Book Review: Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge first appeared in the eponymous novel which won the Pulitzer Prize for author Elizabeth Strout. A local personality in the small Maine town where Strout sets her books, Olive makes brief appearances in several other books so it isn’t surprising there is a new book about Olive. She seems to be one of those characters who has plenty more to say.

Olive used to be a school teacher in Shirley Falls, so that everyone seems to have a recollection of her in the classroom. Olive is loud, unfailingly honest and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. So I imagine she would have been a formidable teacher, and probably effective. She’s also sharp when it comes to seeing what’s going on with people and capable of surprising moments of kindness.

In Olive, Again, we catch up with Olive now widowed but with a new relationship on the cards with ex-academic Jack who drives a sports car and can be a bit of a snob. The book treats us to a series of episodes in Olive’s life which read like short-stories and which overall create a picture of Olive’s later years, now in Crosby, Maine. There’s a story about how she attends a baby shower – not really her kind of do at all – and somehow ends up delivering a baby in a car. We have her and Jack having dinner in a restaurant called Gasoline, where they bump into an old flame of Jack’s; another when Olive’s son Christopher visits with his wife and young family and the argument that ensues when Olive tells him about Jack.

Other stories are about entirely different characters – the old man who goes for a walk while remembering a girl from college who committed suicide and then does something exceptional; there’s the elderly couple who learn to accept the difficult news their daughter has to tell them. Some feature Olive as well so we see her from other people’s eyes. We even catch up with Jim and Bob, the two lawyer brothers from the novel, The Burgess Boys, and their problematic marriages.

Lives of quiet desperation seems to be a recurring theme, but there’s also humour, particularly around Olive, and hope too. Often there are turning points in people’s lives as well as the questions: Was it all my fault? Where do I go from here? Olive herself has plenty to feel sorry for, but seems capable of learning, accepting and moving on. Along the way she touches the lives of others one way or another. It makes for a very compelling and thoughtful collection. I was happy to return to small-town Maine and see what Olive has been getting up to again and I really enjoy Strout’s perceptive, character-driven storytelling. Like Olive, she doesn’t pull any punches. A four out of five read from me.

Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

It took me a while to figure out why there’s an image of a sunset on the cover of Milkman, Anna Burns’s 2018 Man Booker winner. This is a novel about about a young girl’s battle to stay safe and sane in a divided and violent town that is probably Belfast, circa 1978. She’s eighteen, and with her habit of walking while reading pre-twentieth century fiction, is steadily becoming one of those ‘beyond the pale’ people who don’t fit in.

The young narrator has already lost one brother to the ‘troubles’ and a sister to exile, her late father was plagued by depression, so she keeps her head down and her mouth shut where possible. When a senior member of the paramilitary known as ‘the milkman’ takes an interest in her, she draws fury from her family and neighbours even though she does her best to avoid him. He’s over forty, married and with veiled threats against her ‘maybe boyfriend’, is clearly stalking her.

The novel follows the girl’s battle to be herself in an environment marred by terrorism and reprisals, where you have to watch what you say and do, even what you buy (nothing that comes from that place ‘over the water’). Meanwhile the milkman is never far away, and her fears for what he will do next disrupt her life, and she becomes increasingly withdrawn. She even stops going to French classes, where one lesson their teacher has them look at the sunset, something she once did with maybe boyfriend, and which isn’t the sort of thing people tend to do.

Yet the book is oddly humorous. The quirky narrative style takes a bit of getting used to -with long, complex, stream-of-consciousness sentences and paragraphs that go on for pages at a time. But they bring you inside the mind of an engaging, smart and aware young person. Oh, and did I mention the characters’ names? Well, there really aren’t any. As with ‘maybe boyfriend’ people are referred to as ‘third sister’, ‘first brother-in-law’, ‘tablets girl’. It kind of adds to the disconnect the girl has with her world or possibly it helps the characters see themselves as blending in, not standing out. Names can be revealing.

Essentially this is a historical novel, but unlike most historical novels, the specifics of places, dates and names of personnel are missing in favour of creating the feeling of the time and circumstances. I cannot imagine reading anything else that recreates so well the effects of sectarian violence on ordinary people, and particularly women. The rumours, the assumptions of guilt, a fear of loving in case the beloved is killed or imprisoned, the need to conform, the lack of sunset appreciation.

Read Milkman when you have some time to sit and concentrate; when you can get into the feel of the writing and let it draw you into its world. If you can read it with that Northern Irish lilt in your head, even better. It’s a worthy award winner and for me a four and a half star read.

