Hastings District Libraries

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Natural Flights of the Human Mind by Clare Morrall

Clare Morrall has a knack for producing very different novels featuring unusual characters in unique and often difficult situations. And no one could be more unusual than Peter Straker, a hermit in his fifties who lives in a disused lighthouse with two Siamese cats. He’s a hermit because he is burdened by guilt over an incident in his past, when he somehow caused the deaths of 78 people.

This is a shocking way to start any novel, so we can only hope that Straker is on a path to redemption. If he is, then his saviour can only be Doody, the frumpy, unhappy and angry woman who has inherited a cottage nearby. Doody’s life is also a mess because of an unhappy childhood, and because around twenty-five years ago her husband walked out never to be heard from again.

Morrall throws these two odd characters together to create a present that is full of quirkily humorous scenes, providing light relief from their own past histories, which she slowly weaves into the body of the story. Meanwhile the tension builds as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the incident which killed those original 78 people rolls around.

This is a beautifully put together story, which takes the reader through a range of emotions. At the forefront of these is the question of how does someone live with themselves if they have done a truly terrible thing. Sympathy and empathy are never far behind however, as well as hope. The reason it works so well, apart from Morrall's talent for creating memorable scenes, is the way she breathes life into her weird and wonderful characters and makes them very real. Recommended.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Natural Flights of the Human Mind

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Shy: A Memoir by Sian Prior

Shy is a creative mish-mash of journalism and memoir that offers up rich insight into a temperament trait that can both enhance and detract the lives of those who possess it.

Sian Prior provides a remarkably candid account of how shyness has affected her life, as well as the strategies she has employed over the years to combat it. Adopting a façade she dubs ‘Professional Sian’ has allowed her to maintain a career in the public eye as an environmental campaigner, journalist, broadcaster, teacher, and musician. But over time this rebellion against her own shyness has taken a physical toll. That’s because shyness isn’t a lifestyle choice – it’s an inborn behavioural style that is intimately tied to the fight-or-flight survival mechanism.

Prior explores the many social and biological forces that pull at and push the naturally shy. She weaves in and out of her own personal experiences to highlight and expand on more formal descriptions. It came in handy that her mother was a psychologist and was an understanding ally but, despite this, Prior clearly has a great deal of ambivalence about the trait. You get the feeling that the cathartic process of writing this has still not expelled all the negative cultural judgements she’s received over a lifetime of being shy.

There is no redemptive resolution or acceptance of the author’s shyness in the closing chapters, nor is there a prescription offered to redress the perceived social inadequacies of the shy or guidance on how to alleviate the distress of those afflicted with more than a fair share of trembling, blushing, or social anxiety. Despite this, and probably because of this, it’s a great read - its deeply personal and throws light on a subject that is often a private and solitary struggle.  Hopefully, it makes a contribution to society rethinking its intolerance towards shyness - surely we should accept people wherever they are on the bold-shy spectrum.  As a memoir, it provokes the reader to reflect on their own life and encourages us to remember that we all experience life with a vulnerable intensity that is belied by our exterior, whether it be aloof, calm, or confident.  Shy is well-crafted, insightful, and gently upbeat.

Posted by Spot

Catalogue Link: Shy: A Memoir

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Hollow by Agatha Christie

With a new series of Poirot now screening on TV, I thought it timely to share my enjoyment for one particular Agatha Christie novel featuring her Belgian detective. The Hollow takes its name from the Angkatell’s genteel country house, where during a weekend hosted for their friends and relations, a murder takes place. No surprises there.

The victim is the handsomely brilliant Dr John Christow, shot dead by the pool just as Hercule Poirot arrives on the scene for luncheon. Standing over the dying doctor, clutching a gun is his mousy wife, Gerda. She has a motive to kill her husband, as he frequently treats her with ill-concealed exasperation and has recently become involved in a dangerous flirtation - to say nothing of his mistress, Henrietta, another guest at the Hollow.

Things are definitely not what they seem and there are motives and suspects by the truckload, as well as an assortment of guns hidden in the oddest places. It is just as well Poirot is on the spot to sort it all out, which he does in his usual fashion, chatting to suspects and putting his little grey cells into gear.

But what I really enjoy about this one is the cast of characters, particularly the snobbish and charmingly off-hand hostess, Lucy Angkatell. There’s also her ‘poor cousin’ Midge, making ends meet working in a posh dress shop where she is treated like a skivvy, and shamelessly theatrical Veronica Cray, Cristow’s old flame.

