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Emma Henderson – The Valentine House

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Houses, history, family, and secrets.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 335
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-444-70402-0
First Published: 6th April 2017
Date Reviewed: 26th April 2017
Rating: 3/5

The Valentines own a house in the French Alps and summer there each year. The house remains in the family for decades and so in the nearby village there is a lot of knowledge and rumour spread and over time many residents employed; if female, the mistress of the house looks for very plain, ugly women so that her husband won’t be led astray. Mathilde is one of those employed and ends up spending most of her summers working at Arete. But there is more than meets the eye in Lady C’s wish for plainness and there are more tales behind the elusive Margaret and younger Daisy than people will know.

The Valentine House is a dual plotline book of family issues, history, and climbing, set in France. It switches between Mathilde – both in her early and later years – and a Valentine descendant called George.

This book is an easy read. Full of the colloquial language of the times it can be fun and often poetic. Many sentences ultimately rhyme; it’s not that the book is written in verse, but there are enough rhymes here to believe that it may have been a stylistic choice.

It is hard to say whether the book is a success from an objective viewpoint – The Valentine House does not have much of a story arc, and depending on what you were hoping for or were thinking might happen, the reveals near the end may not be satisfying. There is a point roughly two-thirds of the way through where Henderson deliberately turns away from giving away an important detail (think the ‘I didn’t want to listen to what the person was saying’ device), which does mean you get to enjoy more of the atmosphere (which is great) but may cause some frustration. At the beginning of the book the idea of ‘uglies’ seems to be very important on a larger scale than the English family’s hiring practises, however as the novel continues it ceases to be looked into. This may well have been a case of nothing from the start, so to speak, but with a nod towards disfigurement, rather than plain looks, in several people, and given Henderson’s previous book, it does seem as though something has been left out.

Beyond this, apart from times of confusion, it’s an enjoyable read. The writing, as said, is rather lovely, especially so at times, and there is a lot to love about the aspects of climbing and general Alps history. You wouldn’t necessarily call this a book about climbing, and not a book about families and climbing, either, but nevertheless the sort of detailing Henderson has included about climbing means it’s likely to satisfy those who enjoy the sport as well as those simply interested in the idea of it. The people might be fictional but the delights as well as the sorrows, the dangers, are very true to history and life, so there is an element of learning here to be had. Nods are given to the Alpine Club and the experiences of individuals, and as the sections about mountaineering occur in both the the early twentieth century as well as the later twentieth century narratives, you get more than one slice of how the sport has changed. And you get the benefit of learning not just how much safety improved but inevitably, as the book’s ‘present day’ narrative is in the 1970s, how much further we have come now.

Read the book for the family saga aspect of it and you’ll find yourself a happy – for you if not for the characters – afternoon. It’s in the family that the idea of the story arc can take a back-seat – if you are reading for the saga, you may well be happy with the arc as it is. As the book isn’t very long compared to other sagas the generations are written both linearly and muddled together (in a carefully considered way) meaning that it does bridge the divide between genres. This said, you are highly likely to prefer one narrative to the other which may affect this. Mathilde’s is the one most likely to inspire as it has a lot more going on than George’s, which for most of the time can seem more a device for Mathilde than a story in itself.

And the family is most definitely a dysfunctional one. Henderson has stuck firmly to the concept of the rich family holiday; she has gone to town with it and done it with aplomb. The characters are stereotypical insofar as literature goes which in this case is a great aid rather than a drawback. There’s an interesting semblance of cut-out along with fine development, with Henderson leaning a little on the stereotypes so that she can spend more time on the not-so-stereotypical, a sort of ‘these are the basics, now let me give you the specific details’. Whilst the characters may not all stay in mind beyond the book – some definitely will do – together they make the book what it is in terms of theme.

In the case of the reveal and how satisfying it may or may not be, it’s worth noting that Henderson takes a very different fork in the road than you might expect. For some it may come out of left field, for others it will be a wonderful difference – this is where personal opinion must trump any talk of objectivity.

