Abacus, Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, USA

‘Fortune’s Rocks’ by Anita Shreve

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 476 pages; 2001.

It’s been three years since I last read an Anita Shreve novel. She’s usually my go-to author when I’m looking for some light but immersive reading. I like her plot-driven stories, which are typically peopled by strong, resilient women often caught up in moral or ethical dilemmas.

Fortune’s Rock, published in 1999, was her eighth novel (before she died in 2018, she penned 19 novels — and I’ve read most of them).

Set at the turn of the 20th century, it’s an age-old story of a teenage girl falling for an older man and then being forced to suffer the consequences of her illicit liaison by a society that sees everything in black or white.

A summer love affair

When the book opens we meet 15-year-old Olympia Biddeford walking along a New Hampshire beach one hot June day in 1899. Her family — a poorly, mainly bed-ridden mother and a rich, scholarly father who publishes a literary magazine and home schools his daughter — have decamped to the beachside community of Fortune’s Rocks from Boston for the summer.

In the time it takes for her to walk from the bathhouse at the sea wall of Fortune’s Rocks, where she has left her boots and has discreetly pulled off her stockings, to the waterline along which the sea continually licks the pink and silver sand, she learns about desire.

All the men on the beach staring at her sets the tone for the rest of this 400-plus page novel, for Olympia, on the cusp of womanhood, is subject to the male gaze at almost every turn. When she meets her father’s friend,  John Warren Haskell, an essayist and medical doctor, the way he looks at her takes on deeper meaning.

There is no mistaking this gaze. It is not a look that turns itself into a polite moment of recognition or a nod of encouragement to speak. Nor is it the result of an absentminded concentration of thought. It is rather an entirely penetrating gaze with no barriers or boundaries. It is scrutiny such as Olympia has never encountered in her young life. And she thinks that the entire table must be stopped in that moment, as she is, feeling its nearly intolerable intensity.

Despite 41-year-old Haskell being married with four children, the pair go on to have a passionate love affair that opens Olympia’s eyes, not only to love and desire, but to the wider world in general. When she accompanies Haskell on one of his medical rounds at the impoverished mill town in nearby Ely, she witnesses childbirth for the first time and begins to understand that her upbringing has been rather staid and sheltered. This only heightens her desire to seek out new experiences.

Their summer-long affair, which comprises trysts in Haskell’s hotel room while his wife is away, and later in the half-constructed coastal cottage that Haskell is building for his family, skirts dangerous territory. There is an unknown witness to their affair, who manages to expose their wrongdoing at the worst possible moment: Olympia’s extravagant 16th birthday gala party attended by more than 100 people.

Plot-driven story

This is a plot-driven novel and it’s difficult to say much more without ruining the story for others yet to read it. Let’s just say that ruination results for both Olympia and Haskell’s family, and a good portion of the novel is set in a courtroom.

But for all its old-fashioned sentiment, its expert portrayal of late 19th century morals and its championing of young women’s rights, I had some issues with Fortune’s Rocks.

It’s too long for a start. A judicious cut of at least 100 pages would not take anything away from the plot. It feels a bit prone to histrionics in places, too, and is far too predictable from start to finish. And the courtroom bits towards the end, particularly in the way that Olympia behaves, seems informed by late 20th century attitudes.

And don’t get me started about John Haskell having his way with a 15-year-old! Shreve paints a very sympathetic portrait of him and suggests that Olympia knew exactly what she was doing —

“Though I was very young and understood little of the magnitude of what I was doing, I was not seduced. Never seduced. I had will and some understanding. I could have stopped it at any time.”

— but I still didn’t buy it. This kind of relationship would be scandalous today; more than 100 years ago it would have been ruinous!

In short, this isn’t the best Shreve book I’ve read, nor is it the worst (that honour lies with A Wedding in December). It was a good distraction for lockdown reading, requiring little brainpower, and kept me entertained for a week. But on the whole, Fortune’s Rocks — even with its happy, redemptive ending — didn’t set my world on fire.

This is my 15th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I “mooched” a paperback copy of this book years and years ago (circa 2006), but I read the Kindle edition for this review.

