Saturday, 27 December 2014

Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

American college students doing drugs, studying Greek and committing murder.  Donna Tartt lures us into a world where the normal limits of college life disappear and something closer to supernatural anarchy takes over.  There are half-revealed scenes of ritual horror, betrayals of trust, free love for some, tantalising frustrations for others. 

The narrator, Richard Pappin, endures the agony and the ecstasy of becoming a member of an elite Greek class at Hampden College, Vermont, led by Julian Morrow, a brilliant and enigmatic professor, who remains mostly in the shadows and, despite his almost incestuous attachment to his exceptionally gifted students, is only partially aware of their extra curricular obsessions.

Richard is granted entry to this elite group and begins to find out how Bunny, Francis, Henry, Camilla and Charles tick, although there is always the notion that secrets are being withheld from him.  We, too feel that we are honorary members of the group, only permitted to look through the blinds, as it were.  The result of such a fragmented view is that, in addition to constantly having to second guess what will happen (which we expect to do in any good mystery), we find ourselves fretting, worrying what these dysfunctional characters will do next to sink themselves more deeply in the mire. At times, it is almost like reading something by Enid Blyton.  'The Secret Seven', grown up and with pathological tendencies.  Friendship has never been quite so stressful, or downright dangerous.

I did enjoy this book immensely, but there was something so destructive woven into the fabric of the writing, that when I got to the final page and saw the full-page photograph of the author, I actually shuddered.  Here was Henry, just as I had imagined him, but in female form. 

Highly recommended for readers who enjoy a seriously disturbing murder mystery with more than a pinch of pure madness.

