CBR 8/5: Weathering by Lucy Wood

Lucy Wood’s 2015 debut novel Weathering is stunning and homely; it simultaneously feels like a chilly walk in the rain and a cup of tea by a fireside. It’s a non-scary story about ghosts, and a scary story about loneliness and memory; it’s a story about rivers and birds and photographs and family.

Ada is a single mother with a bright but complicated small daughter called Pepper and an even more difficult relationship with her own mother Pearl, recently deceased but not gone. (This isn’t a spoiler–Pearl’s voice is evident from early on in the book). Ada and Pepper come to Pearl’s rural and decrepit house in the hopes of sorting it out enough to sell it, and this interlude in the English country-side in winter, with its frosts and floods and ever-present damp, becomes a pause for them in a restless, wandering, life. The strands of this story are simple enough; Ada begins to reconnect with her roots and the idea of community, even if it’s dwindling and impoverished, Pepper begins to feel at home, and both encounter Pearl in different ways. But what makes Weathering so powerful is that it avoids sentimentality and easy answers in favour of elusiveness, and uncanniness, and genuine pain and difficulty, whether it’s the reader (and perhaps later Ada, though it’s never quite clear) realising what happened to Pearl, or the sheer frustration of not being able to get a chimney or stove in a practically falling-down house to work. There’s no sense of musical montage in which Ada suddenly learns to be good at things like driving on ice or keeping house and hearth warm, or even bonding with her daughter–every step forward seems earned, and every step back is infinitely human and relatable.

The landscape and, of course, weather, are powerful forces in the novel; the land twists people’s ankles even as it shapes their paths, the weather soaks them to the skin even as it illuminates some moment of beauty or insight. It isn’t all doom and gloom, despite the damp; it’s often funny, wry, and tender. Weathering is well-named. and well worth reading.

2012-10-23 11.04.27

 

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The Town in Bloom, by Dodie Smith (CBR 8/4)

This is another review in the vein of “I love a book by this author so much that its inky veins somehow run in mine, that I read it once a year at least and every time I notice something new, that its phrasing and insight sometimes shapes how I see a particular kind of landscape, or light, or expression on a face”–but this book I’m reviewing is not like that. The book by Dodie Smith that I love so much is, of course, I Capture the Castle, a fresh, sharp, funny, wistful look at coming-of-age between the wars, a book of collapsing castles and midnight swans and midsummer bonfires and glittering fortunes and cartwheels on beaches and the lonely melancholy of being seventeen and unloved.

Town in Bloom is a pleasant read. A girl on the edge of adulthood who has been raised on George Bernard Shaw and Restoration drama arrives in London to make her fortune on the stage; she arrives at a boarding-house and is immediately nicknamed Mouse by the girls who become her friends and almost-wholehearted confidantes. Mouse’s confidence lands her a starting job as a junior secretary in a theatre; there she develops an almost-requited passion and devotion for the married owner/director/lead actor. Meanwhile, her friends Lilian, Molly and Zelle have intrigues and secrets of their own.

What I liked about Town in Bloom is Mouse’s confidence; she goes after the man she wants and the job she wants with enthusiasm–this is less a tale of a country mouse’s ruin in the big bad city, than that of a frisky kitten disguised as a mouse becoming a cat. Sure she’s naive, and occasionally annoying, but weren’t we all at 18? She frankly enjoys her life and her surroundings, and her sexual and romantic awakening, and there’s an enjoyable sense of quirky adventure to the whole thing, even if it never really coalesces into something that seems real.

Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher (CBR8/3)

I love Carrie Fisher’s performance in the original Star Wars films, and in The Force Awakens; her eyes in particular slew me. It was her appearance on 30 Rock, however, and her sharp, wild and funny chat show appearances on Conan and The Graham Norton Show, as well as her comments on Hollywood, that made me want to read her books.

I began with Postcards from the Edge (1987). It’s very good. It’s a fragmented sort of narrative that reflects its title; it begins with a set of postcard texts that suggest disorientation and desperation, and ends with a letter from the main character, actress Suzanne Vale, to the doctor who pumped her stomach will do that. In between lie a stint in rehab, where Suzanne’s bitter, questioning, and funny voice has a counterpoint in the stream-of-consciousness from Alex, a Hollywood screenwriter who is constantly deciding to quit cocaine and then rewarding himself for his abstinence days later with cocaine. His denial of his problems, and his simultaneous need to impress everyone and blithe obliviousness to the real thoughts and feelings of anyone around him, as well as his final painfully hilarious paranoid breakdown in a Ramada Inn in Burbank could be a warning about what could happen to Suzanne if she doesn’t pause to deal with her wounds rather than self-medicating them;  or it could be a satire of a borderline-dystopian Hollywood where the pressure is to consume everything apart from food, and self-destruction is bankable.

