‘Portrait of a Marriage’ by Nigel Nicolson

Nigel Nicolson paints an endearing portrait of the marriage of his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.  His viewpoint is that, despite many – mostly homosexual – affairs on both sides, and, after the first few years following their wedding, no action in the marital bed, the two were devoted, missing each other during their times apart, and valuing their love and union as the pivot in their lives.  All the time I was reading this book, I was wondering how much of a gloss this loyal son was applying, but he quotes from letters over decades and at length.  And the two remained together from 1911 to Vita’s death in 1962, which left Harold devastated, until his own death in 1968.  I’m persuaded that, despite everything – a lot of portrait is accurate.

Vita Sackville-West was born into the aristocratic Sackville family of Knole, Kent. Following her grandfather’s death, her (nuclear) family returned to Knole via a circuitous route.  Her mother was her grandfather’s illegitimate daughter, from a liaison with a Spanish dancer, Pepita, but her father inherited the very grand stately home through being the son of one of her grandfather’s brothers.  There was a court case – of course – and, this being the Sackville-Wests, a very colourful one.  Despite living in many other properties with Harold, including no Sissinghurst, where she built her amazing garden, Vita loved Knole with a passion.  In fact, on her wedding day, she almost didn’t get married because she couldn’t bear to leave Knole.

Vita Sackville-West wrote numerous novels and earns her living as a writer.  Harold also wrote, mostly factual books, fitting in how writing in between his high-profile career as a diplomat, which included being a secretary for the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War.  However what she is known for is her affairs with Violet Keppel and then Virginia Woolf.  The Violet affair is described in painstaking details, partly from Vita’s own diaries.  In the detail, we know and feel the pain and the conflict.  When Portrait of a Marriage was adapted for television, by  Penelope Mortimer, whom Nigel Nicolson describes as ‘somebody’s mother-in-law’, someone who had no time for ‘posh people’.  It is tempting to go for the juicy bit.  After all, sex is supposed to sell, isn’t it?  But this book is far deeper and more thoughtful than just sex.

I’m writing this on a train and Virgin Trains are letting me have only 15 minutes internet, so I’d better finish.  I’m stalling about the way I recommend books, so I’m changing the way I do it.  In future, I’m going to award stars, five being wonderful, one being awful.  For Portrait of a Marriage, I’m awarding FOUR.  It misses out on five because the end of the book, as Vita and Harold go into middle-age, drifts off a bit.   A very good read.




‘Heavenly Date And Other Flirtations’ by Alexander McCall Smith

 It is always a joy to read Alexander McCall Smith.

Nothing to do with the post, but I can’t source any pics on my iPad on this dodgy connection. Alexander McCall Smith IS Scottish, though.

‘Heavenly Date’ is a collection of short stories about people going on dates, ranging from the middle aged couple in Switzerland who spend thousands on casual gifts for each other, to the man picking up a prostitute and the young girl who has a picnic with an angel.  Many, but not all, of the stories are set in Africa, in the last days of empire.  Alexander has a feel for this continent and that particular age, which is unmatched, something which is reflected in his First Ladies Detective Agency stories (although these are set in a later period).  He always writes with such gentleness and at the slowest of slow paces.  ‘This is what I will I’ll do it. Yes, I will do it.’  These words are not an exact quote, of course, but they hit the general tone.

However, on the subject of style, I was irked by the number of times sentences in the same paragraph began with the words ‘There is…’ or ‘There are…’ and also by reps.  Alexander writes amazing stuff, but I also know that he churns it out very fast, two or three books per year.

Some of the stories ramble,  ‘Bulawayo’, for instance, which concerns two very sheltered and innocent twenty somethings in old Rhodesia, who couldn’t bring themselves to consummate their marriage.  The story ends in a way we in the twenty first century would find particularly shocking, except that, the way Alexander wrote it, it didn’t seem shocking at all.  For such an easygoing author, his work is deceptively intense and thoughtful.  The man is a polymath, someone who understands art, poetry, music and philosophy, but he wasn’t philosophising in this collection of stories.

