It was her doom that came in that day

The Other Boleyn Girl
by Philippa Gregory

I used to read Philippa Gregory a fair bit, back in my teens and early 20s, but until last week I hadn’t picked up one of her books in 14, 15 years. I associate her with a certain type of easy-reading historical romance that appealed to young me, particularly in my teens, with risqué sex scenes that I suspect I wasn’t emotionally ready for.

It probably didn’t help my opinion of Gregory that I tended to confuse her with Philippa Carr, another writer of historical romances that I loved as a teenager. My Mum introduced me to Carr (historical family sagas with lots of romance), along with her alter egos Victoria Holt (gothic romance) and Jean Plaidy (more serious historical fiction, which young me wasn’t a fan of). Carr’s Daughters of England series ambitiously traced the women of one family line from the early 16th century to the 20th century in 20 books, of which I think I read and adored the first 10 before I outgrew them. Perhaps I am judging them harshly in hindsight, but when I was 19 or 20 I decided they weren’t that good and stopped buying them.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I tried and probably failed to come to this book with an open mind. I had also already seen the film, not to mention studied the Tudor period of British history multiple times at school (it’s not a running joke for nothing). So maybe I’m not objective, but I didn’t think was a great book.

“Her hand, when she gave it to him to kiss, was steady as a rock. Her voice was sweet and perfectly modulated. She greeted the cardinal with pleasant courtesy. No-one would ever have known from her behaviour that it was her doom that came in that day, along with the sulky ambassador and the smiling cardinal. She knew at that moment that her friends and her family were powerless to stop her. She was horribly, vulnerably, completely alone.”

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The hands of loss keep touching the memory

All the Rivers
by Dorit Rabinyan
translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I remember spotting this book in the Serpent’s Tail catalogue last year and immediately liking the sound of it. It had potential to be brilliant or awful, to deal with complex matters sensitively or insensitively. Thankfully, to my mind, Rabinyan got it just right.

Liat is a translation student spending the academic year in New York City. She is practical and idealistic. Hilmi is a painter struggling for his artistic break. He is passionate and pessimistic. When they meet one day in a coffee shop there is instant attraction, but it also immediately clear that theirs won’t be a straightforward courtship. Besides the fact that Liat has only six months left on her visa, there’s the question of where she will be moving back to. Because she is from Israel and he is from Palestine.

The narrative isn’t quite linear, dealing with different aspects of the relationship in turn. First there’s getting to know each other. Then there’s Hilmi’s burgeoning art career. Then how they act around their friends. And so on. The day of Liat’s departure keeps getting close, only for the story to jump back a few months to fill in fresh detail. It feels very much like the way someone remembering events might structure their thoughts.

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There was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind

The Price of Salt
by Patricia Highsmith

Way back in the mists of time – 2005, maybe? – I read The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith for an old book club. I enjoyed it but wasn’t bowled over, so for a long time felt no urgency to try Highsmith again. This is despite one of my favourite films – Strangers on a Train – being based on a Highsmith book, not to mention regular mentions of her work by book bloggers whose taste I often share.

Finally, when the film Carol came out in 2015, based on this novel, the sudden rush of reviews of The Price of Salt persuaded me to give it a go. And I am so glad that I did. I loved this unreservedly and am eagerly adding more Highsmith novels to my wishlist now.

The story is told from the perspective of Therese, a young woman who, when the novel opens, is working in a New York City department store as a temporary Christmas job, though her ambition is to be a set designer. She sees Richard most days – an art student who she thinks of as her best friend and who thinks of her as his future wife. But that disparity doesn’t matter until the day Carol comes into the store. In their brief interaction, Therese is so bowled over that she immediately finds a way to get in touch with Carol, to instigate another meeting.

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It is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible

emmaEmma
by Jane Austen

In my late teens I went through a serious period drama phase, fuelled by TV miniseries based on classic books. A particular favourite was the 1996 ITV production of Emma starring Kate Beckinsale. I loved that show and watched it so many times I can still picture every scene now, a good 15+ years after I last saw it. Plus, of course I’ve seen the Gwyneth Paltrow film (meh), the 2009 BBC series starring Romola Garai (okay) and the greatest (or at least the most fun) Austen adaptation of them all, Clueless.

So you’d think I would have read Emma long ago. However, to date my experience of Jane Austen has not gone so well. I quite liked Northanger Abbey but I gave up multiple times on both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, finding the stuffiness outweighed the wit. I can’t say finally reading Emma has won me over; largely I think I only got through it because I already knew it so well.

Emma Woodhouse is young, rich, devoted to her family and determined to be cheerful. Her elderly father doesn’t like to go out and she doesn’t like to leave him home alone, so ever since her governess Miss Taylor left to marry Mr Weston she has been pretty bored. She makes friends with Harriet Smith, a girl of unknown parentage who was raised by the local schoolmistress. Harriet is dull but straightforward and quick to adore Emma. Emma’s friend and adviser Mr Knightley (her sister’s husband’s brother, who lives nearby) thinks she would do better to befriend Jane Fairfax, who is intelligent and accomplished. But Emma has always found Miss Fairfax cold and distant, not to mention being a little jealous of her musical skill.