Suzanne’s own story is rather low-key in comparison to Alex’s hectic arc from denial (“Sometime’s it’s fun. I don’t know, Freud took it, so how bad could it be?) to a dodgy deal to rehab to relapse to rehab to a screenplay for a movie called Rehab! Her focus is more of a meandering, reflective, journey towards learning how to be without drink and drugs, learning how to be around other people, and let herself be in a normal, functional relationship. While this might sound overly earnest, it really isn’t–the incisiveness of Fisher’s voice is never lost, as she skewers the Hollywood–and by extension cultural–obsession with appearance, pretensions of executive producers and condescension of agents and the mind games played by commitment-phobic men (“Sometimes I think I should marry one of them and just fuck around. […] I would certainly be discreet, like I was very discreet when I was with Jill, my last girlfriend. True, she did find out, but not for a long time. And she didn’t leave me because of it. She left me because I gave her crabs–remember?”).

Fisher is unsparing when it comes to her heroine’s insecurities and misguided notions about her own appearance and her relationships, but Suzanne’s portrayal is warm as well as witty, and I found her to be an engaging, complex woman. I really enjoyed Postcards from the Edge, particularly as there’s a great eighties vibe that reflects its context; as well as the cocaine, there’s the lack of mobile phones or email, fashions and the references to the great stars of the day (“‘I heard she blew Don Johnson,’ said the woman who liked seasons.”)

Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom (CBR8/2)

This is the third Dandy Gilver novel of Catriona McPherson’s series that I have reviewed for Cannonball Read; they seem to be pleasingly coming out yearly, and towards the end of one year and around the beginning of the next, I begin to keep an eye out for them at my local library. The new Dandy Gilver is a seasonal pleasure I vaguely look forward to, like Christmas pudding, or not having hayfever. However, I’m beginning to wonder if this routine is such a good thing after all–ever since the titles embraced the vintage ‘cosy crime’ style of ‘Dandy Gilver and the Something Vaguely Twee of Some Sort of Crime’ halfway through the series, there has occasionally been a sense of stiffness about the proceedings and procedures. And that’s partly, of course, because Dandy and Alec are All Grown Up, and accustomed to their roles, and the sense of discovery and freedom of doing something different and unusual for people in their station has faded–even Dandy’s staid husband Hugh is resigned to his wife’s detective business, even more shockingly, the money it brings in. I did enjoy the previous one, Dandy Gilver and the Reek of Red Herrings hugely, as well as the one before that, Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstoneso it is probably ungracious of me to worry the whole series merely because I found Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom to be…not quite up to snuff. Perhaps the problem is merely that I enjoy Dandy and Alec best in small towns and villages, and they don’t work quite as well in the big bad city. Perhaps I just didn’t like the fact that Dandy’s maid and Alec’s butler have hitherto unmentioned expertise at ballroom dancing; it’s a bit too Downton Abbey.Grant as previously portrayed would not agree to wear feathers and sequins, let alone in public.

Dandy and Alec have been called in to investigate mysterious and sinister pranks being played upon Teresa, the daughter of nouveau riche parents who insists on ballroom dancing rather than settling down with her fiance, and professional, competitive ballroom dancing at that, at a seedy Glasgow dancehall. Glasgow is an industrial city of shipyards and corrupt policemen run by gangsters; Dandy and Alec may have bitten off more than they can chew beneath the glitter and the feathers and the tango and the foxtrot–especially when even Teresa and her family are lying to them. Things get very complicated; the rivalries and ambitions and obsessions among the dancers are twisted enough without the threat of murder. I didn’t quite understand the motivations and denouement, or why, considering everything, Dandy and Alec were called in at all. There is some interesting period detail, but not as much as usual. This is an enjoyable read, and I’d recommend it to fans of the series, but not as a starting point–The Burry Man’s Day, Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains, or Red Herrings or Brimstone would be better for a novice. I am still looking forward to next year’s installment, though.

 

Patricia Highsmith’s Carol (CBR8 1)

“…they discern

what equilibrium they can recover.”

From Marilyn Hacker’s “Sonnet on a Line from Venus Khoury-Ghata”.

