Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

The perils of the prologue…

🙂 🙂 🙂

As the French Revolution is turning into terror over in Paris, Lizzie Fawkes is in Clifton in the south of England, where her husband is building an avenue of houses on the cliffs above the gorge. Lizzie is the daughter of Julia Fawkes, a woman who has devoted her life to writing pamphlets promoting the rights of man and the emancipation of women. Lizzie’s husband, Diner, is of a more traditional cast, wanting and expecting Lizzie to find fulfilment in the role of housewife. He is older than Lizzie and was married before to a Frenchwoman, Lucie. Lizzie loves Diner and wants to make him happy, but she feels increasingly restricted by his demands that she doesn’t go out unaccompanied; and he seems jealous of everyone else she loves, especially her mother whom she adores. As Diner becomes ever more demanding, Lizzie begins to feel herself trapped…

I so wanted to love this book, especially since it turned out to be Helen Dunmore’s last. In a rather moving afterword, she explains that, although while she was writing it she didn’t know she was ill with the cancer that would kill her, she realised afterwards that the illness must already have been spreading through her. So it is poignant, though apparently coincidental, that one of the themes she wanted to examine in the book is that of how “the individual vanishes from the historical record”, especially women, whose lives were so often unrecorded and forgotten.

Unfortunately, there are a few problems with the book that prevent it from reaching the highest standards. Firstly, the idea of discussing the Terror in France via those wannabes who cheered the revolutionaries on from the safety of England means that there is never any sense of emotional involvement in the events going on over in Paris. This is further exacerbated by Dunmore telling us about those events through letters and newspaper articles rather than taking us there. Of course, this is how people in England would have received the news, so in that sense it’s an accurate portrayal. But it makes those passages feel more like a history lesson than part of a story.

The second, and for me the major, problem is that Dunmore begins the book with a short series of prologue-like chapters which basically reveal almost everything that is to follow. So we know from the beginning that the building boom will collapse when war begins and the houses Diner is building will be a victim of that. We know that Julia is soon to die and her writings will be lost and forgotten, leaving no trace of her in the historical record. And we know that a man will bury the corpse of a woman in the woods – and although we are not told which man and which woman, it becomes blindingly obvious almost as soon as the story gets underway. Suspense may not be an essential feature of all books, but I suggest there ought always to be at least some doubt about how things will play out. Of course, we don’t know exactly how it will end, but the bits that are left obscured are rather minor in comparison to those that are revealed too soon.

Helen Dunmore

There is no doubt about the quality of the writing, and the development of major and minor characters alike is excellent. I struggled with the idea that Lizzie would have given up a life of relative freedom to marry a man with such strict, traditional views on the role of women, but we all do stupid things for love when we’re young, I suppose. Dunmore’s portrayal of the stay-at-home revolutionaries rings true, as does her detailed description of life in Clifton at this moment in history. But I fear that detail itself gradually became my third issue with the book. Everything is described in far too much depth, from haggling over the purchase of a shawl to what to feed a baby whose mother can’t suckle it. Each bit is vaguely interesting in its own right, thoroughly researched and certainly well described, but it all builds up until I finally felt I was drowning in minutiae, with the story sinking alongside me. I’m not sure at what point creating an authentic background becomes information overload but, wherever the line is, for me this book crossed it. And I suspect that’s mainly because the prologue chapters had left me in little doubt of where the story was going so that I had no strong feeling of anticipation to drive me on.

So the book’s strengths lie in the quality of the writing and the authenticity of the setting and characterisation, and for these reasons it is still well worth reading. But sadly, the problems I had with it prevent me from giving it my wholehearted recommendation, much though I’d like to.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 127…

Episode 127…

During my tennis-watching break the TBR fell dramatically, at one point going as low as 193. But as soon as I returned to the blogosphere this week it started to rise again, till now it’s back up to 196 – exactly where it was at my last TBR post. This provides conclusive proof of what I’ve long suspected – my TBR woes are all because of…

YOU!

So here’s this week’s attempt to get my own back!

All of this weeks choices are from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley, this was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize…

The Blurb says: A group of children inherit an elemental paradise on earth in Roy Jacobsen’s phenomenally bestselling new novel about love, poverty and tragedy in early twentieth century Norway.