It’s hard to place The Valentine House. It’s easy to get through and a good read, but it does seem a missed opportunity for various reasons. Nevertheless there will be some readers who find much to like about it and it must be said the location and atmosphere is lovely. This is a book to read up on before trying yourself to see how you’ll likely fare.

I received this book for review.

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Phillip Lewis – The Barrowfields

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A contemporary coming-of-age tale with a slice of Southern gothic.

Publisher: Sphere (Hodder)
Pages: 348
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-63682-8
First Published: 7th March 2017
Date Reviewed: 5th April 2017
Rating: 5/5

Henry’s father wanted to be a writer. Growing up in a house without books in a town that didn’t value reading, he struggled, achieving a little success but ultimately not getting far, in part, by that time, due to his need to get things right. Henry himself thus grew up around thousands of books, housed in a large library in a large foreboding house. As he grows up himself, he too struggles to find success, his life marred by the disappearance of his father, other family deaths, and communication problems with his family that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

The Barrowfields is a magnificent work that reads like a great work of American literature. Lewis’s writing style is subtle, beautiful, and the book feels as though it is from another time. It’s very much literary fiction, the plot simple but full of meaning. The end result is a book that is in many ways an easy read, and for all the right reasons.

At its heart are two major elements: the effect of parental neglect and loss on children, and the wonder of literature. The effect on Henry of his father’s leaving is huge but he doesn’t often confront it directly, he can’t. Lewis’ characterisation is fantastic, the author makes you second-guess for a very long time as to the worth of the story as a whole whilst simultaneously giving you plenty of other reasons to keep reading, which has the effect, particularly by the end, of demonstrating how damaging being silent can be but also showing how it can be difficult to identify problems when you are on the outside looking in. Even though you spend the entire book in Henry’s head, you are kept back from many of his deepest thoughts – what he portrays as his deepest thoughts are often layers of disguise.

It is perhaps easier to see where parental loss has an effect (I apologise for using that word so much) in the character of Threnody, Henry’s sister with whom, as a child, he had a terrific bond. Henry is very open about his sister and as Lewis’s character development shines throughout the novel, it is through Threnody that all the hurt and pain is revealed. (Lewis’s sibling relationship here, in terms of literary bonding, is influenced by his becoming a father early in life.) Yet The Barrowfields is not a depressing book. Whilst Lewis deals with the darkness of his subject, he includes a lot of humour in his description and dialogue, enough to make you laugh out loud.

This humour brings us to the second major theme of the book – this is a book about books. About books and literary studies and grammar and the classics, even book banning and burning. The Barrowsfields is soaked in references to classic works of many genres and eras – literature is what father and son bond over, what son and daughter fill their time with, and what Henry often discusses with his friends. Harper Lee. Faulkner. Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe. Marion Zimmer Bradley. References are sometimes blunt (a character asks someone if their situation isn’t straight out of To Kill A Mockingbird), others are woven into the text in such a way that the book seems at its heart a love letter to literature. Many references are made to Southern literature, matching Lewis’s setting of North Carolina. It is difficult to explain just how satisfying this novel is; it goes above and beyond many others.

The foreboding nature of the house has its place, forever towing the line between being in the background and becoming a character in its own right. It’s what situates the novel firmly in gothic territory, beckoning over another couple of classic works – Du Maurier, Brontë – but remaining almost defiantly apart from them. The plot line here is often on the back-burner but it smolders constantly until Lewis gets to the place you come to realise most makes sense to explain it. Whether or not the house has or had a direct influence on the rest of what happens is left up to you to decide; Lewis, through his characters, never says one way or another. It’s the big old dark creepy house with the residents who are used to it.

The Barrowfields sometimes takes patience, holding back much for a while, but it rewards in spades. It also takes a sudden seemingly odd turn during the middle – one of those occasions where a character joins the narrative half-way through and due to experience you wonder if it’ll work; it does so with good reason. This is very much a bildungsroman, and you learn along with Henry, at his pace. It reads as partly autobiographical, the extent of the detail, the depth of the knowledge that seeps from it.

It’s just glorious. If you want to read something classical from our present day, if you want a book about books and a skilled, careful, look at heavy themes that will nevertheless make you feel positive, this is your book. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review.

