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Colm Tóibín – Brooklyn

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Concrete jungle where dreams are made of… or pressed upon.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 250
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-04174-2
First Published: 5th May 2009
Date Reviewed: 4th October 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

Ireland in the 1950s and Eilis, recently having left school, is living with her mum and sister. There aren’t many jobs available but she manages to get Sunday work at a grocers her mother dislikes. She’s happy with life as it is, but one day her mother and sister start talking to her about sending her to New York where there are lots of opportunities. She goes, reluctantly, and begins a new life, but it’s hard forgetting home when you didn’t want to leave it.

Brooklyn is the acclaimed novel by Tóibín that looks at a young person’s emigration away from all she knows. Shorter than some, it offers some interesting descriptions, circumstances, and knowledge, but never really ‘goes’ anywhere despite the literal journey Eilis makes.

What’s good in this book is the use of time period and situation. Tóibín brings the era to life masterfully, writing descriptions that provide enough for you to create a good image in your head of the way things look, both the location and the people. He doesn’t describe everything – most readers will know the basics about the 50s after all, given its ‘vintage’ status – but it is more than enough.

There is also the social angle, which is only a minor feature but means that parts of the book are compelling; the regular life occurrences such as dances and movie nights, but also the racism between immigrants, and the changes that came with allowing black people to move in previously white-only spaces. Tóibín does not spend long on these, and more’s the pity, because they’re the highlight.

The storytelling in itself is fair. Language is generally good. Reasons for character decisions, whilst not often reasonable in terms of what we’d think now or what the reader themselves might do, are accounted for.

However the novel falls down a few levels when it comes to characterisation. A number of the secondary characters, in part, for certain, due to their role as secondary characters, are developed a fair amount – developed as much as they are needed to be. But Eilis is largely vague. She is very passive and easily replaceable.

The problem here is that Eilis never makes decisions for herself, something that becomes incredibly apparent during the last section of the book wherein she lets a lot of people walk all over her, keeps secrets, and goes along with things that she ought to consider ludicrous. It is difficult to talk about without giving away a small piece of information that may or may not be considered a spoiler – included in this book is Eilis’ return journey to Ireland. She’s not intending to return for good, having a specific reason for going back for a short time, as many people would have (hence why it’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal it).

Although Eilis had been making ‘decisions’ based on what other people were pushing her to do before this, her lack of agency in the last section is particularly frustrating and unfortunately, whilst you’d expect Tóibín to do something about it at the end, to show Eilis coming into her own, he does not. Whether or not that was something he purposefully excluded to create a discussion is hard to say; it’s fair to say Eilis’ sister had good reason for putting Eilis on the boat, and that Eilis is and likely always was the victim of emotional manipulation, but whilst Tóibín allows you to see this, somewhat, he does nothing to change Eilis’ situation. And whilst that in itself is not bad, because it can be hard for someone in her position to find herself, there needed to be something from Tóibín, even if just a direct, single line, on why Eilis is so passive. It might have helped account for the strange turns Eilis’ ‘choices’ take and definitely would have given the story a bit of action.

Therefore you have a book with wonderful world-building and writing, a book that you won’t want to put down, but ultimately there is no real story here except of constant indecision and pressure, and a sudden and completely unsatisfactory ending. Again, perhaps this is something the author was actively looking to achieve, because it certainly creates a reaction, but that doesn’t help make Brooklyn any better.

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Rosie Travers – The Theatre Of Dreams

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Lights, camera, and action… are all badly needed by this group of people.

Publisher: Crooked Cat
Pages: 300
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-721-12292-9
First Published: 1st August 2018
Date Reviewed: 21st August 2018
Rating: 4/5

Actress Tara’s director boyfriend becomes interested in a rising reality star and the resulting fallout shatters Tara’s professional image. When she receives a letter from an elderly woman, inviting her to take over a dance school (the real reason is to help save the old pavilion) she decides to go for it, moving from London to the south coast. But there’s more to Kitty’s request than she included in the letter, more than any meetings and debates with councils.

