“The Widow’s Confession” by Sophia Tobin – review

It feels like ages since I posted a book review so I’m really pleased to be back with the second novel from Sophia Tobin whose debut, “The Silversmith’s Wife”, I very much enjoyed.  I’ve been particularly keen to read this one since it’s set in a part of Kent not far from where I live and with which I’m familiar having visited many times over the years; it’s not often you get to read a novel set in a place you know well and in which you can picture the buildings, streets, landmarks and landscapes exactly as they are in reality, and it gives the story a unique and personal flavour.  More than ever, I could imagine that the characters were truly there, walking in the places I’ve walked and seeing the things I’ve seen.  But of course, this is ultimately a gripping and deeply atmospheric tale whether you know the backdrop or not.

The quote on the front cover describes the novel as having “a dash of Wilkie Collins” and I’d definitely concur.  If you’re enticed by a nineteenth century setting, an enigmatic widow, priests with dark secrets and of course the appearance of a few dead bodies then you won’t be disappointed.  The titular widow is Delphine, who turns up in the seaside town of Broadstairs with her cousin Julia after ten years of travelling around Europe.  This lengthy trip is no indulgence, but rather one the pair was forced to make, fleeing their native USA after Delphine – we know not quite how – brought shame to her family through certain choices she made.  After being caught up in the bustle of a London overcrowded with people following the installation of the Great Exhibition, the women are hoping to find a quiet location in which to fade into obscurity, but it is not to be.  They soon become sucked into an unlikely social group, almost all of whom have come to the furthest reaches of Kent in an attempt to escape from their sorrows, hide from their past or to battle their emotional and spiritual demons.  Edmund Steele is escaping an aborted love affair and has come to stay with Theo Hallam, the local clergyman whose unexplained lapses into melancholy hint at some unexpressed inner torment.  Mr Benedict is an artist dragged down, it seems, by the mundanity of everyday life and whose desire for stimulation leads him to conduct himself in a questionable – potentially dangerous – way.  Miss Waring is a somewhat formidable middle-aged woman who’s come to Broadstairs to benefit from the sea air, but her niece Alba who has accompanied her is a strange, disquieting girl who veers between coquettish, manipulative and disarmingly childlike and divides the opinion of the party.  When the first body is found on the beach, the assumption is that a murderer is hiding somewhere within the coastal community.  When the second appears, suspicions begin to turn inwards and what trust there was within this group of outsiders starts to crumble.

There are so many things this novel does well.  I’ve already talked about the sense of place, which is so sharp it’d be almost as vivid to readers who haven’t been there as it is to me.  Then there’s the mystery of the murdered girls, which kept me guessing (and I guessed wrongly a few times) until the finale’s big reveal; I hadn’t worked out who the killer or killers were and I certainly wouldn’t have figured out the motive in a month of Sundays.  For me though, the triumph was the nuanced portrayal of a group of characters whose unlikely companionship, which has essentially been forced upon them by circumstance, is gradually pulled apart.  Under the stress of their proximity to the murders and their individual secrets and past tragedies, the party begins to splinter into factions united in mistrust of others.  Focussing on a tight group of people really allows the author to get under the skin of each and every one, and also creates a claustrophobic feel that’s shared by a growing number of the group as they long to be able to escape yet cannot quite extricate themselves.  She also takes great delight in playing with our perceptions of her creations, teasing us with clues as to their true character, which may or may not be red herrings.  Our opinion of almost everyone shifts back and forth as their stories are unwrapped layer by layer; beneath the gothic intrigue there’s a pertinent truth here, namely that all of us are guilty of making assumptions about others before we’re in full possession of the facts.  The question of who killed the girls found on the shore drives the story forward, but the mystery of who all these characters really are behind their various masks is almost more intriguing, and in many ways of more lasting significance once the tale comes to an end.

