Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Dark Adapted Eye ~ Barbara Vine

This month’s Caffeine and Chapters Book Club read is an Edgar Award Winning Novel.  Having never read any books from the list of winners I realised this was a genre I probably hadn’t tapped into.  I liked the sound of this title over all the others on the list and so I downloaded it as an audio book.

I didn’t realise that Barbara Vine was the nom de plume of Ruth Rendell’s.  I had recently read The Killing Doll by Rendell and thoroughly enjoyed her characterisations and the dark nature of the novel, so once I realised who had written this book I was quietly pleased about my choice.

What a great story it is.  It is the tale of a family with dark secrets and the secrets are slowly unraveled by Faith, the niece of the main character Vera, after she is approached by a true crime writer who wants to write about Vera’s life.  The title of the novel relates to the opening of Faith’s eyes to events in her family and seeing them with an adult’s new perspective.

The novel opens with Vera’s execution and Faith mentions just about all the main characters without us knowing who they are and how they will relate to the story.  As the novel progresses some of these characters and their relationships are a revelation.

In short Faith’s father has two sisters – Vera and Eden.  He places these two women on a pedestal as paragon’s of virtue and Faith finds it very hard to live up to their standards only to find that they were not very virtuous at all as she pieces together their past.  Vera is much older than Eden and pushes her son away in favour of raising Eden when their parents die.  Faith often stays with them on holidays only to find them whispering and keeping secrets and making her feel very uncomfortable a lot of the time.  Vera’s son is very scornful and cruel to her but Eden appears to counter his presence with beauty and a strong love for her sister Vera.

Things take a turn when Faith’s family are told that Vera is expecting.  She is a much older lady and with her husband away (this is set during the 2nd World War) they can do the math.  They don’t receive much communication whilst she is pregnant but are relieved when they are told eventually by Eden that she has delivered a healthy baby boy – Jamie.

Vera is completely devoted to Jamie, but when she falls very ill she is devastated by the fact that Eden has taken him to live with her and her new very wealthy husband.  Eden has been trying for a child of her own, but a miscarriage and subsequent problems mean that she can no longer have a baby.  What ensues is a very bitter custody battle to try and bring Jamie back home to Vera, which culminates in murder and Vera’s execution.

What I loved about this novel were the insights by Faith describing the time she spent with the two women.  What seems innocuous at first becomes darker when viewed in light of the later events.  The characterisations are absolutely brilliant and their history quite complex.  What we have here is a mystery story, but we are still left with a mystery at the end of it – well two actually.  Who was Jamie’s father and who is actually Jamie’s mother?

This is a fantastic read and Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell will be on my reading list for the rest of this year.  With Rendell’s passing a few days ago I can see there are a lot of novels I need to catch up on.

Maxine


Monday, March 16, 2015

Strangers on a Train ~ Patricia Highsmith

Architect Guy Haines has the ability to achieve anything he wants in life – a successful career, a fantastic home, and a beautiful new wife……. but all this changes on the day he catches a train to Metcalf to talk to his estranged wife about a divorce.

On the train Haines is subjected to a very uncomfortable conversation with the wealthy but bored Charles Bruno, though when Haines reaches his destination he has pretty much dismissed Bruno as a harmless crackpot.  But Bruno sees this fortuitous meeting as the start of a very beautiful friendship ~ one that will come at great cost.

Bruno believes that he has the idea for a perfect crime, one that attaches no motive to the perpetrators, and which will secure each of their futures.  But Bruno’s careful planning doesn’t account for Haines having a conscience and the fact that there will be others who are determined to get to the truth.

Highsmith had me on tender hooks throughout this novel.  Her characterisations were excellent, I detested the smarmy alcoholic Charles Bruno and felt all of the emotions attributed to Haines.  The nightmare world that she portrays is unshakeable as is the persistent Bruno.  Living out his fantasies Bruno drags Guy, a once honest man, down into hell without the strength of character to make it back in one piece.

I did this one as a ‘buddy read’ with a couple of readers who I have connected with on Twitter.  All three of us felt the high anxiety of the storyline, and once we had finished we agreed that we needed something calming to read afterwards!

Hitchcock made a movie by the same name, but he detracted from the novel considerably and it is extremely dated by today’s standards.

Maxine


Friday, February 13, 2015

A Dark Love Letter to Iceland

Hannah Kent intended her debut novel to be ‘a dark love letter to Iceland’ and I think she has succeeded.  I certainly feel a desire to visit this country with the beautiful place names and unforgiving landscapes after reading Burial Rites.