The Theatre Of Dreams is a contemporary story of historical conservation, with a healthy dose of mystery. Told via two characters, one in the first person, the other in the third, it gives a good view of the past and present and ensures all questions, whether explained openly to other characters or not, are answered for the reader.

Travers has constructed a good tale; seemingly nice but ordinary for a while, there comes a point where the first mystery element makes an appearance, and this then runs parallel to the main story, pushing the interest up several levels. It adds a completely new dimension and genres that move the novel, particularly the final third, into page-turner territory, somewhere between a casual whodunnit and a cosy mystery, whilst never losing the easy-going nature of the narrative.

Characterisation is fair, with most time understandably going to Tara, who gets a complete, realistic, life change. She’s as important as the fight to save the pavilion.

The pavilion itself is what the story revolves around but it would be prudent not to expect to see a result here – the book is about the journey to start the restoration rather than about the restoration itself, with Kitty desperate to find a way out of the bind her family have put her in of selling off the pavilion to developers. The fictional history looks at stories from factual places (the building is based on Lee-On-Solent’s old Lee Tower) and calls to mind similar, factual, stories of campaigns to save history.

There’s but one issue and that’s in the book as a product; there are a lot of proofreading errors – spelling, grammar – that, whilst not on every page, are numerous enough to be noticeable and do on occasion mean you have to stop reading to work out the meaning behind the sentence. The language itself is good and Travers’ style confident – the errors are an editing stage problem.

Besides the errors, the book is great. It’s one you can pick up for a chapter or two but quickly find yourself wanting to carve out time for, and the subtle elements of mystery that Travers includes make you want to race through the end to find out what’s happened.

I’ve met the author a couple of times.

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Kirsty Ferry – Watch For Me By Candlelight

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Not only at the first stroke of midnight.

Publisher: Choc Lit
Pages: 302
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 9B079H1LTJB (ASIN)
First Published: 3rd April 2018
Date Reviewed: 8th August 2018
Rating: 4/5

Kate lives in Suffolk where she runs a local history museum, set up in a row of old cottages. Originally from Cambridge, she fell in love with the village she found there, feeling drawn to it. One day a new visitor to the museum, Theo, arrives; Kate begins to slip back in time, into the shoes of someone who looks very similar to herself and who knows someone who looks similar to Theo.

Watch For Me By Candlelight is a time-slip romance with a well-constructed fantasy thread. At first understandably seeming to be an editing error, Ferry’s seamless integration of Kate into her historical past is excellently done, with Kate effectively becoming her historical counterpart whilst remaining herself, able to apply modern concepts to what she is hearing but knowledgeable of what she actually ought to be saying in context. On occasion she does lose herself completely in Cat, Ferry intentionally bringing the history further into the proceedings so that you get to know Cat as well, albeit not as much as Kate.

Partly as a result of all this, the romance is a good one – well plotted and paced. Ferry doesn’t dwell long on minor conflicts, letting the plot go where it will – for example a problematic, more minor, part of life will be solved in good time to aid the path of the main story.

The author’s decision to use a pretty ordinary backdrop and characters allows the spotlight to be on the fantasy, and allows the story to feature a strong dose of reality (the time-slip itself being not so unrealistic). Kate is friends with the family who own the local historic estate, and counterpart Cat was a relative of their ancestors – neither are particularly privileged. Theo/Will (it’s not a spoiler to say he has a counterpart) is well placed in an equally ordinary situation, and it’s this that creates the main conflict in the historical sections.

The writing is good – any anachronisms are the result of the time-slipping and thus not an issue, and the grammar on most occasions is refreshingly super.

There are little things at odds, but the main element that invites question is the ending – it’s not at all as the plot leads you to believe; the mystery is not predictable but might have been better if it was predictable, more suitable.

Apart from that, as described, Watch For Me By Candlelight is a good book. It’s understandably an easy read, enjoyable both in terms of its genre and for the cleverness of the construction, putting genre first to great effect. It’s the second in a series but can be read as a standalone, the references to the first book intriguing and informative.

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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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