Posts tagged ‘London’

The Law and the Soul – The Children’s Act by Ian McEwan

The Children’s Act by Ian McEwan, Pubished in 2014. 

This book has been classified as a suspense novel, which is completely confusing to me.  Under this classification, I guess  cover225x225every book is a suspense novel if you don’t know exactly what will happen next. Arguably, not knowing what I am making for dinner, my life becomes a suspense story too, I guess. Regardless of bizarre classifications, I will say the writing in this book and the story is right in step with On Chesil Beach which is my favorite McEwan novel to date.

The book opens with the very successful London family law judge, Fiona Maye, sitting at the end of her weekend, scotch in hand, watching her thirty year marriage fall apart.  She is trying to finish up some work on a ruling for court, as her husband paces back and forth stating, calmly and then not so calmly, that he wants an open marriage and he hopes she is okay with that.  The conversation ends with a third scotch and a husband rolling his suitcase out the door.  Like all personal tragedies, life doesn’t stop, so Fiona must still get up Monday morning and behave competently and non-plussed for court. No one wants the judge hearing their divorce case crying over her own marriage.

While Fiona spends the day listening to a variety of family issues, she can’t help but check her phone and email to see if maybe her husband has found a conscience.  Of course, her disappointment when she doesn’t hear from him must be suppressed and she heads back out to try to sort out the law and how it applies to the families in her courtroom.  She is rationale, she is professional, she is capable.

It is when the case of Adam, a talented, poetic seventeen year old boy who is refusing a life saving blood transfusion citing religious grounds, comes to the bench that Fiona really starts to feel something.  Her feelings for this case are outside of the embarrassment of her failed marriage and her reasoned approach to the law.  Her connection to Adam, as she tries to determine what is best for him, is something unpredicted and uncontrollable.  It is chaste but profound and a bit unmooring for Fiona.  And even after her ruling, which I will not disclose here, she struggles with how the law can be rationale, but at the same time it can be soulless and perhaps misses the mark even if the decision is ultimately right.

McEwan has a careful dance in his prose. He does not condemn religious zealotry and he does not condemn the control the law can exercise over our lives.  He does a great job of teasing out the beauty and shortfalls in both.  He deftly creates the character of Fiona, who is ambitious, childless, brilliant, calculating, empathetic, and torn between her personal and professional struggles.  Like all of us in our weakest and best moments, she is seeking redemption and forgiveness.

As an important aside, Fiona is perhaps one of the best female characters I have met in a long time.  I liked her, but maybe even more importantly, even though I didn’t agree with all of her choices I respected her.  It was an odd and wonderful reading experience for that reason alone.  I hope to see more complex and relatable women characters in my reading future because now I know what I have been missing.   So dear writers, McEwan is on to something. Please take note.

Other reviews to check out:

From Kali Reads

From The Life of the Law

From 42 Life in Between  


February 22, 2015 at 3:53 pm 6 comments

Keeping it all in the family – “The Camomile Lawn” by Mary Wesley

“The Camomile Lawn” by Mary Wesley, Published in 1984 

Though this review may not make it sound like it, I did love this book.  Wesley has a nonplussed British writing style that I really enjoyed.  This was my first Wesley novel so I look forward to reading more of her work.

Five cousins, Oliver, Calypso, Walt, Polly and Sophy, have a tradition of spending a month each summer at books-1their Aunt Helena and Uncle Richard’s house in Cornwall.  The summer we are introduced to the cousins is the last summer before England enters WWII and, coincidentally, the last summer they will spend all together. They are all in their late teens – except Sophy who is only 10 years old – and they are ready to take on the world.  They spend their time sprawled on their aunt’s camomile lawn, swimming, sunbathing, and planning elaborate games.  It is the last summer of their innocence.  The novel jumps forward 40 years as each of the cousins and Aunt Helena are on their way to a funeral.  It becomes a story woven as each character reminisces about those years during the war and everything that has happened since.

There are things in this novel that made me laugh out loud – Aunt Helena’s utter annoyance with Uncle Richard’s wooden leg, the cow running into the plate glass window (not terribly injured, don’t worry), ironing newspapers, Calypso’s honest claim that she is going marry a rich guy because she wants to be rich.  I suppose there were also touching moments but the characters don’t really take any of them very seriously so it is hard for the reader to either.  Wesley’s take on the war is that once it started it was a live-in-the-moment mentality.  This includes cousins sleeping with cousins who are sleeping with their aunt’s lover who in turn is sleeping with..well, everyone.