Abacus, Australia, Author, Book review, Douglas Kennedy, dystopian, Fiction, horror, Publisher, Setting

‘The Dead Heart’ by Douglas Kennedy

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 199 pages; 1994.

Don’t be fooled by the cheesy, romantic-looking cover on Douglas Kennedy’s debut novel, The Dead Heart, for this is a tale that is as shocking as it is terrifying.

Set in the Australian outback and narrated in the first person by an American tourist, it’s a bit like the bastard love child of Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright and the 2005 horror film Wolf Creek. There’s a thriller element to it, but it would best be described as dystopian horror — with an emphasis on the horror.

The story will stay with me for quite some time — and not necessarily in a good way. If you’re planning an outback adventure soon, then steer clear. Honestly, I reckon the Australian Tourist Board should probably ban this book.

A foreigner in a foreign land

When The Dead Heart opens we meet newspaper journalist Nick Hawthorne, a confirmed bachelor who’s so enamoured with a second-hand map he bought in a Boston bookstore that he has headed to Darwin for a holiday, taking his $10,000 life savings with him. It’s supposed to be a chance to blow off some steam in a foreign land before starting a new job in Akron, Ohio.

But no sooner has Nick arrived than he has second thoughts. Darwin is a bit too “wild west” for him. Perhaps if he bought an old Volkswagen microbus and drove himself to Perth, more than 4,000km away, he might have more fun.

Two hours out of Darwin — and driving in the dark (despite being advised to avoid the roads at night) — he hits a kangaroo. He spends the night on the side of the road and in the morning is greeted by:

…a world rendered red. An arid red, like the colour of dried blood. A non-stop vista of red clay and red scrubby bush. It stretched across a plateau of incalculable dimensions. I walked away from the van, stood in the middle of the road and turned north, south, east, west. No houses, no telephone poles, no billboards, no roadsigns…no hints whatsoever (bar the strip of tarmacadam I was standing on) that man had ever been acquainted with this territory. Just hard barren country under a hard blue sky. Measureless in its dimensons, hypnotic in its monotony.

He manages to nurse his already worn out (128,000 miles on the clock) VW to the next biggest town, Kununurra — “a prefabricated collection of shops and greasy spoons and bars:  a scruffy little gasoline alley in the middle of the bush” — more than 600km away! After a 10-day layover, he heads out on the road again, where a chance encounter with a woman called Angie changes his life forever.

No escape

Saying much more about the plot will spoil the enjoyment for first-time readers, but let’s just say Angie uses her feminine wiles to entrap Nick in a situation from which there is no escape — except death.

Stuck in Angie’s home town of Wollanup, an old desert mining town (population 53 and, I suspect, based on Wittenoom, the deadly blue asbestos town that was abandoned in the late 1960s), 1,400km from the nearest village, Nick becomes subservient to a society that is backward, cruel and horrifying, with its own archaic rules and way of life. Everything about it challenges his own morality and world view.

The story is propelled forward by Nick’s attempt to flee the clutches of Angie and her demented family. As a reader, you cheer him on, hoping he’ll be able to survive the heat, the isolation, the torturous rituals and never-ending sex (there’s a lot of sex in this book, it has to be said) and somehow get himself back home to the States out of harm’s way.

Let’s face it: The Dead Heart is rather silly. It’s a romp, a fun and sometimes scary one. It’s preposterous on so many levels and every time I picked it up it made me feel dirty. I’m not sure there’s any message to the story other than to be careful when travelling in a foreign land and to be very wary of the outback and the people who live in it.

That said, it’s a very “white” book and has a colonialist’s mindset, but it’s a rip-roaring read and nothing quite like I expected from the cover art alone. It really does tap into the fear one experiences when out on the open road, surrounded by nothing except desert terrain, isolated and alone. Read it if you dare.

20 books of summer (2017), Abacus, Author, Charlotte Grimshaw, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Setting

‘Provocation’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

Provocation by Charlotte Grimshaw

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 288 pages; 2000.

Charlotte Grimshaw is an award-winning writer from New Zealand with eight novels to her name. After reading her 2013 novel, Soon, which made My Favourite Books of 2014 list, I’ve been keen to explore more of her work.