So, great stuff, as usual and definitely worth reading.  McCall Smith books tend to be very expensive these days, so I was thrilled to be able to pick this one up, secondhand, in a village fete.  Have you noticed the sort of books that appear in charity shops, fetes and secondhand bookstalls?  I can tell you that, apart from one or two classics, Heavenly Date was the only one off this particular stall for which I felt motivated to part with even 50p.  All those authors who area held up to us as role models, people we have been are encouraged to emulate,  their books are piled up in these places – Dan Brown, especially.

Must dash.  I’m passing the time in my polling station – again – writing this on my iPad which is now down to 13%.  Also the Internet connection is dodgy.  Seven and a half hours to go, and over a hundred voters (out of less than four hundred) have already voted.  (If you’re reading this some time after posting, you’ll realise that this is being written on General Election Day.). Close watchers of this blog will have observed that this is my second book review of the day!

‘The Summer of Impossible Things’ by Rowan Coleman

Man asleep on motorbike in Saigon.

Man asleep on motorbike in Saigon.  Not at all relevant to post but I’m writing this on my iPad using a dodgy Internet connection and I can’t source images.

We are used to time being linear, the past happening before the present, the present before the future.  Although the past can influence the present and the future, and the present can also influence the future, it is not possible to alter the past to bring about a different present and future.

Luna and Pia’s mother, Marissa, has taken her own life after many years of depression, which she has taken pains to hide under a facade of family happiness.  At the start of the story, the two sisters travel from England to New York, where their mother grew up and where she met their father, Henry, a photographer involved in the filming of Saturday Night Fever (a real, girlie, teenage film, starring John Travolta).  Already they know, from videos Marissa left for them after her death, that Luna is not Henry’s daughter but the result of rape.  

Shortly after their arrival, Luna, rational Luna, thirty years old, a physicist, a young woman in a proper job, starts her time travel adventures.  She’s taken back to 1977, to when Saturday Night Fever was being shot in Bay Bridge, the Odyssey 2001 Club, teenagers in flares and mullet hair-dos, and – perish the thought – girls wearing dresses.  She meets her mother (known to her friends as ‘Riss’) as a young girl,  a dressmaker, a blue-collar Italian-American and a devout Catholic.  Riss is happy, in love with Henry, and with lots of friends, but Luna knows this is about to go terribly wrong.  If she can travel back in time, Luna wonders, can she change the past, can she prevent the rape happening to ruin her mother’s happiness?

Although the premise on which this novel is built is ingenious (as you see),  it took me some time to get into it, but then that might be me, as I’m not into time travel or fantasy of any sort.  The denouement that I expected happened at about 80%, but what made it all worth it was that, at that point, the storyline ratcheted up another gear, asking more questions and making more demands on the main character, some of them very difficult to resolve.

This is the first Rowan Coleman novel I’ve read, even though (I think) she is my Facebook friend, as she was running comps in Facebook posts a few years ago.  Her literary style is stunning.  She describes everything and everyone in lucid, meaningful detail, even characters who only appear in one brief scene.  This story involves a long cast, but we remember who is who because of the good descriptions.  The names of characters were also distinctive – Luna, and Pia’s nickname, Pea, which I thought delightful.  

A very emotional novel, this, although some characters needed development, Pea, for instance.  She started off as a fragile, recovering addict, and, although she seemed to grow in personal strength as the novel progressed, and we’re given to understand that she did kick her addictions, we’re not told how.

Do I recommend The Summer of Impossible Things.  Yes, definitely.

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

That’s what we say, isn’t it?   Even when we’re anything but fine.

Eleanor Oliphant is completely sure she is completely fine.  She has a degree in classics, a flat and a job.  She arrives at work punctually, has never taken a day off sick and doesn’t take all her annual leave.  True, her workmates find her unsociable and her manner is over formal, old fashioned and that she has some odd ideas – all gleaned from ‘Mummy’.  Eleanor is lonely, acutely lonely, existing through crosswords, interesting television documentaries and a bottle of vodka drunk over the course of the weekend.  She has no friends and doesn’t feel the need to acquire any, except, well, it might be nice, she thinks, to share life with a significant other.

Aerial view of Glasgow.

Aerial view of Glasgow (not my photo). Attrib Wikimedia.