This is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir the last person to be executed in Iceland back in the 19th Century.  It is a story of abandonment, poverty, lust and murder.  The narrative has been based on extensive research by Hannah Kent and whilst there may be some invention/speculation as to Agnes Magnusdottir’s true personality, and her relationship with the compelling Natan Ketilsson, the story on the whole has been based on historical fact. 

There are several narrative voices which makes the story quite interesting.  I don’t always like this device but in this instance it works.  The story opens with Agnes in a very deprived state after her arrest and trial.  She is relocated to her home valley and housed with an unwilling farming family for the duration of the period leading up to her execution.  The family initially abhor this filthy criminal that has been brought to their croft, but as Agnes’s dignity begins to return they find themselves drawn to her and her impoverished history as she relates her story to a young priest who visits regularly to prepare Agnes for what is to come.  

I liked how Kent opened each chapter with an historical document relating to the case.  Ie how the axe was to be made, how much it was to cost, who they chose as executioner and why, and the specific preparations for the day of the execution.

This is not a happy story, but it is beautifully written.  I did it as a Bolinda audio book and the narrator was excellent.  Those Icelandic names just rolled off her tongue and I found myself repeating them because they are so gorgeous to pronounce.

After I read the book I went on the internet to find out more about Agnes Magnusdottir and whilst I mainly just found articles on Hannah Kent I did stumble across this blog post which I found interesting:



Maxine

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Ransom ~ David Malouf

Ransom is a beautifully written re-imagining of one of the stories from The Illiad.  

Patroclus is dead and the grieving Achilles, who has taken his revenge on Hector, is tormenting Hector's father King Priam by dragging the body behind his chariot around the walls of Troy.  Each night the gods restore Hector's body so that Achilles must repeat the process day after day.

There is no honour in what Achilles is doing, the body should and must be given up for decent burial rites but Achilles is in deep distress and feels that the gods are mocking him by restoring Hector's defiled flesh each night.

King Priam cannot stand to see his son so treated and decides to talk to Achilles face to face, man to man, and ransom Hector's body.  At first his advisors are against this, feeling that someone should go in his stead, but this is something Priam must do  himself, and not as a King but as a father.  He decides to remove all trappings of his wealth and wear just a white robe; a simple carter, his wagon, and his two donkeys are hired to carry Priam and his ransom to Achilles.

What happens on the way is no less a surprise to Priam than it is to Somax the carter, which gives him a story to tell his grandchildren and great grandchildren in the years to come after Priam has fallen at the hands of Achilles' son.

I absolutely loved this little novella. Having read The Illiad a couple of years ago, it was wonderful to find myself back in this classic story.

Maxine

Family Matters ~ Rohinton Mistry

When the elderly Nariman Vakeel breaks his ankle his world, and that of his immediate family, changes forever.

Set in Bombay, it appears Nariman is lucky for he lives in a spacious apartment with his adult step children Coomy and Jal, but after the accident Coomy struggles to deal with Nariman's daily toileting to the point she feels he cannot live there any more.  He is taken by ambulance to live with his biological daughter Roxana who lives in a two roomed flat with her husband and two young boys.  Already lacking adequate space the only place they can put 'Grandad' is on the living room couch.  The couch and the living room is Nariman's world for the next few weeks.

I absolutely loved this story, you are quickly drawn into the lives of this family.  The bitter Coomy, the hard of hearing Jal and the beautiful Roxana who must keep the family together despite the daily trials.  

I felt so many emotions whilst reading it - I felt absolute love for Roxana, the imposition put upon her by Coomy only makes her stronger.  She takes care of her father and all his needs without complaint.  I felt anxiety at her husband Yezad who makes some terrible decisions to improve their financial situation so that they can buy the necessary medicines for Nariman, who also suffers from Parkinson's.  I felt anger too at Yezad who will not stoop to help his father-in-law with his toilet requirements and will not allow his two sons to help either.

Nariman's story unfolds through torturous dreams and you feel sorrow for this man who was once a professor and who now suffers his illness and situation with the greatest of dignity.

This is a very thought provoking novel as there are many other secondary characters that are wonderful but tragic, like Mr Kapur the owner of the Sporting Goods Emporium where Yezad works. He loves Bombay as a woman, and hates to see her falling from grace beneath the corruption of those in power.  His strong opinions and Yezad's own deviation from the straight and narrow will be Mr Kapur's downfall.

This really is a wonderful read, and I felt sorry to say goodbye to Roxana and her beautiful boys on finishing the novel.