Provocation, first published in 1999, was her debut novel. It garnered much praise and was shortlisted for the Creasey First Crime Fiction Award.

A dark tale set in Auckland

Provocation is set in Auckland in the late 1990s and tells the story of Stella, a young law student living with Stuart, a much older man, who is a criminal barrister. He has a shady past and connections with all kinds of miscreants. He’s also rolling in money.

That money — much of it literally stuffed down the back of the sofa, presumably to keep it from the tax man — gives Stella freedom to do as she likes: to drive about town in a flash car, go clubbing in glitzy venues, buy clothes and other items she would not necessarily be able to afford if she was supporting herself.

This freedom comes at a price. For Stella is anxious when Stuart goes away on business. He has a few dodgy friends and when she discovers an intruder in their swish house overlooking the harbour her anxiety levels are stretched to bursting point.

But then things head in to even more dangerous territory, for she’s agreed to help Stuart with one of his cases; that of a 35-year-old married man, Carlos Henry Lehman, who has been charged with the brutal murder of his neighbour. The defence is provocation (hence the title of the book), but in the backwaters of New Zealand there appears to be different, more violent, codes by which to live your life.

A literary novel with a crime in it

Provocation is billed as a crime novel. On the cover of my edition it says it’s a thriller (“of prejudice, passion and betrayal”), but I think this is misleading. It’s by no means a traditional crime novel, nor a thriller. I actually think it’s a literary novel; it simply has a crime at its heart.

I had mixed feelings reading it. I loved Grimshaw’s often hard-as-nails prose, her authentic characterisation (especially steely Stella and her kick-ass attitude) and her ability to capture the excitement, rivalries and petty jealousies between lovers. And her ear for dialogue was spot on.

But I often found the storyline turgid. The pacing seemed wrong and it didn’t make my heart race at any point. The blurb told me to expect a thriller, but what I really got was a gently nuanced story about a young woman realising that life is not all peaches and cream, that the solution to your problems are never found at the bottom of a beer bottle, and that some men, no matter how rich or accomplished they might be, are simply arseholes.

Yet I can’t dismiss this book on the mere basis that it didn’t live up to my expectations. It’s raw and powerful and brims with menace, but is punctuated by witty moments, too. It’s full of atmosphere (Auckland is presented as a rather glitzy city underpinned by a current of danger) and it pulses with intelligence.

It shows two sides of life in New Zealand — that of the educated urban elite contrasted with those from the rural welfare state — and asks as many questions about social justice as it does criminal justice. Essentially, this is a book about power (personal, financial, political): who has it, who can use it and how you acquire it.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it online second-hand in 2014, based on the strength of the author’s novel Soon, which I loved. 

Abacus, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hong Kong, Jane Gardam, literary fiction

‘The Man in the Wooden Hat’ and ‘Last Friends’ by Jane Gardam

Man-in-the-wooden-hat Last-friends

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 288 pages / 256 pages; 2009 / 2014.

Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat (first published in 2009) and Last Friends (2013) form parts two and three respectively of the Old Filth Trilogy. The three books have recently been reprinted in rather smart-looking livery, with covers designed by David Wardle, just in time for Last Friends making the inaugural Folio Prize shortlist, the winner of which will be announced on 10 March.

Old Filth (2004), which I read and loved several years ago, follows the life and times of a hugely successful barrister, Sir Edward Feathers QC, who is also known as Old Filth (an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong);  The Man in the Wooden Hat spans roughly the same time period but tells the story of Old Filth’s wife, Betty; while Last Friends is largely about Old Filth’s professional rival (and Betty’s secret lover), Sir Terence Veneering.

It is not strictly necessary to read them in the order in which they were published — each can be taken as a stand-alone novel. Yet I’m sure that having read Old Filth first helped enrich my enjoyment of the second novel. That’s because I was already acquainted with the characters and largely familiar with their back stories. It was, in many ways, like meeting up with old friends again — familiar, warm and cosy.

Having now read the trilogy in its entirety, I can say that I absolutely loved all three novels — each of which is warm, witty and humane — and that because of this Jane Gardam has promptly become one of my favourite authors. In fact, I haven’t been this excited by a writer since I discovered Kent Haruf in late 2012.