On a rare visit to a gig, Eleanor develops a crush on a musician, Johnny Lomond (Tweeting as JohnnyRocks).  She is quite sure he is the one.  Starting with a painful bikini wax (an unusual first step in a fashion makeover), she devotes her energy and resources into her ‘project’ to get Johnny Lomond.  Meanwhile, her computer at work malfunctions so she has to call Raymond, the IT techie.  When he arrives at her desk to fix it, she extends her hand and introduces herself as ‘Miss Oliphant’.  Eleanor disapproves of Raymond, the casual way he wears his clothes, his speech, his emails, his timekeeping and his table manners.

One evening Eleanor and Raymond, happening to leave the office at the same time, see an elderly man, who is carrying shopping across the road, collapse.  Eleanor is all for doing nothing, remarking that the man is probably drunk, by Raymond goes straight in to help and, instinctively, involves Eleanor.  This is the point where some sunshine begins to creep into Eleanor’s lonely life, bitterly resisted at first, but, incrementally, with Raymond – a saint on the printed page – she thaws.  They become friends, close friends.

But what about the musician, Johnny Lomond?  What indeed?  He doesn’t know that he is supposed to be ‘the one’ for Eleanor, because she hasn’t met him face-to-face.  Can he really be the solution to all Eleanor’s loneliness, her relationship with her poisonous ‘Mummy’

, unpleasant reminisces of her early childhood and of being in foster care, and of some terrible ‘fire’ which she prefers to suppress?

This is the first novel published by Gail Honeyman.  She writes with confidence, setting the action in Glasgow, a city with which she is clearly familiar.  Eleanor’s character – old fashioned, prudish, snobbish, judgmental and brittle – is spectacular, spectacularly imagined and spectacularly depicted.  Raymond is a welcome, normal counter-balance.   It’s unusual to have the computer man as the normal one, also refreshing.

The plot rambles from time to time, but never loses its thread.  By half way through, the ending has become pretty obvious, and there are no twists, but it’s a satisfying ending.

This novel stands out against everything I’ve read recently.  I go back to the word I used before – spectacular.

Police Procedurals – Is There Anything Fresh to Write About?

Lincolnshire Fens

Lincolnshire Fens (not my pic)

Yes, I think so, and Joy Ellis is writing them.

Joy Ellis self-publishes eminently readable crime fiction, set in the Lincolnshire Fens.   Like many other contemporary British crime writers, Joy writes police-procedural and about strong, women women in the police, and she does it very well.  Altogether Joy has eight novels to her name – see her page on the very useful Books Series in Order site – and, for the latest book, Their Lost Daughters, Joy’s own website.  Joy writes about two sets of characters (both police officers and both based in the Fens):  ultra-tough and ultra-bitter Nikki Galena and gentler Joseph Easter and crew;  young, university-educated and fast-tracked DI Jackman and older, experienced DS Marie Evans, who happens also to be a biker.

Stalker on the Fens (Nikki Galena and Joseph Easter)

Nikki Galena and Joseph Easter are the better defined characters, the characters Joy seems most confident in writing about.  The two are a complete contrast, with Joseph Easter being sympathetically-drawn, gentle, wise and temperature, whereas Nikki Galena is just hard and tough.  The relationship between the two is well evolved, the sort of relationship that develops between colleagues in a tough environment, of mutual trust and dependence – a man and woman without any sexual or romantic element (Ohmigod!  Surely no such thing could ever happen!)

However, the plot line in ‘Stalker on the Fens’ just did not work for me.  Elements of it were good:  Helen, an aromatherapist, trapped in a building following an explosion, remembers another person, who is trapped in there with her, confessing to a murder.  Years down the line, she is being stalked and cannot come to terms with her memories.   Her partner is behaving strangely and seems unsupportive.   Then Helen is murdered.  Many questions are being asked, but the answers are too complicated and not satisfying.  Also, I do not believe that thousands of people would attend an event, which included flower floats being launched in the river at midnight, for an aromatherapist, however good she was.

The Murderer’s Son (DI Jackman and Marie Evans)

Marie Evans and DI Jackman are not so well drawn.  In fact, DI Jackman did not come alive to me at all, and we don’t realise that Marie is a bikey until well into the book.  I’ve ordered Their Lost Daughters and am hoping to get to know them better.