There are plenty of digs at the oddities of the leisured classes and some interesting thoughts on a woman’s place in a post-war Britain. All this is wrapped up in a very satisfying mystery loaded with red herrings and laced with gentle humour. Classic Christie at her best.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: The Hollow

About the author

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Reckless by William Nicholson

William Nicholson’s latest novel follows three characters, each at critical times of their lives at the time of two critical points in history. The first event is the atomic bomb going off in Hiroshima in 1945; the second, taking place nearly twenty years later, is the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Rupert is something of a philosopher, working for Mountbatten, British Chief of Staff, as the Cuba/US stand-off unfolds. At the end of World War Two he'd pledged to do what he could so there would be no more wars. Mary, living in a remote part of Ireland, has had visions as a young girl, predicting the end of the world. Cosseted in a convent, Mary’s life changes dramatically when she meets Rupert.

At the age of eighteen, Pamela has begged to be allowed to live in London, and devotes her time trying to dazzle everyone with her youth and loveliness. She is soon caught up with the artistic and moneyed crowd who become the major players in what will go down in history as the Profumo Affair.

Nicholson has captured a period when things could have all gone horribly wrong and the end of the world seemed a distinct possibility. The growing tension throws the characters into various types of crisis and Nicholson makes them all very real and sympathetic. The reader is also treated to a fly-on-the-wall view of history through scenes involving Kruschev, Mountbatten and even JFK, which is a big help if your grasp on these events is a bit shaky. I found the novel by turns moving and thought-provoking, and throughout, utterly gripping.

Posted by JAM

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Village Against the World by Dan Hancox

Dan Hancox is a British journalist who went in search of the last communist village in Spain. Marinaleda is a village of about 2,700 residents, who live in what is the closest example of a modern day communist utopia. This is an incredible story of community, hope, and resistance in contemporary Europe.

Under the charismatic leadership of the mayor, Sanchez Gordillo, the village has managed to retain its young people and provide nearly full employment. The villagers have a co-operative that allows them to build their own houses. There are also Red Sundays – days when all residents are expected to work on maintaining the pristine condition of the village. In return, there is free internet and a community who will support you when the chips are down.

Gordillo, who has been mayor since 1979, has been known to lead Robin Hood-like raids on local supermarkets to feed the local unemployed. His unconventional and Marxist views on life have contributed to a community that has survived the Spanish financial crisis with its tail in the air. This is a fascinating read.

Reviewed at Young at Heart Book Group

Catalogue Link:   The Village Against the World

Thursday, August 7, 2014

From a Distance by Rafaella Baker

The understated cover of From a Distance hides a novel loaded with colour and textures and tastes. It concerns three main characters beginning with Michael, just off the boat that brought him back to Blighty after his grim experiences in World War Two. Reluctant to return to Norfolk and his fiancé, he winds up in Penzance where he meets Felicity and decides to stay on for a bit.

Felicity designs colourful fabrics, and Cornwall is full of sunshine while the sea glistens. Suddenly the narrative shifts to present-day Norfolk, where the reader is regaled with the flavours of Luisa’s ice cream. She has a busy life with her business, husband and family, but finds time for a new friendship with Kit, a stranger from Cornwall. Kit owns a family textile business, and for reasons he can barely guess at, has inherited a lighthouse in Norfolk.

The reader manages to put two and two together long before any of the characters. Slowly the connections between the two coastal towns and the past and the present will emerge and only then do we discover the effects on the characters. This is a novel that dips into the murky water that is the long-reaching effects of the past on subsequent generations, and there is a nod to the damage done by war to ordinary people.

But mostly, what you get is a shimmering, summery sort of novel, about the good things in life: friends and family, love and art, and of course, ice cream.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: From a Distance

Thursday, July 31, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler has just earned a place on the Mann Booker Prize long-list for her latest novel, the weirdly titled, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The story concerns Rosemary, a long-term university student who is struggling. The reader gets the sense that there’s a deep-seated problem, and next thing you know Rosemary is in trouble for hitting a policeman at the campus café. This launches her friendship with Harlow, a wild sort of character who is always in and out of trouble, and gets the plot off to an interesting start.

But the main story thread begins in Rosemary’s past, and for this we have to go back to when Rosemary was five and her sister, Fern, disappeared, causing a rift between her parents and her brother, and he hasn’t been seen in years either.

For me, what made this book really sing, apart from a wonderfully different kind of back-story, is the character of Rosemary herself. A scientific experiment that framed her childhood has undoubtedly damaged her and her family, but it has also made Rosemary interesting. She looks at the world in a slightly different way from most people, and this is because of her early years and Fern.

And while there is heart-break in the novel, there is also plenty of humour, with lively scenes involving student flats, missing luggage and a ventriloquist’s dummy. Fowler adds plenty of insight about the field of behavioural science, which provides the book with a powerful message. This is another great read from the author that gave us The Jane Austen Book Club and to my mind it is very deserving of its place among the best novels of the year.

Posted by JAM