Friday, 23 December 2011

The Best of 2011

So what has stayed in my head after a year of reading?

Of the fiction I read, I'm still thinking about Sue Gee's 'The Mysteries of Glass'  and Maggie O'Farrell's 'The Hand that First Held Mine' - both fabulous novels.    'Sex and Stravinsky' by Barbara Trapido is up there too with Michael Ondaatje's 'Divisadero' (though I'm still mulling that one over).

The most memorable of the light romantic reads is Linda Gillard's 'House of Silence', though it's certainly more than romantic fiction and Avril Joy's 'The Orchid House' runs it a close second. My favourite short stories were the Raymond Carver collection 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love'.

I've read a lot of poetry this year and the ones that have 'stuck' are Selected Poems by Carol Ann Duffy and the collected poems of Tomas Transtromer.  Of the new collections that have come my way this year I've loved Isobel Dixon's 'The Tempest Prognosticator' and Tim Jones' 'Men Briefly Explained'.  Both would have to be up for the 'Title of the Year' prize!

Top of the list for crime fiction has to be 'Snowdrops' by A.D. Miller, the Montalbano novels of Andrea Camilleri, the latest Anne Zouroudi and, of course, Kate Atkinson.  It's been a good year for crime novels.

Best non-fiction has to be Matthew Hollis's biography of Edward Thomas (though it never went deep enough for me), and the wonderful biography of Raymond Carver, A Writer's Life, by Carol Sklenicka.

The most disappointing book of the year, for me, had to be John le Carre's 'Our Kind of Traitor', which was so structurally flawed I was consciously re-arranging it in my head as I was reading.  He's a wonderful writer, but this was way below par.  

Unfinished Reads:    I haven't managed to finish The Crimson Petal and the White, so that's my main aim for 2012.  This year has been so busy, long books have been at a disadvantage. 

Looking forward to seeing what's on my Christmas Kindle (I have a wish-list 3 pages long on Amazon!)  -  and hoping for a hardcopy of Julia Blackburn's Thin Paths in Italy.  She lives just over the border from me in Liguria, but in the same mountains and I can't wait to see what she has to say about this area.

Tanti Auguri for Christmas and New Year to everyone!   And happy reading!

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Orchid House: Avril Joy

I made a resolution quite a while ago to read (and hopefully review) one self-published e-book a month.  This month my chosen read is Avril Joy's 'The Orchid House', with its luscious cover -  positively inviting you to pick it up.  Sadly on Kindle it comes up as black and white - but maybe soon Kindle will get its act together and discover full colour!

If you love romantic fiction with a darker undertow, gardening and garden history then the Orchid House will please you.   There's a lot of (very good) sex in the book too - and it takes real talent to write about sex well.  Gardening, when you think about it, is all about sex - breeding plants, fertilising seeds, earth, nurturing fruit and flower.  I have to say that this is one of the most erotic novels I've read for a while.  From the steamy tropical ambience of Sri Lanka to the hot-houses of Trescombe in England, the reader is treated to sensual prose unfolding a plot that is both tragic and compelling.

The heroine, 27 year old Roma, has just lost her lover, who drowned  while body-surfing in rough seas off the coast of Sri Lanka.  She returns to England, unable to move on with her life, until she takes up a project, illustrating the 19th century diary of the head gardener at Trescombe - a stately home in Cornwall.  She begins to make a relationship with Will, the current head gardener, though neither of them seem able to commit to each other.  He is curiously withdrawn, and his real passion is for rare orchids, the most beautiful and mysterious of plants, and he spends a great deal of his time in the hot-houses where they grow.  But the orchid house conceals a terrible secret, and there has been another death by drowning ......

Into Roma's emotional twilight comes the sadistic Max, owner of Trescombe, and sexually irresistible to both men and women.  The whole situation becomes explosive and the lives of Roma, Will and Trescombe itself are all put in jeopardy.  But, of course, as a romance, all is healed in the end, the heroine gets the right hero and all is well.   I really didn't know how it was all going to work out and was very happy with the way the story was  concluded.

This is Avril Joy's second published book - the first was The Sweet Track, published by Flambard Press and very well received.   The story of  how it got into print and the reasons why she decided to publish her second novel herself are told on Avril's blog here.   The Orchid House nearly made it to Headline and Bloomsbury.  You have to ask yourself why they didn't take the plunge, since this is a very good read that's pleasing many people at the moment (8 four or five star reviews on amazon).   Are publishers going mad at the moment?  Or just lost in the new landscape of BookWorld?  They do seem to be turning down some very good reads. 

For me, there's only one little niggle - as with most Kindle books (even - alas - the top publishers) there are a few typos and formatting errors,  but these are easy to overlook when the story is so good.  What all e-published authors need is a good editing service at an affordable price - it's quite a different art to the usual kind of copy-editing.  Having fallen foul of the conversion process myself, I'd be first in the queue to sign up!

Avril talks about her life as a writer in prison 'Twenty Five Years Behind Bars',  and her writing, over on the Authors Electric Blogspot. 

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Helen Rappaport: Magnificent Obsession

The Death that Changed the Monarchy

I'm not a Royalist, in fact I'm a rabid Republican (you can always get rid of a President, royalty's a bit more tricky)  and in 1792 I would probably have been out on the streets of Paris cheering the tumbrils - though I like to think I might have been a bit more humanitarian!  So, my reading of Helen Rappaport's beautifully written book on Victoria and Albert, 'Magnificent Obsession', has been a little biased.  

Victoria is revealed as a spoilt and self-obsessed young woman who retreated into hysterical grief on the death of her husband at the age of 42, completely neglecting her children and her role as head of state.  This, to me, is not magnificent - it's appalling that she was allowed to get away with it.  But, under the protocols of the time, only Albert had been in a position to put limits on her behaviour.  

He wrote Victoria a letter shortly before he died, when she was grieving hysterically for her mother (an ominous precursor of what was to follow),  exhorting her  to 'try to be less occupied with yourself and your own feelings'..... Pain was 'chiefly felt by dwelling on it and can thereby be heightened to an unbearable extent....   this is not hard philosophy, but common sense supported by common and general experience. If you will take increased interest in things unconnected with personal feelings, you will find the task much lightened of governing those feelings in general which you state to be your great difficulty in life.'

Her children, the youngest only 3, had their lives plunged into gloom by Victoria's obsessive mourning, forbidden to play with friends or go to parties or other social occasions.  Her eldest son, Bertie, was rejected for being the cause - in her eyes - of Albert's demise.   Victoria's children gave her no comfort.   She told a visitor that 'she had never taken pleasure in the society of her children as most mothers did.'  Albert had been her entire world.

The book focuses on what Victoria's retreat from public life did to the politics and economy of the country -  it is a fascinating study of how the private behaviour of a head of state can have far-reaching effects on the public health of the country.   Her obstinate refusal to 'do her job' did not make her, or her family, popular, especially when she expected Parliament to dig deep into its pockets to fund her growing brood.

I shared the country's outrage when Parliament was asked to vote £100,000 a year out of tax revenue to fund Bertie and his Danish wife Alex, in a life of luxury and idleness, at a time when a skilled labourer might earn 30s a week, a housemaid £12 a year, and even a bank clerk only around £90 per annum.  There were people starving in Lancashire at the time due to a shortage of cotton caused by war in America, but Victoria, locked into her grief, was oblivious to anything happening outside her darkened room.

She was, at the time, paying £200,000 for the mausoleum at Frogmore and complaining that English, instead of German, was being spoken too often at court.  Her insistence on finding all her children German wives and husbands, was to have lasting consequences for Britain.  Kaiser Fritz, her favourite, in particular, though Victoria never lived to see the result of her dynastic manouevres.

Helen Rappaport writes lucidly and impartially on Victoria's  great obsession, and brings the woman vividly alive, as well as making very clear just how much Albert did for Britain and how much we lost when he died.  It's a book I'm enjoying very much.