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Harper Lee – To Kill A Mockingbird

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And question society.

Publisher: Arrow Books (Random House)
Pages: 307
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-75263-7
First Published: 11th July 1960
Date Reviewed: 30th March 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

It’s the 1930s and Scout and Jem live with their father, Atticus, a lawyer in a small town in Alabama. Scout is just starting school and finding her way around things she doesn’t understand including subjects Jem seems to know a lot about. As she grows a little older she understands more about her father’s work and when Atticus is employed to defend a black man against a charge of rape, the family will have to deal with people heavily prejudiced against black people and the whites who support them, and Scout will come to learn about the variety of people in a country starting to move towards equality.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a semi-autobiographical novel inspired by Lee’s experience in a similar role to Scout, the child of a man in a similar role to Atticus. It’s a rather quiet book that makes its points with aplomb.

There are many fine elements in this book – the look at race, of course, but also the use of location in a way separate from that, the characterisation, and the general feel of it. It’s a book that if published today would likely be called literary fiction and it’s one that benefits from reading it considering a few viewpoints. How might it have been received if published in the day it was written? How would it have been received in its day? And what value does it have for us today? (That last one can be partly found in the answers to the other two questions.)

The plot meanders between strong, hard-to-put down chapters and easygoing scenes that in another book might make you wonder how much it was worth it – this is where the characterisation comes in. Lee’s strength in developing characters means that you want to keep reading and has that wonderful effect of making the characters feel real. This is of course likely due to the autobiographical element but beyond that it’s just pure talent; no matter how major or minor a character they are given what’s needed to make the book read as pure reality. Scout doesn’t understand much of what she hears, but Lee provides enough for the reader to comprehend it all. What’s lovely about Lee’s choice of narrator and narrative style is that you still get a complete picture of the other characters. There’s quite a bit of humour and a lot of love.

Lee’s look at racism and the burgeoning idea of equality is interesting. The book revolves around it but Lee never lets it take over the text itself – there’s the sense that she wants to make her point but in a way that means you get a positive experience alongside the bad, a good experience of the south of the time in both general life and the way many people supported black American rights, and in order to stay true to her narrator. The impact it may have today may not be as much as it would have been – this is where you need to consider the context in which it was written because as a look at what had been happening earlier in her life, the book is very powerful.

Lee incorporates various social circles into the story, mixing them together. Not too much – the book stays true to reality – but in ways that further support what she’s trying to do, such as Scout and brother Jem sitting with the reverend of the black church when in the court room – for Scout she’s sitting with friends, for the author it’s an extra show of support for the defence. (On that ‘not so much’ I’m thinking of the lack of time given to Tom Robinson directly – he says very little in the book, the focus there is more about how the white, privileged, people are helping him, which of course puts across the idea of tolerance in general and the way in which things had to change.) Lee’s fictional community includes people of many backgrounds and by the end a number of economic and social issues have been covered. Most of note, perhaps, is the story the children construct in regards to Boo Radley and the ultimate revelation of who he is, a well-crafted few segments that display childhood thoughts and kindness with a lot of heart.

The overall quality of the book is evident from early on, but it’s one that’s good to mull over because the more you consider it, the more you see.

I’m keeping this short – there’s only so long one can carry on in review form about a book that has been studied for years, especially when it’s their first read – but suffice to say To Kill A Mockingbird is a very good book.

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Josephine Johnson – Now In November

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Farming during the Depression.

Publisher: Apollo (Head Of Zeus)
Pages: 198
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-97075-8
First Published: 1934
Date Reviewed: 31st January 2017
Rating: 4/5

Marget and her family travel to their mortgaged land, becoming farmers. It’s a difficult time and beyond the stress of growing and selling the crops for less than hoped, Marget’s sister Kerrin is becoming more and more difficult to live with. Things start looking up when Grant arrives to help out but the worst is yet to come.

Now In November is a short novel focused on the land and a family’s relationship to it. It’s a gracefully written novel, tragedy detailed in beautiful language, that whilst often painful has a stunning atmosphere not unlike the Brontës and their moors, or Laura Ingalls Wilder.