Review: Miss Garnet’s Angel (kind of Eat, Pray, Love in half the time)

If you haven’t discovered Salley Vickers, she’s well worth a go for novels that explore the complexities of the human psyche while telling an entertaining story. Her first book is Miss Garnet’s Angel, a witty yet haunting novel about a retired school-teacher and the overwhelming effects visiting Venice has on her.

Julia Garnet decides to visit Venice in winter when the accommodation is half the price of the summer season. She and her old chum and housemate, Harriet, had planned to travel together. When Harriet suddenly dies, Julia on a whim decides to make the trip alone. Italy in general, with its Catholic traditions, emotional art and jaw-dropping beauty is an odd choice in many ways for Julia, a prickly, buttoned-up Englishwoman and paid-up member of the Communist Party.

However Venice is a revelation – the gorgeous churches and cathedrals, the quiet watery decrepitude, the food, wine and other indulgences. Julia falls in love with Venice, and in particular a little church near her digs – the Chapel of the Plague, and through its art becomes besotted with the Archangel Raphael and his story.

Salley Vickers really knows what makes people tick. Julia has had an upbringing lacking in love and thinks she is unloveable, and really not all that likeable either. Her stay in Venice sees her connect with other people, open up her heart, and even indulge herself a little.

Julia is a great character for the reader because Venice shown through her eyes is like seeing beauty through the eyes of someone recently cured of blindness. There’s plenty of humour in her interactions with others: the attractive, silver-haired Carlo, the American Cutforths who are much nicer to Julia than she really deserves, her CP friend Vera, who answers Julia’s requests for biblical texts and fears all that popery will have a bad effect on her friend.

Woven through Julia’s story is the biblical tale of Tobias and the Angel. Tobias, sent by his blind and dying father to collect a debt, is looked after on his journey by a guide who turns out to be Raphael. There are clever connections with Julia’s journey of discovery and the plot evolves in unpredictable ways.

Miss Garnet’s Angel first came out around twenty years ago and Vickers has added some terrific fiction to her list (Dancing Backwards, Cousins, The Cleaner of Chartres). Her first novel is timeless, original, full of heart, humour and brilliantly paced, pared down writing. Four out of five from me.

Expectation by Anna Hope and Other Novels about Friendship

I loved Emma Hope’s last book, The Ballroom, so had high hopes for her new novel. Expectation follows the lives of three friends. Hannah and Cate met at school and share a competitiveness during English classes. At Manchester University, grungy, kohl-eyed Hannah, meets beautiful Lissa, who has a lot of bad habits, and the two become friends over a shared assignment and eventually all three share a gorgeous flat in London on the edge of a park.

The story is mostly set years later as the women, now in their thirties, struggle to achieve what they most want in life. For Hannah, it’s a baby with husband Nath – they’re onto their third go at IVF and things are tense. For Lissa, it’s success as an actress. We follow her battle to keep an agent, to pay the bills, to find the enthusiasm for auditions for adverts. Cate has the baby Hannah wants, an unplanned pregnancy that led to a hasty marriage with chef, Sam, who makes beautiful food, but is he the right husband for her?

Lissa’s painter/former activist mum says it all when she tells her daughter:

“You’ve had everything. The fruits of our labour. The fruits of our activism. Good God, we got out there and we changed the world for you. For our daughters. And what have you done with it?”

Expectations are high indeed. The book slips between characters, between time zones, creating three varied women lost in the miasma of disappointment and unhappiness, behaving badly and eventually learning to start again. Anna Hope writes with great empathy and creates visual and dramatic scenes with terrific dialogue. Perhaps this is because Hope is also an actor – I’ve enjoyed books by actors before (something for another post, maybe). And who doesn’t love stories about friends, the early promise of their youth, the slow unfolding of their later lives. The wax and wane of their relationships. Expectation didn’t disappoint, scoring a four out of five from me.

You might also like these novels about friendship:

The Group by Mary McCarthy is the classic novel about friends, in this case there are eight of them, all students together at Vassar. Their experiences finding fulfilment in work, relationships and as mothers in 1930s America are described with a realism the reading public wasn’t quite ready for – it was published in 1963 and panned at the time, but highly thought of now.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood is a powerful novel about the ugly side of friendship, the difficulty of fitting in, bullying and how cruel and competitive groups of friends can be. Fortunately, Elaine, who bears the brunt of it all eventually finds closure.

