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Saturday 23 July 2011

A Month In The Country

by J L Carr

Somehow or other I managed to reach the age of 47 without ever reading J.L. Carr’s brilliant novella, ‘A Month in the Country’, or seeing the film-of -the-book. Half of that deficiency, at least, has now been rectified.

Being an expansive sort of writer myself (for which, read rambling and verbose), I am always amazed by what other authors can manage to convey in a small space – and Carr crams a whole world of feeling and ideas into just 85 short pages. I read the book in a few hours and re-surfaced from the experience disorientated, to find nothing around me looking quite the same as it had.

The essential story is simple enough. It is 1920 and Tom Birkin, a twenty-something signaller who survived the trenches physically but still bears the psychological scars, arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby, where he has been commissioned to uncover a medieval wall painting in the church. Birkin beds down for the summer on an army camp-bed in the church tower while, in a field adjoining the churchyard, a fellow war veteran and archaeologist by the name of Moon is also camping out, having been hired to locate the grave of a villager’s fourteenth century crusader forebear, who was excommunicated and buried on unconsecrated ground; she wants him found and brought back within the pale.

The book is hard to encapsulate because it is so many things at the same time. In part, it is a medieval mystery, as we seek the reason for the excommunication of Moon’s old crusader and what his connection might be with Birkin’s re-emerging mural in the church. It is also a love story, tracing the quiet course of Birkin’s undeclared passion for the vicar’s wife. And it is a lyrical, nostalgic portrait of the life of an English village one glorious summer, before the combustion engine drove out plodding hooves, before autumn’s chilly bite and the disappointments of the years, ‘when life is brimming with promise and the future stretches confidently ahead like that road to the hills’.

It is also a book about healing. The wall painting which Birkin brings painstakingly to life is a Judgment – a ‘Doom’. And if the tortured representations of the damned on their descent to hell are an echo of the horrors of Flanders, the English countryside surely represents the Elysian fields, full of the promise of redemption. We watch as Birkin is gradually unlocked from his shell-shocked inner prison, by the sun on his skin, and through tentative steps towards friendship, not only with the lovely Mrs Revd Keach, but with the archaeologist Moon and a small cast of other village characters, all depicted with affection and wit in Carr’s delicate brushwork, as fine as the medieval masterpiece on the chancel arch.

And now for the film. I gather it features a young Colin Firth. (((Do not disturb)))

Reviewed by Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton is the author of 'The Tapestry Of Love', 'Crossed Wires', 'More Than Love Letters' and 'Hearts And Minds'.

You can find out more about her at her website here and you can buy her books here.

I'm a big fan of Rosy's books and you can find my reviews of 'The Tapestry Of Love' here and 'Crossed Wires' here.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Crow Lake

by Mary Lawson

What is it about Canada that produces such sensitive, far-reaching fiction? Perhaps it’s the landscape, at once vast and enclosed within its highlands and valleys, studded as it is with fertile lakes and rivers. There’s something of isolation in this writing, something which produces these huge stories of ordinary people contained within small places. Already a great fan of female Canadian writers such as Alice Munro, Joan Barfoot and Margaret Atwood, I was immediately interested when my agent suggested I’d enjoy reading 'Crow Lake' by Mary Lawson.

In 'Crow Lake', Kate Morrison is the first person narrator and youngest child of a young family growing up against the beautiful but harsh landscape of rural Northern Ontario. From the outset we are drawn in, as the first chapter closes dramatically, with a significant, heart-wrenching tragedy, which will ultimately propel the Morrison children into unknown and troubling new directions.

Kate’s two older brothers are entirely believable characters, attempting to step up and become the men of the household, betrayed only by their adolescent flaws and naive views of the world. The daily sacrifices are many, and the sister’s retrospective view of their shared history shows us the pain of family members who have, with no obvious awareness of it, outgrown each other with the passing of time. From Kate’s vantage point Lawson unveils the real story with subtlety and closely controlled emotional insight, to reveal a complex, unpredictable and deeply affecting story of a family falling apart at the seams.

From the beautiful descriptions of harsh, magnificent rural Ontario to the evocative storytelling across the generations, Mary Lawson’s 'Crow Lake' is a story which lingers – compelling, lyrical and wise. I can’t believe it took me this long to discover Mary Lawson, but now that I have I’ll be looking out for her future work. And so, without further ado, I’m off to order her second novel 'The Other Side of the Bridge' – yet another book to add to my ever-increasing Summer reading pile!

Reviewed by Isabel Ashdown

Isabel Ashdown is the author of ‘Glasshopper’ and ‘Hurry Up And Wait'. Bookersatz reviews can be found here and here.

She is published by Myriad Editions.

You can see Isabel’s website (complete with Eighties Hall Of Fame/Shame) here.

Monday 11 July 2011

An Interview With Tana French

There is an interview with the author of 'Faithful Place' Tana French on my main blog, Fiction Is Stranger Than Fact, today.

You can read my review of 'Faithful Place' here.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Private Life

by Jane Smiley

I have been a huge fan of Jane Smiley since "A Thousand Acres," her novel based on King Lear published in 1991. That novel stayed in my mind as one of my favourites for a long time, although I didn't read much of her other work, until I stumbled upon "Moo", in the late 90's. Then I lost track of her until she came out with the marvelously useful, honest, funny and erudite "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel", which grew out of her sudden inability to write novels after years and years of work. In that book she uses her block to read 100 of the best novels ever written, review them and try to discover why, for her, some of them work and some don't. Jane Smiley is a stubborn and creative problem-solver after my own heart, so when I read that she had published a new novel, I bought it and placed it on the very top of my tbr pile.

"Private Life" is wonderful. As a story, it is quiet, truthful, straight-forward, moving. As a piece of fiction, it is inspirational. A small, ordinary life is set against the epic sweeps of early 20th Century history. But in Smiley's hands, the small becomes crucial and the epic secondary. On the cover, under the title, the publishers (I assume) have written "Marriage can sometimes be the loneliest place". Yes, "Private Life" is about a woman lost in a passionless marriage to a self-absorbed, misguided though well-meaning man. But it is about much more than just that. It is about choosing to adapt -- or not -- when the world goes crazy. It is about the role of friendship. It is about choosing to know yourself or not. Choosing to be true to yourself, or not. Choosing and the consequences of those choices.

From the viewpoint of technique, it is a masterclass. How to have your character speak a dialogue about one thing while thinking something completely different at the same time....how to find the appropriate narrative voice.....using third person narrative and still getting into all the characters' heads....how to portray the passage of time without leaving your reader to wonder where it all went. Plus, there's more than a smattering of cosmology and the evolution of scientific thought.

"Private Life" is an extraordinarily generous book. Smiley is an extraordinarily generous writer. If you don't know her work, it's high time you did. Buy this book.

Reviewed by Sue Guiney

Sue is the author of 'A Clash Of Innocents', 'Tangled Roots', 'Her Life Collected' and 'Dreams of May'.

She is published by Ward Wood, and you can find out more about her here and on her website.

You can read Sue's blog here.

My review of 'A Clash Of Innocents', which is one of the best books I've read in recent years, is here. And you can read a review of 'Tangled Roots' here.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Grave Dance

by Kalayna Price

(Part of the Alex Craft series)

'Grave Dance' was a good read. When I first started it I did not remember anything from 'Grave Witch' (its predecessor). I re-read my review which did not have enough details in it to remind me of anything, so I decided to get it out of my library and re-read it.

I read the first few chapters again and the characters and story started coming back to me. I read the last fifteen pages again and remembered. I really liked 'Grave Witch' and was now looking forward again to seeing what happened to Alex, Falin, Caleb, Holly, Rianna, and even Death. I was not too fond of Alex's father and sister by the end of 'Grave Witch', but, I had high hopes for her father.

In this latest portion of the story, Alex is called out to use her grave witch gifts to help the police when body parts are found in a remote area of "Nekros". I am not sure where the name of this city comes from but, it reminds me of New Orleans when it is described throughout the book. Alex is brought into the investigation and the story goes sideways. I was not in love with part of the way the end unfolded. But, it was not enough to keep me from the story or to stop me from enjoying 'Grave Dance'.

'Grave Dance' was intricately woven with detail and what appears to be several story lines. I cannot imagine the map or flowchart Kalayna Price had to use to keep up with things. This story started out as a mystery that appeared to be tied to the Fae and then it appeared to be tied to the witches, then the collectors. To borrow from Winston Churchill, "it was a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma." For a while I thought I would get confused by the way the mystery was unfolding especially when Fae politics came calling. I love Fae politics. I detest the machinations of some of the Fae, but, it makes for great entertainment.

One of the things that I found myself liking about Alex is that she was strong but, she had a couple of major weaknesses, some of which revolved around the use of her powers. The other revolved around her relationships with her friends and men. The unfolding of one of the relationships was a zinger and I loved it. Alex showed some serious backbone and I loved how she stayed true to herself, especially as she learned more about her own past and met people that were more a part of her life then she realized.

In addition to Fae machinations we get to see more about Death and his cohorts. We also get a better glimpse at how his and Alex's relationship evolved. Another great thing about 'Grave Dance' is Roy the ghost. I'm happy to see he is part of the story. He is great! Not only is he funny, but, he makes an excellent sidekick. Although his story is told in 'Grave Witch', we get reminders of what happened in that story, which makes it a bit easier for people who read 'Grave Dance' without knowing it has a predecessor. You can read it without it but, you miss out on a great story if you do not start out with 'Grave Witch'. I look forward to the next installment in the Alex Craft series.

Reviewed by Lady Techie

Saturday 2 July 2011

The Blackhouse

by Peter May

A MURDER: A brutal killing has taken place on Scotland's most remote island. Detective Fin MacLeod is sent from Edinburgh to investigate. For Lewis-born MacLeod, the case represents a journey both home and into his past. A SECRET: Something lurks beneath the close-knit, God-fearing fa├žade of the Lewis community. Something primal. As Fin investigates, old secrets are unearthed, and soon he, the hunter, becomes the hunted.

This novel is richly textured with mono and polychrome narratives in an innovative style that places it in a genre all of its own. The writing is exceptional, almost hypnotic in places and will run you the full gamut of your emotions. Be prepared for 'The Blackhouse' to play on your mind long after you put it down each day.

There is an inspiring video about the author's journey with this book here.

Reviewed by D J Kirkby

D J Kirkby is a registered midwife, mother, wife, and writer.

She is the author of 'Without Alice'.

You can find D J's website here. Follow her on Twitter here, and view a video preview of 'Without Alice' here.