Betty’s story

In The Man in the Wooden Hat we meet Elisabeth “Betty” Macintosh when she is 28 and living in Hong Kong.  She has an unconventional background — she was born in Shanghai to British parents, raised in the internment camps of Japan and later became a code-breaker at Bletchley Park — and is now ready to settle down and marry Edward Feathers even though they barely know one another.

When she agrees to marry him he makes it very clear: she must never leave him because people have been deserting him all his life.

“Elisabeth, you must never leave me. That’s the condition. I’ve been left all my life. From being a baby, I’ve been taken away from people. Raj orphan and so on. Not that I’m unusual there. And it’s supposed to have given us all backbone.”
“Well, I know all that. I am an orphan, too. My parents suffered.”
“All our parents suffered for an ideology. They believed it was good for us to be sent Home, while they went on the Empire. We were all damaged even though we became endurers. […] It did not destroy me but it made me bloody unsure.”
“I will never leave you, Edward.”

Betty makes this promise knowing full well that their marriage will never be romantic or passionate, but that she will “grow to love him very much” and they will have a whole tribe of children. And then, not an hour later at a lawyer’s party, she is introduced to flaxen-haired blue-eyed Terry Veneering, Edward’s most hated professional rival, and immediately regrets her decision.

From this set up, Gardam fleshes out Betty’s life, married to the “wrong” man but always with Edward’s best interests at heart. It’s an extraordinary portrait of a marriage — the joys, the friendship, the compromises and the sacrifices each must make for love to grow and flourish — as well as being a very honest account of what it is like to grow old and adjust to changed circumstances.

It is very witty in places, but like the best comedies, it’s also very sad and quite moving in others. I loved following Betty’s story, sharing her loves and losses, fears and desires; I loved her eccentric nature and independent streak, and the way in which she just trod her own path, never succumbing to peer pressure or popular convention.

But the strength of the novel is not so much Betty’s individual story but the ways in which her narrative gives the reader a different perspective on Edward’s life — you get to see him from another angle. Sometimes what you discover is surprising; at other times it merely reinforces what you thought of him already.

Terry’s story

In the final part of the trilogy, Last Friends, we find out much more about the mysterious Terry Veneering — in particular his childhood growing up in Yorkshire with a crippled acrobat father from Russia and a hard-working teenage mother, who sold coal for a living — along with other subsidiary characters, including Dulcie Williams, whose husband “Pastry Willy” had been a judge, and Fiscal-Smith, who was “accidental” best man at Edward and Betty’s wedding.

Of the three novels, this one feels less formal and more reliant on funny set pieces to keep the momentum going. And even though it is about Terry, it is mainly told through Dulcie’s eyes — an ageing woman looking back on the people closest to her. Indeed, this is a book as much about old friends coming to the ends of their lives than anything else and is a very good exploration of the ties that bind people together, even those that are not related but merely thrown together by circumstance or career.

As a consequence the narrative swings backwards and forwards in time, and spans everything from surviving World War Two bombings in Yorkshire to enjoying retirement in sleepy Dorset. Again, it is characterised by Gardam’s wonderful sense of humour tempered by moments of great sadness, but this novel does feel more playful than its predecessors.

When I came to the end I admit to feeling slightly bereft. I have so enjoyed spending time in the company of these wonderfully drawn, oh-so human characters and of learning about the ways in which they endured war, loneliness, heartache and prejudice to achieve success and find happiness — often against the odds. Although they all ended up leading lives of what we would call great privilege, you get the sense they worked hard for it and didn’t quite believe their luck when things turned out well in the end.

Both The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends are a real joy to read — elegant, intelligent, filled with love, pathos and wonderful humour. These are the kinds of books you want to press into the hands of friends and loved ones with the words, you must read this.

Abacus, Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Rescue’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 286 pages; 2012.

If you have ever visited my favourite authors page, you will know that I admire Anita Shreve and am slowly but surely working my way through her entire back catalogue. She’s a remarkably prolific writer, but she’s also incredibly consistent and reliable. And when it comes to writing very human stories about ordinary people suffering the effects of love gone wrong, she gives Anne Tyler a run for her money.