“Nobody can leave an island. An island is a cosmos in a nutshell, where the stars slumber in the grass beneath the snow. But occasionally someone tries . . .”

Ingrid Barrøy is born on an island that bears her name – a holdfast for a single family, their livestock, their crops, their hopes and dreams. Her father dreams of building a quay that will connect them to the mainland, but closer ties to the wider world come at a price. Her mother has her own dreams – more children, a smaller island, a different life – and there is one question Ingrid must never ask her.

Island life is hard, a living scratched from the dirt or trawled from the sea, so when Ingrid comes of age, she is sent to the mainland to work for one of the wealthy families on the coast. But Norway too is waking up to a wider world, a modern world that is capricious and can be cruel. Tragedy strikes, and Ingrid must fight to protect the home she thought she had left behind.

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley, another anthology of classic crime from the British Library…

The Blurb says: A man is forbidden to uncover the secret of the tower in a fairy-tale castle by the Rhine. A headless corpse is found in a secret garden in Paris – belonging to the city’s chief of police. And a drowned man is fished from the sea off the Italian Riviera, leaving the carabinieri to wonder why his socialite friends at the Villa Almirante are so unconcerned by his death. These are three of the scenarios in this new collection of vintage crime stories. Detective stories from the golden age and beyond have used European settings – cosmopolitan cities, rural idylls and crumbling chateaux – to explore timeless themes of revenge, deception, murder and haunting. Including lesser-known stories by Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, J. Jefferson Farjeon and other classic writers, this collection reveals many hidden gems of British crime.

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Factual

Courtesy of Princeton University Press. And not just about Russia for once…

The Blurb says: Krishan Kumar provides panoramic and multifaceted portraits of five major European empires—Ottoman, Habsburg, Russian/Soviet, British, and French—showing how each, like ancient Rome, saw itself as the carrier of universal civilization to the rest of the world. Sometimes these aims were couched in religious terms, as with Islam for the Ottomans or Catholicism for the Habsburgs. Later, the imperial missions took more secular forms, as with British political traditions or the world communism of the Soviets.

Visions of Empire offers new insights into the interactions between rulers and ruled, revealing how empire was as much a shared enterprise as a clash of oppositional interests. It explores how these empires differed from nation-states, particularly in how the ruling peoples of empires were forced to downplay or suppress their own national or ethnic identities in the interests of the long-term preservation of their rule. This compelling and in-depth book demonstrates how the rulers of empire, in their quest for a universal world order, left behind a legacy of multiculturalism and diversity that is uniquely relevant for us today.

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Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I loved Helen Dunmore’s Exposure and have been meaning to read more of her ever since, so couldn’t resist her new one…

The Blurb says: It is 1792 and Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence. Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in Radical circles where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. But she has recently married John Diner Tredevant, a property developer who is heavily invested in Bristol’s housing boom, and he has everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war. Soon his plans for a magnificent terrace built above the two-hundred-foot drop of the Gorge come under threat. Tormented and striving Diner believes that Lizzie’s independent, questioning spirit must be coerced and subdued. She belongs to him: law and custom confirm it, and she must live as he wants–his passion for Lizzie darkening until she finds herself dangerously alone.

Weaving a deeply personal and moving story with a historical moment of critical and complex importance, Birdcage Walk is an unsettling and brilliantly tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror from one of our greatest storytellers.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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FictionFan Awards 2016 – Literary Fiction & Book of the Year 2016

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

LITERARY FICTION

I’ve abandoned more lit-fic novels this year than ever before, I think – partly due to my lengthy reading slump and partly due to the current fad for plotless musings and polemics thinly disguised as fiction. However, I’m delighted to say there have been some great reads, too, including a couple from new authors who will hopefully go on to even greater things in the future. The shortlist is too long, but I really couldn’t decide which of these fantastic books to leave out, so I’ll try to keep my comments on each brief…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

the high mountains of portugalThe High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

The three interlinked stories in this book are each very different but with common themes running through them, and all linked to a small town in the High Mountains.  The whole book is deliciously enigmatic and sometimes surreal, and I’m sure could be read in a hundred different ways. It is a subtle discussion of the evolution vs. faith debate, with the old evolutionary saw of “risen apes, not fallen angels” appearing repeatedly. Chimps appear in some form in each of the sections, though symbolically rather than actually, except in the third. But meaning aside, the sheer quality of the writing along with the more overt themes of grief and love make it a wonderful read – one that has left some indelible images in my mind.