The Flight of the Maidens is by one of my all-time favourite authors, Jane Gardam. It concerns three friends at the end of World War II, all having won scholarships to university. The summer between leaving school and going away to college is full of dramatic events described with wit and quirky characters, drama and surprises, with glimpses of a forgotten England.

Invincible Summer by Alice Adams follows four friends from college – Eva, Benedict, Sylvie and Lucien who graduate on the brink of the new millennium and their lives, loves and disappointments beyond into adulthood. It’s a great snap-shot of the time, has terrific characters and is a satisfying read.

Review: Hughie Mittman’s Fear of Lawnmowers by Conor Bowman

Back in Ireland again with a novel set mostly in Galway. The Hughie of the title is a small boy at the beginning of the book, but by the time he’s twelve he’s had to cope with a lot of hard stuff: losing two toes due to an accident with an out of control lawnmower; overhearing his parents reveal that he’s adopted; being sent to boarding school at the age of twelve; losing his mother to suicide and thinking that it’s all his fault.

But Hughie is a determined young lad, and he loves his mother so very much that he embarks on a plan to bring her back. This is impossible you say, she’s dead. His dad knows this, his best friend Nyxi knows this, but when unusual things happen to Hughie it begins to seem possible after all.

Hughie Mittman’s Fear of Lawnmowers is very much a character-driven novel, always a plus for me. There’s Hughie’s difficult father, a philandering surgeon; Nyxi, the girl he meets in hospital after the foot incident, with a badly burned arm. The two become inseparable. ‘Sure but you have three good feet and three good arms between you’ says the lady who sells ice creams. There’s a bunch of peripheral characters you wish you had more time to get to know, such as Hughie’s grandmother in Dublin who is a real trouper towards the end of the book with her no-nonsense manner and hair-raising driving.

But one of the most interesting characters of all is Galway, the setting for a large part of the novel. Galway is lovingly described and seems to have a personality of its own. By the time I’d finished reading the book, I was ready to book my flight. The 1970’s music adds a touch of nostalgia and makes me wonder: are coming-of-age novels set in the past more appealing to older readers than the YA genre aimed at a younger demographic and what deep down is the difference?

I found this coming-of-age novel a quick and charming read, well-written and with an original storyline. Four out of five from me.

Some Hot New Books to Look Out For

If your reading appetite is a little jaded, try these new books by authors who are masters of their craft.

Kate Atkinson has a new Jackson Brodie novel just out, nine years after last one – something I never thought I’d see. In Big Sky, ‘old secrets and new lies intersect in this breathtaking novel by one of the most dazzling and surprising writers at work today’ according to the blurb and yes, I imagine they do because when she isn’t writing crime fiction, Atkinson has made a name for herself as a master of literary fiction, winning a host of literary awards. So she’s not going to be the author who pumps out a couple of page-turners a year just to keep her Jackson Brodie fans happy. The reason they’re so good is that they’re written by a literary author, and not just any literary author. Atkinson is the master of the interesting sentence, which melds into the interesting paragraph, and from then into the surprisingly good chapter and you know where this is heading. So yes, I’ll be happy to get my hands on. Very happy.

We all remember The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon’s breakout novel about a boy on the autism spectrum who sees something suspicious next door. It was a brilliant piece of characterisation, laced with humour and insight. There have been a few books since, but The Porpoise has whetted my curiosity in particular as it is a reworking of the Shakespearean story of Pericles, one of the least known late plays, so quite a new direction for this author. There’s a missing child, pirates, shifts from present day to ancient times with elements of fantasy. So never a dull moment, I should imagine.

I loved Anna Hope’s previous novel, The Ballroom – an original story around two marginalised characters who find themselves incarcerated in a mental institution and who unexpectedly fall in love. It’s 1911, and people have been talking about eugenics and sterilisation of the ‘unfit’, although in England at least, it didn’t quite come to that, fortunately. Hope’s new book, Expectation is a contemporary novel about friendship – in particular, about two women who at the outset have youth, energy and high hopes for the future. Ten years on, they are still struggling to have a meaningful life. Maybe this isn’t the most original of premises, but I shall be eager to see what Hope does with it.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is about the family of a Philadelphia property magnate, particularly his two estranged children told over five decades. Once wealthy, the brother and sister are left to fend for themselves – something of an evil step-mother scenario here – and the bond between the two will either save or ruin them further. Since Commonwealth and State of Wonder, Patchett is on my must-read list. She writes such amazing characters and gripping, suspenseful storylines, so I can’t wait for this one which has a September release date.