A single father worries about his daughter

In Rescue, Shreve’s latest paperback novel (first published in 2010), Peter Webster (known purely as Webster) is a single father raising his 17-year-old daughter, Rowan, in rural Vermont. Webster thinks his daughter may be smoking and drinking behind his back. Well, so what — isn’t that what all teenagers do?

For Webster, these concerns are not so easy to dismiss — and there’s a rather compelling reason for it — but we have to go back 18 years to discover why he is so paranoid about the issue.

The narrative then jumps back to the early 1990s. Webster, a rookie paramedic, is called to  attend a road accident in which a female driver, with three and half times the legal limit of alcohol in her blood, has crashed her car into a tree.

Falls in love with the ‘wrong’ woman

After rescuing the woman from the vehicle and effectively saving her life, he is haunted by her glossy hair and her attractive face. When she is released from hospital he breaks protocol to track her down. Her name is Sheila, she’s a few years older than him, she’s feisty, likes a drink and knows how to hustle pool — but she’s also on the run from an abusive partner.

Of course, Webster is blind to the warning signs that this may not be the right woman for him, but he carries on seeing her regardless, and within just a few weeks Sheila has accidentally fallen pregnant. Cue a quickie wedding, some grudging disapproval from Webster’s parents and then a lifetime of misery to follow… Well, I exaggerate slightly, but this is not a match made in heaven.

Despite the heady bliss of moving into a new home, followed by Rowan’s arrival, their relationship soon enters rocky ground: Webster buries himself in work, Sheila takes to the bottle and disaster looms just around the corner.

A marriage unravels

While this synopsis might make the story sound like a bit of a soap opera, Shreve’s restrained style keeps the melodrama at bay. What we get is a compelling story about ordinary people caught up in the drama of their own lives. And because it is framed around Webster — it is written in the third person but we only ever see things from his point of view — it is largely about one man’s attempt to do the right thing by his family, even if that means he must cut ties with the woman he so desperately loves.

There’s plenty of narrative tension as the relationship between these two rather mismatched people reaches melting point. And the excitement of Webster’s job — almost every chapter opens with him attending an emergency call-out — adds an extra thrilling dimension. Indeed, I don’t think it’s drawing too long a bow to suggest that Webster’s career as a paramedic is a metaphor for the marriage he cannot save.

But there are a lot of coincidences in this story, and the scenario that unfolds towards the end (when Sheila re-establishes contact after more than a decade) feels forced and unlikely. Of course, there’s a too-neat and upbeat ending, which grates slightly. But this is Anita Shreve and I’ll forgive her these minor faults, because I think she’s worth reading, if not for the entertainment factor, then her insightful (and truthful) observations into emotional relationships between men and women, children and parents.

I’d suggest tucking this one into your hand luggage if you’re planning a longhaul flight — it’s perfect reading for a plane trip or a holiday.

Abacus, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hong Kong, Jane Gardam, literary fiction, Malaya, Publisher, Setting

‘Old Filth’ by Jane Gardam


Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 260 pages; 2009.

First published in 2004 and shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2005, Jane Gardam’s Old Filth is one of those novels that is a delight to read from start to finish.

The central subject — a rich old man reflecting on his life in the judiciary — might seem rather staid and dull, but in Gardam’s hands it is a moving and often witty portrait of a complex and hugely interesting character.

The old man is Sir Edward Feathers, who is also known as Eddie, the Judge, Fevvers, Teddy and Old Filth. The latter is an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong.

Edward was born in India during the glory days of the British Empire — his father, Captain Feathers, was the District Officer of Kotakinakulu Province in Malaya. Sadly, Edward’s mother dies a few days after giving birth, so he is left in the care of his father, an indifferent, emotionally cold man mired in grief (and later alcohol), who pays him little attention. By the time he is four-and-a-half, Edward is a wild child, speaks fluent Mandalay and has the run of the jungle neighbourhood. But tradition dictates that he must go Home — to England — to be educated and to spare him the risk of childhood diseases.