Click to see the full review

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exposureExposure by Helen Dunmore

When fading spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help, sucking Simon into a situation that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

In many ways this is a standard spy thriller. But mostly what it is is a set of brilliant character studies showing the impact of this event on the lives of all those involved. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children where we see the story from the adults’ side, and an entirely credible portrayal of a fictionalised version of the Cambridge spy ring. Great stuff!

Click to see the full review

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three martini lunchThree-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

It’s 1958, and Greenwich Village is the centre of the hipster scene, populated by aspiring poets and writers. The three main characters take turns to narrate their own stories: Eden, determined to make it in the male-dominated world of publishing; rich boy Cliff, who is pretty sure he just needs a break to make it big as a writer; and Miles, who has real talent as a writer, but as a black man must face the discrimination that is an integral part of the society of the time. When their lives intersect, a chain of events is started that will change the course of their lives.

Rindell has the gift of creating truthful characters with individual voices, and of putting them into settings that feel totally authentic. Her scene-setting is superb – she brings the Village to life in all its seedy vibrancy. A great new talent – one to watch.

Click to see the full review

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zero kZero K by Don DeLillo

This is a strange book that takes one of the clichés of science fiction – cryogenics – and turns it into something that is either incomprehensible or profoundly thought-provoking, depending on how willing the reader is to play along. However, behind the cliché, a distinctly unsettling atmosphere of unease soon begins to seep out of the pages, as the narrator wanders alone through the silence of the cryogenics facility, down long corridors full of doors with nothing to indicate what is behind them. At the end of some of the corridors are viewscreens, showing increasingly horrific images of disaster, destruction and death. It’s an exploration of identity, and of the importance of death in how we define and measure life. From a shaky beginning, I grew to love it, for the writing, the imagery and the intelligence of it.

Click to see the full review

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enigma 2Enigma by Robert Harris

It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, it’s the authenticity of the setting and the superb plotting that make this one so great.

Click to see the full review

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the girlsThe Girls by Emma Cline

Evie is 14 the summer she meets the girls from the ranch – the summer of ’69. Evie’s fascination quickly turns to infatuation, and a desire to prove herself mature enough to belong to this little group. Before long, she’s spending most of her time at the ranch, where she meets the group’s charismatic leader, Russell, and finds herself willingly sucked into a world that passes beyond hippy commune to cult. And by the end of the summer something so shocking will happen, it will shadow her life for ever.

The characterisation is superb, especially of Evie herself, both as a girl on the cusp of womanhood in the ’60s, and as an adult in late middle-age in the present. And the depiction of the cult is entirely credible, set well within this period of generational shift and huge social upheaval. An excellent book, all the more so considering it’s Cline’s début.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

beloved

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live isolated lives in their community, because everyone knows that their house at no. 124 is haunted. Sethe’s two sons have already left, unable to take any more of the spiteful tricks played by the ghost. But Sethe and Denver see the ghost differently. To Sethe it is the other daughter that she lost, a child known only by the single word carved on her gravestone, “Beloved”. The ghost is angry but Sethe understands why and endlessly forgives, no matter how cruel or violent her behaviour. And to Denver, the ghost is her sister, her only companion in her loneliness. Then one day a man from Sethe’s past arrives, Paul D, who knew her when they were both slaves on Sweet Home. It seems at first that he has driven the ghost away, until some weeks later a strange young woman arrives at the house – her name, Beloved.

This isn’t just a book of the year for me, it’s one of the books of my lifetime. Morrison’s brilliant writing and imagery turn it into one of the most powerful and emotionally devastating books I have ever read. There is furious anger here, in scenes of brutal horror, cruelty and vile humiliation, but the overwhelming tone is of a sorrowful lament for humanity. And to make it bearable, just, there is also beauty, love, some kind of healing, and ultimately hope. Sethe’s is a story that must be understood if we are ever to truly understand ourselves, and ultimately isn’t that what literature is for? Tragic that such a book should ever have come to be written, heartbreaking and devastating to read, but I count it a true privilege to have been given an opportunity to hear Beloved’s story.

