working as a writer and translator in Mexico, struggles to find Latin authors to put forward as candidates for publication to her boss; she finds the work of a poet – Giberto Owen – in the library and starts to construct a tale of discovering old translations by a famous translator. As she writes the translations herself she tells us the story of the novel she is writing, which appears to be very similar to her own life.

Faces In The Crowd is an incredibly literary book that, as Luiselli has her character write, is ‘a horizontal novel told vertically’ and ‘a vertical novel, told horizontally’ and ‘A novel that has to be told from the outside in order to be read from within’; in essence, this is a book in a book that’s possibly in another book that’s possibly not actually fiction at all… but then is, of course, fiction.

If that sounds terribly confusing that’s because it is – Faces In The Crowd is a great read but it can and most likely will do a number on your literary sanity. This is most likely an intended part of the experience. With Luiselli’s concept of ghosts and the reality and fiction meddling together and modifying each other – the author (Luiselli) even has her character write such a thing, possibly with the idea of helping her (Luiselli again) reader’s work it out – there are a lot of hints but their core meaning can be difficult to place against the text.

This novel in a novel, then, is formed of both Dolores’ home life and her work, and she writes about her home life as it happens, thus blending the two together, and goes so far as to call her translation work another life. Luiselli uses the concept of vignettes to separate both ideas and storylines but only loosely – one of the best easy-to-understand aspects of the novel is the way the different vignettes become associated as the narrative continues:

On Sundays, my husband, the children and I listen to Rockdrigo and eat pancakes for breakfast. But not this Sunday. My husband is angry. Through my own carelessness, he’s read some more of these pages. He asks how much is fiction and how much fact.

*

During that period, I took to telling lies.

As a further example, too long to quote, on the page directly following this, Dolores says that her husband got a postcard from a woman ‘in Philly’. In the next vignette, Dolores is just back from Philly, and in the one following that, women contact their first loves and ask to meet in Philly. Later the husband has to go to Philly… but later he, or his ‘ghost’ is still at home.

‘Ghost’ is the word here: with the various narratives gradually moving together, the concept Luiselli introduced early on is unpacked and made easier to understand. There is one ‘ghost’ who starts us off, and that is Gilberto Owen.

This is where we encounter the historical literary aspect of the book: Dolores’ chosen Latin poet is a real Mexican poet from the 1800s – this reviewer could not find out enough about him to be able to say whether Luiselli’s narrative for him is fact or fiction but there are hints as to poetry movements and concepts. Through Owen’s life – whether fictional in terms of Dolores’ ‘translations’ or simply fictional in terms of the novel – we meet the likes of Ezra Pound and Nella Larsen. (Luiselli has taken her title from Pound’s poem, In a Station of a Metro.) The use of fellow poets and writers aids the narrative, both in terms of real life happenings and the mere concepts that follow them, for example it could be said that Luiselli’s writing is styled rather similarly to Imagism – Pound’s school of poetry.

There isn’t much character development here – the plot and the style is the focus – but again, that adds to the narrative. Everyone sounds rather like everyone else, and the book becomes more an ode to interpreting literature and the work of historical writers rather than a book to enjoy. But the writing is very likeable and it’s evident that the translation has placed more prominence on understanding and getting the active point across instead of making words and phrases align which mean you get a firm idea of what the original is (would be) like.

Faces In The Crowd is a tough read – you’ll look at the thin stack of pages and ample white space thinking you’ll spend an hour or so in literary enjoyment and then find you’ve been there for a long time and still not finished; this book requires more attention than an ancient classic. But being able to say you’ve read it is satisfying in itself and if you’ve learned a fair amount about literary constructs and literary people in that time then all the better. If there’s anything else to be said about it it’s that it perhaps goes on too long, which does indeed sound ridiculous.

Perhaps it’s right that words contain nothing, or almost nothing. That their content is, at the very least, variable.

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