Friday, 9 March 2018

Six in February

I read six books in February.

Read for book group, and by chance the group met on 8 February, the hundredth anniversary of the old boys allowing some women to put a cross on a ballot paper. MB shows how history has treated powerful women with examples ranging from the classical world to the modern day, from Medusa and Athena to Theresa May and Hillary Clinton.

One story in particular made my blood boil. As she loyally waits for her husband Odysseus to come home from the Trojan war Penelope’s young son Telemachus takes it upon himself to tell her in front of a gathering: ‘ … go back up into your quarters … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all … ’

I wonder if history would be different if, instead of going meekly upstairs, Penelope had told him not to be so cheeky to his mum.

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux
Bought with a Christmas book token. I love reading about train journeys and the master train-journey writer is Paul Theroux. And I love reading about China after a visit there in 2011 so this is a double-whammy as PT takes various trains across this vast country. None of them sound at all comfortable so I was glad to be travelling only vicariously in his company. His writing is so vivid – ‘The yak is a lovely long-haired animal, like a cow on its way to the opera.’

He took this journey in 1988 – it would be fascinating if he retraced his steps given the changes in the last thirty years.

The Break by Marion Keyes
Bought in a charity shop. An interesting premise: after being happily married to Amy for fifteen years Hugh, deeply affected by the deaths of his father and a close friend, decides to take a break and go travelling for a year – and also take a break from their marriage.

I’ve read all MK’s books and will continue to do so but I wasn’t mad about this one. Amy’s dysfunctional family doesn’t have the charm of the Walshes who appear in some of the earlier books, and there are no hilarious set-pieces – my favourite is the beauty-parlour scene in Sushi for Beginners.

My main gripe though is that there are so many minor characters and a lot of them have such unusual/unusually spelt names that they become a distraction: Steevie, Urzula, Druzie, Premilla, Thamyres, Raffie (all women) to name but a few.

Maine by Courtney Sullivan
Bought in a charity shop. Regular readers will perhaps remember that I am very keen on books set in New England. In other books (and probably in real life) people who have wonderful summer houses on New England beaches are monied – not that that makes them happy, usually quite the opposite. 

The more ordinary family in this contemporary book own two houses built on land acquired in lieu of a debt fifty years ago, so now it is worth mega bucks. None of them are very happy either, actually, or awfully likeable apart from granddaughter Maggie – Alice, the matriarch, is a difficult mother and mother-in-law and there are lots of untold secrets, the biggest one being <spoiler alert> that Alice has made a will leaving the houses to the local Catholic church. A bit of a find, Courtney Sullivan. Will read more.

The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Frightened myself to bits reading this late into the night. It’s Scandi noir (set in Iceland) that is certainly très noir. Excellent though, very satisfying conclusion. May have to frighten myself again; this is the first of a series.

Fifty-something Shona McMonagle is clever at everything (yes, everything), and she’s very practical and resourceful – as she would not hesitate to tell you herself – being the product of the ‘finest education in the world’ at Marcia Blaine School for Girls (readers of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie will recognise the reference).

When Miss Blaine herself returns after a gap of many (many) decades to Edinburgh and seeks out Shona in Morningside Library, she asks the former pupil to carry out a mission for her – in 19th-century Russia. It turns out to be both a dangerous and a wonderfully absurd mission and while the reader comes to suspect what’s going on, Shona, for all her much-vaunted education, is oblivious until it’s almost too late.

An absolute hoot (described by one Amazon reviewer as ‘Anna Karenina written by PG Wodehouse’) – I would urge you to make Shona’s acquaintance asap.