This sets in motion a pattern that repeats itself throughout the rest of his life: wrenched from the people and places he has come to love, and thrust into new, frightening situations in which he is forever the outsider looking in. Or, as he states later on, “always to be left and forgotten”.

But despite the legacy of what can only be described as a rather cruel childhood — on arrival in England he is placed in a foster home, where the care is dubious, and at school his stammer and close friendship with another boy makes him a target for bullies and gossips — he becomes a successful advocate and judge in Hong Kong.

When the book opens, Edward is nearing eighty and living alone in Dorset, to where he and his recently deceased wife, Betty, had retired. The story interleaves his present existence — ageing rapidly, becoming forgetful and doddery — with stories of his past, including his troubled teenage years, near death on a boat headed to the Far East, and his time protecting Queen Mary during the Second World War.

What becomes apparent as Edward’s story unfolds is that his outward appearance — the distinguished career and privileged lifestyle — hides an emotionally scarred man who believes his life is bereft of meaning. And much of that is to do with the fact that Edward has no children upon which to pass his legacy.

Indeed, there’s a telling scene in which the elderly Edward tells a young woman that he and Betty never wanted children. “It was deliberate,” he says. And then, in a startling confession, he adds:

“Think carefully before you bring children into the world. Betty and I were what is called ‘Empire orphans’. We were handed over to foster parents at four or five and didn’t see our parents for at least four years. We had bad luck. Betty’s forster parents didn’t like her and mine — my father hadn’t taken advice — were chosen because they were cheap. If you’ve not been loved as a child, you don’t know how to love a child. You need prior knowledge. You can inflict pain through ignorance. I was not loved from the age of four and a half. Think of being a parent like that.”

While the novel is pervaded by a gentle melancholy, Gardam also throws in highly comic moments to lighten the mood. The humour largely works by having Edward do crazy things — such as driving rather dangerously and capturing the attention of the police — or behaving badly —  being rude to his servants — without him quite realising that he is in the wrong.

On the whole Old Filth is a richly textured novel, one that is vivid, funny and strangely moving.

Abacus, Africa, Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘A Change in Altitude’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 365 pages; 2010.

Anita Shreve is one of my guilty pleasures. Sadly, she seems to get pigeon-holed into “popular fiction” rather than “literary fiction” which means she rarely garners critical acclaim, and yet I find her body of work — 15 novels at last count — immensely impressive. Shreve knows how to pen a fast-moving narrative peopled with believable, usually flawed, characters, but her real strength lies in her ability to reinvent her style anew. She is not a one-trick pony; each book is vastly different to the previous one; and she seems equally adept at writing historical fiction as she does contemporary fiction.

A Change in Altitude, her latest paperback, is no exception. This book is set in the late 1970s and revolves around a newlywed couple, Margaret and Patrick, who move to Kenya from Boston. Patrick is a doctor; Margaret a newspaper photographer. Together they go on a climbing expedition to Mount Kenya, accompanied by an older British couple (their landlords), and a Dutch couple. It’s supposed to be an adventure, a chance to experience the “real Africa”, but from the outset Margaret is clearly not confident about the trip (she lacks experience and fitness) but agrees to go because she loves her husband.

During the ascent, which is physically and mentally strenuous, a terrible accident occurs, which results in one of the party being killed. The rest of the novel looks at the impact of this death on Margaret and Patrick’s marriage, which is put under further strain by a series of robberies (their car is stolen and their house ransacked several times) and their complete inability to adapt to a strange, new culture.

Essentially the story is nothing more than a fairly dull domestic drama that plays out on foreign soil. Admittedly, I found that the second half of the book did not live up to the excitement of the first half in which every step of the mountain climb is spelt out in the manner of a psychological thriller. But after the accident, which occurs about a third of the way in, the narrative seems to lose momentum. Indeed, the book becomes radically different, as Shreve charts Margaret and Patrick’s relatively dreary lives in the aftermath of the expedition. The narrative pace only picks up again near the end when the pair decide to commemorate the first anniversary of the trek by climbing the mountain for the second time.