Click to see the full review

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And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

 

.

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016

THE WINNER

.

Best Fiction

Normally I’d rather choose a new book as Book of the Year, but Beloved is so outstanding it had to win! Some of the Great American Novel Quest books I’ve read this year have been pretty disappointing, but I’ll always be glad I started the quest since it was through it that I discovered this book. I realise most people have already read it, but if, like me, you’ve managed to miss it up till now, it gets my highest recommendation. The beautiful writing, savage imagery and deep understanding and sympathy for humanity make it a truly wonderful read – unforgettable.

Click to see the full review

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Thanks to all of you who’ve stuck with me through this year’s awards feature.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!

 

Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Cold War espionage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

exposureWhen fading Communist spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help. But Giles is under observation and someone sees Simon collecting the file. And so Simon is sucked into a situation that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

It’s almost impossible to write a short blurb for this one that doesn’t make it sound as if it’s a spy thriller, and in many ways it is. But mostly what it is is a set of brilliant character studies showing the impact of this event on the lives of all those involved. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children – a book the author herself references in the text, so the connections are clearly intentional – where we see the story from the adults’ side. And it’s an entirely credible portrayal of a fictionalised version of the Cambridge spy ring and its association with homosexuality, at that period of the 1950s and early ’60s still a crime, and enough to destroy a man’s career and even life, if exposed.

The writing is excellent, quickly building up a tense atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion. The book is written in third person, allowing the reader to get inside the head of each of the major characters in turn. Dunmore’s skill allows her to use tense effectively – the book is mostly written in the present tense, but slips in and out of past tense seamlessly when appropriate, so that the reader always knows where s/he is in the timeline. The “past” is there only to provide the reader with an understanding of why the characters act as they do in the present – the real story is of the weeks and months following Giles’ accident.

Cold War spy fiction is usually an almost entirely male preserve (with the exception of the occasional sexy femme fatale) and the Cambridge spy ring has been examined many times in fiction and fact, so to a degree Simon’s and Giles’ stories are familiar territory, though rarely in my experience told with such exceptional depth and credibility of character. But what really makes this book stand out from the crowd is the inclusion of Simon’s wife and family.

The real Cambridge spy ring…

Lily is intelligent and loving, never once doubting her husband’s innocence and fiercely protective of her children. But her childhood was filled with experiences that give her particular cause to fear and distrust the shady world of intelligence and security – a past she now fears may come back to damage Simon and the children. Dunmore brilliantly shows how Lily’s early experiences are both her weakness and her strength when she must start making decisions for her family.

Peter is the eldest son but still only a boy on the cusp of his teen years when the story begins. With his sister, at first his head is full of adventure stories, such as the aforementioned Railway Children, where somehow the children will find a clue that will save their father, or be able to survive on their own if, as they fear, both their parents are arrested. Dunmore again gives a superb portrayal of Peter suddenly being forced to grow up before his time and take on some of the responsibilities of the man of the family. Lily finds herself reluctantly leaning on her son’s strength, but simultaneously regretting that he is now losing his childhood too early, as she herself had done.

The family is at the heart of the book, but the spy story is excellent too. Giles is a low-level spy, once a golden boy but now his constant drinking making him something of a liability. We see the coldness at the heart of the spy ring – the readiness of each level of the organisation to sacrifice the people lower down in order to protect themselves. But Dunmore also takes us back to the time when Simon and Giles met, so that we can see how their relationship developed and understand why Simon still retains feelings of loyalty to this rather sad and broken older man who has dragged him into a situation that is destroying him and the people he most loves.

Helen Dunmore
Helen Dunmore

To understand the Cambridge spy ring, it’s necessary to understand the society of the time, so different to today’s. Dunmore’s depiction feels perfect – at no point did I have that jarring sensation of tripping over an anachronism. The physical stuff – furniture, cigarettes, food etc – is used skilfully to put us into this time period, without ever being overdone. But even more, she reproduces the social and emotional aspects of the time with great authenticity, especially with regard to the two aspects most closely associated with the Cambridge spies – the old boys’ network of class and social background, and society’s attitudes to homosexuality. Her characters’ reactions are always true to the period – no 21st century political correctness creeping in at inappropriate moments. I think the best compliment I can pay her is to say that the book reads as if it could have been written contemporaneously.

