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Little Stranger - Sarah Waters

I finished reading Little Stranger by Sarah Waters two days ago, but I felt I needed a bit of time to absorb the book before writing a review. Sarah Waters is one of my favourite novelists, with Fingersmith ranking in my Top 10 books, so a new book by her is always something I look forward to. I have never been disappointed by any of her books yet; I can only rate them by comparing each to her other works. This book is no exception. Those following the Man Booker Prize will know that this is on the longlist. Being nominated generally means increased sales, but Little Stranger is already way ahead of the other books in this respect.

Set in post-war Warwickshire in the crumbling great house of the Ayres family, Hundreds Hall. Once grand and the centre of the community, Hundreds Hall and its owners have fallen in hard times. Mrs. Ayres struggles to maintain a facade, but the truth is that money is scarce, their farm is failing, and they cannot afford to maintain the house. The Ayres children, Roderick and Caroline, struggle to maintain a semblance of family life and keep the estate solvent. Into this setting comes Dr. Faraday, a GP who comes from humble origins (his mother was a domestic servant in Hundreds Hall) and still carries a vague obsession with the house and the lifestyle it represents. And then strange events start happening. Is Hundreds Hall haunted?

Dr. Faraday, the narrator, is very unimaginative and logical, offering rational explanations for everything. This can get irritating at times but, in hindsight, is essential. I don't want to give much away but some of the scenes are spectacularly spooky, and Dr. Faraday's explanations act as a cold damper to the tense situations. What intrigued me was that the book reveals nothing, right up to the last page. There are allusions and hints, but nothing is clarified, and the narrator's dry voice adds to the sense of mystery and frustration that the Ayreses themselves must be feeling. Waters leaves a lot of work to the reader who is free to make his own suppositions. It is very possible that every reader will come up with his own explanation, but I think I will build my assumptions around the concluding line of the book. A quick look around other blogs tells me that many others are doing the same.

For me the triumph of the book was the fantastic period atmosphere. As in her previous novels, Little Stranger benefits from historical research; the class distinctions in particular are wonderfully brought out. The Ayres family is baffled by the changes in social order and, for his part, so is Dr. Faraday, neither knowing quite how to treat the other.

This is the only book on the Booker list that I have read so far, so I cannot speculate on its chances, but I will admit to enjoying it a lot.


My First Persephone

I still cannot get over my very lucky find. I was browsing through the bookshelves of a charity shop when I saw the spine of a dove-grey book. Noooo, I thought, it couldn't be. But it was; a Persephone book sitting there with a price label of £1.79! And, believe it or not, it even had the bookmark in it. The spine is barely creased, it really looks and feels brand new.

I bought it without even looking at the title. It was only when I got home that I realised that I'd got They Knew Mr. Wright by Dorothy Whipple, one of Persephone's star authors.
I think I will save it for the Persephone Reading Challenge hosted by Paperback Reader and The B Files . At the moment, I am very happily stroking the cover, very much like Gollum with his ring. "It's mine."


The little phone

A rather embarrasing incident happened to me last night. I was in two minds whether to write about it as it paints a very silly picture of me, but judging by the hilarity it has brought into my house, I thought I'd share.

I was up last night reading Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Those who have read it and blogged about it will know that certain parts are quite spooky. Once my husband had gone to bed and the TV was thankfully switched off, I could really immerse myself into the book. At 2am I had just reached the bit where Simon describes his haunting on the night of the party. I don't want to give away plot details, but a very heavy object starts moving on its own. I was engrossed in it when I was disturbed by a low buzzing sound. I looked up and saw my mobile on the table...moving towards me. Now at any other time I would have realised that I had only received a text message and my phone was on vibrate-mode. But I was already made so nervy by the book that logic had gone out of the window. I shrieked, threw the book at my phone (those who've read the book will know that's no easy feat) and dashed out of the room. Of course, the scream and/or my undignified dive into the bed woke my husband up and I had to tell him about the moving phone. Even while telling the "story" I had started to realise how foolish I sounded, and I was mortified when I discovered the real reason behind the "incident". My husband roared with laughter for what felt to me like an hour.

It's 12 hours later, and he has still not let me forget it. He has taken to sending me texts saying just BOO. Ah well, a tale to tell the grandchildren.


Out Stealing Horses - Per Petterson

A friend has been singing the praises of this book for several months now. Originally in Norwegian, it was translated into the English by Anne Born, and has won a handful of awards including the 2007 Dublin IMPAC Award. My curiosity was piqued enough to request it from the library. I must admit that the cover did nothing for me; a rather desultory image of a horse grazing outside a ramshackle timber house. But here is a lesson on not judging a book by its cover - from a few pages in, the writing had begun to draw me in. Don't let the title put you off - the book is not about thieving, or even about horses. The phrase is simply a code that crops up several times in the story.

An elderly Trond Sander has cut ties with his life in the city and moved to an isolated cabin in a remote area of Norway. His wife and sister are dead, and he has not bothered to tell his daughters of his plans (a fact we learn later in the book). His only neighbour is another elderly man in a cottage a little distance away, a man who keeps to himself. Until one day, Trond meets him, and it triggers memories of a summer far back in his past, a summer that has shaped his life and character.

The story moves in three strands; Trond in the current time coming to terms with his life, the summer of 1948 which Trond spends with his father, and a third storyline set during the war and focussing on Trond's father. The story is narrated inside Trond's head, so there is very little dialogue. It is in effect a coming-of-age story told through the medium of an old man's memories. What sets the book apart is the writing. The prose is dreamy and languid, and the story unravels in the most unhurried pace. Petterson's language is very evocative; he describes haymaking and timber-felling in minute and poetic detail. His descriptions of nature are among the best I've read.
"I switch on the torch. It is blowing massively, there is chaos in the light from the torch when I swing it round, the reeds lie flat on the lake, white foam on the water, and there is a howling sound from the bare treetops bending over."

Be warned, the story is so simple that you might be left feeling a little let-down. If you're looking for a page-turner packed with incidents, this is not for you. This is a book in which nothing much happens, but the nothing much happens beautifully.


Happy Birthday

Today is my grandmother's birthday, her 75th. It isn't the happy occassion it should be as it will be the first she will celebrate without my grandfather who passed away earlier this year. After nearly 6 decades together, they had formed their own rituals and traditions, one of which was that he was always the first to wish her a happy birthday. She has decided not to celebrate her birthday this year and we are torn between respecting her wishes and trying to cheer her up with some cake and candles. Mmm...not sure which way we'll go yet.

What does this have to do with books, you may ask? Nothing, except that my grandmother was a huge influence in my life, and loved books. Admittedly she only read in her vernacular language (which I cannot read) and loves poetry (which I'm very slow to grasp) so we never discussed books. But watching her read was what started my love affair with books. Every free minute she got, she'd grab her book and curl up on the couch. I know I do the same now, so I hope I set as good an example for my daughter as she did for me.


The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett

If I had to use one word to describe this book, it would be quirky.

The Queen accidentally stumbles on the mobile library that visits the palace ground every week. Initially borrowing a book just to be polite, the Queen is soon develops an insatiable appetite for books. This apparently harmless activity throws her staff into disarray and confusion. She often becomes so lost in books that her maids fear she is becoming senile, and her private secretary worries how she will connect with a population who no longer reads for pleasure.

This is a very funny book, and I found myself sniggering at several parts. One image that had me chuckling is of the royal couple having a row just before setting out in the carriage to open Parliament, and the duke "waving viciously" to the gathered crowds. I have never imagined the Queen and Prince Philip rowing like any other married couple. And Bennett has got the voice of the Queen and the Duke just right, they almost jump off the page. For example, when asked about Cecil Beaton, the Duke says "Never liked the fellow. Green shoes." Spot on!

As much as this is a story starring the Queen, it is also a story of readers everywhere, and those who have to share a life with them. Reading is described as a "selfish activity", and I wondered if that was true. After all, we readers are off in our imagined lands living through fantastic tales, and our family and colleagues have to wait patiently for us to come back to Earth and reconnect with them. My husband often says that he knows when I'm reading a good book, as I stop speaking to him. Oops!

Did anyone else like this book as much as I did?

The House At Riverton - Kate Morton

I read Kate Morton’s second book The Forgotten Garden earlier this year and was captivated by the story, finishing it in two days flat. I was eager to read her debut novel but my TBR pile was so high that it took me half a year to get started on it.

From its opening line, I was hooked.
“Last November I had a nightmare. It was 1924 and I was at Riverton again.
The very obvious reference to du Maurier’s Rebecca sets the tone for the rest of the book. It's a Gothic mystery set in a sprawling English country house, a family torn by misunderstandings, jealousies and thwarted ambitions. It even has a mysterious death in a lake house. Instead of the scary Mrs. Danvers however, we have the charming Grace who joins Riverton's domestic staff as a naive girl of fourteen and who narrates the story as a ninety-nine year old woman at death's door. In 1924, a famous poet shot himself at the lake house at Riverton on the eve of a glamourous society party, witnessed only by the Hartford sisters. It is a clear case of suicide, but Grace is privy to the secret of what really happened, a secret she is determined to take with her to the grave.

The mystery itself is intriguing. I tried to second-guess the author through the book, and the ending still came as a surprise. But the mystery isn't all that appealed to me. The first half of the book brilliantly brings to life the divide between the people upstairs and downstairs. It made me empathise with the bond of loyalty that tied the servants to the household, a feeling that we in the modern world struggle to understand. This way of life is rocked by WW1, and again Morton brings to life the damage the war iinflicted on the soldiers who returned but could not assimilate into 'normal' life.
"[the war] took perfectly normal young men and returned them changed. Broken."
And forming the backdrop to all these events is the effervescent 1920s, the decade when the social order and constraints of the previous century were overturned.

The only criticism I would make is the pace of the book, especially in the first half. Some editing in the first hundred pages would have improved the tempo immeasurably. In spite of that, I would recommend this book, especially as a light summer read.


And so it begins...

Thus I enter the world of book-blogging...

I'm no stranger to blogging, but so far I have only written about the antics of my little girl, meant only for family and close friends to read. This is my first foray into writing for a wider (and more invisible) audience. I do hope someone comes to visit and read my musings, or my blog will remain the cyber equivalent of standing on a lonely road and shouting into the night.

Between looking after The Cheeky One and running my own architectural practice, I get very little spare time. But every minute I do get is spent on reading and baking - there's nothing better than a good book with a slice of yummy cake. Unless, of course, it's a cup of strong tea.

Wish me luck! And do join me in my journey into the blogosphere.