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Rachel Elliot – Whispers Through A Megaphone

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It’s no good keeping it all to yourself.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 342
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-992-91826-2
First Published: 26th August 2015
Date Reviewed: 22nd August 2016
Rating: 4/5

Miriam hasn’t left her house for three years. All her life she’s been dealing with the effects of her mother – first as it happened as a child, then the repercussions as an adult. She’s also suffering from a worry over her ‘feral’ reaction when someone attacked her. But now she wants to leave the house. Ralph’s been married to Sadie for sixteen years but it’s not a happy marriage; there is something amiss with Sadie and she’s always on her phone. One day, thrown a birthday party he doesn’t want to have, Ralph decides to leave.

Whispers Through A Megaphone is a witty book about healing and living life with its various neurotic aspects.

Jilly Perkins was a genius. Ralph wanted to tell her this, but she hated compliments. They filled her with wind and suspicion.

Elliot’s story is one that’s based in reality with a bit of a bizarre twist that one could say has been added in part to make it easier to relate to. Beyond Miriam’s stay in her house the narratives, numerous on occasion (Elliot details a few strangers every so often, all with their own quirks), and situations are easy to relate to and because of this the humour and skewing slightly towards the extreme mean the book remains light and nice to read instead of bogged down, depressing.

Because the subjects are depressing. The abuse Miriam experienced at the hands of her mother is painful to read and something that happens a lot in our world. It’s affected Miriam to her core; there’s a constant voice in her head that she recognises as her mother’s. Miriam whispers because her mother hated hearing her and threatened her with atrocious punishments. But she’s always been aware of what’s outside her mother’s clutches – in leaving the house and meeting people she knows it’s potentially going to take some getting used to. This is what happens when a child is abused, says Elliot.

Alongside healing, regret is one of the subjects. Ralph’s wife, Sadie, has spent their marriage pushing back memories of her time at university, at the almost-relationship she had with Alison, wishing she’d done things differently, and for lack of anywhere to go, her grief has spilled into all other aspects of her life. She blogs and tweets almost compulsively, telling everyone about what’s going on at home and including things about her husband whose patients (he became a Psychoanalyst to please Sadie, who didn’t like him gardening) are following her. She has developed a crush on her best friend who is already married. She is what people would call ‘high maintenance’ – Elliot shows there’s generally a reason for neurotic personalities. The family is very normal in their dysfunction.

The writing is nice; it’s short, snippy, always to the point. There’s a lot of white space during the many dialogues because the lines are often just a few words long. The pace speeds up during some narratives, Sadie’s, for example, and then back down for Miriam, but it’s never slow. There are some tweeted sections to give you a good idea of Sadie and a brief look-back at the lives of periphery characters. The only difficulty here is when the narrative moves back in time; it’s not always easy to tell what period you’re reading about. It can also be hard not to see Ralph and Sadie with heads of white hair though they’re said to be in their 30s.

This is a book that doesn’t necessarily go the way you think it will. It has an ending of sorts but it’s far more about the exploration. It’s quite clever really, this book that’s about the absolute everyday, looking into the smallest of smallest details – it’s an ‘ah ha’ sort of book, Elliot’s keen sight for what’s behind the surface and her way of interpreting it for us. She says what we often know deep down but have trouble connecting to other aspects of our lives.

Joe Schwartz was the first guest to arrive. He was early, nervous, drenched in aftershave.
Stanley answered the door.
“You look amazing,” said Joe.
“Thanks,” said Stanley, his nose twitching. He hoped he wasn’t allergic to Joe. It was too early in their relationship for hypersensitivity, aversion, turning into his parents.

Whispers Through A Megaphone shows that one shouldn’t be afraid to speak up, that it’s in keeping quiet that regrets are formed (obviously it’s a little different in the case of abuse). It’s a lovely book that uncovers a lot in a short period of time, wading into tough waters whilst remaining something you want to go back to.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Ayelet Gundar-Goshen – One Night, Markovitch

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History, war… and humour?

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 365
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27163-5
First Published: 2012; 15th June 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 27th May 2016
Rating: 5/5

Original language: Hebrew
Original title: לילה אחד, מרקוביץ (Markovitch, Layla Echad) (Markovitch, One Night)
Translated by: Sondra Silverston

Yaacov Markovitch has an unremarkable face. No one really notices him. His friend, Zeev Feinberg has an amazing moustache that everyone knows about. The friends enlist in a programme designed to rescue Jewish women from Germany, to bring them back to the homeland and whilst Zeev has no issues with the idea of divorcing a wife – he has a girlfriend who smells of oranges – Yaacov finds himself married to the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, a woman who wants nothing to do with him and will ignore him in the years that follow.