Even though A Change in Altitude is a quick, enjoyable and entertaining read (I particularly liked the section in which Margaret gets herself a job on the local newspaper), the characters are frustratingly unknowable throughout. Despite being written in the third person, Shreve never really reveals anyone’s motivations nor provides any inner dialogue. This means that Patrick remains a complete stranger, and Margaret is not much better. If anything, they both seem incredibly naive and immature, which is not helped by the implausible premise (which I won’t reveal, because it’s a plot spoiler) upon which their marriage flounders.

All up, A Change in Altitude is perfect fodder for those times when you just want a light read that won’t tax the brain matter too much. But if you are looking for something more intellectually stimulating with an African setting you might be better tackling Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People.

Abacus, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Molly Keane, Publisher, Setting

‘Time After Time’ by Molly Keane


Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 247 pages; 1990.

I have Sinead Gleeson and regular commenter Tony S. to thank for my introduction to the late Molly Keane. Both suggested I try the Irish writer when I was casting about for female authors to read early last year. Two of her novels, Time After Time (first published in 1983) and the Booker shortlisted Good Behaviour, were promptly added to my wishlist.

Fast forward 15 months, and I finally got to read my first Keane a couple of weeks ago. And boy, was it worth the wait.

Time After Time is a gorgeously fun novel that seems frothy and lighthearted on the surface, but underneath there’s a very dark heart forging its own steady rhythm. It’s not immediately obvious but this is a story about cruelty and the nasty things people do to each other.

It’s set in a beautiful but crumbling mansion in Southern Ireland where four elderly siblings reside. Each of them is eccentric, fiercely independent and set in their own ways. The only things they have in common is their love of animals — each fusses over their own cat or dog, treating them like substitute children — and their treasured memories of their darling Mummie. There’s one-eyed Jasper, who rules the kitchen, and his three ridiculously named sisters, April, May and Baby June.

April, the only one to have married, is now widowed but still bangs on about her late husband, Colonel Grange-Gorman, and is somewhat obsessed with preserving her looks and her figure. She’s stone deaf so any conversation with her is full of misunderstandings, making her ripe for comedic effect.

May is the one obsessed by handicrafts — she’s been president of the Flower Arrangers’ Guild for years and instructs members of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association in the art of picture-making from scraps of tweed, wool and sprigs of heather — despite the fact she was born with only half a finger and a thumb on one hand.

Baby June is the hard grafter, the one who runs the farm with the help of a local Catholic boy, and is an accomplished horsewoman, who achieved much success in point-to-points when she was younger but now considers herself too old to ride.

(That’s all of them pictured above — I simply love this cover, because it depicts each chacracter perfectly, right down to the types of clothes they are wearing as described by Keane in the text.)

Together the Swift siblings rub each other the wrong way. Meal times are fraught with petty squabbles and half-imagined slights. The sisters belittle each other in order to compensate for their own failings, while Jasper seeks refuge in his closely guarded friendship with a local monk.

Into this mêlée comes cousin Leda, who arrives unannounced for a short stay. Now elderly, fat, blind and widowed, Leda was once a very beautiful young half-Jewish girl with whom the Swifts lost contact during the Second World War. Indeed, the family believed she had most likely died in a concentration camp. Her visit is but the first in a string of surprises that shakes each of the siblings to the core and leaves them all wishing she really had died in the Holocaust…

I told you there was a dark heart to it.

Time After Time is a black comedy filled with the type of people you’d never want to meet in real life. I loved every minute of it and can only imagine that Good Behaviour will dish out more of the same.

Abacus, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, J.P. Donleavy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy


Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 346 pages; 1997.

For someone who has an incurable penchant for Irish fiction, I can’t believe I let J.P. Donleavy slip me by for so long. But until very recently he was completely unknown to me. So when my Other Half went on a solo run to Dublin recently and bought me The Ginger Man as a gift I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Funnily enough, I recognised the cover of the book, but I’m not sure why. I don’t think I have ever picked it up in a book shop. But that’s by the by.

The blurb on my edition waxes rather lyrical, calling it a “masterpiece” and “a triumph”, but I think that’s not credit enough. The Ginger Man is a thoroughly wonderful, riotously funny, head-shakingly brilliant read. I loved it from the very first line to the last.

