December 20th, 2012

book and cup

#130 An Inventory of Heaven - Jane Feaver (2012)

Kindly sent to me by the publishers.
As this novel opens in 2006 Mavis Gaunt is seventy years old, living in the Devonshire cottage she once inherited from her aunt. She is surrounded by people she has known for many years, still deeply affected by the memories of long ago. When Eve and her young son Archie arrive in the village and strike up a friendship with Mavis, it awakens more memories of the past for Mavis, and especially of events that took place in the winter of 1963. Eventually troubled single mum Eve, whose mother was from Shipleigh originally, is able to settle some of the questions about her own past.
As a child, Mavis Gaunt was evacuated to the village of Shipleigh in Devon during the war, living with an aunt of her father’s. Later Mavis returns to London and her warring parents, taking with her, her memories of the elusive Frances Upcott and her brothers, Robert and Tom. It is a time that is short lived, and in the years that follow, boarding school, life in London with her French mother, she remembers Shipleigh as a kind of heaven.
“It was customary, if the weather was fair, to conduct the extended assembly outdoors in the schoolyard. Duly, Mr Bird had fetched the maypole from the shed. He’d set it up in the middle of the dirt patch, anchoring it with sandbags disguised with bundles of lightings borrowed from the wood store. Against the yard wall, he was in the process of arranging two rows of a dozen or so small wooden chairs to accommodate the audience.”
However it is not until the 1960’s when she is in her twenties that Mavis finds reason to return to shipleigh, this time to stay. Now she and Frances become uneasy friends and Mavis begins to involve herself in the lives of the Upcott’s farm.
I really enjoyed An Inventory of Heaven, and I am glad I got a chance to read it; not having heard of the author, I didn’t know what to expect from this her third novel. Though if I am honest I don’t think I expected that much of it. I like it when I am proved to be wrong. An Inventory of Heaven is actually hugely readable with some good characterisation, I especially liked Mavis, while other characters, who are maybe less likeable, are interesting because they are flawed. There is a non-linear structure to this extremely readable novel, a structure which I do still quite like, and think works well, although it is a device that is used so much these days that it ceases to be as powerful as it once was. As a hook to keep the reader waiting for a big reveal of course it is very effective, however, if I am honest, I do think, it is becoming a rather obvious way of telling a story across two time periods. As I have said, it’s a device I quite like, but then I read fewer of these contemporary novels than I did, and so encounter it less often. I am aware however that many novels now are written in this way. On the plus side there is a really wonderful sense of time and place, particularly in some of the early sections of the novel set during a rural wartime. There is a reflective nostalgic feel to this novel which I really enjoyed.
“It wasn’t until years after it all happened that I was able to discover this: that in the backs of kitchens and village halls, in choir stalls, at bus stops, there are places where scraps of love persist.”
cats on bookshelf

Book 169: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Book 169: The Casual Vacancy.
Author: J. K. Rowling, 2012
Genre: Contemporary. Tragicomedy. Relationships. Social issues. Politics. Drugs. Domestic/Sexual violence.
Other Details: Hardback. 503 pages.

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils...Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity, and unexpected revelations? - synopsis from publisher's website.

I was pleasantly surprised at how good this novel was. I wasn't planning on reading it but the librarian in charge of our monthly reading group encouraged us to borrow copies and I am so pleased that she did. I found that it exceeded my expectations and proved a compelling read. It is very different to the Harry Potter series though Rowling's emphasis upon character and strong story-telling that made the fantasy series so memorable was clearly in evidence throughout. She has an ensemble cast of characters and while few are likeable, they do come across as very human in terms of their personalities. I did print out a newspaper article that listed the novel's characters and found this a very handy way to keep track of them.

Its emphasis upon local politics and the secrets lurking under the surface of small West Country town reminded me of Winifred Holtby's 'South Riding', written in 1936, which shared many of the same underlying themes such as the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, welfare and education issues and the often cut-throat aspects of local politics. The language is very strong in places and drug use and sexual and domestic violence are depicted. It isn't all doom and gloom though the humour is quite dark.

The Casual Vacancy is a novel that will not appeal to everyone and will likely not be well received by anyone that expected the kind of whimsy found in the Potter series. I noted on Goodreads that quite a few members were very excited about the news of its publication on the basis of their love of the Harry Potter books and then expressed disappointment at the actuality. Still it did win the 2012 Goodreads Choice for Best Fiction 2012, which shows that quite a few readers share my opinion of its worth. The novel is being adapted as a mini-series by the BBC for 2014.

"J K Rowling's first novel for adults, a full-on evocation of modern British class war, is hugely impressive" - glowing review in 'The Guardian' in which the reviewer draws some interesting resonances between it and the Harry Potter novels.

50 Book Challenge 48-50

#48 High on Arrival by Mackenzie Phillips- New read. I definitely have more respect for Mackenzie Phillips after reading this book. It's a wonder that she's even still alive with all the drugs and alcohol that she's ingested over her lifespan. I appreciated her very candid way of telling the 'story' of her life.

#49 Here's the Story:Surviving Marcia Brady and Finding my Own Voice- New read. I appreciated the candid way she told her story and I have say was surprised to learn about her own trials with drugs, etc.

#50A Little House Sampler: A collection of Early Stories and Reminisces by Laura Ingalls WIlder, Rose Wilder Lane and William Anderson (Editor). New Read. Absolutely loved reading this collection of stories, newspaper articles, and essays written by Laura and Rose. I have been a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder ever since I read the Little House books for the first time when I was a child.