Monday, 22 December 2014

~~~~~~~~ My Christmas Present to You ~~~~~~~~

Free download from 22nd - 27th December

Happy Christmas to all my blog visitors! I hope you enjoy my most recent short story with a glass of something fragrant and a Jamie Oliver mince pie...

Inspector Hanson and his team are perplexed by the work of a serial killer, in and around the town of Halfton.  The bizarre murders seem to be unconnected, with no obvious motive.  Eventually, though, the trail becomes warmer and Inspector Hanson has a hunch...

Thursday, 18 December 2014

My French Life

August 2008

When we moved to France it was done on a whim.  I think it was probably my idea.  

My husband Al’s parents had bought a mobile ‘ome on the south west coast near Ronce les Bains and we’d already been out there for a two week holiday.  The lure of a new adventure beckoned. “Let’s move to France,” I said on Saturday afternoon after a mind-numbing trip to Tesco’s in the drizzle. 

“Okay,” said Al.  You find out everything we have to do, put the house on the market and I’ll see if I can work from home.   Well, that’s the twist I put on his rather more detailed response.

A year later, having given up trying to sell the house, and after I’d checked all the things he’d asked me to check and filled in reams of largely unnecessary forms, and after his company had agreed to his working remotely, we packed a trailer, squeezed into our Rover with our two enormous sons, and set off.

Our friends came to see us off - very sad.

The A14 had never seemed so exciting.

Ten hours later, we rolled up at the gite in the dark, apprehensive and very tired.  I’d booked everything through the Internet. We'd chosen our accommodation in a village called le Gua, after sifting through hundreds of places in department 17, and viewing them on Google Earth to detect potentially poisonous emissions from factory chimneys or noise pollution from encroaching motorways laden with juggernauts.  Ha!

Let the mayhem begin!

We got out of the car and were assaulted by a German Shepherd and two bouncing Jack Russells, much to the delight of our children.


We’d dissected emails and analysed phone calls for clues as to whether our new landlords would be monsters, but nothing could have prepared us for Jim and Monique, who were the perfect hosts from day one.  We were lucky.  They were accommodating and fun.  Bright and breezy.  

Life at the gite was cramped, but there was open countryside beyond Jim's fields.  And there were horses, donkeys, dogs, cats…you get the picture...  Pulses slowed.  We breathed in the clean air and accompanied Jim and his dogs on long walks, gathering mushrooms, walnuts, figs, living off the land.  

Al got the Internet sorted out (eventually) and stuck a desk in the corner of our bedroom.  Hey presto! He was a teleworker.  Paid in sterling, with an exchange rate of one euro fifty to the pound, we were comfortably off. 

Our two boys, then 8 and 11 went off to French school with the little French they’d picked up in England and on the Internet during the summer.  They coped brilliantly, despite Harry being put into the wrong classes at first and Alfie having a teacher who believed in teaching by decibel. 

I didn’t have a job and was charged with finding a house to buy.  What fun!  I got lots of brochures and started circling ads.

Three months went by and Christmas came.  We shared it with Jim, Monique and Paulette, a formidable local woman in her seventies who had only recently given up cycling 28 kilometres to see her relatives on the Ile d’Oleron.  She arrived, dismounted in mid sentence and didn’t really let up much.  She cornered my husband, hemming him in between the wall and an enormous rubber plant, telling him that she wanted to tour Europe on the back of his motorbike.  I could see that he was tempted.  At lunch, Paulette said the turkey was dry and tough, but as she'd forgotten to put her teeth in, no one was particularly surprised.

Christmas in Charente Maritime, sitting on the terrace for coffee in the warm sunshine while my boys petted the various dogs, cats, rabbits, donkeys and horses, it was easy to think that we’d done the right thing.

Harry's first riding experience.

Happy Days  

(To be continued…)

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Review: 'A Thousand Splendid Suns'

Khaled Hosseini  (‘The Kite Runner’) is a best-selling Afghan-American author.

They say that you should write about what you know.

Khaled Hosseini certainly has me believing in a world that is both horrifying and exquisite.  There is human suffering on an unimaginable scale, tempered by compassion, and friendships forged in the most hostile environments.  Characters are beautifully drawn, so that we walk in their footsteps, travelling with them along paths that offer hope in the midst of war and oppression.  Mariam and Laila, women of their time, are skilfully brought together, their sufferings shared and made tolerable by a mutual empathy that allows these women to bear with integrity and stoicism the lives they have had no part in choosing. 

We learn about an Afghanistan wracked with brutal traditions, aggressive regimes and a divided people, not through dry documentary, but via the experiences of the characters we have come to care deeply about.  We are shown the vastness of the land, its ancient monuments and close communities, its mountains and deserts.  Khaled Hosseini is a true master of the written word and, as we find out in the author’s final notes at the end of the book, a man of principle, who takes an active interest in the future of his country.

Highly recommended.  

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Friday, 12 December 2014

Alex Crane - an unusual heroine.

This book was a labour of love.  It got into my consciousness and wouldn't get out.  Started in 2011, it's my second book, and the one that has been redrafted the most.  I hope this means it has evolved into the best book it can be, although I can't promise that I won't tamper with it in the months and years to come.

This latest draft has received some judicious and professionally advised editing - I've made some fairly ruthless cuts in the first four chapters in an effort to pick up the pace whilst still building intrigue through my main character.  She is a complicated woman with an uncompromising attitude to most things.  As one reviewer commented:  "The protagonist in this novel must surely be a contender for one of the most selfish, self-centred and egotistical characters of twenty first century fiction so far."  She went on to describe how, nevertheless, she found Alex a totally absorbing character, and explained why she had given 'My Grandfather's Eyes' five stars!  A great thrill for an author who has taken a huge risk in creating such a controversial heroine.    

I can only assume from this and other positive reviews that there are many readers who enjoy exploring a mind that is fed by rancour and doubt as well as by love and certitude. Alex is not all bad. She is a passionate human being. But her views and her actions are often shockingly candid. 

I hope to make a paperback version available shortly before Christmas.

In the meantime:

Friday, 5 December 2014

A Spy in the House of Love

Anais Nin

I read this when I was young enough to believe that I could, if I wished, ‘be’ Sabina.  I had already devoured most of D H Lawrence’s novels and been impressed, as only a pretentious undergraduate can be, with this (or any) kind of angst-ridden literature, so I was ready for more and was inclined to believe that Anais Nin would go deeper in, as it were, and stay there for longer.

A third of a century later, I downloaded the English version to my kindle and plunged in once again.  What I found was a predictable minefield of emotion, a philosophy that had more twists and turns than an anaconda and, in between, passages that struck home with one or several blinding truths that went off like fireworks in my brain.  More!  I wanted more.  It was like sifting through sand to find diamonds, laborious but ultimately worth the effort. 

Nin is a master at proving the point that, as The Verve later put it, rather more succinctly, in Bittersweet Symphony: (we are) ‘a million different people from one day to the next…’  Sabina wrangles with her multiple personalities and endeavours to satisfy each one, all the time searching for the elusive real ‘Sabina’.

I will undoubtedly return to this book, but I will try it in French next time. The English version was chosen for its lower price tag (shameful) and in the vain hope that it might be easier to read (genetic flaw).  I have to say that it is not a bad effort, (I believe that Nin was criticised greatly for her English*) but there is an unavoidable awkwardness that jars the flow and this book needs, above all, to flow.  There were too many ‘annihilations’ ‘dispersions’ ‘fragments’ and every part of speech involving the base form ‘bleak’ (this last one must have been when even the author had had enough of Sabina’s inner turmoil and her long-way-round trip to find herself).

A richer, more natural lexical field would at least have avoided choices that are almost but not quite apt, not to mention the tedious repetition of standby, last resort words as mentioned above.  ‘Lostness’ was probably the last straw for me.

However, until I get to grips with the French edition once more, which may read better, I feel a bit of a fraud.  Even in English, the book is definitely well worth reading.

* I believe that Nin wrote in both English and French and that her books are not translations.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014