Sophia Tobin has cemented herself as one of those authors whose novels I’m pretty sure I’ll keep buying as long as she keeps writing them.  Easy to read yet with a satisfying amount of depth to them, for me they’re the epitome of reading entertainment.   I very much hope there won’t be as long a gap between this review and the next as there has been between many of my scribblings of late; there’s at least one more in the pipeline, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or indeed anything book-related!  Thank you for reading as ever.

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An honest blog post…

It’s not very trendy to say you don’t like who you are.  But sod it, I’ve had nearly a whole bottle of wine and I’m in the mood for honesty.  Most of the time (minus wine) I’m pretty happy with my lot – but there are times when I look back at the day and cringe at the shy, socially awkward, floundering version of me who’s come across yet again as an inarticulate idiot despite the fact that my brain is absolutely buzzing with ideas.  It seems the connection between mind and mouth has a habit of failing me just when I most need it to function – like today when I should have been impressing my new boss, the man who has my career in his hands, but instead quite probably left him wondering who gave that imbecile her job in the first place…

That’s when my books save me.  I don’t have to interact or make a good impression, I can just be – the happy inhabitant of another world where no-one judges me and I can become an active yet invisible participant.  Tonight I’ve travelled to 1950s New England and Victorian Broadstairs and have felt utterly at home in both; how else but with a book can you slip between worlds that welcome you with open arms and ask no questions before they let you in?  Don’t get me wrong, I love other people, and if I ever have a long afternoon of office admin you can guarantee I’ll be popping out to get cups of tea and have essential chats with my colleagues – but the curse of worrying how you come across to others and scuppering yourself in the process is a hard one to bear.  I sometimes wonder if I didn’t read, how would I get any respite from the strains of the real world?  I used to watch a lot of movies but they never transported me out of myself the way a book can.  Without exception, all the people I know who’ve suffered with social anxiety or other similar issues have been big readers, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  All any of us long for, I think, is to belong; we’re all searching for others with whom we feel an affinity.  I have great friends and the best family you could ask for – but I also have hundreds of people and places within the pages of all the beautiful books that line my shelves, and no matter how dreadful my day, they’re right there beside me whenever I need them.

I know I haven’t blogged for a while, but today has reminded me why I do it – because reading is a gift, and one that I want to celebrate with others whenever I can.  So pick up a book, read it and share it with everyone!  Happy reading!

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July blogging update!

I can’t believe it’s July already.  I also can’t believe how much time has gone by since my last blog post so I thought I’d better check in and let everyone know I’m still here!  Honestly, I have so many great books either on the go or imminently pending, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day right now to get all my reading done, let alone writing.  For a start, it’s Wimbledon – and as a bit of a tennis lover, even my beloved books are going to have to take a bit of a back seat for the next fortnight.  Work is mental (no change there then!) but there’s never a dull moment and the days pass in a whirlwind of activity until someone gently reminds me I should be going home.  And since I’ve turned into a bit of a slug recently I’ve resolved to get back to doing at least a little bit of yoga every day.  Which doesn’t always happen.  BUT I’m determined to share some of my July reads with you soon.  I’m just about to start “Wives and Daughters” as part of my challenge to get back into the classics, and I’ve just started what promises to be an amazing book, “These Dividing Walls” by Fran Cooper.  Should I admit that I’m STILL going with “4 3 2 1”?  It’s a bit embarrassing since I distinctly remember posting about that very book in my April reading round-up and am still barely a quarter of the way through, but I have no bookish secrets from you all, my lovely followers!  I’m sure we’ve all been there though, with those books that for some unfathomable reason you enjoy at the point of reading yet don’t feel any burning desire to come back to once you’ve put them down.  Paul Auster’s latest is one of those, but I’m sufficiently invested to keep going with it, albeit at a slower pace than normal.  I’m also excited to be taking part in the Quercus Summer Reads competition and as part of that I’ll be reading and blogging about “The Little Theatre by the Sea” by Rosanna Ley, so look out for that review coming your way soon.

I’ll do my best to get something online before too long – in the meantime enjoy the sunshine!