Well, it’s not like Cate Blanchett would choose to star in the adaptation of a bad Patricia Highsmith novel. I haven’t actually seen the film, but the trailers and still photographs project a certain sort of aesthetic that I found intriguing–rich colours, gleaming cocktails,  and soft lights; crisp coral lipstick on a smile that says come hither and f**k off. This is the first novel of Highsmith’s that I’ve read; as Val McDermid points out on the cover of my edition, it has “the drive of a thriller but the imagery of a romance.”

CarolIt’s the 1950s in New York; anything apart from heterosexual monogamy is viewed with disgust by the eyes of the law and most people–particularly soon-to-be-divorced businessmen trying to get sole custody of their child, and by young wannabe artists whose egos are bruised because their girlfriends don’t want to settle down with them.  Therese is about twenty, dating Richard in a desultory sort of fashion, and an aspiring stage-set designer (in the film, I believe she’s a photographer–the same point about how she views life at a remove works for both) who is working long hours in the toy section of a large department store. One day she meets Carol, about to be divorced from Harge, who is buying the daughter she might lose a doll. Therese knows that Carol is right–she sends Carol a personal card with the toy delivery, and their lives are locked together.

Highsmith does a brilliant job of showing how Therese’s work and life before Carol veers between the grotesque and the boring, infusing tiny details with horror; at the workplace cafeteria, for example: “The woman made a tremulous, dismissing gesture. She pulled her saucer of canned sliced peaches towards her. The peaches, like slimy little orange fishes, slithered over the edge of the spoon each time the spoon lifted, all except one which the woman would eat”(7-8). In contrast, Carol is smooth and cool, tinged with melancholy and passion. Their affair unfolds at a glacial pace; again, the tension is built in a way that suggests a thriller rather than a romance. It’s shadowed by the cigarette smoke, potentially mixed motivations, and paranoia of noir–there’s even a private detective and a Gothic moment involving a portrait. Despite the ellipses and elusiveness of Therese’s and Carol’s connection, the novel is also infused with pure romantic yearning, the sense that Therese and Carol belong together, that their desires are utterly right for them, and that any other life or person is simply wrong. This certainty brings them both misery and joy; part of the mastery of this novel is how Highsmith plays with expectations–we know how things are supposed to turn out, but it’s at times terribly uncertain whether they will do so.

CBR 6/26 Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon

Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (1937) exploits seasonal chill to the max on every possible level. It’s cold, neck-deep in snow–and there might be ghosts or other unearthly things hiding in the shadowy whiteness.

The story begins conventionally enough, with a group of strangers stuck on a train that’s stuck in a snowdrift. One of them, an elderly man who seems to know a lot about the paranormal, and the traces left on the present by violent or highly emotionally-charged events of the past, suddenly heads off into the blinding whiteness. A bit nonplussed, the rest of the group, eventually follow him, reasoning that they should strike another train track in about 5 miles, and find some signs of civilisation. The group includes the mentally fragile “tall, pale youth” Thomson, the cheerful but rather desperate chorus-girl Jessie, the retired bore stuffed with Empire and self-importance, and David and Lydia, a pair of familiarly bickering siblings on their way to a family gathering. It only snows harder and harder, however, and soon the group are forced to take shelter in a seemingly abandoned house–only to be rejoined by Mr Maltby, their expert on the uncanny, and a nervous and aggressive man with a secret…

Mystery in White combines elements of Murder on the Orient Express and the country (haunted) house murder mystery, but puts its own spin on them, effectively using the interior of the house and its eerie emptiness, and the claustrophobia induced by the blizzard, to create suspense. The sudden appearance of a second set of footprints in the snow is as startling as a shot in other detective stories, and it functions as a mild sort of ghost story as well. There are implausible coincidences, of course, the resolution is a bit unlikely, and the method of figuring things out is hardly orthodox, but in terms of atmosphere and tension, I found the novel very enjoyable. I would advise everyone to avoid reading the introduction until afterwards, however–there’s enough of a gesture towards a spoiler that it does affect the reading experience.

This is my 26th book for the Cannonball Read–I have completed the Half Cannonball I set out to. I will certainly be participating next year.

CBR 6 / 25 Yes Please by Amy Poehler

I love Parks and Recreation, and I think Leslie Knope is a heroine for the ages–fierce, funny, sweet, occasionally wrongheaded, but mostly blazing with the desire to make the world, or at least the small, quirky town of Pawnee, a fairer, healthier, and more beautiful and fun place. The woman behind Leslie’s defiant curls, bright eyes and mercurial expressions, Amy Poehler, is more flawed, more mixed-up–but, judging by Yes Please, also someone you’d want to go for a hike with, followed by dancing at the Snakehole Lounge and breakfast at J.J’s.