And so, when the end plays out with all the drama and suspense of any good spy thriller, it nonetheless all has a feeling of inevitability and truthfulness – none of her carefully developed characters could have acted in ways other than they do. A wonderful book, one of the best of the year for me, and I shall certainly be reading more of Dunmore’s books soon.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

20 books 2016

This is Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer.

TBR Thursday 85…

Episode 85…

And for the third week in a row, the TBR is stuck on 165. It’s not so much that books are being added this time, though, as that my reading has begun to drop off as it always does when the summer tennis season begins to build up. Somehow my mind just doesn’t seem to be on books…
Rafa Nadal Doha

Erm…what was I saying? Oh, yes – books! Well, here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…

Factual

douglas macarthurI know nothing about Douglas MacArthur and generally speaking wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested in a biography of a US general. But this one is written by the fabulous Arthur Herman, whose previous books on philosophy, the Scottish Enlightenment and Gandhi and Churchill I have loved, so if anyone can interest me in MacArthur, I bet Herman can! Courtesy of NetGalley…

The Blurb says: Douglas MacArthur was arguably the last American public figure to be worshipped unreservedly as a national hero, the last military figure to conjure up the romantic stirrings once evoked by George Armstrong Custer and Robert E. Lee. But he was also one of America’s most divisive figures, a man whose entire career was steeped in controversy. Was he an avatar or an anachronism, a brilliant strategist or a vainglorious mountebank? Drawing on a wealth of new sources, Arthur Herman delivers a powerhouse biography that peels back the layers of myth—both good and bad—and exposes the marrow of the man beneath.

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Fiction

exposureCourtesy of NetGalley. I’ve seen several very positive reviews of this around the blogosphere, plus I have to admit I love the cover a lot!

The Blurb says: London, November, 1960: the Cold War is at its height. Spy fever fills the newspapers, and the political establishment knows how and where to bury its secrets. When a highly sensitive file goes missing, Simon Callington is accused of passing information to the Soviets, and arrested. His wife, Lily, suspects that his imprisonment is part of a cover-up, and that more powerful men than Simon will do anything to prevent their own downfall. She knows that she too is in danger, and must fight to protect her children. But what she does not realise is that Simon has hidden vital truths about his past, and may be found guilty of another crime that carries with it an even greater penalty.

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Crime

daisy in chainsFabulous title, fabulous cover, fabulous Sharon Bolton! Fabulous! Strange blurb though… Courtesy of NetGalley again. I love NetGalley…

The Blurb says: Famous killers have fan clubs.

Locked up for the rest of his life for the abduction and murder of three young women, Hamish Wolfe gets countless adoring letters every day. He’s handsome, charismatic and very persuasive. His admirers are convinced he’s innocent, and that he’s the man of their dreams.

Who would join such a club?

Maggie Rose is different. Reclusive and enigmatic; a successful lawyer and bestselling true-crime writer, she only takes on cases that she can win.

Hamish wants her as his lawyer, he wants her to change his fate. She thinks she’s immune to the charms of a man like this. But maybe not this time . . .

Would you?

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the widow bartonThis one is Cleo’s fault – it was her review that sent me scuttling off to… you’ve guessed it… NetGalley! Honestly, I reckon it’s a conspiracy, don’t you? And I think it’s becoming clear who is the chief suspect…

The Blurb says: We’ve all seen him: the man – the monster – staring from the front page of every newspaper, accused of a terrible crime. But what about her: the woman who grips his arm on the courtroom stairs – the wife who stands by him?

Jean Taylor’s life was blissfully ordinary. Nice house, nice husband. Glen was all she’d ever wanted: her Prince Charming. Until he became that man accused, that monster on the front page. Jean was married to a man everyone thought capable of unimaginable evil. But now Glen is dead and she’s alone for the first time, free to tell her story on her own terms. Jean Taylor is going to tell us what she knows.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?