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The white sea-mists of early summer turn the hill to fantasy

TheKingsGeneralThe King’s General
by Daphne du Maurier

I picked this book to read while on holiday in Fowey. Du Maurier wrote this historical novel while living at Menabilly, and loosely based it on the house’s occupants during the English Civil War. In her author’s note she calls it a “blend of fact and fiction” – as far as I can tell, the names of people and outcomes of battles are correct, their personalities and feelings about each other are presumably invented.

It’s a slightly uneven novel, weaving a questionable romance into what is otherwise a fascinating mix of characters and events. The narrator is Honor, who structures her story around the Grenviles, a pair of siblings who came into her life when she was a young child. Richard Grenvile is dashing but pretty much a bastard. For the first part of the book he doesn’t even come across as the roguish antihero he later becomes, he’s just nasty and it’s a little hard to see how Honor could, as she does, fall in love with him. Then again, she’s very young and nice girls falling for bad boys is a classic trope for a reason, right?

Richard’s sister Gartred Grenvile is similarly beautiful and treats people like dirt. She is an interesting baddie, always acting out of self-interest rather than any inherent evil. This puts her at times in an uneven truce with Honor, while at others they are clear enemies.

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Words, dropping on her like millstones

siegeThe Siege
by Helen Dunmore

After thoroughly enjoying Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter for my old book club, I added a random handful of her other books to my Christmas wishlist and this was the one my Mum picked out. I’m sure they would all have worked out equally well, as I’m starting to think I might be a Dunmore fan.

This is the story of the 1941 siege of Leningrad. Which sounds like a tough, war-heavy subject, and this book is certainly all about how tough it was, but Dunmore also makes it compulsively readable. 23-year-old Anna, her father Mikhail and her 5-year-old brother Kolya are settling into summer life at their dacha, in the countryside just outside Leningrad, when news of the German army’s advance reaches them. Instead of spending the brief northern summer growing their usual store of food for winter, they must instead hurry back to the city and help to build defences before the Germans arrive.

“Even the trees in the parks have become something else. Now they are defensive positions, behind which a man can crouch, watching, alert, his cheek pressed against bark which is carved with lovers’ initials. Each prospect of stone and water yields a second meaning which seems to have been waiting, hidden, since the city was first conceived.”

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Love should bestow sublimity

dark side of loveThe Dark Side of Love
by Rafik Schami
translated from German by Anthea Bell

I can’t remember where I first heard about this book but I do know it was on my birthday wishlist a few years back and I was surprised when I opened the parcel to find not a stack of three or four books, but one big fat book. It is epic in every sense of the word and I loved spending two weeks absorbed in it.

Rafik Schami writes in his afterword that ever since he was a 16-year-old boy in Syria, back in the 1960s, he had wanted to write a realistic Arab love story, but it took him 40-odd years to get it right. The result is a novel that looks at dozens of permutations of doomed romance against a backdrop of decades of Syrian history, though the bulk of the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Nagib looked askance at his daughter and smiled. ‘Why does love always have to imply possession?’ he asked, shaking his head…’You should love with composure…Love should bestow sublimity. It lets you give everything without losing anything. That’s its magic. But here people want a contract of marriage concluded in the presence of witnesses. Imagine, witnesses, as if it were some kind of crime…State and Church supervise the contract. That’s not love, it’s orders from a higher authority to increase and multiply.’ “

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For what is lightness but inconsequence

aurora leighAurora Leigh
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Yes, I read an epic poem, or novel in verse, and it wasn’t just to tick something off my Classics Club list. I really like Browning and had been meaning to read this for years.

Aurora Leigh is born in Italy but when her beloved parents die she is sent to England to be raised by her aunt. At every step she chooses her own way in a manner that to a modern reader might appear progressive and feminist. She is self-taught (aside from a few years when she is taught by her aunt) and chooses her career over a man; she argues for the contributions of women to the arts, and poetry in particular. From the day Aurora declines a marriage proposal because her suitor denigrates her chosen career and her gender, I was in love with her.

“We get no good / By being ungenerous, even to a book, / And calculating profits – so much help / By so much reading. It is rather when / We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound, / Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth – / ‘Tis then we get the right good from a book.”

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I am my mind. Not my body

The A-Z of You and MeThe A–Z of You and Me
by James Hannah

From the marketing campaign around this debut novel – and the strapline on the cover (“A comedy of errors, a tragedy of small mistakes”) – I was expecting quite a light read, even though the premise should have prepared me for something a bit darker. It’s certainly an easy, often sweet read, but its subject matter is pretty dark. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

Ivo is lying in a hospice, trying his best not to dwell on the past, but he’s so young to be dying, still in the middle of all the drama that is life. To distract him from the pain, his nurse gets him to play a game of naming a body part for each letter of the alphabet and coming up with an anecdote for each body part. And so he plays the game, telling the story of his life out of order and one body part at a time.

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Night Safari: Love in the Natural World

Natural History Museum, London
Monday 16 February 2015

Dippy has a tail

Our Valentine’s long weekend in London was largely built around Tim managing to get tickets for the Natural History Museum‘s special Valentine’s tie-in evening event. I almost didn’t care what the event was, I was so excited by the prospect of being in the museum at night, sharing it with only 50 or so people. If you’ve ever seen the ridiculous queues to get into the Natural History Museum, particularly on a weekend or school holiday (which this last week was for most of England) you’ll understand why that was exciting.

But it was also a cool event in itself: three short lectures from NHM scientists about “romance” in the natural world (there was also a “passion” option with three different scientists, which I’m guessing concentrated more on sex but let’s face it, both options were mostly about sex).

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