One Night, Markovitch is a funny yet poignant book (‘poignant’ is on the cover; it’s perfect) about all sorts of things related to the self as well as war and the effects of it on people’s lives. It’s one of those books that is solid throughout and very special.

The humour is mostly laugh out loud and very well timed – never too much, never something you forget. The book is peppered yet it would be difficult to label it a complete comedy because it’s anything but stereotypical. I’m going to have to share a quote:

“Are you excited about the journey to Palestine?”
That she would be excited about their marriage was something he dared not expect, but he hoped that the excitement she felt at the proximity of the Holy Land would project a bit onto the means of her reaching it, that is, onto him.
“Definitely. I’ve read a great deal about the oranges.”
Here Bella Zeigerman stopped speaking, and Yaacov Markovitch decided happily that his wife, like him, was a fan of agricultural literature. On the narrow, crowded bookshelf in his house in the village, next to the writings of Jabotinsky, stood all sorts of guides – the mother of wheat and how to improve species, how to plough and plant grain, how to graft a tree without causing pain. Bella Zeigerman knew how to recite Gothe, but it is doubtful that she would be able to memorize, with the same degree of success, the list of insects that threaten to destroy grapevines. When she mentioned oranges, it was because she recalled a line from the Hebrew poet’s poem [she is in love with his work] that had been published in the newspaper.

Humour is found in Sonya’s eyes, which are a couple of millimetres too far apart to be pleasing. It’s found in the way she stands on the shore yelling curses at the long-gone Zeev Feinberg who will return in time. It’s found in Zeev Feinberg’s moustache. And it’s found in some of the ‘lad-ish’ humour – this is in no way a women’s fiction book.

For a while it’s simply history and humour and then there comes a point where the mood is more sombre, the humour sensitive, almost, and whilst it’s not quite that because the story turns ‘sensitive’ on its head, whilst the war trickles in from the beginning, there is a turning point wherein it becomes the focus.

Gundar-Goshen mixes in some politics. The book deals with the beginnings of WWII, its situation for German Jews, whilst also dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which the Jews, their people persecuted in Germany, are in turn persecuting Arabs. Yes, it’s quite a bold statement. German Jews are fleeing Berlin before the major onslaught and in Israel, their ancestral land, they are in a good place. Gundar-Goshen does not say anything directly about the issues, the conflict betweens these conflicts, but there’s a flicker of an opinion.

This isn’t to say the wars are particularly detailed, however. For the most part they are in the background – Zeev Feinberg held an Arab by the throat today but now we’re seeing him at home with his children. The subtext is key. It spills out of the text – this conflict is everyday, a regular happening, and it’s in the ‘minor’ details like Zeev’s day that we see the horror of it.

Amongst this is the shock. It hits a few characters, informs their lives, but one in particular is commented on – Rachel Mandelblum. When in Germany – which she left for Israel, promptly ceasing to speak German, adopting Hebrew instead – Rachel experienced the horror of a murder, a skull being cracked. She can not escape the sound, it haunts her every day. Gundar-Goshen blends this specific horror into the humour of Rachel’s present situation, her pretending not to understand German, being not unhappy but no more than content living with the random butcher who proposed marriage when he saw her in the street. (She had no reason not to agree so she followed him home and had his child.)

The naming, whether cultural or not I’m not sure, is in a first-name-surname form every time. Rather than simply filling pages, it adds to the humour, though I can’t say why exactly.

The translation bares a strong sense of being true to the original. It’s an American translation, definite western words that are most certainly the choices of the translator rather than a choice based on how the text reads, but it’s by no means a bad text. It flows, it translates jokes into a western context for English speakers to understand… you know you’ve got a good translation when it doesn’t stand out.

The ending’s an interesting one for the way Gundar-Goshen refers to the audience, breaking the fourth wall (though there is, throughout, a feeling of that anyway) saying that, hey, she’s about to jump in time, but this is what happened in the interim she’s skipping, and it isn’t much, and this is why she’s had to do it, and so on. There are many books that jump in time for no reason – Gundar-Goshen’s explanation is a blessing.

One Night, Markovitch is superb. It’s fun, it’s serious with good reason and to good effect – it’s just a solid book all round.

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Mavis Cheek – Dog Days

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Separating for the kid.

Publisher: Ipso Books
Pages: 193
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1990
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2016
Rating: 4/5

Pat is leaving Gordon, buying a new home, getting a dog for her daughter who has said if they must lose Daddy she wants a dog, and starting life afresh. She should have done it years ago – she should have never married him. Love isn’t on the cards; Pat has no intentions of another relationship, she’s just looking forward to being herself again.