The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith would seem to have some of the same key ingredients as his stunning 2011 book, Bright and Distant Shores. The new book takes us to Fort Lee, New Jersey and the beginnings of cinema in the US as well as Paris – City of light – plus the Belgian battlefields of World War I. History and personal obsessions collide in this sweeping drama. Smith is a consistently good historical novelist and this is sure to be a worthy addition to the pile on my bedside table.

 

Book Review: The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell

distance

The Distance Between Us is the third novel I’ve read by this author – it’s an old one too, published in 2004.  Like her last two novels, this one has characters dashing about, jumping on planes and trains and rushing off to places new, or old. Possibly this is because O’Farrell throws them into difficult situations where the past has a way of catching up with them.

Jake is caught up in a crush during a Hong Kong parade for Chinese New Year and injured, the girl he’s dating almost killed. As she lies in hospital and everyone expects her to die, Jake agrees to a deathbed marriage. Somehow she pulls through and the two return to England, where Jake has never lived, and the pressure to start married life together scares him into a search for his missing dad. All he’s got to go by is his name – Kildoune, near Aviemore, the place where his transient, hippy dad came from.

Stella also makes a dash for Scotland, panicked by the sight of a tall, ginger-haired man on a London bridge. She leaves a good job in radio, her flat, everything. She doesn’t even tell Nina her sister, who is like a twin, but not. Nina seems like a stalker, the way she is always checking up on her sister, phoning at work, at home, asking questions about what she’s up to, what her plans are.  Continue reading “Book Review: The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell”

Book Review: The Song Collector by Natasha Solomons

songThe last time I read a novel by this author, it was set in the world of art dealing and gallery exhibitions (The Gallery of Vanished Husbands). No points for guessing that this book has music as its background, the song collector of the title being Harry Fox-Talbet, a composer. The story is told over two time periods, the first just after World War Two, as Harry, his brothers, Jack and George, return with their father to the family mansion that had been requisitioned by the army for the duration.

Now they have it back it is a crumbling ruin, scarcely worth restoring. His older siblings make plans for how they can keep their damaged home, much against their father’s wishes. Meanwhile Harry visits cottages and pubs, asking people to sing old folk songs so he can write them down, and steadily falls in love with Edie Rose, Jack’s girlfriend. Edie is a famous singer, the songbird who helped keep people’s chins up as the bombs fell and the world went mad. It was hard not to hear Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll meet again’ in my mind, which may not be quite what the author intended. Continue reading “Book Review: The Song Collector by Natasha Solomons”

Book Review: The Wych Elm by Tana French

elmA few pages into this book, you know you are in the hands of an Irish author. It’s got that chatty, let’s sit down and tell you a story manner that you often get with Irish authors. The first-person narration also helps, but most of all it’s that rambly, discursive but hugely entertaining style of writing that draws you in and won’t let go, even when the book is five hundred pages long, and could have been around 350. Maybe.

The Wych Elm is a stand-alone crime novel, by the author of the Dublin Murder Squad series. We are in the mind of Toby, a young man in his late twenties, who is telling us how lucky he is. He’s got some family money behind him, plenty of friends, Melissa, his gorgeous girlfriend, and a terrific job doing PR for an art gallery. He’s charming and good-looking and all set for success. Continue reading “Book Review: The Wych Elm by Tana French”

Book Review: Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde

artWhen my aunt died and we all met back at her house following the memorial service, of course, I prowled her bookshelves. She had quite a collection, having been for many years a speech and remedial reading teacher. In her living room were all the classics, in smart hard-cover editions, and I have no doubt she’d read them all, often. But in her bedroom was a whole shelf of Nora Roberts and another of Katie Fforde.

Now I have never been able to get into Nora Roberts, even if she is one of the world’s best selling authors. But the Katie Ffordes looked inviting with their pretty covers and whimsical titles so I always meant to read one.

Recently I picked up Artistic Licence, which is about thirty-something Thea, a former photo-journalist. A bad experience with her ex had sent her off to the Cotswolds, where she finds a part-time job in a one-hour photo shop and takes in student lodgers. She’s in a bit of a rut, when Molly, her bossy friend, whisks her off on an artists’ retreat in Provence where she meets gorgeous young painter, Rory. Continue reading “Book Review: Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde”