The Child from the Sea by Elizabeth Goudge — New Review

During my degree, my university halls of residence closed down their library, and offered students very cheap deals on all the books. Having read The Little White Horse as a child, I rescued two Elizabeth Goudge novels, which I dutifully put on a shelf and forgot about. In the intervening years, I borrowed a copy of The White Witch, memorable largely for the fact that at one point the narrative dives unexpectedly into the inner monologue of a horse. To say I didn’t know what to expect from The Child from the Sea would be an understatement. For most of the book, I wasn’t even sure which historical period it was set in. (My thanks to Nickie, who worked out that it was the English Civil war, and that Prince Charles was about to become Charles II.) As it turns out, protagonist Lucy Walter is a real person, as are most of the characters she interacts with.

When occasion demanded she could play the great lady very well indeed; and quite instinctively, for the golden thread of the Princess Ness was interwoven with the buccaneer, and for a short while she could enjoy the calm of gracious living.

The Child from the Sea, Elizabeth Goudge

The opening chapters were thoroughly enchanting. The evocative fairy tale language reminded me of my favourite descriptions of Moonacre Valley in The Little White Horse. I didn’t know before reading that the theme of home — one of my preoccupations — would be so important, and I was pleased with the number of entries I added to my blog of literary dwellings. Lucy was a home-maker in the style of a more down-to-earth Anne Shirley. Instead of imagining places more comforting than they are, Lucy makes them so with pictures and ornaments.

The blood and darkness vanished and Lucy’s mind was full of wine-cups and apples, steepled churches and lovely ladies in head-dresses tall and pointed like the steeples.

The Child from the Sea, Elizabeth Goudge

While these descriptions were enough to keep me reading, they were somewhat let down by the plot and characterisation. Lucy spends a lot of the book alone, and when the narrative is just a description of her circumstances, rather than a specific incident, I wasn’t quite sure what the point was. Even when they did happen, specific conversations between characters lacked immediacy. Elizabeth Goudge offered tantalising glimpses into the inner lives of Anne Hill and Lord Taaffe, and I sometimes wished I were reading a book about them, because their emotions seemed stronger and more well-realised. As much as I appreciated the perspectives of these minor characters, I did find the choice of when to switch into their narratives to be a little mystifying. When Lucy loses a beloved parent, one of the moments of what should be the highest emotion for her character, the narrative distances itself from her, and we only get to see her through the eyes of Lord Taaffe.

Politics is treated in a similar way. The Child from the Sea can’t seem to decide whether it is a novel about the English Civil War and the return to power of the monarchy or not. For much of the novel, Lucy is kept quite separate from the political situation, and the story being told is one of personal relationships. This would be fine, except that later on, the story takes a political turn, which feels quite disorientating. It’s not a total failure, and I was able to follow the politics to a degree, but it added to the sense that I was never quite sure what the book was about.

Overall, I’d recommend The Child from the Sea more for its descriptions and themes than its story or its characterisation.

Next, I’ll be reading Island by Aldous Huxley.

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Mr Doubler Begins Again by Seni Glaister — New Review

Although Mr Doubler Begins Again is about an elderly man, it feels to me like a Bildungsroman. Mr Doubler is learning how to be himself, a better version of himself, after the loss of his identity as a husband. The rest of the characters are similarly adapting to new stages in their lives, whether that’s a husband being put into a care home or retirement from a rewarding line of work. It’s very cohesive, without seeming repetitive.

But Mrs Millwood thought he was kind and brave. Doubler wondered if it might be possible to become those things just through her belief in him.

Mr Doubler Begins Again, Seni Glaister

I was talking to Nickie — actually before I read this book — about what you call a love story when it isn’t a capital-R Romance, and we talked about Bridget Jones’s Diary and how it’s actually about discovering a life outside the very narrow margins of the fall in love, get married, live happily ever after story that we’re familiar with. Mr Doubler Begins Again feels like it fits the same criteria: it’s a novel about what happens after (long after) the happy ending. There is a love story, too, which is simultaneously integral to the plot — the book doesn’t really get good until Mrs Millwood is introduced — and yet ends in such a way as to feel superfluous to Mr Doubler’s character development.

Apart from feeling like the very beginning was trying a bit too hard, I really enjoyed Mr Doubler Begins Again, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for anything else Seni Glaister writes or has written. I’d recommend especially to people who enjoyed films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Calendar Girls and The Intern.

Next, I’ll be reading The Child from the Sea by Elizabeth Goudge.

Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham — New Review

As a huge fan of Gilmore Girls, I picked up Lauren Graham’s autobiography without hesitation when I saw it at a work book sale. I’m not the kind of person who reads much celebrity gossip, and I can count the number of autobiographies I’ve read on the fingers of one hand, so I can’t necessarily judge Talking as Fast as I Can against other books of its kind. What I can do is say that it was a light, easy read which seemed to take me hardly any time at all to get through.

There were times when the writing was self-consciously self-deprecating in a way that didn’t necessarily seem natural to me, such as when Lauren Graham ‘reveals’ the Hollywood secrets of losing weight and getting exercise. Despite this, I enjoyed most of the content of the book — especially the focus on Gilmore Girls. It made me want to rewatch the series, which can hardly be a bad thing.

Of the two autobiographies I’ve read in recent months, I’d say I liked Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick slightly better, but Talking as Fast as I Can might well be the perfect quick read for someone’s summer!

Dread Nation by Justine Ireland — New Review

Confession: I have never read a book that featured zombies. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book I’d class as ‘horror’ and I was hoping Dread Nation would be my first. Except, zombies aside, I don’t think it fits. Dread Nation didn’t inspire in me any kind of creeping dread or fear, and the tone and plot of the prose were too familiar to me to feel like an entirely unread genre. Which is not to say Dread Nation is a bad book — I thoroughly enjoyed it! — it’s just not a horror book and, possibly, not your usual zombie book.

Of the books I’ve read, Dread Nation seems to have most in common with The Underground Railroad. Not only are both centred on a black female protagonist, but both also ask ‘what if’ questions about a period of American history. ‘What if ‘the underground railway’ were a real train?’ in the case of Colson Whitehead. ‘What if the dead from the battle of Gettysburg were zombies?’ in the case of Justina Ireland. While the latter of those two questions may seem more frivolous, Dread Nation reads like a lot of research went into it, and the characters are both better developed and given more agency.

Jane and Katherine are both have strong character arcs, as well as interesting histories, though Jane’s is revealed in something of a rush near the end of Dread Nation, which is a shame. Nonetheless, the relationship between them shines through, and I don’t doubt there’s going to be fanfic about it before too long. Justin Ireland provides an interesting world to play in, not too far from real American history, but with enough thoughtful details to stand out in the narrative.

I’ve heard of such folks, deviants who believe that some kind of enlightenment exists in watching the moment a man becomes a monster.

Dread Nation, Justina Ireland

While I usually read for character more than for plot, I have to commend Justina Ireland for constructing a story which really urged me to read on, and has left me more eager for a sequel than anything I’ve read in months. The ending feels satisfying, and yet there are still unanswered questions which make me long to read more about these characters and this world. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Justina Ireland writes, and until then I’ll be reading Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn — New Review

Geek Love is the weirdest book I’ve ever read. Michael, who lent it to me, claims that is exactly what he wanted, so already in this review I’ve made one person happy. Geek Love isn’t about the kind of geek you might find hunched over a computer. Instead, ‘geek’ in the novel means a circus performer who bites the heads of live birds. If that strikes you as darkly funny, then you may agree with Katherine Dunn, who is surprised and intrigued that anyone else would carry on reading it1. I don’t find absurdity inherently funny, so while I found individual sentences to be funny, I wouldn’t class Geek Love as a comedy. With its focus on deformity, both natural and self-inflicted, there’s no arguing that Geek Love deals with the darker sides of human nature.

The truth is always an insult or a joke. Lies are generally tastier. We love them. The nature of lies is to please. Truth has no concern for anyone’s comfort.

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn

While the weird, dark, disturbing aspects of Geek Love are presented with a light enough touch that they’re not off-putting, they weren’t why I was reading. As is often the case, I was most interested in the characters. The opening of the book, with its focus on the shocking (or hysterical) nature of the Binewski family, didn’t pull me in. It wasn’t until Katherine Dunn presented Olympia’s interaction with her daughter Miranda that I was convinced I would carry on. I was rewarded with more than enough fascinating characters and relationships, the first and foremost of which is unquestionably Arturo Binewski. For a large portion of the book, everything revolves around Arturo, and the events of the narrative just get weirder and weirder. Unusually, I think Geek Love’s strongest section is the middle, with the beginning and the end feeling somewhat lacklustre in comparison.

It was becoming apparent that Chick himself had only one ambition and that was to help everybody so much that they would love him.