There is something deeper here -that family becomes your normal, that war and danger can be exhilarating, that sometimes memories are not the truth.  But you can choose to ignore the depth and just enjoy the romp, not unlike the characters themselves.  But really, you shouldn’t sleep with your aunt’s boyfriend. That is just weird.

March 16, 2014 at 4:17 pm Leave a comment

The stories we tell on trains – “Trains and Lovers” by Alexander McCall Smith

Trains and Lovers” by Alexander McCall Smith, Published in 2013. 

This book is beautiful.  It is the kind of book you end with a sigh and a happy heart.

It is a simple story.  Four strangers, riding the train from Edinburgh to London.   They are sitting two on each side of the coach, facing each other.  And somehow a story starts.  The simple “why are you going London?” turns into a story about a possible career in both art and love.  Then everyone has a story, some outwardly expressed and some revisited internally.  But all of the stories are about love and how it has brought them to this particular train, this particular path.

“Trains are everyday, prosaic things, but they can be involved in, be the agents of, so much else, including that part of our human life that for so many far outweighs any other—our need for love—to give it and to receive it in that familiar battle that all of us fight with loneliness.”

Trains can make us wistful. They take us away from something. They take us  towards something else.  They move on a set path that does not change.  You can board trains in snow or rain or beautiful sunshine.  Your lover can wave to you from the platform.  You can see the people you love slowly disappear as the train pulls away.  Trains rock back and forth, in a consoling manner as you watch the landscape change.   Trains make us wistful for good reason. They are not unlike love really.

Smith is a brilliant writer. He weaves the story of the train not just into the actual setting of the characters telling their stories but the trains play a part in each story as well.  The stories are not scintillating or shocking or laced with suspenseful moments. They are sweet, charming stories. They are the stories of everyday lives that could be told on a train to a stranger, who can then nod and add their own story.  Smith has the gentle touch of an old storyteller who knows what is important in life.  And his wisdom makes his writing beautiful  – “We live and breathe love. Loving someone is the good thing we do in our lives.”

English: Train leaving Waverley Station (Edinb...

English: Train leaving Waverley Station (Edinburgh). Nederlands: Vertrekkende trein uit Waverley Station (Edinburgh). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

November 8, 2013 at 7:50 pm Leave a comment

Meeting Rowling – “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling)

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” by J.K. Rowling, Published in 2013

This book was an accident. I was walking around my library and saw it in the “New Books” section.  I thought I remembered something about it and checked it out.  When I got home I realized this was  a book Rowling written under a pseudonym.  I am new to Rowling and a bit unsure about this book.

Like all private detectives, Cormoran Strike is having a tough time. He is broke. He has been kicked out of the apartment he was sharing with his girlfriend.  H16160797is father is a famous musician with whom he has no contact. And he is continually struggling with the pain from his amputated leg.  One day the brother of the famous model Lula Landry walks into Strike’s office convinced his sister’s suicide three months prior was really a murder.  Though Strike is not sure that his client is not a bit off his rocker, he needs the money and so he takes the job.  Strike then spends a lot of time with the rich and famous trying to find out what really happened to Lula.

Rowling can write. She has a knack for conversation and cadence that I have not seen in a while.  You can hear the characters talking and exactly what tone they are using.  I found that impressive.  The story was really not that inventive. I did love the characters, particularly Strike’s secretary, Robin, who is only meant to be a temp.  She excited about working for a detective and has a lot of potential (because there will be future books).

The write up for this book says you have never met a private detective like Cormoran Strike. That is not true. You have met him if you have ever read a detective novel.  That said, he is truly endearing and likeable (think Wallander meets Poirot meets Jane from Prime Suspect).  He has boundary problems, he likes a few pints, he is hard to get close to but is struggling to get his life together.  You know the type.  It is a formula that works so I am not complaining.

What I will complain about is the length of this suspense novel.  It is over 400 pages.  And while I am not one to shirk at long books a suspense novel just by its very nature needs to be shorter than 400 pages or it just gets exhausting.

So the characters are fun. The story is pretty good.  The length is silly.   But hey I wouldn’t mind meeting Cormoran Strike again, or Rowling’s writing for that matter.  Just maybe with a bit more editing.

Other reviews to check out: 

November 2, 2013 at 8:31 pm 1 comment

The honor of calling someone “Sausage” – “Snobs” by Julian Fellowes

“Snobs” by Julian Fellowes, Published in 2004 

I admit to reading this in honor of the return of “Downton Abbey” – almost like I am honoring all things Julian Fellowes, if you will. This is the second novel I have read by Fellowes – the first being “Past Imperfect”.  This book can be a bit slow at times but over all it was an interesting look at high society in England and just snarky enough to make me love it.

Set in the early 2000s, the narrator is an unnamed British actor who, while staying with his friends in the English country, meets Edith Lavery.  The novel then becomes the narrator’s spin on the story of Edith, who sets her sights to climb to the top of the social stratosphere.  And she does by marrying Charles, the Earl of Broughton. But Edith soon finds that living in the English countryside in a large  manor, dabbling in philanthropy and having tea with other nobility can be rather dull.

What can a poor social climber do once she has discovered that her new aristocratic life is dreary?

Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take up with a British actor who is also interested in making a name for himself within the elite circles of England, of course.  So Edith meets Simon while he is filming a mini-series, which also stars our narrator, at Broughton Manor. Edith shames Charles’ family by running off with Simon.

Meanwhile the narrator is continually roped into the drama by not only Edith but also Charles and his mother, Lady Uckfield, who all want the family scandal dealt with in different ways.  Of course, Edith quickly realizes that she only had risen in class because of her marriage to Charles and she finds that she has lost a lot of so-called friends because of her affair.  Suddenly, life doesn’t seem as interesting without being able to walk into any private London club.  Certainly having to sit in the back row when attending a fashion show is not what Edith had planned for her life.  All of this leaves Edith with a choice – should she stay with the exciting, sexy actor but remain in the middle class or return to boring, average Charles but enjoin all of the perks that come with money and title.  Life is tough for Edith, as you can imagine.

The story itself is purposefully insipid  but the narrator’s observations of the upper-class of society and all of the characters’ ridiculous actions keep the novel grounded and stunningly hilarious.

On the upper-class passion for nicknames:

“Everyone is ‘Toffee’ or ‘Bobo’ or ‘Snook’. They themselves think the names imply a kind of playfulness…Certainly the nicknames form an effective fence. A newcomer is often in the position of knowing someone too well to continue to call them Lady So-and-So but no nearly well enough to call them ‘Sausage’…”

On how the upper-class always get things for free:

“They were shown into the Bridal Suite which they had not requested but was their anyway – the difference in price being compliments of the management, following the age-old principle ‘To them that hath shall be given’.”

All in all, I couldn’t help through-out being extremely jealous of the life-style of even the lowly actors but honestly the people themselves sound exhausting.  So I guess the lesson is I should be grateful for my simple middle-class life. Because in my life the people that I would call “Sausage” I truly love and even like.  In fact, I like them so much I will not call them “Sausage.” And instead, tonight I will be enjoying “Downton Abbey.” Happy Sunday.


January 27, 2013 at 5:25 pm 3 comments

The inescapable past – “The Secret Keeper” by Kate Morton

“The Secret Keeper” by Kate Morton, Published in 2012

(As an aside: I would like to start with the question why did Morton title this book “The Secret Keeper”? It just makes it sound like this salacious, torrid, Danielle Steele novel with a large breasted woman in a torn corset on the cover.)

Morton has a formula. In her novels there is always an old woman in her last days suffering from guilt/sorrThe Secret Keeperow/grief over a secret that she has kept all of these years but then someone must uncover this secret to give the old woman forgiveness/peace/comfort.  For many other authors this type of repetition would become tedious BUT Morton’s writing and her amazing gift of story-telling makes her formula great almost every time (“Distant Hours” is the exception).

In 1961, when Laurel was 16 years old, she saw her mother kill a man. And though her mother (Dorothy) and the police have both told her it was in self-defense,  there is something about that day that has always bothered Laurel.  Forty years later, Dorothy is in the hospital facing death and Laurel and her siblings must return home to make decisions about her end of life care.   Returning to her childhood home, Laurel finds herself immersed in memories of her happy childhood:

“The landscape of one’s childhood was more vibrant than any other. It didn’t matter where it was or what it looked like, the sights and sounds imprinted differently from those encountered later. They became part of a person, inescapable.”

But as Laurel comes to terms with her mother’s inevitable death, she begins to realize that, though her mother made her childhood magical, she knows absolutely nothing about who Dorothy was before she had her children.  All she knows is that Dorothy left London during WWII. And there is always that lingering question: why would her mother have been so fast to kill that man on that summer day years before?

Morton then takes the reader back to the late 1930s/early 1940s and begins narrating Dorothy’s life.  Raised by a boring country family Dorothy longs to embrace a different life. As soon as she is old enough she rushes off to London to fulfill her dreams.  Dorothy finds herself in the middle of war-torn London working for an old, rich, and infirm woman.  Dorothy is vivacious but self-absorbed, narcissistic and  difficult to like. As she begins to see how the “other half” lives she starts to long for more than just a simple life by the sea that she had planned with her boyfriend Jimmy.  But time passes and it appears that Dorothy’s dreams of living an elegant life are just not possible. Her wealthy friend Vivien seems to have betrayed her and Dorothy decides she is going to have to make her fortune for herself. Of course, in true Morton style, Dorothy foolishly makes a poor choice that, while seemingly harmless enough, ends up destroying the lives of those around her.

The narrative bounces back and forth between what Laurel is discovering about her mother and the actual story of Dorothy.  Laurel digs deeper into her mother’s past and also revisits many of her childhood memories.  As Laurel finds out more about her mother her own memories take on a different hue and the meaning of certain events in Laurel’s life change.  And of course truth changes everything.

There is a secret in this book (hence the title) which I figured out pretty quickly. But even knowing where the book was headed it was still engaging.  Morton’s writing is lovely. It has a lilt to it.  And she has a way of writing about regret that makes her narrative beautifully tragic.  Her novels always make me cry, and this one was no exception.

Morton has written before about how the choices we make ultimately lead us down the path to who we become and how often those choices haunt us.  Revisiting that theme in “The Secret Keeper” makes it certainly worth the read.  Because, as they say, “if it isn’t broken…”

January 23, 2013 at 8:52 pm 2 comments

Cue dastardly music and mustache twisting villain – “Lady Audley’s Secret” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Published in 1862

I will always have a soft place in my heart for the gothic Victorian novel.  They always contain the classic characters -the foolish spouse, the conniving wife, the blackmailer, the righter of wrongs.  And of course there is always the deep, dark secret that must be discovered.  Lady Audley’s Secret” was no exception to these gothic novel rules. As society has changed the deep, dark secret is really not so deep or dark as it once was but surely we must humor those stodgy Victorians.

Robert Audley’s friend George Talboys returns to London after living in Australia. Years before George had left his wife and his newborn son to strike it rich in Australia in the hopes of providing for them.  Upon his return, George finds that his wife has died and he suffers from extreme melancholy and guilt.  He frequently visits his son, who has been raised by George’s drunken father-in-law. Robert remains a steadfast friend while George mourns his wife.

Finally, Robert decides to take George to his Uncle’s house, Audley Court, for a relaxing stay. Robert is also interested in finally  meeting his beautiful and beguiling Aunt, who his Uncle has just married.  His Aunt, Lucy Graham, had been working as a governess in the local doctor’s home when her charms won over Lord Audley and so she quickly became Lady Audley. During Robert and George’s visit to Audley Court, George suddenly disappears.  Robert tries to piece together what has happened to him.  He returns to London and then visits George’s father-in-law who assures Robert that George has returned to Australia. But of course, Robert believes that George has met with some kind of foul play and begins his search for his friend. His search leads down a dark and twisted path ultimately answering the reader’s pressing question “What is Lady Audley’s Secret?”

Yes, it is cheesy and some of the scenes are perfectly ridiculous. But it is still such a great read. And it is fun to imagine the readers in 1862 sitting and waiting for the next installment of the book probably with secrets of their own, maybe that they were purposefully showing a little too much ankle. Oh the scandal!

Other reviews to check out:

From Musings

From The Book of Tomorrow

From The Book Return

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

December 5, 2012 at 8:55 pm Leave a comment

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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