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Book review: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

 

This is a review of the book The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which follows the life of nineteenth-century botanist Alma Whittaker.

As one of the few women of my demographic who has not read (nor seen) Eat Pray Love, I came at this book with no preconceived ideas about it or its author. Instead, I approached it with the enthusiasm of someone who is given a book by a person who knows them, with the hope it would be a good read. And I was not disappointed.

Gilbert’s tale is told with sufficient detail and background that I wasn’t sure for a long time whether its protagonist, Alma Whittaker, was a real historical figure or not. The information about her father is just wild enough to be true, especially considering his background, and the details of her early life and the characters of her mother and father are so well developed that it was really a toss-up for a long time as to whether this was a biography or a novel. (Of course, a simple Google search would have been enough to stem that debate, but to be honest it was one I rather enjoyed having with myself. It made the story that much more interesting.)

Alma Whittaker is herself an interesting character. Given the background Gilbert provides her with, it is unlikely she would have been anything else, but even that conclusion is testament to the quality of the narrative. We are told the story through Alma’s eyes, with her prejudices, beliefs and opinions sprinkled liberally throughout, but they make the story more compelling, not less. The arrival of her sister Prudence is stated with the bluntness of an eleven year old who had hitherto been the only child; her discovery later of the outcome of some of Prudence’s decisions means that not only she, but the reader, must delve back to reconsider the sisters’ behaviour in light of this new information. As we see through Alma’s eyes, we are forced to realise the limitations that perspective contains.

Other characters, too, are fascinating for both what they offer and what they cannot. The Dutch housekeeper Hanneke de Groot is a font of information – but only if you know how to ask for it. Alma’s father, Henry, is notable for his wide knowledge and fine acquisitions, but also for his lack of empathy and tenderness. Ambrose Pike, the artist who comes to stay at the Whittaker house, White Acre, is someone who can offer Alma what she wants, but not what she needs. And Prudence, who is to Alma little more than a footnote, is capable of much greater strength and self sacrifice than not only Alma believes, but also than of Alma herself.

Running parallel to the study in characters and their strengths and weaknesses (though not necessarily delving into character studies, so to speak) is the scientific narrative of biology in the 1800s. Alma chooses to study mosses, partly because she needs something to occupy her scientific mind while acting as the matron of her father’s house, and partly because they are convenient in that she does not need to leave the property to do so. Her deductions, however, are more far-reaching than even she could have conceived. She may need to travel to reach their conclusion, but the years at White Acre with her mosses stand her in excellent stead for the research to come.

The way Gilbert links Alma’s study with the wider scientific world of the 1800s is cleverly done, and so seamless it is, again, hard to differentiate this work from biography. Sure, Alma Whittaker is a fictional character, but that doesn’t make her presence in this world any less fascinating. In fact, I was almost wishing by the end that she had existed, as it would have added an extra dimension to the scientific activity of the era.

The Signature of All Things is, all told, a very cleverly written story about a character and situation so complex it almost seems incredible they have been invented. The narrative is smooth and the story compelling. All told, I can heartily recommend this book as a worthwhile and fascinating addition to any library.

 

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The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published by Bloomsbury
513 pages
Available as hardcover, paperback and e-book

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Book review: Constance, by Patrick McGrath

 

Constance, by Patrick McGrath

Constance, by Patrick McGrath

Constance is an intriguing story of a young woman and her much older husband in 1960s Manhattan. Constance, the titular character, is haunted, aloof and intriguing; Sidney, her academic husband, is a divorced father of one who is still trying to find his niche.

The book is well written and draws you in; however, the fact both characters’ stories are told in the first person, with no real distinction in style between them, is a little unclear at first. While it is fascinating to read the points of view of both characters, I cannot help but wonder what would have been lost by telling it in third person, because it could have kept the limited narrative style while avoiding any confusion. The other thing that bothered me was the absence of inverted commas for speech, with dialogue indicated only by dashes. I’ve seen this a few times and it appears a modern way of doing it, but it does take some getting used to. But then again, maybe that’s just me.

The story is about two things – Constance’s need to work out where she fits, both in her husband’s life (littered with fellow academics, students, and the ex-wife and pre-pubescent son), and in that of her family, which consists of a father she resents and a significantly younger sister for whom she feels responsible. That her choices and actions can have a negative impact on her sister’s life seems to escape her; that she has any impact whatsoever on her father is also beyond her comprehension. For much of the story she is not only happy to but insistent on playing the victim, a fact which draws her wrath when her husband dares raise it with her.