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn

I spent a lot of time before writing this review thinking about what genre I would categorise Geek Love as, and what other novels I’ve read it might fit in with. Since I didn’t personally find it funny, I decided that it most closely resembles magical realism. If you love the picaresque narrator of The Tin Drum, or the metafictional narrative of The Moor’s Last Sigh, then it’s possible Geek Love has something about it you’ll adore.

Next, I’ll be reading Dread Nation by Justina Ireland.

The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes — New Review

It seems that ‘fantasy heist’ is slowly becoming a subgenre, or perhaps I’m just slowly becoming aware of its existence. The Palace Job is the third fantasy heist I’ve read, and sadly is also the one I like least. It’s not a bad book, by any means, it’s just that The Lies of Locke Lamora and Six of Crows are both excellent, so The Palace Job had a lot to live up to.

“Word on the street says you’ve taken down lot of rich bastards.”

“Well, the poor bastards don’t have much money, or any challenging safes.”

The Palace Job, Patrick Weekes

I enjoyed a lot of things about Patrick Weekes’ writing. The Palace Job is frequently funny, and he does some interesting things with perspective and the main character not speaking in the opening section of the book. Both the beginning and the ending were engagingly written and fast-paced, though I did have a little trouble visualising the more complicated action scenes. I can appreciate what Patrick Weekes was trying to do by giving the reader perspectives outside of those involved in the con, but I didn’t particularly enjoy those sections.

Pyvic was tall, which had been a disadvantage in the war, and fast, which was an advantage almost anywhere.

The Palace Job, Patrick Weekes

Where The Palace Job fell down for me was in the middle section, where Loch was getting the team together, and while they were planning. I’ve no objection to romance in my fantasy heists when it’s done well, but this seemed shoehorned in. Everyone seemed to be getting together, without very much justification as to why or how or when, and they read a little like teenagers who were more interested in their love lives than the con they were trying to pull off.

The magic in The Palace Job is a lot more fantastical than I’m used to in this kind of novel. For someone else, that may not be a problem, but I found Ululenia the Unicorn a little over-the-top. I’d recommend this to people who found Scott Lynch and Leigh Bardugo to be too bleak.

Next, I’ll be reading Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley — New Review

Rebecca bought me Jane Austen at Home for either my birthday or Christmas, for the obvious reason that I enjoy reading Jane Austen’s novels. I’d never thought before about how much of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are about finding a secure home, and I most enjoyed the parts of Jane Austen at Home that focused on that, because I’m always interested in the idea of homes. The insights into Jane’s situation (and that of her sister, Cassandra) as single women also played into themes I’ve been interested in.

“So far, so good for Stoneleigh Abbey: it had been handed smoothly from father to son seven times, and most of those involved were called Thomas.”

Jane Austen at Home, Lucy Worsley

I learned a lot of interesting titbits about Georgian England, including the fact that for letters carrying bad news, people used black sealing wax, so that the recipients would have some warning before they opened the letter. Sadly, I did feel that a lot of the material around these interesting themes and facts was quite dull, and it took me a full month and a bit to get through this book, which is unusual. Of course it makes sense for a biography to be written in broadly chronological order, but I wonder if it would have held my attention better had it been more focused on grouping by theme or topic.

I’d definitely recommend this to people who enjoy both biography and Jane Austen’s novels, but perhaps not so much for anyone who is looking for literary criticism. Next, I’ll be reading The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes.

“For Jane, then, it doesn’t matter what books you read, even if your choice is ‘trashy’ Gothic novels. It’s what you make of them, how you behave in consequence, that counts.”

Jane Austen at Home, Lucy Worsley

Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul by Nikita Gill — New Review

Fierce Fairytales was a birthday present from Ally. I assumed it would be short stories, retellings of famous fairy tales with a twist, along the lines of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. I didn’t realise there’d be poetry, too, or that the reinterpretations of the classic tales would be more nuanced.

“And the more she saw the kindness that was in Cinderella, the more she wanted to take it from her, so Cinderella would understand ho awful life can be.”
Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul, Nikita Gill

Fierce Fairytales opens with several pages of the poetry, which was fine, but which I didn’t enjoy as much as the short stories, so I’m glad I didn’t give up before I’d got to the bit I really loved. More than anything, the stories reminded me of things I’ve read on tumblr, which explore motivations of secondary characters in interesting ways. Indeed, Nikita Gill is on tumblr, where you can find some samples of her poems.