First published in Paris in 1955, the book was banned in Ireland — where it is set — and the USA for obscenity. More than 50 years on, the story is still crude and ribald but certainly not as offensive as it must have seemed in more temperate times in places verging on puritan.

The story follows the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who is studying law at Trinity College just after the Second World War. Married to an English woman and with an infant daughter, Dangerfield is a chancer who shies away from any form of responsibility, preferring to hang out with his friend, fellow student Kenneth O’Keefe, rather than do any proactive study.

Obsessed with booze and women, he does everything a married man should not do: spends the couple’s rent money on alcohol, staggers home drunk and acts violently towards his wife. He also has numerous adulterous affairs in which he treats the women abominably. He is, in short, a thoroughly unlikable and selfish cad. And yet, in Donleavy’s hands, Dangerfield is a character you love to hate. I spent most of the time thinking this can’t be true, he can’t get away with this, surely the man has a conscience? And kept turning the pages, hoping to discover that the man would mend his wicked ways if only he realised his behaviour was so outrageously appalling.

The book is written in a weird mish-mash of viewpoints, effortlessly switching between first person and third person, typical of the following paragraph:

‘Come here and sit beside me while I open this bottle.’
She came and sat on the mattress beside him, leaning against the wall, watching him with a flourish of wrist, pop the cork. We lay in the remnants of coal. And a pile of turf. I happen to know that dogs and cats prefer coal and turf. And I don’t relish finding myself sitting in it.

There are some scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny; others so shockingly brutal you’re not sure you want to read on. I found myself not knowing whether I should be grimacing or chortling throughout. But it’s this very fine line between comedy and tragedy that makes The Ginger Man work — on so many different levels. The beauty of this rather marvellous novel is that it paints a very human portrait of a man so desperately troubled — financially, emotionally, mentally — that it’s hard not to empathise with him just a little.

For those that want to know more about J.P. Donleavy, there’s a wonderful profile of him on the Guardian website. He sounds like a truly fascinating character with whom I must acquaint myself more fully!

Abacus, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Iran, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Yasmin Crowther

‘The Saffron Kitchen’ by Yasmin Crowther


Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 270 pages; 2007.

Set in London and rural Iran The Saffron Kitchen examines how the country of our birth and the culture in which we are born can have long-lasting effects on our values and sense of self. It also looks at how our relationships — with family, friends and lovers — can shape our past, present and future lives.

Told from the view point of an Iranian-born mother and her London-born daughter, the novel also reveals how difficult it can be to start a new life in a foreign land when you do not know the language and have no support network to guide you. How does one fit in? And what do you do if you feel you don’t truly belong?

These questions haunt the main character of this intriguing novel. Maryam Mazar is an Iranian-born woman who fled to England when her father, a strong military man, disowned her. Here she met Edward, an Englishman, married him, had his child and settled in the leafy, affluent London suburb of Richmond. But over the course of their long married life Maryam was haunted by her past, particularly her father’s brutality. Although she kept these concerns to herself, Edward was always suspicious that it was not just the pull of the snow-capped mountains and windswept plains of her homeland that were causing her restlessness and dramatic mood swings.

It is only when Maryam’s daughter, Sara, suffers a miscarriage that Maryam must truly face the demons of her past. Desperate to find solace among her own people she flees to the remote Iranian village of her childhood where she must face another dilemma: should she return to her husband in London or live out the rest of her days in her homeland?

There’s no doubt that The Saffron Kitchen is an enjoyable, entertaining read and that Crowther is an accomplished writer. But I had some problems with it.

First, the book’s structure seemed a little odd. Parts of the storyline are told through Maryam’s eyes (in the third person), others through Sara’s (in the first person) and the switches between the two narratives often felt clunky.

Second, there was a slight tendency towards melodrama, with some of the scenes — and much of the dialogue — feeling forced and unnatural. A bit more polish and perhaps another draft might have ironed this out.

Finally, I’m not sure that Maryam would really have made the decision she made at the end. Of course, I can’t really say more than that without revealing a major plot spoiler, so you’ll have to trust me on this!

But on the whole The Saffron Kitchen brings to life the stark differences between staid, safe England and the confusion and turbulence of Iran’s political past, and for that reason alone it is worth a read.