Dog Days is at once a light and easy-going story, and an honest look at the breakdown of a marriage, a person’s resurfacing after divorce into the person they used to be. At times very blunt, Cheek’s book is one that delves into things that are difficult to talk about whilst nevertheless remaining breezy. The Times has said ‘Mavis Cheek seems to have cracked the conundrum of how to write decent novels with popular appeal’, and that’s a good way to sum it up.

Rachel gave me my pass through life. She was, anyway, the only reason I was in this situation.

Cheek is open about the problems that can come with having children – whilst it’s obvious to the reader and to Pat herself that Rachel’s birth did not exactly change Gordon (more that it allowed her to see who he was), it was in having Rachel that Pat felt bound to her then boyfriend and so an accidental pregnancy led to her life going quite a different way than planned. Gordon was not the one for Pat – he’s stingy, having plenty of money but never treating his wife nor his daughter, and only cares about himself. He turns on the charm when he wants to manipulate his daughter to get what he wants.

But equally, as much as Cheek is honest about the affect of children and the way a person should think beforehand as to whether they truly do want to be a parent, she is open about how much happiness they can bring. Rachel doesn’t cause Pat to be exuberant, it’s more a case that Rachel’s intelligence continues to baffle her mother, in a good way, and the girl, older than her years it seems to her mother, is a good companion. Whilst Pat would not have stayed with Gordon if it weren’t for Rachel, nevertheless Rachel is obviously a good factor in Pat’s life.

More than children, Cheek just speaks of relationships. When asked by her solicitor, Pat struggles to find a tidy reason for getting a divorce; this is where Cheek’s exploration of resentment and sadness comes in. Pat can’t sum up her reason in a sentence. She can’t say she was abused, or that Gordon cheated, and so begins a long, excellent, section wherein she narrates various episodes in her life that show why she wants to leave her husband. Cheek shows how it isn’t always cut and dried, and that listing reasons doesn’t always work.

Amongst this exploration is some humour. It’s the sort of easy joviality that keeps the pace steady and the pages turning on the occasions when what you’re reading about is quite bleak. A lot of it revolves around Pat’s distaste for dogs and her slow journey towards becoming a dog person:

Eventually, with considerable effort on my part, we selected the weakest and wettest of mongrels in the pound. Rachel wanted the racy little cross between a Jack Russell and a something (a very something), but it had far too many of Gordon’s traits for my liking. Small and wiry with bright snapping eyes; a prominent, urgent profile and – I could sense – totally selfish motives behind its cocky, winning ways. I had lived with one like that for too long in its human form to burden myself with another, albeit four-legged and linked to me in animal slavery. Whereas the wet-looking mongrel had not an ounce of spunk left in it.

Brian, the dog of the title, doesn’t really do much, he’s no Scooby Do or Lassie – the title is more about the time itself, those days. Brian’s the subtle presence, there for Rachel, there for Pat once she thaws a bit towards him, and a menace once or twice when Pat’s too sure he’s the right dull dog for her.

The main thing to bare in mind is Pat’s illogical misunderstanding which spans a good few chapters. There comes a point when Pat mistakes someone for being in a relationship and it gets a bit grating because it’s blatantly obvious that they aren’t and therefore comes across as a lengthening device. Once cleared up, Pat notes it should have occurred to her, but that doesn’t atone for the frustration.

This aside, Dog Days is a funny, half-escapist, half-brutal-with-good-reason read. It’s honest, it’s realistic, and yet its status as an easy page-turning book never wavers.

I received this book for review on behalf of the publisher.

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Elizabeth Gaskell – Cranford

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No man’s land, gender form.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1851-1853
Date Reviewed: 8th April 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Our narrator – whose name we will learn in time (this is no Du Maurier) – takes trips to the town of Cranford periodically and informs us of the goings on. Most of the residents are women – men tend to disappear – and a certain propriety functions. You’ve people like Deborah – faithful to the works of Samuel Johnson – and you’ve the richest woman, Mrs Jamieson, who struggles somewhat to retain feelings of wealth in a town where money never grows on trees.

Cranford is a novella, one of three that looks at the fictional town; it deals with many different subjects. Akin to a long-running soap opera in terms of its lack of action and overall excitement, the book is more an escape and ripe for pleasant Sunday afternoons.