The plot to ‘The Murderer’s Son’ is compelling from the word go.  Daniel Kinder, a successful journalist, has a lot going for him, a developing career and a lovely girlfriend, Skye, with whom he has a good relationship, and a supportive home life with his adoptive mother.  However, he has come to believe that his natural mother was the violent murderer, Francoise Thayer, and,  when he  comes into the police station to confess to a particularly bloody recently committed murder,  Marie Evans disbelieves him.  When she asks him why, he answers that he ‘has it in him’.  We readers don’t want Daniel to be guilty, but he is obviously suffering from psychiatric problems, particularly from ‘absences’, when he cannot account from his actions.  The plot progressed well and the ending was satisfying.

Do I recommend these books?  Yes, definitely.

I’ve read several more books since then.  I’d better carry on reviewing!

‘Refugee Stories: Seven personal journeys behind the headlines’ by Dave Smith

This book contains seven personal stories of seven individual refugees in the United Kingdom.  All of them were supported by Boaz Trust, a Christian organisation accommodating destitute asylum seekers and refugees in Greater Manchester.  The author, Dave Smith, the founder of Boaz Trust, was awarded the British Empire Medal in 2012, but returned it in protest at UK asylum policies.

View of Manchester.

General View of Manchester (Creative Commons, Flickr)

Each man or woman’s account starts in the the refugee’s home country, where they suffer different but horrendous persecution, as a result of which they flee to northern Europe.   The main part of each story concerns their attempts to negotiate the immigration system in our country.  All bar one succeeded, although many had to endure many years, even up to a decade, in limbo beforehand.  Each story, written up using the asylum seeker’s own words, is harrowing, the emotion heightened by their being rambling, jumbled and muddled.  Frequently the refugees do not understand the process, often they made mistakes, sometimes they cheated, but they were desperate.  The reader understands why.

Some of the refugees tried to address wider concerns, such as how the refugee crisis is depleting the third world of skilled people.  Most of the asylum-seekers have well-qualified and started out in life as moderately well-to-do and many were involved in opposing repressive regimes.

The British Home Office come out of this book very badly: heartless; prejudiced against refugees, presuming that each application is bogus and making sweeping assumptions about countries being safe when they’re not; incompetent, losing files and not knowing the law properly.  What I see is a service acutely over-stretched, staffed by overworked officers, solicitors and social workers, making mistakes and pressured by social, political and security issues.

The author, in his blurb, admits that Refugee Stories is not a book to enjoy, and it isn’t.  Very sobering, very disturbing.

You can buy this book from Instant Apostle.

(I can think of no suitable illustration for this review, so above you see a view of Manchester.)

‘Standard Deviation’ by Katherine Heiny

At last I can review this book, which was released on 1 June 2017.

Origami crane

Origami crane (attrib wikipedia)

‘Standard Deviation’ is a thoroughly enjoyable read, but with a serious strain in it.  HarperCollins, on their website, recommend this book to readers of David Nicholls, Nick Hornby, Nora Ephron and Lorrie Moore, but I would recommend it to lovers of Woody Allen films, especially ‘Manhattan’.  Here you have middle class life in New York in all its quirky glory.

The theme of ‘Standard Deviation’ is being a parent of a child on the autistic spectrum, and how it affected just about everything.  Currently, many authors are writing about autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, and rightly so, as this condition is one of the big challenges of our age.   (You will recall my review of K A Hitchins’ The Girl at the End of the Road.)  More than 700,000 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum* – officially, that is.  I am sure that there are many others, especially adults, who remain undiagnosed.   However, the plot rambled.  Characters moved in and out of it.  Mc Graham’s involvement with his first wife and the cluelessness of his secretary added metropolitan charm and atmosphere (again, I’m thrown back to Woody Allen) but little else.   Subplots should add something to the main plot and these didn’t.

The strongest character in this novel is Audra (mc’s second wife and mother of his Asperger’s boy, Matthew).   The author, through mc, asserts that Asperger’s Syndrome being hereditary, at least one parent of an Asperger’s child is likely to display Aspergic tendencies.  Audra certainly did, as evidenced by her incessant talking, inability to understand when the person she was talking to was interested, and her many inappropriate comments. Audra was the strongest character in the book by far and what kept me reading.

This title may be purchased from HarperCollins.

*http://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is/myths-facts-stats.aspx (accessed 27 April 2017).