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Review backlog – part 2

Continuing the idea from a recent post, here are some short reviews of novels I read a few years ago but failed to finish the reviews. Luckily I had started them and had kept a few notes to help but don’t expect any deep insight on each of these…..

mycousinrachelMy Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier: I had high expectations for this one having seen multiple reviews about how good it was. I picked it up as a companion to a long international flight, thinking it would distract me but I found it decidedly dull. It’s set largely at a large estate in Cornwall owned and run by Ambrose Ashley together with his young cousin Philip . All goes swimmingly until Ambrose’s health deteriorates and he has to leave England for warmer climates, choosing to sojourn instead in Italy. There he meets cousin Rachel, marries her and sends letters back home about how happy he is. Gradually the tone changes and he begins complaining of repeated headaches. A few weeks later Rachel, now a widow, turns up at the estate. Philip is attracted to her despite his doubts that she might have had a hand in Ambrose’s death. The rest of the novel is an unraveling of the mystery about Rachel and Ambrose’s demise and whether Philip wakes up to the reality of the situation in time to avoid a personal catastrophy. I thought the mystery ponderous and the writing lacking in energy. Just about managed to finish it.

sarahs-keySarah’s Key by Isabelle de Rothsay

This was recommended to me by a colleague in North America who is even more of an avid reader than I am. We discovered this connection via a team building exercise where you have to come up with three things that you think no-one else knows about you, then the other people have to guess who that fact relates to. It was a good recommendation for a book I doubt I would have picked up otherwise.

It has a dual time frame.In one we meet ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski, a Jewish girl born in Paris, who is arrested with her parents during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Before they go, she locks her four-year-old brother in a cupboard, thinking the family should be back in a few hours. The second plot follows Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, who is asked to write an article in honour of the 60th anniversary of the roundup. Gradually the two stories coalesce.

This is a narrative that is full of emotional appeal, particularly those set in France. The scenes that take place in the  Vélodrome d’Hiver, where more than 7,000 Jews were enclosed without water or food for days before being moved to concentration camps, were deeply moving, the kind of episode which it is hard to read without feeling bitter and tearful. The modern day story of Julia and her cheating husband had less impact and the ending was far too neatly wrapped up in a big chocolate box bow to work for me. But on the whole I’m glad I read it – the film version wasn’t bad either.

resistanceResistance by Owen Sheers

Owen’s debut novel, Resistance is set in 1944 and imagines what would have happened if the Normandy landings had failed and German troops manage to arrive on British soil. Within a month half of the country is occupied.

In an isolated farm in the Welsh borders Sarah Lewis, finds her farmer husband Tom as disappeared. All the other husbands in the valley have similarly gone. The women are left alone to cope as best they can with the crops and livestock. Later in the novel it transpires they have all become members of the secret British resistance. In the meantime a German patrol arrives on a mystery mission, forming a fragile support for the women when a severe winter hits the valley. Sarah begins a taut relationship with the patrol’s commanding officer. But this puts further pressure on the fragile harmony of the valley and reveals deep undercurrents of feeling.

On the plus side I enjoyed reading about an area of my birth country with which I am familiar but seeing it through fresh eyes. It’s one that is not stack exactly but spare and often overlooked in favour of more lush scenery nearby. Sheers writes in a lyrical mode that really brings alive the landscape and the battle that endures to make a living from this land. Ultimately though this proved nothing more than just an ok novel though – neither good nor bad but not one that would make me recommend it. I think I struggled to engage with the characters and feel them ‘real’. My mum on the other hand loved it and so did her book club so maybe I am in a minority. Its now been turned into a film for which Owen Sheers was the co-screenwriter.

Sheers lives in Wales so I’m keen to support him and will likely read his most recent novel  I Saw A Man  which is set in  London and New York and though also about relationships, has the pace of a thriller.

Tuscan sun fuels the reading juices

After a  week under cloudless blue skies and surrounded by Renaissance architecture, I returned to torrential rain and leaden skies on Saturday. With the forecast for even more of the same I expected to be writing this – my first Sunday Salon post – to the accompaniment of rain plopping onto the conservatory roof. But what a pleasant surprise – I’m sitting instead looking onto fluffy white clouds and  listening to the birds chirrup.  Sadly there is no Italian gelataria nearby otherwise the afternoon would be perfect.

Apart from marvelling at the splendours of Florence and Sienna, I also somehow managed to get through a fair amount of reading, ending with two unqualified successes, one ‘mediocre’ and one ‘never want to read this kind of book again’ …..

 Staying On

I took with me Staying On by Paul Scott, which won the Man Booker prize in 1977.  I first read this novel about 15 years ago and thought at the time it was somewhat ‘light’ in comparison to the grand themes of the Raj Quartet series. A stage version featuring Nadim Sawalha, in one of the key roles, did nothing to change my view.  But reading it afresh, I discovered that the comedy which had been played up fully on stage, masked the poignancy of a story of  undeclared affection, loneliness and insecurity.  I’ll post fuller comments on this later in the week………


My second novel also had a domestic setting but couldn’t have been more different than Staying On. I’ve never read any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels – and knew very little about her other than she wrote one of the early ‘definitive’ biographies of her friend Charlotte Bronte.  But the interest spurred in her work through the BBC adaptation of Cranford, encouraged me to give her a go. The experiment wasn’t a resounding success. It felt a very skimpy and insubstantial read – not really a novel so much as a series of episodes. I kept waiting for a plot line to develop but just as something began to sound interesting, it was resolved within the next chapter.  On screen, it would come across a bit like a soap opera with the audience as voyeurs looking through the windows of a bunch of spinsters who fret about candles and bonnets the correct form of address for a titled widow. I like my novels to have more substance so its unlikely I will find my way to Mrs Gaskell again.

Sarah’s Key

A work colleague who is also an avid reader, recommended Tatiana de Rosnay to me. It wasn’t until I started reading Sarah’s Key that I remembered having seen the film version earlier this year. Even though the plot was therefore familiar, I found myself engrossed by this dual timeline story of one of the most horrific events in French history – the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup.  More than 13,000 Jewish men, children and women were removed from their homes by French police and held for days in a baking velodrome without food or water before being transported to labour and concentration camps. It’s an indication of how engrossing this story is, that I started reading Sarah’s Key as the flight took off and barely lifted my eyes from the page until we had touched down… I haven’t finished it yet but am hoping to sneak a few hours with it later on.

Monsters of Men

Just before my holiday started, the winner of this year’s Carnegie prize for children’s literature was announced as Patrick Ness. It was a remarkable achievement since he  also won last year’s award  with Monsters of Men. After three pages I experienced a sense of panic that somehow the download of Monsters of Men to my Kindle had gone wrong and I had only half the book. The story seemed to open in the middle of a battle with characters that were never described but appeared to have a back story. Only later having done some rapid web searching did I find that Ness’s book was the last in the Chaos Walking trilogy that featured the same characters and this action was a progression from number two in the set. The only reason I had this book on my list because I thought (mistakenly it now appears) that it was on the reading list for my upcoming children’s literature course. Having never managed to see the appeal of science fiction or fantasy I knew this would be a challenge. I struggled on for another 30 pages or so but abandoned it when I learned it’s the newest Ness book I should have been reading. What a relief – his new one  A Monster Calls – is undoubtedly dark in tone since it’s about a young boy coming to term’s with his mother’s fatal illness, but at least it doesn’t feature space ships…..

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