This said there are two ‘sides’ to Cranford. Certainly the surface dressing and the majority of the content is frivolous – we could well imagine people in Gaskell’s time sitting down to the most recent chapter (the work was first published as a serial) but there is a second side akin to Gaskell’s work in North And South. It may take a while for the side – the social commentary – to become apparent but to put it simply, the book includes a small-scale study of poverty. One can assume Gaskell was wanting more contemplation for her readers, in fact one could assume she was wanting to say something without jeopardising their interest – she looks at poverty in general and how other people work to help each other, whilst simultaneously never implying anyone lacks money. Needless to say the book can be read in a variety of ways; Gaskell seems to want you take away what you will.

Away from this there’s little to comment on in depth. The book is all about its humour – every now and then you may laugh out loud but the emphasis is on subtlety. Here, again, Gaskell doesn’t want to alienate her serial readers – the characters are women and that’s great, but we’ll have some fun at the expense of them on occasion. The male characters, likely deliberately, are all good guys, men that can match the women in wit and personality and thus stay in town.

The writing is strictly okay; you can see why, perhaps, Gaskell is not considered on a level with her friends Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens, but it does the job.

That this review is so short should clue you in to what you can expect from Cranford – fun, yes, and escapism, but a lot of average moments and a sense of convenience. Reading the book is like watching Neighbours, just without the divorces and deaths. It’s something to read whilst you’re deciding what to read.

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Eloisa James – When The Duke Returns

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When baring your knees would result in people thinking you were Tarzan.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: ???
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-24560-2
First Published: 25th November 2008
Date Reviewed: 14th October 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

…So the Duke of Cosway turned up to Lord Strange’s party and bundled Isidore away. Now he’s back, however, and looking worse for wear with his un-Georgian way of dressing and general indifference to social mores, Isidore’s not sure she wants him. Simeon agrees with her that an annulment is best, but there are things to see to in the meantime, namely the stench in his house due to his parents’ lack of care. As Isidore comes to see, Simeon’s not bad looking for his lack of wigs and hair powder, and as Simeon comes to see, Isidore may not be the docile wife he was expecting but he likes her all the same.

When The Duke Returns is the fourth book in James’ Desperate Duchesses series and continues straight on from the previous, Duchess By Night.

This is a good book, on par with the rest if not the best, pardon the rhyme, though it isn’t quite as funny. After a while of thinking I realised it’s meant to be funny, but the subplot of the sewage pipes leaking all over the house leans more on the side of icky. It’s true the start of this series saw cow pat discus, but that was simply silly and not so literally wretched.

The characters, however, are fair as I’ll be repeating later on. Isidore is a fun heroine if misguided and silly, and Simeon, whose first name I’m using regardless of the fact his society says it’s not correct, is a breath of fresh air, somewhat literally, in a world where all heroes up to now have been clad in breeches. His liking for simple clothes means he’s a bit more modern and understandable in the context of our present day. The rest of the characters, the heroes and heroines of the other books ensure we’ve something of a soap opera on our hands and round it off with a wig on top. (The secondary plot here, the lead-in for book five, is Jemma and Elijah. As such there is quite a bit of time spent on them and sidekick Villiers.) The servants also get their time, in particular butler Honeydew whose not-quite-subtle attempt to get his master and mistress sharing a bed affords a smile.

I’d like to address the views of Buddhism and the ‘exotic’ here as I expect some will wonder about what reads as offensive – James writes in context, placing the sorts of views people had in the 1700s into her fiction so the characters are racist and prejudice on occasion as befits their period.

The relationship is average but the sex scenes are well written – comparable to the previous book. The writing on the whole is excellent, a couple of info-dumps aside, and as always you can trust that most of the background context is factual with some artistic license thrown in for good comedic measure.

But the pattern established early on in the series is very noticeable here. Indeed the characters leap off the page, the sex occurs after a fair period of courting, the history is good to read and the books are hilariously funny – but all stories suffer from a lack of conflict when it comes to the conflict – a conflict-less conflict, if you will. The couples argue over… well, this is my point. They argue over nothing at all really, and it’s most pronounced here in When The Duke Returns. Isidore is angry because she wants more say, Simeon changes from being pretty free and easy to wanting some control in domestic affairs, but neither convinces. Yes, they clash a bit and get angry over things as every couple does, but the question of divorce seems more an author convenience, a ploy to keep the book going. They have sex, say it’s not working, talk of divorce, and the cycle begins again.

Ultimately the book is a good read with a pinch of ‘get to the point already’ where the previously fun Isidore becomes annoying and the previously interesting Simeon becomes insipid. The ending is fun but too silly and wrapped up as quickly as Simeon gets wrapped up in Isidore’s skirts.

When The Duke Returns is an okay addition to the series and the sex is certainly steamy, but the format is wearing.

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