Sidney, on the other hand, seems oblivious to the fact he is playing with fire when he feels an affinity and connection with Constance’s reviled father and occasionally takes his side against Constance’s. In this way he fits the stereotype of the absent-minded professor who knows everything there is to know about his chosen subject but nothing about human interactions or behaviour. He is able to offer clinical diagnoses of Constance, but seems unable to put these into a human context and deal with her in an appropriate manner; it is unsurprising that he succeeds only in driving her away.

Of course, this is a love story – or a romance, if you go with the definition that a love story has a sad ending and a romance a happy one – and our principal couple can find a way to connect in the end, even if they suffer many trials and tribulations on the way. In that sense it is masterfully told, because for much of the narrative it is hard for the reader to see any way out of this, yet when the story ends it feels like it could not have gone any other way. In another sense, though, the fact the characters are not particularly likeable and are far more frustrating than anything else means it is difficult to engage with the story. This was one I finished because I felt like I should, rather than having a need to know what happened next. From that perspective, it was not told masterfully at all.

Overall, Constance is the paradox of a brilliantly-written book which gives the impression it could have been better. It has all the ingredients of a great novel – deep and complicated characters, intriguing narrative, twists and turns, human suffering and resolution – but without more engaging characters, it seems to fall just short of its potential. I feel it could well become a classic in its own right; however, for an engaging read, I would be more likely to pick up something else.

 

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Constance, by Patrick McGrath
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
244 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and ebook

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Book review: Little Known Facts, by Christine Sneed

Little Known Facts

Little Known Facts is the debut novel of author Christine Sneed, who has previously published a number of short stories. It follows the world of Renn Ivins, a fictional movie star of the ilk (and generation) of Harrison Ford or Pierce Brosnan – highly successful, multi award winning, and highly sought after by both studios and women.

I was not surprised to learn that the author was known for her short stories prior to this novel, because in reality that is what it is: a collection of short stories with Renn Ivins as the central theme. There are chapters from the points of view of each of his adult children, both his ex-wives, his current lover, a props attendant and wannabe biographer, and Ivins himself, all told in different ways and different styles. Yes, there is a kind of a narrative that follows throughout the chapters, but in many ways it feels much more like a series of essays about a central character than a novel as such.

I will also add here that I was a little surprised that the focus of the novel was, in fact, Renn Ivins, mainly because the blurb on the inside front cover implies that it’s more about his children. Yes, they each get two chapters (more than anyone else does), but it feels like it is Ivins’ story which is really being told, through them, rather than their own.

That being said, it is certainly an interesting read. There is a part of all of us which is curious about the lifestyles of the rich and famous: even if you don’t read the supermarket tabloids or gossip magazines, there is still that bit that wonders what it would be like to have that kind of life. Some covet it, others would hate it, but most of us have at least considered it. This book is one way to satisfy that curiosity: it’s a peek into the life of a very successful Hollywood star, and how that stardom affects those around him and those that mean the most to him. It feels slightly voyeuristic, but it does the job.

I was also impressed with the ease with which Sneed jumped from POV to POV. All of the chapters are styled in a different way – some in first person, some in third, one (from an ex-wife) told in excerpts from her tell-all autobiography, one (Ivins) as notes from his journals. They all felt distinct from each other which is no mean feat: many established authors struggle to change the feel and narrative style of their different POV chapters, yet in this it feels effortless. It may be, as I have noted, due to her background in short stories, but it was certainly noteworthy in a novel of this length.

All in all I thought this was an excellent debut novel. Well-written, engaging and just that little bit voyeuristic, it captured my imagination and made me stay up way past my bedtime so I could finish it. If you have any curiosity about how fame can affect one’s nearest and dearest, then this is definitely one way to find out.

 

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Little Known Facts, by Christine Sneed
320 pages (paperback)
Published by Bloomsbury
Available on Amazon as ebook, hardcover and paperback

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Book review: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson

 

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson

 

This is a review of the book A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson. The novel follows the story of a female missionary in Kashgar in 1923, interwoven with a thirty-something woman’s search for self in present-day London.

I found this a fascinating read. Both stories hooked me in quite early, though I confess I found the story of present-day Frieda slightly more engaging. This is very likely because it was more relatable to a woman of similar age living in the same period, but it doesn’t make Evangeline, the writer-come-missionary, any less interesting. It was interesting to see how two quite disparate tales could have so many things in common, and it was quite some time before I made the connection of how they could possibly be joined into one story.

The amount of research that must have gone into this novel is staggering. To have the level of detail present in 1920s Kashgar (and elsewhere on the Silk Road) that’s given is incredible, but it doesn’t go to waste – the picture painted of the desert city ninety years ago, and the attitudes and behaviour of its inhabitants, gives a really vivid impression of what it must have been like.  Evangeline’s mix of naiveté and worldliness is also fascinating, but totally believable given her background; things which seem obvious to a 21st century reader are a mystery to her, but there is also a keen understanding of human nature which shines through and helps give her her strength.

Equally, Frieda’s story is full of vivid details that make it come alive and her adventures with Tayeb, the Yemeni refugee who she finds sleeping in her doorway one night, are symptomatic of someone who is still trying to find her way in life. I loved her confusion at inheriting the possessions of Irene Guy, an old woman she’s never heard of, and her attempts at working out the connection between them and of looking after the owl she finds in Irene Guy’s flat.

If there is anything that didn’t quite work for me, it is probably the myriad of minor characters who sprinkle both tales. Because the Kashgar and London stories are told in alternate chapters, they don’t flow as smoothly as they could and sometimes I had to find myself flicking back a chapter or three to work out who Evangeline (or Frieda) was referring to and what their role was. Once I had that sorted out, though, I had little trouble following either woman’s journey.

Overall, it is an epic tale of self discovery, happening over two centuries in two different continents. Both women learn a lot about their place in the worlds along the way, and both women eventually find themselves in situations in which, for once, they feel comfortable, their stories becoming inextricably interwoven along the way. If you like reading well-written, touching stories about adventurous women in very different circumstances, this book is for you.

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A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
374 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon.com as hardcover, paperback and e-book

 

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Book review: I am an Executioner, by Rajesh Parameswaran

 

I am an Executioner, by Rajesh Parameswaran

This is a review of the book I am an Executioner, by Rajesh Parameswaran, a series of short stories purporting to be about love. I say “purporting” because, while they are indeed love stories – even if you stretch the definition somewhat – I found the title of the book very revealing, because most of them seemed to be as much about death as they did love. In addition, while love did feature heavily as a theme, romantic love did not, so using the term “love stories” on the front cover could be interpreted as being misleading.

The stories are in many ways disturbing. As a mother with a baby, I had trouble reading the first story from the POV of an escaped tiger and its treatment of the “human cub” it comes across. The story of the repressed wife who goes to Thanksgiving dinner with her husband dead on the living room floor is, again, something out of my comfort zone. But then again, this isn’t a bad thing, and I find it helpful to leave my comfort zone occasionally. The tone was helped by the liberal helpings of humour, often black and certainly always dark, but nonetheless there, which was a welcome distraction. There is perhaps an over-reliance of the experiences of Asian migrants living in the United States, which is part of Parameswaran’s own story, but then again if one does not write what one knows – to some extent at least – then the work can come off feeling contrived and unbelievable. These stories, even those from the perspective of animals, are neither of those.

My one criticism is that some of the stories felt unfinished. Four Rajeshes I thought was too open at the end, and Elephants in Captivity (Part One) did feel like it would have benefited from Part Two and perhaps even Part Three. Even the final tale, On the Banks of the Table River, left a little too much unanswered for my taste. Perhaps Parameswaran’s writing is too subtle for my palate, which is certainly possible, but it did leave a sense of vague dissatisfaction upon completion of the book.

That said, however, it is an exceptional first collection of short stories. They are well written, original, inventive and ultimately believable, if occasionally unnerving, and are certainly not the bland tales which one may expect from a debut author. Ultimately, if you are looking for a collection which will stay with you long after you finished the last word, then I am an Executioner is a book for you.

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I am an Executioner, by Rajesh Parameswaran
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
260 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon.com as ebook or paperback

 

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Book review: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

 

Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

 

This is a review of the book Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen MayThe novel follows the experiences of nineteen year old Billy Smith, who is faced with looking after his six year old brother Oscar after the sudden death of their mother. The book takes its name from those magazines which ask readers to contribute their stories to fill pages, which are not actually called Life! Death! Prizes! but they might as well be. Billy refers to these magazines as “trauma porn”, which I suppose they are, but he devours them nonetheless. Or perhaps he devours them because of that. I leave that open. :)

The book is a very realistic portrayal of a teenager caught in this situation, trying to convince his aunt, Oscar’s school, social services and the world in general that he is well and truly capable of looking after his brother. The reader is less convinced, with the evidence of inappropriate television habits, random bedtimes and Billy’s strategy of, when his mother’s cashcard finally runs out, of just not paying the bills because the electricity and gas companies wouldn’t dare disconnect them, going against his confidence. He does, however, mean well, and believe he is doing the right thing, and for that we can love him.

Without wanting to give too much away, the fact that the book is in first person from Billy’s POV is used very well in misdirection. His history of Aidan Jebb, the boy who killed their mother, is convincing, and there are times when we are not sure whether we are seeing reality of some drug-induced hallucination. Billy isn’t sure, either, so I appreciate that’s the point. There are a couple of places, though, where I’m still unsure whether the misdirection is deliberate or not. For example, the bit where Billy’s attempted girlfriend Lucy is reading AA Milne to Oscar, Billy considers that a poem like that telling the story of James James Morrison Morrison wouldn’t be tolerated today, as it’s about child abduction. The thing is, of course, that it’s not about that at all (it is James James Morrison Morrison’s mother who disappears, not the boy himself), which leaves me unsure about whether it’s Billy or the author who is making this mistake.

My other criticism is about the twist at the end, which I don’t want to go into in too much detail. However, I think I can say that I didn’t really feel convinced about Billy’s intentions. While that sort of thing is touched on during the story as a whole, I didn’t get enough sense of him heading in that direction. It felt a little contrived, like he was going through the motions rather than actually being in the state of mind to carry it out. Perhaps he was; perhaps that was the point and I missed it, but I got the impression that he was serious. I just didn’t feel it.

Aside from that, it was a very touching book. The relationship between Billy and Oscar was heartwarming, and the lengths that he went to to try to keep things the way they were, much as they could be, was rather endearing. Sure, he didn’t always make the right decisions, but he was trying, and that counts for something. Well written, funny and in some cases painfully honest, it is well worth a read for anyone looking for a contemporary story about family, hope and dreams.

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Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
245 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon.com as ebook or paperback

 

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Book review: The Namesake, by Conor Fitzgerald

The Namesake, by Conor Fitzgerald

This is a review of the book The Namesake, by Conor Fitzgerald.  The novel is an Italian crime story, and follows an American-born police commissioner, Alec Blume, as he is drawn into the world of the Calabrian mafia.

I quite enjoy crime fiction. I have a real weakness for a well-written whodunnit, and find it easy to lose myself in that atmosphere. However, I am unused to Italian crime stories, aside from the odd television series like Inspector Montalbano  and Rex in Rome. And yes, this does make a difference. For example, the judicial processes in Italy are quite different from what you would see in your usual American or British crime story, in that the judiciary are involved in the investigation from the start, rather than just the trial. For someone unfamiliar with this, it can take some getting used to.

The other thing that makes Italian crime stories different is the common inclusion of the Mafia or other organised crime. Again, if you’re familiar with how it all works and how those families go about their activities, then that’s fine … but if you’re not, it can be a little bewildering.

Of both of these there was some explanation in the glossary at the end, which was definitely welcome. For me, though, it didn’t quite go far enough – while we learnt the equivalents in the UK and US of Blume’s position in the police force, there was no explanation of exactly what role a magistrate plays in a criminal investigation. Even with my smattering of Italian television, I still don’t really understand how that works.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that there were some aspects to this book that I had trouble following. The intricacies of familial structure within the Calabrian community was a little confusing to my uninitiated mind, and at times I felt there were too many aspects to the narrative. Yes, they were all joined up and linked at the end, but it felt a little like a marathon to get them there.

That said, like all good crime fiction I did enjoy it. Trying not to ruin it for anyone with spoilers, I found the Konrad Hoffman story very enjoyable, and I liked the way we got to know those on different sides of the law, so that their actions became more understandable than they would perhaps have been otherwise. Alec Blume was an interesting character in his own right, too, and I felt a genuine sadness when he found the burnt remains of his trusty shellac-coated suitcase. I would have liked to see more of Caterina, and indeed of Matteo Arconti, the murder of whose namesake gave the story its title, but then again this is the third in a series of Alec Blume stories, so perhaps if I were to read the first two I would get more of that aspect of his life.

All in all, it was an entertaining book. When everything came together at the end it was much more satisfying than I had expected it to be, and I feel I have a much better understanding of not just the Italian police and organised crime, but of Italy itself. Sure, it wasn’t all flattering, but that made it feel all the more real and all the more believable. If you like crime novels, it’s well worth checking out.

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The Namesake, by Conor Fitzgerald
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
357 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon.com as ebook or paperback

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