Category Archives: Thoughts

‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ – Shirley Jackson

London, November 2018

Overview

Living in the Blackwood family home with her older sister Constance and her Uncle Julian, Katherine (or Merricat) wants to keep the world out. But with Constance acquitted of murdering the rest of the Blackwood family, the surviving members are little short of local spectacle. Things are manageable until a long-lost cousin Charles appears, his arrival offering the remaining Blackwoods a choice that could totally fracture them.

Thoughts

This was astonishingly good, one of those that I’d been delaying reading in case I didn’t like it (weird I know). Told over less than 150 pages, the characters and sense of both physical and spiritual claustrophobia remained with me.

Yes it was haunting (which I’m sure I’m not the first person to observe) as well as a visceral examination of the implications of family love.

Vague spoilers ahead…

The twist at the end has been mirrored countless times so I half expected the villain to be someone other than poor Constance, the tragedy being that Merricat’s survival hanged on the complicit happiness of her sister.

The development of the sisters into a local menacing folklore was powerful – the power of the mob seen more sickeningly within these pages than anywhere I’ve read in a while.

‘Lady Oracle’ – Margaret Atwood

London, August 2018

Overview

Joan Foster leads a double life as a period romance writer before she fakes her own death and regenerates in Terremoto, Italy. The narrative jumps back to Joan’s early life and highlights the events that led to that point: a fat-shaming mother, bullying at Brownies, a father estranged by the war and the series of romances none of which allowed her, really, to just be Joan.

Thoughts

A lot happens in this. The childhood and adolescent years were, for me, the stand-out sections, particularly the high school years in which she recognises that she’s won the trust and confidence of ‘friends’ by allowing herself to be the the non-threatening fat friend.

There are aspects of spiritualism that run throughout the novel, instigated by a church visit with her Aunt Lou, one of the only decent adults in Joan’s teenage life. There’s a moment in which Joan’s astral mother appears to a Spiritualist to tell Joan that she’s worried about her. If nothing else, I loved this for the confusion and awful communication that can arise between mothers and daughters in those years, particularly where Joan’s mother is depicted as her most vociferous critic.

Joan is a hundred different people throughout but her voice remains the same. It’s nice to imagine we’re like that – an unwaveringly ‘me’ voice that stays throughout the good and bad. I wondered on reflection is this an examination of the soul over the series of hurts, action and inaction.

Quotes

‘Most of the time I was on the side of the optimistic caterpillar; but in my gloomiest moments I would thing, So what if I turn into a butterfly? Butterflies die too.’

‘Nomad’ – James Swallow

Ibiza, July 2018

Overview

Marc Dane is something to do with IT in an operational group within the MI6. After a fatal attack against his team, Dane’s the love survivor. But because of this, the’s also the main suspect in the attack.

Now hunted by the MI6 and the (surprise!) real attacker, Dane leans on the elusive Rubicon group for help clearing his name. Within the connected terror plot boiling throughout, the thriller wraps up with a satisfying conclusion and a lead for the next in the series.

Thoughts

I chose this specifically as a thrilling and hopefully easy holiday read. More specifically, because the front cover pushes it on fans of I Am Pilgrim and the front cover is hugely similar – good marketing for people who can’t remember author names.

There was a sense of ticking off thriller/espionage tropes:

  • gratuitous no-strings sex;
  • a mysterious, glamorous female newcomer who can look after herself;
  • secret group with its finger on the secret pulse;
  • the protagonist tasked to prove his innocence;
  • a race against time.

So, in summary, it ticked all the boxes as a three star novel. It’s possible this garnered only a three star rating because it wasn’t I Am Pilgrim, which can’t really be helped.

‘Alias Grace’ – Margaret Atwood

London, July 2018

Overview

Grace Marks, a real woman hanged for murder in 1800s, is visited by Dr Jordan who, influenced by the burgeoning psychology of the unconscious, seeks to help Grace recall her actions (or lack of) on the day Thomas Kenner and Nancy Montgomery were murdered.

Thoughts

Composed of a mix of first-person point of view and letters sent to or received by Dr Jordan (everyone from his concerned mother to the previous keeper of Grace Marks’ asylum), the novel never provides the satisfaction of concluding the extent of Marks’ involvement.

The case for Marks’ innocence, which I initially supported, is blurred brilliantly over the course of the novel. This doubt is assisted by Grace’s recollections of Nancy Montgomery’s character (who it seems fair to surmise as someone willing to kick her subordinates on her way up the social ladder), to her co-accused James McDermott’s testimony of the events leading up to and upon the day itself.

Throw in the reappearance of a the drifter formally known as Jeremiah who now goes by the name DuPont and is a ‘renowned spiritualist’ who remembers Marks in his latter role though encourages her not to acknowledge this. As a spiritualist, he ‘reads’ Grace and questions her over the day of the murders, the outcome raising the question of who (in this case, a deceased friend) was in control of Grace that day.

The truly innocent chahacrter in the account, Jamie Walsh, accuses Grace of the crimes committed (or testifies against her). With nothing to lose, it seems more than likely that the prosecution was right. Marks’ seeming manipulation of Dr. Jordan can be paraphrased as – Dr. Jordan seemed happy when I said that and wrote it down. Her silent seduction of the troubled doctor fits with the portrayal by McDermott of her agreeability leading up to the double murder.

Definitely interesting. History reveals no real answers and the narrative highlights the gaps and plays with them rather than attempting to absolutely fill them.