Maxine

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Middlesex ~ Jeffrey Eugenides

Not content with the emotional impact, nor the anatomical insight, contained in a diary written by an intersex convent girl in the 19th Century Jeffrey Eugenides decided to write a novel instead that would satisfy the reader's inquiring mind.

Middlesex is loosely based on the author's life and his own Greek heritage, however, Calliope/Cal (the protagonist) is his own creation and therefore the novel is not autobiographical.

I loved this book!!  Not only does it explore the themes of nature vs nurture, rebirth and the impact of a recessive gene on three generations of one family, but it also chronicles the life of two immigrant silkworm farmers from their isolated hillside home in Greece to their new life in prohibition era Detroit.

Calliope, their grand-daughter is born a hermaphrodite; however this is not discovered until she/he reaches puberty.  Told retrospectively, and commencing from the womb, Calliope takes us back to when her grandparents were young and how the recessive gene which is quite often found in isolated in-bred groups of people begins to rear its ugly head.

Really, this novel could have been distasteful however we are introduced to a wonderful group of characters with great personalities and eccentricities trying to make a success of their life in a new country, not knowing that their life choices are taking them down a road that will cause the teenage Calliope untold anguish.  Calliope suffers from the usual female teenage angst..... when will her period start?  Why is she so flat chested when her classmates are developing?  Why does she have a crush on her best friend?  Being of Greek heritage other tell tale signs are missed as she grows older .... the unwanted hair on her upper lip that needs waxing, the husky voice and the beginning of heavy set features.  I truly felt for Calliope as she brought back memories of my own insecurities as an introverted teenager.

One thing I didn't get was why Calliope's brother was called Chapter Eleven.  All the way through the novel I was hoping it would reveal itself.  It does actually, but very subtly and being Australian I didn't pick up on it.  American's would get it.  I won't spoil it here, read the book and if you are still in the dark you can Google Eugenides' answer.  It's quite clever.


Maxine

Friday, August 15, 2014

The House of Mirth ~ Edith Wharton

Whilst Jane Austen used her knowledge of drawing room conversions as inspiration for her novels, Edith Wharton has drawn upon her experiences as a member of New York’s Upper Class Society for her novel The House of Mirth.

This book was wonderfully written, with the conversations between each character feeling completely natural.  Wharton shows the fabulously wealthy as being conceited, shallow and condescending, where their only good advice is to make sure that you ‘marry money’, where ‘breaking in new people’ is tiresome and where the most laborious job of the year is going through your furs.

Lily Bart, the novel’s protagonist, is a popular and beautiful member of New York’s Upper Class Society around 1890.  She has no money of her own and her parents are deceased, but her Aunt takes her in and as she is very wealthy she makes sure that Lily has the best clothes to wear for any occasion. Lily’s mother and her Aunt have groomed her to be a beautiful ornament, but whose arm she is to hang off remains to be seen.  At 29 years old she is under pressure to marry, but she cannot make up her mind.  She loves Lawrence Selden but she would be stepping down in the world if she made that match, and he definitely could not afford her extravagances.  Percy Gryce is fabulously wealthy but he’s a mother’s boy and Lily’s smoking and mounting gambling debts scare him off.  Simon Rosedale, a Jewish suitor is distasteful to her, but he begins to be her only option as time goes on.

Whilst she ponders her future, Lily finds herself in more than one compromising situation; although totally innocent on her part they spark malicious gossip about her that will not go away.  When she is accused of trying to steal away the husband of one of her friends, Bertha Dorset, whilst holidaying on the Dorset’s yacht the scandal ruins Lily’s status.  Lilly is innocent of course, but Bertha is trying to deflect possible gossip about her own indiscretions with a poet.

As the rumours circle round Lily’s Aunt is appalled by her apparent behaviour and in the final weeks before her death she disinherits Lily leaving her only a small legacy which will just cover a debt which is hanging over Lily’s head like a black cloud. The payment of the legacy is withheld for almost a year until legal problems with the Will are ironed out, and Lily is forced to find work.  Having been groomed for nothing but ornamentation Lily’s work output is poor, she is let go and her health and state of mind begin to suffer.

No longer needing to aim so high for social standing, Lawrence Selden is once again a possible match, but fate will see to it that they can never be together.

What a tragic figure Lily Bart is, and this novel highlights once again how social conventions of the time make life extremely difficult for young single women.  Thomas Hardy shows us time and again with his novels, and now we see that it cannot be escaped even with the wealthy.

As for the title, it comes from Ecclesiastes 7:4: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth”.

A great read.

Maxine