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A generous helping of guilt for a Tuesday evening…

A few days ago I took myself off to Whitstable (a picturesque, characterful town on the Kent coast) and, predictably, ended up in a bookshop.  It was one of those small but perfectly formed independents that somehow manage to cram an impressive literary catalogue into the space of a living room, and in the corner near the till my attention was caught by the best collection of Wordsworth Classics I’ve seen anywhere for a long time.  I’m sure book lovers everywhere will agree there’s something about classics by any publisher – Wordsworth, Penguin, Oxford, whoever – all grouped together that’s pretty intoxicating to us book addicts.  There was no way I was going to be able to leave without buying one, but even as I handed over my £2.50 (bargain!) for Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Wives and Daughters” I was already trying to ward off the nagging awareness that although I do still love to buy classics sometimes, in truth I’ve almost entirely stopped reading them.

I honestly feel quite guilty about this; after all, I was brought up on the great Victorian classic novelists, reading those way before I moved on to contemporary adult literature, which I only really got into in my early twenties, and I’m an English Lit grad too, which I still feel marks my reading card sometimes though it was many years ago.  A year or so ago, when I tried to get back into classics with “Armadale” by Wilkie Collins – an author who wrote two of my all-time favourite novels – I was horrified to admit I found it so…. hard-going.  The language and the pace of this kind of fiction is worlds away from so much modern literature to be sure, but I was still ashamed at how bogged down I felt while trying to read it.  Have I got so out of the habit of reading classics, I thought, that I just can’t cope with them anymore?  And have I got so used to the ease and familiarity of the modern writing style that I’ve lost my ability to absorb, concentrate on and enjoy anything that sounds remotely archaic?  If that’s true, then what a massive failing for someone who claims to be a book lover!

I was talking about reading guilt with someone at work not long ago and we agreed that it can sometimes be a bit difficult to admit you don’t particularly like certain books or authors regarded as “classics” from any era.  In the spirit of honesty I’m going to hold my hands up and say here and now that I can’t stand Dickens.  I’ve started five (never let it be said I don’t give people a fair shot!) and only managed to finish one.  From an objective point of view I can completely see why he’s a literary genius – but I don’t get on with him because he just doesn’t resonate with me.  And that’s ok, my colleague and I decided, because why should anyone be obliged to enjoy certain things?  What’s bothering me about my falling out of love with classic literature isn’t to do with that “shame” of only reading contemporary fiction, as I don’t believe one kind of fiction is more or less worthy than another, but rather what it says about me that a style of writing that once gave me so much enjoyment suddenly feels inaccessible.

I’ve come across quite a few bloggers who set themselves reading challenges, maybe to read a certain number of books a year or to read genres they’d usually avoid.  As yet I’ve never felt I wanted to set myself a challenge of this kind, because a) I don’t like pressure! and b) I’m a reasonably changeable soul and would much prefer to read as the mood takes me; but now I’m thinking that a little, informal challenge might be what’s needed to get me back into classics again.  Quite simply, instead of passing over my unread classics in favour of something shiny and new, I’m going to make sure I start one within the next week.  I bought “Wives and Daughters” – so I’m going to read it!

Maybe this is all an unnecessary hang-up, but I’d really like to feel engaged with older literature like I used to, as it gave me so much pleasure before.  I’ll let you know how progress goes!  I’d also love to hear your thoughts if you’ve ever felt the same, or indeed if you have a completely different take on my predicament – if that’s even what it is.  See you back on the blog very soon, hopefully with a classic book review!

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“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg – review

I can’t quite call this a novel.  I can’t describe it merely as a story.  It’s a beautiful oddity, an experience, a sensation.  Reading it was a bit like being in a dream where the mundane is periodically punctuated by the surreal and you find yourself shadowed by a vague feeling of menace despite the familiarity of the everyday surroundings.  I bought it a few days ago knowing nothing at all about either book or author, but it’s a title I’m going to be championing for some time to come.