‘The Immortalists’ – Chloe Benjamin

Ibiza, July 2018

Overview

In 1969, the four Gold children visit a psychic who can tell people the date of their death. Each is given a date, which they eventually share with each other years later on the evening of their father’s shiva. Following each Gold child from that moment to the ends of their individual stories, travelling through the AIDS outbreak, circus tricks, career drama and and the insides of an animal research unit, as each of the children struggles to live alongside knowledge of their deaths.

Thoughts

I’d expected something less literary and was al little disappointed when I finished it. However, the story and charters have stayed with me, particularly those of Simon and Klara. Benjamin’s writing takes its time (but in a good way) and overall the tone is haunting. Daniel’s story, in particular, plays with the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Quotes

‘She could not recall [the meaning of the prayer words] but she knew that they connected the dead…to the living…In the words of the prayer, no one was missing. In the words of the prayer, the Golds gathered together.’

‘The Heart Goes Last’ – Margaret Atwood

London, July 2018

Overview

The one where newlyweds Charmaine and Stan are living in their car, the world as know it, broken. They win places at Positron, a utopia with the promise of comfort and purpose. Positron provides them a home and jobs with the small catch that they live together in the house for a month and the next month, move to the Positron prison where they contribute to the Positron society in roles decided for them. While the couple is in prison, their alternates, Max and Jasmine, move into the house.

Thoughts

This was good fun – light, reeled me in and easy to read. The set-up with the alternating couples was bound to cause complications which abound very early in the novel. Charmaine’s prissiness is something to behold. The Positron jobs given to the characters and decisions that they make brings to the surface that both emotionally and physically, the heart goes last.

‘If We Were Villains’ – M.L. Rio

London, June 2018

Overview

The one where Oliver Marks finishes a prison sentence for murder and is greeted by Detective Colborne, the officer who originally investigated the crime and who still wants to know what really happened that night.

Oliver takes Colborne through the events preceding the murder of a member of their Shakespeare heavy theatre group and the narrative ends with a twisty revelation.

Thoughts

Despite wanting to love this – wow, I hated it. The Shakespeare students were so in love with the Bard that instead of speaking like normal people, their exchanges were Shakespeare quotes. I thought when this was mentioned within the first few pages, that it would be used (sparingly!!!) and a way of cementing how ‘into’ Shakespeare those crazy kids were. Unfortunately, it was more of a caution of what was to come.

I did not love learning Shakespeare at school. I fundamentally disagree with learning via texts that require translation and my least favourite thing in the whole wide, GCSE English Literature world, was having a teacher tell us how funny a joke was in Shakespearian language and times, only for a few classmates to laugh as though they got it. Just. No.

So, on a personal note the dialogue of this novel was a distraction from the start. I trawled through it, though found the characters flat and fairly uninteresting. The unravelling of the incidents around the murder were fairly ridiculous.

Read this instead…

I went for this on the basis that it examined the historical acts of the characters while at university, and what happened back then, against who they are now. If you’re looking for something similar, these came to mind:

  • The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  • Engleby – Sebastian Faulks
  • The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

‘How to Murder Your Life’ – Cat Marnell

Lanzarote, March 2018

Overview

Cat Marnell’s darkly humorous and (apparently) searingly honest memoir of addiction.

Thoughts

I had no idea who Cat Marnell was when I picked the book up and was drawn to it after indulging in Eat, Pray, Love and The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, enjoying a (short!) run of books written by women who detailed a period of enlightenment/transformation.

Marnell’s memoir was fast-paced, humorous and specific incidents that she explored underline how she slipped into addiction and incidents since qualify how she couldn’t free herself from it.

I had a few questions as I read, realising so many of the events posited Marnell as the victim of the piece. When the narrative then moved to Marnell’s semi-celebrity profile (in the USA at least), I started to wonder exactly what I was reading. When I reached the end to read that Marnell was still using, I did feel a little cheated.

This reaction was odd in that addiction is not an easy thing to beat; it harked back to my earlier discomfort with the book. Marnell painted herself convincingly as the victim but without the release from addiction, the memoir lacked humility. There are always two sides to a story though I felt the memoir, which in the end felt like a narcissistic justification for selfishness, completely overlooked this fundamental.

‘Swing Time’ – Zadie Smith

London, April 2018

Synopsis

Two mixed-race children want to be dancers and become friends. As they grow up, Tracey, the one you know from early on will be ‘trouble’ goes one way, and the unnamed narrator goes another.

To cut a long story short, by the early 1990s the narrator has landed a job with YTV and is sent to West Africa to support the building of a school by an internationally acclaimed musician.

The story cuts between the narrator’s childhood with Tracey and the current story set in West Africa, covering questionable adoptions, pre-adolescent erotic dancing, overdosing, scapegoating…and more.

Thoughts

I enjoyed this to begin with, but around the time that it began to cut between the Tracey stories and the Aimee stories I started to get a bit tired of it. If the intention was to have the narrator nameless so as to obscure her identity even more between the powerhouse characters of Aimee and Tracey then that was achieved quite well.

I’ve tried a couple of Smith’s novels and for whatever reason, I can’t get along with them at all. There’s a sense sometimes as I read them (as a mixed-race Londoner) that the author writes from perfected literary observations rather than experience, which creates a type of emptiness. It didn’t help here that the story was loooooong and that the events of the novel often verged on soap opera, with the literary style dampening the drama leading to everything feeling a little…silly.

‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ – Jennifer Egan

London, January 2018

Overview

The one with Sasha, a semi-pickpocket and from there, a landscape of characters intertwined over time that ends in a future owned by children with ‘handsets’ (or smartphones).

Thoughts

This was very different to what I’d expected, far less linear. I liked it, and couldn’t put it down, but also didn’t love it. I suppose I would have liked longer with some of the characters but was struck also by how well the characters were written as they were memorable from barely a glance.