Yes Please has received a (mostly) positively response from Cannonball Readers such as Badkittyuno and ModernLove, and I don’t really have much to add to their points–Poehler talks about her early days in improv, there’s something about her family and kids, occasional mentions of her divorce and coping with it, something about her friendship with Tina Fey and Saturday Night Live (which I’ve actually never seen), and not as much as I’d hoped about Parks and Recreation. Although, mind you, despite Leslie Knope being the flaming sun at its centre, it’s such an ensemble show that any attempt to cover it in detail would veer inexorably into other people’s lives and stories. But still, I’d have loved to have read more about Poehler’s thoughts on Leslie, and how the character was built and developed, to what extent she agrees with her politics, and so on. I’d also have loved to have read more backstage stuff about hosting award shows–the snippets that we do get are fascinating.

Nevertheless, Yes Please is funny, sweet and intelligent–and occasionally slightly risqué.. The pieces of advice, particularly relationships, chime with my own views to a great extent, which is always nice, there are some great anecdotes, and Poehler’s obvious respect and liking for her colleagues in her various shows–as well as the bursts of anger at some instance of injustice or condescension–makes this a generally warm and sometimes heated read. Oddly, for a memoir by a comedian whose talent for both pratfalls and satire I respect so much, it was the streak of melancholy that runs through the book that I found most appealing. Celebrities, or their publicists, tend to have certain stock responses to life events–there’s “everything’s wonderful and I am naturally perfect,” “something bad happened but it taught me a lot and I am now inspirational and relatable in a very real sense”, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” “looming downward spiral, sympathise with me”, “conscious uncoupling,” etc. Poehler’s honesty cuts through the headline clickbait bullshit, showing what seems a rare instance of a famous person who faces problems, does bad things, acknowledges being sad and sorry, acknowledges that being sorry doesn’t fix everything, and gets on with her life and her family and friends, not to project an image of triumph over suffering, but because that’s what people try to do.

CBR6 23 & 24: Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool and Final Curtain

I can never decide whether Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool (1945) has one of the silliest or best detective fiction titles I have ever seen, and there are a lot of bad ones out there (ahem, Charlaine Harris). The story seems to be constructed around the pun; the dead body of a lady sheep farmer and member of parliament in New Zealand is found rather mashed up in…a pack of wool. It’s high-concept-tastic; I’m surprised Charlene Harris didn’t use it for the Sookie Stackhouse series. It’s like calling a book Bloody Mary and having the main character be a woman called Mary who drowns in a vat of tomato juice clutching a stick of celery.

Nevertheless, once you get past the title, there’s a fair bit to enjoy in the book–as is only to be expected with one of the ladies of the Golden Age of detective fiction. Marsh’s go-to detective is Inspector Alleyn, an urbane, insightful, and less frenetic and more community-minded Lord Peter Wimsey, who actually belongs to the police force and has a steady job despite his sensitivity and appreciation for the arts. Alleyn is on a remote New Zealand farm during World War II to investigate rumours of espionage and Fifth Column activity; while there he gets involved in investigating the death of Flossie Rubrick (great name), a formidable and outspoken woman to whom many people are grateful, even indebted, and nobody likes. The cast of characters all have their own secrets, and the isolation and the descriptions of the New Zealand scenery and atmosphere give this novel a slightly more refined and individual air than the typical country-house mystery. There’s a bit of a love story, a bit of humour, and some good old-fashioned detectoring.

Final Curtain seems somehow a less egregious pun, but it’s still not a great title. It is, of course, set amid a theatrical family, whose patriarch Sir Henry Ancred is a famous actor in the English theatre, darling, and has a private stage in his country mansion. The family are pretty much at loggerheads, especially after Sir Henry brings home a younger lady to upset his children and potentially their chance of inheriting. Into this family drama steps Agatha Troy–who happens to be engaged to Inspector Alleyn–who she hasn’t seen for a long time. I haven’t read any of the earlier ones in Marsh’s Alleyn sequence, so I’ve missed the setup of their courtship and marriage (and I think it would be best, perhaps, to begin reading Marsh from the beginning–you get what’s going on in terms of the mystery of the week in each individual book, but some of the human interest factor is lost without the backstory, I think; it’s not like the Poirot stories which pretty much stand alone as he doesn’t form many attachments). Agatha is a portrait painter hired to paint Sir Ancred for his 70th birthday, but the celebration doesn’t quite go as planned. The theatrical milieu tends to work well in detective fiction because of the performative aspects of both crime and detection–disguises, lies, masks, hiding true characters and motivations, playing the role of hero and villain, and it serves well enough here. Again, there is some romance and humour.

Overall, while I enjoyed these books, I found them a bit complicated to follow–they lack Sayers’s depth and Christie’s deceptive simplicity. These two were the first two in an omnibus volume of three, and I never got around to reading the third. I am inclined to check out the earlier volumes, though.

CBR 6 22: How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

So I peer beyond the parapet of middlebrow interwar women’s writing and detective fiction to tackle something that’s very new but set in the very early nineties, a story about a girl who’s too big, too bright, and–at times–too brave. Moran’s pragmatic, if sometimes problematic, brand of feminism informs How to Build a Girl, which works to some extent as a companion piece to the early Adrian Mole books–it’s peculiarly British, and it’s about teenage lust, dysfunctional families and communities, and poverty. It is not, however, quite as clever–Sue Townsend’s work functioned on multiple levels, whereas How to Build a Girl is fairly straightforward.

Johanna is 15ish at the start of the novel, unkissed and undefined, with an ear for music and a nose for a sharp turn of phrase. Her family struggles to survive on her father’s disability benefit, and some of the best parts of the book are Moran’s rage against the unfairnesses of the British benefit system, how once-thriving communities of miners and factory workers are now husks of their former selves, the last generation to work giving birth to children who probably never will. Johanna, through sheer chutzpah and chance, aided only by a library card and her family’s belief that she can do something, even if they don’t quite know what, builds herself into a girl who can escape Wolverhampton and the cycle of unemployment, early pregnancy and a life spent never having enough. She becomes a music journalist and reviewer, joining an all-male team and learning that vitriol gets more responses than kindness–and then having to unlearn everything she knows. On the way, she gets kissed, and shagged, and parties with rock stars–and the book is also good at detailing how overtaken by lust and longing and hormones teenage girls can be. American Pie was about four guys who plot to lose their virginity, but similarly gleeful films and books about teenage girls who want to have sex because they want to have sex, not because they want to fit in, or are being coerced by their boyfriends, are thin on the ground in these chaste Twilight-times.

However, although there are good bits, and funny and absurd bits, and Johanna’s awkwardness is endearing at times, How to Build A Girl never quite came together for me. I think partly it’s because the voice is so familiar–having read Moran’s How to Be a Woman and Moranthology, How to Build a Girl comes across as more of the same but fictionalised. Because of this, Johanna was never quite convincing as a teenager for me; there was too much self-awareness, articulacy, theorising. It’s not that teenagers can’t be precocious and brilliant–it’s just that there is a difference between the diction of an intelligent teenager and an adult, I think. Perhaps if it had been written in the third person it might have made a difference–the first person reinforces the conflation of Moran and her character. Also, ironically, seeing as Johanna’s journey echoes Moran’s to a great extent, Johanna’s big break and sudden shift from babysitting to backstage never quite rings true.

CBR6 21: Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief

This is the first book I’ve read in Andrea Camilleri’s series about the laconic and short-fused Inspector Montalbano, and I believe it’s somewhere near the beginning of the long-running series (which has also been televised). Inspector Montalbano is a man who is afraid of commitment and loves fine dining–which in Sicily means that there is very fine dining indeed, if you happen to like pasta and seafood. He has a tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend, and a relationship of mutual irritation with his colleagues and superiors–and there is something of a soft heart beneath his bluster. He’s an engaging character, and a good detective–he’s in a similar vein to Pratchett’s Sam Vimes, I think.

This case centres on a retired businessman found dead in the lift of an apartment building; it gradually emerges that he had an adulterous affair with a North African immigrant, and could have had shady dealings with dangerous people. Meanwhile, there’s been a sail-by shooting on a fishing boat. A small boy and his mother are drawn into this web of racial tensions and potential organised crime, and Inspector Montalbano has a great deal on his plate in all senses of the phrase.

As anyone who pays attention to my blog or my Cannonball read knows, I read a fair bit of Agatha Christie and Golden Age detective fiction; this novel makes a change as it’s far grittier and there’s more graphic violence (although not to a sadistic or gratuitous level you just sometimes get the sense that things hurt). I have never been to Sicily so I have no idea how authentic the novel is, but the glimpses of Sicilian culture it gives are fascinating. The style is terse and there’s little descriptive flourish, and the dialogue mostly veers between angry and acerbic. Nevertheless, there are some quirky characters and interactions, and the occasionally comic situation to lighten the seriousness of the crimes and the tragedies that crimes almost always imply. I’m interested in reading more in the series.