This is a simple tale, and relatively small in scope – the years both go by and stay still (there’s a sort of time-focused dual narrative going on you’d have to see yourself) but not so many as to cover too long a time, at least it seems so from what happens. It’s also not a happy book but as said above this is where the language has a lovely effect, not glossing over the events by any means but making it so that you can continue reading, so that you want to continue reading. The shortness of the novel aids in this as well.

A great deal of the book is focused on nature. In the context of its entirety, Johnson spends paragraphs upon paragraphs detailing the weather, the colours, the flora and fauna. This boosts the book a little, sometimes, above its general sad atmosphere, and helps to ground you in the scene, though some may find it too much depending on mood – this is a book for which it pays to choose your reading time wisely. A story for a hectic day this is not; a lazy afternoon, as much as it may seem at odds with the text, is your best bet. There is action in the events but the language flows along softly, an interesting effect and choice which means the book transcends its subjects.

The family is a good one to read about because they are so mixed in temperament. Marget, her mother, and younger sister Merle, do a lot of the household work. The father does all the manual labour, most often with a single helper. Oldest sister, Kerrin, brings to the book a different subject – seeming first to be very obnoxious then, in turn, dangerous and finally mentally ill (Johnson writes the progression of Kerrin’s mental capability very well), the use of such a character shines a particularly almost-modern light on mental illness which when mixed with the lesser medical knowledge of the time becomes quite something. Whilst Now In November may well have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction due to the the story of the Depression, and perhaps its author’s young age, it’s the characterisation and development of Kerrin that is perhaps its strongest element for us today, something that speaks very much to our present values and discussion.

Minor points are unrequited romance, the effects of industry on farming (in the event this is a major point, it’s just that it’s confined), the integration of black people. These round the story off, adding to the atmosphere and general demonstration of the time.

Now In November can be difficult to get into and the story itself is rough going, but the whole is an excellent creation with a lot to recommend it. Its themes are relevant today and it’s an interesting source for historical study and information.

I received this book for review.

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Zadie Smith – Swing Time

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Pa pa Americano.

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
Pages: 453
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-14415-2
First Published: 15th November 2016
Date Reviewed: 21st December 2016
Rating: 4/5

Our nameless narrator has struggled through life, feeling in the shadow of her best friend – someone who often hates her – being uncomfortable living with a mother who, in trying to better herself, has always pressured her daughter to be someone she’s not, and working for a performer who has many demands and idealised projects. She recounts her days in these contexts and in the context of song and dance, two things that have always had their place in her life.

Swing Time is a book with a lot of promise and at times sensational writing that unfortunately doesn’t achieve much.

Smith’s writing is wonderful. She has a lot to say – though, as many have noted, too much at once this time around (the book could have done with being trimmed in the subjects department) – and in general she says it very well. Situations and characters, both good and bad, leap off the page; everything feels very real. She’s opted again for familiar settings and thoughts but she does it so well it really doesn’t matter.

In regards to that ‘in general’, there are some occasions where the writing misses the mark in ways it didn’t in Smith’s previous, NW, that look directly to current trends. Phrases needlessly hyphenated – ‘brand-new’ – and descriptions that are exactly the same as what everyone else is using right now – ‘gunmetal grey sky’ – that suggest editorial input rather than the original words. But Smith’s style is so winsome you can’t help but carry on reading.

Because this book is a page turner. The page count is daunting but Smith knows when enough is enough, using short chapters when it fits, and expanding the sections later on as the book gets to the weightier subjects. It’s a case of if you’ve liked her before you will most certainly enjoy this book no matter the flaws.

