Firstly thank you for all your comments and encouragement on my blog! It’s great to know you’re reading it. A special mention must go to the person who was overheard advertising wellwrittentooshort to fellow queuers in Tesco. They got more than just groceries that day…….
Really, thank you. And please keep all the comments coming – I love reading them!
I choose my books like I choose wine. If the label is pretty I’ll like it. If it’s got a cool name then the chances are I’m hooked. Anything with a pun is particularly likely to get taken home. Which is why I love wandering into charity shop book sections. I spend way too much time in there and have been known to weigh down Soren’s buggy with my many, many purchases. It’s much more fun than buying from the big supermarkets and bookshops, which heavily market a couple of this years’ big bestsellers and forget everything else. I like being a bit random. Also, I’m spending for a good cause and (let’s be honest here) there is the fact I can buy eight books for the price of one in Waterstones. And still feel good about it! Sorry, Waterstones.
This post is going to feature books which I picked up in charity shops. One is a book I had never heard of, one is this year’s big release that I was very excited to find in Chest Heart and Stroke and the other is a bestseller in France on the level of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo but pretty much unknown here.
If you like that, you’ll love…
Have you ever read The Quiet American by Graeme Greene? How about The Painted Veil by W Sommerset Maughn? Neither have I. I’ve seen the films though, and I love them, so I feel I can say that if you like them you should definitely give The Piano Teacher a shot. Its shot through with the feeling of doomed nobility and the romance that we feel for late colonial outposts. It’s set in Hong Kong during and just after World War Two and mixes a love story with the gradual revelation of what the various expats living there did during the war. I had no idea of the history of Hong Kong and it was a well realised description of some pretty amazing events. Also, the central love story and heroines/hero were drawn really well, and were not your average painted lady, bored colonial housewife or hero haunted by his past. I liked all of the women who seemed to play the hand they were dealt as real people would. However, I’ve read a lot of books which flashback to the war as a literary device. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve liked most of them but I’m a wee bit over it now. I’m going to sound like a cantankerous old biddy but what is wrong with a book starting at the beginning of a story and finishing at the end? In my day, it were all fields, etc etc.
I was trying to think of other books about the wars that used flashbacks as literary devices. I know Atonement (so good but you probably know that already), Everything Is Illuminated (also fantastic), The Madonnas of Leningrad (definitely read that one) The People’s Act of Love (I could live without it), and there were two more which I read and loved but I cannot for the life of me remember what their names are. The first is about a man whose mother and father die and he starts to piece together how they met, fell in love in Czechoslovakia during the war and eventually escaped to the USA. I think it’s called something like The Vanished World. The second is about a British journalist who gets very mixed up in the Russian Revolution and falls in love with a girl who may be a Bolshevic or may be a spy. I think that she tries to assassinate someone and he maybe stops her? Does anyone recognise either of these from my terrible descriptions? Please help me out of my misery!
I’m having blogging deja vu. In my last post I waxed lyrical about my old childhood literary heroes and how wonderful it was to see them again. It was, which makes the fact that another one has brought a book out this summer almost too much to take.
Because I love books and because I spent much of the 1980’s and early 1990’s in the school library I love Judy Blume. If Harper Lee explained the the world I would inhabit when I grew up, then Judy Blume explained the world I lived in as an adolescent girl.
With that in mind please be aware that it is very difficult for me to be objective when it comes to reviewing her newest book ‘ In the Unlikely Event’. Because she has gone back into the mind of a teenage girl, for me, this was the book equivalent of visiting the house I grew up in.
During the course of one winter in the early fifties three planes dropped out of the sky onto the small New Jersey town of Elizabeth where Judy grew up. This is a horrific, but forgotten, piece of local history unless you lived through it. We were all forever connected by that winter, she says.
I’ll skip over my gripe about flashbacks – please see above for that. In The Unlikely Event jumps back once, and then pretty much stays in the fifties until the last couple of pages. The story is such a unusual one it pretty much tells itself – it would be very difficult to write the true story of three plane crashes in one town without it being riveting – but the stories of the hopes and dreams of the residents of a small american town is the real jewel. There are multiple narratives and sometimes it’s hard to keep up with who’s who but every one of them is handled with care. Judy Blume can still get into imaginary people’s heads, root around, and accurately describe what she finds. To do so when those people are put under such unbearable tension takes a lot of skill.
The story of Natalie, who is effectively broken by the events, stands out. You can see her trying to reconcile ‘the unlikely events’ in her mind and completely failing to do so. There is also a genuinely creepy moment in there which I’ll leave you to discover alone, by torchlight, in the middle of the night!
The stories of the people in the planes will also stay with me for a long time, as will an uneasiness about boarding one.
If I had a criticism it would be about her handling of place and time. It absolutely feels authentic but I think that on occasion she slightly over eggs her pudding. By that, I mean that sometimes the characters seem to lapse into listing what they’ve been doing, seeing and listening to in order to fix them in a particular period, like going to a lingerie shop in the fifties, or picking out shoes. She doesn’t need to do that – she had taken me there already.
Ok, so one more tiny wee niggle. Sometimes the teenagers launch into stream of conciousness free association type thought. Again, it feels very slightly overdone. We know teenagers sometimes think like that – we’ve all been one. It doesn’t necessarily translate well to the page.
You have no idea how hard it was for me to criticise Judy Blume. I feel so guilty now. These were tiny, tiny, miniscule, points and in no way detract from the book as a whole, which is excellent.
Judy Blume is likely to suffer as much as she is to profit from the attention of middle aged fangirls like me. When I told my husband what I was reading he kind of smirked – I could see him immediately dusting off his own teenage assumptions on ‘girls stuff’ and relegating it to his mental discard pile. That’s a big shame because he will be missing out on reading a fast paced, interesting and well written summer bestseller if he doesn’t read it.
My daughter is about old enough for ‘Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing’, particularly as she too is about to discover the joys of having an annoying little brother who grown ups think is adorable. I wonder if she’ll feel the same about Judy as I do, or whether her novels are really only special for women my age. I hope not, and that I can share some of my best friends from books with her as she gets older.
What, More Flashbacks?
My last book is ‘The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair’, again picked up on a whim from a charity shop. This one jumps back and forward so much I feel like I’m doing the literary Macarena. I’m about 100 pages from the end and it’s a big old mystery so I’m going to skive off here and finish reading it….. Next time I’ll tell you how it went!