Poland: the early 1980s.  The country is a one-party state known officially as the Polish People’s Republic, with a communist government under the influence of the Soviet Union.  Following a succession of challenges to the state’s authority, the Military Council of National Salvation seized power and imposed martial law.  Everyday life for millions of Polish citizens is now fraught with difficulty: there are frequent power cuts and a shortage of many basic necessities, with shop shelves often bare.  This brief political context is provided by the translator in a short explanatory section at the back of the book and if, like me, your knowledge of 1980s Polish history is non-existent, it’s a useful addendum to give a bit of background to some of the novel’s references.

Our tour guide through these challenging times is Wiola, who is a young child when the book begins.  Everything that happens we see through her eyes as she grows up on the family farm in the tight rural community of Hektary.  The real cornerstone of the book is the way in which wider events creep into Wiola’s life yet all the while it’s the smaller, more personal and immediate happenings that most colour her impression of the world.  A lost kitten, a llama on show at the church fair, the humiliation of her first crush seeing her at the local market as she helps her grandmother sell cherries; these are the things that stick in the little girl’s mind most clearly, as we move through her life in a succession of vignettes, fragments of memory that combine to form her sense of self.  The author nails precisely how we all see ourselves and make sense of our existence; when we look back at our past it’s never a simple linear progression but rather isolated memories, often with significant gaps in between – and why we remember certain events so vividly and forget others is a mystery.  What’s also incredibly clever is the way in which Wioletta Greg ensures her readers have a level of knowing way beyond that of her narrator.  If any of you have read “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep”, then this works in a similar way: the young protagonist mentions things in passing that we as adults realise have a far greater significance than she can yet comprehend.  On the very first page there’s a quick, matter-of-fact reference to the fact that Wiola’s father was imprisoned for deserting the army just before she was born and remained inside for almost two years, but the emotional impact this would have had on him is beyond the scope of a child’s understanding.  When it becomes clear a few years later that he has a problem with alcohol the connection is never made in writing, although it most certainly is in our heads.  Some episodes are terrifying to us while merely mystifying to Wiola, the most striking example being the school art competition that attracts the sinister attention of the government authorities.  Wiola paints a picture of Moscow but unfortunately the ink cartridges in her schoolbag burst and the painting in ruined.  Too late to be withdrawn, it gets sent off to the provincial authorities for judging and Wiola forgets all about it, until a month later when two officials turn up at the school wanting to speak to her.  She assumes they’ve come to award her a prize, and is completely nonplussed when they start quizzing her on who gave her the idea to depict Moscow in such a way, deface (deliberately they believe) with dark ink.  Of course Wiola has no conspiracy about which to tell them, but we turn cold as we read, horrified by the level of state scrutiny, the intimidation of a child and the very real threat of arrest for perceived treasonous acts that dog this surveillance society.

There are many more episodes like this throughout the novel, and Wiola suffers some truly horrendous treatment at times by a number of unpleasant characters.  It seems bizarre to say then, but I found the book absolutely beautiful.  To see the wonder a child finds even in a world we know to be brutal, cruel and dangerous is quite humbling and immensely moving.  It’s also about the places we call home and the love that ties us to them even when logic tells us that circumstances could be so much better elsewhere.  It’s a very short book but it has an intensity meaning it punches well above its weight in terms of lasting emotional impact.  It hasn’t had widespread reviews or lots of publicity as far as I know, but it’s become my personal mission to get as many people reading it as I can.  I do hope this review is a good start.