Smith hasn’t really covered any new ground with her many subjects but they remain interesting. Race is explored – being black and being mixed-race in the 1980s and beyond, the differences as time goes on. Class is explored – the narrator and her friend Tracey were born and bred on a run-down council estate and the narrator’s mother is working to often extreme lengths to prove that she’s better than that. (As such, childhood emotional and psychological problems and abuse is explored, the lectures hammered into the narrator about her ‘no good’ friend, as well as the emotional and physical abuse meted out to Tracey by her father.) The problem we have wherein famous white people go out to Africa to ‘help’ – this is something that we’re really starting to acknowledge now so whilst Smith’s text is timely she is unfortunately only regurgitating what we already know, and it’s really down to the individual reader as to whether that’s okay or not. (Smith does go a fair way here, first exploring the problem of idealisation, ‘let’s go build a school for girls because that will help… and we’ll completely neglect to look at what the residents actually need right now, including the fact the girls can’t go to school because their parents need help with the crops’. Then she looks at the absurdity of publicity that makes the western celebrity look beloved in that country whereas all the people following her vehicle are doing so because it’s a novelty. And so on – it’s regurgitation but it’s on point, ending with an exploration of money and overseas adoption.) And she looks at jealousy and the effects of childhood on mentality, personality. Of those with power and those without.

Our nameless narrator seems to have been used in order to shine a light on every other character, because the woman herself is unremarkable. She rarely has anything positive to say but then again she has had a lot of pushback – being in her head all the time it can be difficult to see when her personal problems are due to her negativity and when they are due to people putting her down, though there is a lot to be said for her childhood. But, yes, the light this allows Smith to shine on everyone else is excellent. We get to explore the impact of Tracey’s early life and choices on her growing up in a way that often provides a commentary – much more subtle than the comments about celebrity and ‘Africa’ (that’s another point, that which country is chosen is irrelevant, it’s just got to be ‘African’). Smith shows well, in the way that your thoughts of Tracey will move back and forth between pity, like, and dislike, these effects. The plight of the narrator’s mother too – her lecturing her daughter on politics, on how Tracey is below her because she, the mother, is trying to be a politician, is working on a degree when everyone else is ‘happy’ to remain where they are; her tireless work to be somebody – shows both the effects of selfishness on children and also the difficulties of social mobility. Through the mixed-race and ‘African’ characters – Smith doesn’t often repeat the name of the place celebrity Aimee makes her school, which may be a point in itself – Smith shows disparities, issues of identity, the differences in perspective, and again, that celebrity focus comes back in the form of appropriation of both culture and individual people.

‘And the dance and music?’ you may ask, ‘the swing time of the title?’ There is commentary on it, in particularly the difficulties of black Americans to gain stage and screen space, and included in this is a whole heap of information and references that have been largely skipped over by western history – this book is a resource. However, the inference of the title that this will be a book about dance is, as you will have noted by the fact I’m only just writing about it now after reams of other subjects, wrong. This book minors in dance.

On these topics it must be said the book is not at all linear. It’s not quite experimental but the narrative does dart all over the place and it can take a few lines to get your bearings each chapter because both time and location are mixed up. Why Smith chose to structure the book in this way is not clear – it does allow the subjects to be dealt with in blocks but by their very nature they are not completely confined by these blocks.

So a problem with this particular output from Smith is that she’s chosen a character who may have experienced a lot but never looks at things in a different way, never really attempts to change things, instead going along with what others tell her to do, and whilst that’s not an issue per se, it is an issue when you’ve 453 pages to spend on it with no real conclusion. The story never goes anywhere, meaning that the ending, if it can be called so, is incredibly unsatisfying. You may have enjoyed the book on the whole immensely, but the end is so incredibly disappointing that when it arrives you may feel that your previously fairly fun reading experience was for nought.

It is difficult to recommend Swing Time outright but it is equally difficult to say that this book isn’t worth reading. If the experience of reading it is of merit – as a prime example let’s use the release date of mid November, assume you got it around that time and then read it beside the Christmas tree (it’s perfect for that) – then it passes with full colours. (‘Passing’ is another subject looked at, and I know I’m going all over the place with my paragraphs; it should give you an idea of how it is to read this book!) If writing, then it’s pretty great, you will most likely be swept up by this book and find it hard to put down. If story, look elsewhere. Characters are somewhere in between.

It’s best to look at what is important to you and then combine that with the overall atmosphere, which is pretty awesome. For here I will say it’s worth a read and to really enjoy it whilst you’re deep into it because the ending is disappointing but isn’t quite bad enough to warrant it not being read.

And if that’s confusing, well, welcome to Swing Time.

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