“A hand is a small price to pay for a magical ship that will take him to Neverland, a place that lives on a star.”
Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul, Nikita Gill

The standout works from Fierce Fairytales, for me, were Boy Lost and Badrulbadour, both of which managed to pack a lot of story into a very short space. I enjoyed the longer stories, too, especially the ones about Wendy, Belle and Cinderella. I’d recommend reading this if you’re a fan of these kinds of stories posted on tumblr.

Next, I’ll be reading Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley.

Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov — New Review

My introduction to Bend Sinister was Michael calling me over to help him decipher how to interpret a sentence on the third page. I read a little extra for context, and got caught up in the satisfaction of untangling sentences so that I could understand them. When Michael offered to lend me the book after he was finished, I thought I was in for a difficult-but-rewarding experience. Bend Sinister, beyond the introduction, actually isn’t as challenging to read as I expected. The several chapters I read on the train to Coventry flew by, managing to be both lyrical and yet light.

“On other nights it used to be a line of lights with a certain lilt, a metrical incandescence with every foot rescanned and prolonged by reflections in the black snakey water.”
Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov

I read for the plot or the characters, and neither the political machinations nor the intellectual professor featured in Bend Sinister are quite my usual cup of tea. Trying to explain what the book is about, therefore, is quite a challenge, because I can only make it sound boring. I can’t easily pin down what kept drawing me through this book, except that it must’ve been some combination of the language and the emotional resonance. I don’t usually read for – or notice – particularly beautiful sentences, but Nabokov managed to write several which were striking without interrupting my reading experience.

“The car vanished while the square echo of its slammed door was still suspended in mid-air like an empty picture frame of ebony.”
Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov

I didn’t finish Bend Sinister in the best of circumstances. I put it down for several days in a row while I was working 12-hour days, and struggled to ever give it a long enough session to fall back into it. For the first half of the book, I felt the plot almost served as a backdrop to the language and emotions, and I was surprised when the second half became a lot more focused on concrete happenings. The brutality of the ending surprised me, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of the metafictional aspects. Now that Bend Sinister has served as an introduction, I’ll definitely be putting more Nabokov on my reading list. Tentatively, I’d recommend Bend Sinister to people who enjoyed The Outsider.

Next, I’ll be reading Fierce Fairytales by Nikita Gill.

A Gift from Woolworths by Elaine Everest — New Review (Blog Tour)

A Gift From Woolworths

I’ve never been part of a blog tour before, and I thought it would make me feel like a Legitimate Blogger (TM), so I jumped at the chance to review A Gift from Woolworths. I haven’t read any of Elaine Everest’s previous books in this series, but I love Call the Midwife, and I thought this might be similar. I was, sadly, disappointed. The emotional moments that work in A Gift from Woolworths are similar in tone to what I love about Call the Midwife — the main characters helping one another out, healing rifts between them, or standing up for their right to do their work — but there are just as many moments that didn’t land for me. In some cases, this may be because I had trouble keeping the characters and their relationships straight (something I imagine readers with the four previous books under their belts would manage better), but even characters introduced for the first time in this novel managed to leave me cold.

“For a while she’d felt as though her dream had been snatched away from her, but now she could almost smell the roses round the door and see the years ahead with her making a home for her husband, Alan Gilbert, manager of a Woolworths store.”
A Gift from Woolworths, Elaine Everest

What I most enjoyed about A Gift from Woolworths was the exploration of the gender dynamics, particularly around women working. It was honestly just sad to see the lengths the female characters would go to in order to ensure their male friends and partners wouldn’t feel jealous of their success. While this was almost certainly accurate to the period, I did struggle to sympathise with some of the men as a result.

“She’d found it best to get home from work and remove her office clothes, wash off the make-up and turn back into a wife and mother before he came home from the workshop.”
A Gift from Woolworths, Elaine Everest

Elaine Everest managed moments of genuine humour, and at least one thrill late in the story. I think my lack of investment in the characters really hindered my enjoyment, especially as this was written to be a ‘goodbye’ to an established group of friends. 300 pages into the book, I still wasn’t sure which one was Sarah. I’d recommend A Gift from Woolworths to people who’ve already read the first four books in this series, though as I haven’t read them, I can’t really compare how this measures up. Don’t take my word for it, I really recommend you check out a few of the other stops on this blog tour! I particularly recommend the review by GingerBookGeek, who had read the earlier novels.

A Gift From Woolworths Banner6

Next, I’ll be reading Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov.