Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #06: Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore

If you don’t know Zennor is a tiny, sleepy, village on the West Coast of Cornwall, Zennor in Darkness sounds like some sort of epic fantasy thriller, involving armies wielding sword and shield and horned battle-helmet, magicians with lots of consonants in their names, a couple of fire-breathing creatures, and a hero who saves the world and gets the girl. Dunmore’s beautiful, shadowy, slippery novel is anything but epic, however–although there is a war; it’s in the trenches in France and under the seas around the coast of England–which is why the lights are out.

Claire Coyne is something of a misfit in the village–her mother’s family and her cousins are fishermen and farmers, and her father Francis is from the impoverished gentry near London. She’s an artist trying to do more than illustrate her father’s work on nature. Although she loves the land, she’s unsure about her relationship with it and her family. Her favourite cousin, John William, is fighting in France, but comes home on a brief leave with shell-shock. David Herbert Lawrence is broke, attempting to escape his scandalised public and publishers and return to nature in a tiny farmhouse near Zennor, ekeing out a meager living from the land with his German wife Frieda, a cousin of Manfred von Richthoven, the Red Baron. Cornwall is a hotbed of wary patriotism and parochialism, which swiftly becomes paranoia as the news from the Front gets worse and censorship and propaganda spread. Then tragedy strikes, and Claire, her family, and the Lawrences are involved in its aftermath…

Told from multiple perspectives, Dunmore’s novel nevertheless moves as a coherent whole. A sense of unreliability is gradually introduced–and although we become irritated with the blinkers of suspicion and xenophobia some characters seem determined to wear, they remain logical, and an uneasy sense that the conclusions they jump to might be right lingers. D.H. Lawrence and his wife are drawn sympathetically, as are the young people living in the shadow of the war and trying to snatch something to hold close before the wreckage. The paranoia of the country people and the rumours they spread, and feed, almost becomes another character in the novel, so deftly it is evoked, and the sense of danger to anyone with a different language–whether it’s German like Frieda’s or the Northern accents of Lawrence, or the slightly more upper-class inflections of Clare and her father, seems sadly real. There are moments of light and humour, and achingly sensual moments of love, but overall, this is a story fractured by shadows and unreliable in its contours.

(Penguin, 1993, 2007)

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #28: The Ocean at The End of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

06-26-Reads-Ocean-at-the-End-of-the-Lane-by-Neil-GaimanWould you believe that this is only the second Neil Gaiman book that I’ve ever read? I know, I am disappointed in this reading gap too, as it has happened for no good reason. I enjoy Gaiman’s writing immensely, and his new novel, The Ocean at The End of The Lane did not disappoint.

Existing in that shadowy space between reality and dream, our unnamed narrator visits the Sussex farmland of his childhood neighbors. At seven years old, he spent a surreal series of nights with Lettie Hempstock and her mother and grandmother – a past he hasn’t given much thought to until now. From there, we are submerged in those dark times when a man committed suicide near his home, and his relationship with his family became frightening. Seeming far older than her outwardly young appearance, Lettie promises to take care of the boy, and what happens is a story that I think will require a reread to fully appreciate in detail.

(Read the rest of my review at Persephone Magazine.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Reviews #23-27: Strayed, Martin, Attenberg, Shaprio, Mignola & Golden

tiny-beautiful-things-sugar-strayedTiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

Sugar is magic. Cheryl Strayed’s online (and originally anonymous) alter-ego has a way of dispensing advice that speaks directly to one’s core. Through the questions posed to her about love, lust, and loneliness, she tells stories about her own life that are a blow to the chest. Her honesty is wrapped in gentle, hard truths that are applicable beyond the specific question-writer.

Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of many of the columns that originally appeared on The Rumpus, as well as several previously unpublished questions. Strayed also talks a bit about the how/why she decided to take on this writing gig, and also her thought process leading into shedding Sugar’s anonymity. Even though I had already read many of the columns when they first posted, going over them again felt nearly as potent. This book is a lovely addition for anyone who has ever asked, Am I okay?

StoriesForBoys_CoverStories For Boys: A Memoir by Gregory Martin

I read this touching memoir in one sitting. Beginning with the suicide attempt of his father, Gregory Martin discovers why the man who raised him has reached this point. Not only was his father sexually abused as a child, but he has also been a closeted gay man throughout the entirety of his 39 year marriage. He has admitted to Martin’s mother that he has sought out “hundreds” of unknown partners at parks and rest stops while traveling and while the rest of the family slept at home. Because they lived in Spokane, Washington, the settings were very familiar to me, having myself lived there for several years.

Though the book focuses on Martin’s perspective and not his father’s, this isn’t a simple story of “troubled man comes out” — this is about a father and a son having to navigate an almost entirely new relationship. It’s an interesting exploration of memory, identity, and empathy, and I’m glad I read it.

(Full Disclosure: Hawthorne Books provided me with the e-book for review.)

middlesteins-jami-attenbergThe Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

I’ve followed Jami Attenberg’s work online for several years now, but I must admit that this is the first novel of hers that I’ve read (a gap I plan to remedy soon). The Middlesteins is, so far, also her most successful book, and for good reason. She has written a family saga that feels very grounded in reality, centered around matriarch Edie. Edie cannot stop eating or obsessing over food, and it is severely affecting her health. Her husband, Richard, after decades of marriage, leaves her, and now her adult children are wondering how they can care for her and process their parents’ split, all while managing their own complicated lives.

One of the things I loved about the book is that Attenberg does not write caricatures. In the hands of lesser writers, a character like Edie could have dissolved into one-dimensional stereotype, but she is a whole person full of humor and love. The other family members, with all their quirks and problems, receive the same honest treatment. Though the plot deals with serious subject matter, it’s also a very funny book.

the-art-forger-shapiroThe Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

I picked up this novel on whim from the new books section at the library, and it was a lovely surprise. Using the real life art heist from the Isabella Gardner Museum in 1990, B.A. Shapiro has created a fictionalized story about a disgraced painter, Claire, who has been asked by a famous gallery owner to copy a Degás — the same Degás stolen from the museum. However, the more time Claire spends with this ill-begotten painting, the more she suspects that it may also be a forgery.

Because I’m a sucker for heist stories and because I’m quite interested in visual art, I enjoyed unraveling the mystery of what had really happened during the time of the theft and in the 19th century when the painting was originally created. There’s a whole side-plot about why Claire has a poor reputation in the art world that is also quite interesting, and though I could work out some of the twists on my own, the complete ending still held plenty of surprises.

father-gaetano-mignolaFather Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

A friend recommended this novella for our book club selection, and I’m so pleased that she did because I’m not sure it would have otherwise crossed my attention. Set during WWII, Father Gaetano is assigned as the sole priest in a small Sicilian village, where not only must he conduct every mass, he must also see after the spiritual care of the many orphans who are now living at the church. To better engage the children in their catechism lessons, he brings up an old puppet set from the basement. What he doesn’t know is that the puppets believe that the stories are real, and after dark they appear without strings. What happens next is a series of disturbing events that affect everyone involved, all while subtly mirroring the national turmoil surrounding the village.

Though I am not well-versed in Catholic symbolism, I found Father Gaetano utterly compelling. Told from the points-of-view of the priest, a nun, and one sensitive boy who lives there, we are able to understand different ways how one can question their faith, and how they react when bravery is required. It’s a quick read interspersed with dark illustrations, and is yet another example of my need to occasional widen my reading repertoire.

(This post originally appeared on Persephone Magazine.)

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #50: The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee

Like a cookie full of arsenic, this is a flinty bon-bon of a read. A curiosity from one of America’s cheekiest sweethearts, Gypsy Rose Lee wrote this murder mystery set in the backstage world of NYC’s burlesque scene. It’s packed full of stripper slang, sass, and sequins, and was quite the shocker back in 1941.

Short and sweet, it’s a brisk read with a labyrinthine plot I didn’t bother trying to follow. Narrated by ‘Gypsy Rose Lee’, she introduces us to Gee Gee, Dolly, Jannine, and the rest of the troupe at the Opera Theatre where they ply their shimmying trade. Soon enough, a stripper gets knocked off – yes, a g-string is involved (Lee’s novel probably helped popularise the once-scandalous item), and paranoia reigns.

Witty and sharp, like Lee herself, this is a fun bit of nonsense that’s aged very well.  The edition I read was from the Feminist Press and had some fun extras, including a chin-stroking po-faced scholarly essay about the writing of the book, and the letters to the editor from Lee that were used as promotional copy. Next, I’m going to watch the movie based on the novel – Lady of Burlesque with the immortal Barbara Stanwyck.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #47: Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

“I, Barrington Jedidiah Walker, Esq., have known you, Monsieur Morris Courtney de la Roux, since we was both high-pitched, smooth-cheeked, mischief-makers waiting for we balls to drop.”

Safe to say I fell for Barry Walker, the Mr Loverman of Bernardine Evaristo’s riotously funny new novel, at first read.

76 years old and still up for it, Barry welcomes us in to his world at a point of crisis. His best friend Morris has given up drinking and his wife Carmel has the hump (i.e., she’s right pissed off). Mind you, Carmel always has the hump – she is convinced Barry is having it off with other women on his long nights out, and takes refuge with her ultra-religious uptight friends. Barry’s daughters are split on him, his eldest thinks he’s a rascal who breaks their mother’s heart, the youngest thinks he’s a rascal but Carmel don’t half bring it on herself.

So Barry is creeping in to his house in Stoke Newington after a night on the lash, and reviewing his fortunes. On one hand, he’s a self-made man, moved over to London from Antigua and raised a family and a business. On the other, he’s been having an affair with Morris since they were teenagers and keeping this secret from everyone in his life has led to a bitter hollow core at the centre.

Sounds very worthy, doesn’t it? Immigrant communities, homophobia, domestic unrest, Evangelical church goers, the gentrification of working class areas, generational differences, institutional racism…oh yes, there’s plenty of fibre in this book. But it’s handled with such gut-busting humour, there’s not a moment of lemon-sucking social justice preaching in it.

It helps that Barry – a rogue and a scoundrel though he be – is a cracking storyteller. Yes he’s a sexist bit of baggage, stymied by the kitchen when Carmel deserts him to return home to Antigua, and he even manages to get on the wrong side of the eternally peaceful Morris. But his protracted coming out process takes him to gay clubs in Soho (his daughter at the entrance to a club for the older gent: “This one’s called the Elephant’s Graveyard”) and reading the greats of queer lit. It also means dealing with a family rent all asunder by high drama and emotions, a smart arsed teen grandson who fancies himself the British Barack, and Carmel’s own demons – including her heart’s secret desires.

I laughed like a drain throughout.

“Oh boy, I catch so much fire when people talk down to me like I’m some back-a-bush dumb arse who don’t understand the Queen’s English…Like this here Little Englander can’t speak the Queen’s as well as any Big Englander over there, I mean here. And so what if me and my people choose to mash up the h-english linguish whenever we feel like it, drop our prepositions with our panties, piss in the pot of correct syntax and spelling, and mangle our grammar at random? Is this not our post-modern, post-colonial prerogative?”

See, even when dealing with the big ol’ issues, Evaristo maintains a lively cheek. Taking a pop at small-minded bigots as well as acknowledging these character’s own faults, there’s a poetry to the down and dirty ways of Mr. Walker. Then there’s Carmel, who gets to tell her side of the story, in a flowy stream. Initially a bleaker counterbalance to Barry’s boldness, I warmed to her over the book.

A perfect, uplifting summer read. It pulls off the rarest feat of setting a steamy sex scene in a municipal council office, and could only really be criticised for having too happy an ending.

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #20: THE UNSEEN by Katherine Webb

The Unseen by Katherine WebbIn the early 1900s, spiritualism was a popular religious movement in the United States and portions of Europe. Its adherents believed in spirits from another world that could appear and communicate with ours, if the conditions were right. Reports of seeing faeries and other non-human creatures appeared in magazines such as The Strand, and perhaps the most famous tale was the Cottingly Faeries, a series of five photos faked by two sisters in 1917 and 1920. Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in their authenticity and wrote about them, and it wasn’t until decades later that the sisters admitted to using cardboard figures propped up with hat pins. People wanted to believe, and that made facts and doubts easier to ignore.

Katherine Webb’s 2012 novel, The Unseen, occurs primarily in 1911 England, about a decade before spiritualism’s decline in popularity. In it, the vicar, Albert Canning, and his wife, Hester, have just hired a new housemaid, Cat Morely. Cat is a small, sickly, and quiet young woman coming from a mysterious, questionable past. Hester — “Hetty” — tries to ask cat about why she was in prison, but Cat would rather not say, not at first. The Cannings view her employment as an act of charity.

(See the rest of my review at Persephone Magazine.)

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #29: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

This novel is one of my sister’s favorites so I needed to check it out. While it isn’t one of mine, it isn’t bad. It was a pretty quick read, and definitely held my interest. I just had some issues with it.

The title tells you what’s going to happen in the book. There’s no surprise, really, except in how the five sisters will all take their lives by the end of the book, but the first couple of pages make it clear that they do. As a plot device, that works in this instance.

The first issue is the narrative structure – the book is told from a collective first person. The guys in town who attended school with the sisters provide all of the detail. The guys have names (well, some of them do), but the perspective is of them as a group. It’s an okay idea, but it definitely prevents anyone from taking personal responsibility for their perspective. They appear to be discussing the events years and years after they occurred, trying to figure it all out in their minds by piecing together evidence and interviews, but it’s sort of awkward.

The second issue stems from the first, and that is that because the narrative comes from a group of men, all we learn about these women is how guys see them. How they may be idealized, or put on a pedestal, or judged by their male peers seems especially cruel given the subject matter. These women are apparently only coming alive to the reader because of how some men noticed them. That’s sad to me.

Because of the above two issues I almost feel like I’m missing something. I’d love to talk about this book in a literature class to see if maybe the devices that bothered me just completely went over my head. But the further I get from the book the less I like it.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #41: Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

Mr. Arthur Norris is a perfectly debauched creation, a fey man of middling years with the murkiest of pasts and a complete vacancy of morals. Meeting him on a train to Berlin in the ’30s, young English teacher William Bradshaw – another Isherwood stand-in – is taken by his acquaintance: “His smile had great charm. It diclosed the ugliest teeth I had ever seen. They were like broken rocks.”

Amused by this delicate dandy with his equal parts fastidiousness and generosity, their friendship is cemented over the first of many drinks. Later, Bradshaw notes, “the second cognac worked wonders”, and in Norris and Bradshaw’s decadent Berlin, it generally does. The brownshirts and the political turmoil around them is a backdrop to Norris’s much more appealing transgressions – drunken evenings, sexual perversity, and disreputable company. And then there is the delicate topic of money, and how Norris funds his many proclivities. It is all, to Bradshaw, a bit of fun, despite what his other friends may thing of his odd duck friend. But then there is one con too many, and his Berlin adventures begin to get far more serious.

Isherwood condemned his own novel, twenty years later, as a heartless fairy-story. But as a description of one type of mischief that was lost with the Nazi regime, the unraveling of a sub-society, and the terrible rise of Hitler, it is effective and heartrending. After reading Orwell condemn just the sort of poncey halfassed Marxist that Isherwood clearly knew he was, this was an interesting counterpoint: we need many different kinds of stories about war and politics, and the exposure of people to evil, and the fact that even Norris is horrified by Hitler is a darkly funny testament to that. Not heartless at all, it’s a very funny work shot through with suppressed terror.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #40: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

levyLast week my train home was delayed by, according to the tired-of-this-shit station announcer, “At least 45 minutes.” It turned out to be closer to an hour twenty. I was thrilled. It was just enough time to finish reading Swimming Home, let the whiplash of the ending flip me back to re-read several passages, and walk off a little of the shock and satisfaction of this odd, intense novel.

Spinning a tale from that clunky old set-up, bickering English people on holiday somewhere hot and slightly exotic, Levy sets up a family group in a villa on the Riviera, and sticks a body in their swimming pool. The body is the very alive, very naked, Kitty Finch – a character who reminded me of Poison Ivy. She’s beautiful, and bonkers, and a botany student; she also writes poetry, toxic tendrils of which unfurl in the direction of alpha male Joe. Joe is a famous poet, an adulterer, a loving father, a man on holiday with some of his wife’s friends who don’t much care for him, and he knows that Kitty is dangerous. Everyone seems to see something dark in Kitty – except for Joe’s wife, Isabel, a war correspondent. Isabel invites Kitty to stay.

Thus the stage is set. People bake under the sun and plants wilt. Things begin to rot. Levy sends us through the bottom of the dark pool of an Agatha Christie plot and dredges up something that’s off. But the writing is limber and sparky, each word sinking deeply like a pebble hitting the water. It was kind of like watching a subtitled movie, one with many hazy long shots that you can’t quite puzzle out – you have to sink in to the resonance of emotion, and the otherness of the world created.

It’s an arty thriller, like The Secret History, but with a whole different set of references. It made me very glad to be staycationing in grey England and not somewhere hot and unsettling.


Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #35: The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

I very rarely re-read books, but when Hesperus Press re-issued L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle I could barely stop myself. At first I just picked at it, looking for tidbits to amuse myself, but before long I had to curl up and lose myself all over again. This is a pure comfort read for me, a soppy tale based around the most hackneyed cliche of a woman only finding life when she encounters death. It’s full of sass and vigour and beautiful nature writing, and one of literature’s great spinsters, Valancy Stirling.

Like moi, Valancy is an unmarried woman of a certain age, but unlike moi she doesn’t enjoy the spinster comforts of gin-drinking, debauched company, and Magic Mike .gifs. She’s not even allowed to read novels, by the command of her overpowering and constantly disappointed mother Mrs. Frederick. One thing my re-visit to this book picked up on much more was that, for unmarried women in an earlier age – the book is set in the early 20s, in smalltown Canada – the economic ties that bound them to their family did bind them so much to acceptable behaviour.

Without even fiction as a solace, Valancy turns to her rich inner life in a fantasy Blue Castle. But even that can’t help her on the morning of her 29th birthday, when she’s faced with a long loveless future in the ghastly household she endures with Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles, and a social life composed of her stuffy, judgmental, hectoring relatives. She also has these chest pains which are getting worse and worse, but does she have the gumption to go to a doctor behind her mother’s back? One rainy morning, she does – and like romantic comedy heroines through the years, she finds out she has a fatal heart condition, and will be dead in a year.

The news understandably upsets her, but instead of informing her miserable clan, she embarks on a surprising quest to make her last year count for something. Will there be lessons learnt, will her bullying relatives get shown up, is there a chance for love for Valancy, after all? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work it out, but Valancy’s magical year is enchanting to read about.

As well as the wish-fulfillment and the soppiness, I felt a lot of common ground with Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl, a realist take on the Cinderella myth. Both the heroines are spinsters marooned in life by social mores and family situations, who hitch their stars to unlikely wagons.

Unlike Zweig, Montgomery doesn’t go in for blistering social realism. But if you want to press a book to your chest and heave a great sigh of joy when that long-awaited first kiss happens, then she can deftly construct the enchantment needed. Sometimes realism can go hang. The ending is utterly satisfying, and I’m sure I’ll return to it again and again.