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A Day Out with Hokusai

Today’s bookshop spot is brought to you courtesy of the British Museum; as it turned out, on the hottest June day for several decades the air-conditioned sanctuary of the museum’s Hokusai exhibition was definitely the most comfortable place to be!  Like most people, I’m familiar with his most famous work, “The Great Wave”, which you see adorning everything from cards to calendars, but this was a fascinating opportunity to see other, very different, works that are not usually on general view, at least not in the UK.  The striking, soulful illustrations ranged from exquisite paintings on six-foot scrolls depicting figures from folklore and mythology, to clean, clear vistas in stunning blues and greens featuring rivers, waterfalls and of course the imposing Mount Fuji.  I had no idea of the breadth of his work – there were even designs for ridiculously ornate combs and tobacco pipes intended as practical blueprints for master craftsmen.  Nor did I know that Hokusai wasn’t actually his real name, but one of the numerous names he chose for himself during his life to mirror the different periods of his artistic career.

Naturally, the trip ended with an obligatory walk through the exhibition gift shop!  It’s always tempting to part with money on these occasions for memorabilia you don’t by any stretch of the imagination need (I have more mugs from plays, concerts and galleries than you can shake a stick at) but I was of course drawn in by the books.  This was the one I really wanted,

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the official exhibition book, which had pretty much everything we’d seen on the day and was as comprehensive a guide to the artist as I think I’d ever need.  Sadly though, like many of these exhibition tie-ins the price tag was just too much for me to justify.  It was beautifully produced to be sure, but sadly I’m sure that lots of people like me who’ve paid entry and a fairly hefty train fare to get there as well aren’t able to buy the book on top of all that as a memento.  To be fair, there were a few slightly cheaper options on sale that I didn’t like quite so much, but it’s certainly prompted me to do a bit of digging and see if I can track down a comprehensive Hokusai book that’s more within my budget.  I do own some art books that I almost never look at, but with a Hokusai book I believe I would, as there’s something so calming about so many of his images, and often the more you look at them the more detail and technique you start to see.

The exhibition’s on for a few weeks yet I think, so if you live anywhere near London I’d highly recommend it!

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Bookshop haul – a moment of heatwave madness!

It’s quite clearly not unusual for me to indulge in a bit of book-shopping.   It is unusual for me to lose all self-control and succumb to not just one but multiple hardbacks in a single splurge.  Honestly, I don’t know what came over me.  Maybe it’s the knowledge that it’s payday tomorrow or maybe I was just slightly high on the prospect of a week off with the forecast of blazing sun every day and absolutely no commitments beyond my blog and my books; whatever the (100% valid) excuse I’m now the proud owner of a diverse and somewhat unexpected pile of reading happiness.  So what is this booky bounty?

“Silk” by Alessandro Baricco – since I’m still going with “4 3 2 1” I’m in desperate need of something short to make me feel like I’m achieving something!  I would never have picked this up off my own bat but two colleagues at work have recommended it so I have faith that it’s going to be a good ‘un.  As an added bonus the chapters are about a page each, so if that doesn’t make me feel like I’m making progress nothing will.

“These Dividing Walls” by Fran Cooper – I find Twitter such a great way of discovering new and forthcoming titles, and this is one that I’ve seen mentioned or reviewed several times with almost universally favourable comments.  The premise sparked off comparisons in my mind with “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, which I adore, due to its Parisian apartment block setting.  The style and indeed the substance may well turn out to be completely different of course, but nevertheless I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy it.

“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg – this is a bit of a risk in a sense since I know nothing at all about either novel or author.  Yet something about it kept nudging at me as I was browsing the shelves and eventually I decided to take a punt.  The cover art is stunning for a start, and the impression I get from the tiny sections I’ve dipped into is that it has a slightly strange, dreamlike and almost musical quality that I found magnetic, even without knowing anything about the story or setting.  Watch this space.

“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman – I read an excerpt from this novel in a magazine a while back and immediately thought: I AM Eleanor Oliphant!  I was intrigued by the heroine and the idea that life can be, well, absolutely fine, and yet missing something very fundamental at the same time.  There’s been so much love for this all over social media and I can’t wait to read it.

So, a week off awaits and I have a stack of new books, so the reviews should be coming thick and fast before too long!  Here’s hoping your week is as sunny as mine, see you back on the blog soon.

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