Tag Archives: British literature

Autumn: It’s okay to have feelings. I hope.

Ali Smith writes very, very good novels, and very good ones and then this one. Autumn is, in my fanciful hierarchy of good, very, very, very good. Mark that as three ‘very’s’. It has gorgeous writing and a lyrical tone and pacing that wraps you up and whisks you away without you realizing it. Eventually you look up and realize you’ve been reading for an hour and it’s time to X whatever chore your life demands you do instead of reading. Continue reading


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Filed under British literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Paying Guests: Books to Avoid Reading On Your First Week of Carpool

Underwear Fashion

Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests is set in 1922 London. Setting is important here because the backdrop of postwar changes in economics and class, social and gender expectations and disaffection with the grand truths of justice deepen the themes explored in this erotic noir. (I didn’t realize I was choosing a novel with erotic scenes when I picked it up from my shelf (the last of the holiday haul), though I ought to have known better having read – and enjoyed – Waters’ The Little Stranger and The Night Watch. Reading it during my first weeks of a carpool positions me to give this advice: be prepared to squirm for ten odd pages).

The novel follows the life of Frances as she struggles to maintain the family home in the absence of male income (see Remains of the Day). Forced to take on ‘paying guests,’ she and her mother are joined in their aging home by the lower-class, freer spirits of Lilian and Leonard Barber. If the first half of the novel traces the budding… relationships between Frances and the couple, the second half takes a decidedly different turn in exploring love tested not by societal expectation, but by conscience and trust. Rather than fuss too much about who loves whom, the novel instead explores the nervousness of (new) love and the doubt that accompanies it (and it goes to some plot extremes to do so).

I very much enjoyed this one. Well crafted, expert character development, written with careful and evocative language (*cough*) it is a delight to be immersed in.  Though I’ll admit that after A. pointed out the frequency of the word ‘queer’ in the novel I was somewhat distracted by its repetition (a project for some student to trace and explore diction in Waters’ work – the way she works the connotations of the early 20th century against that of the contemporary reader).

In entirely unrelated matters, I finished reading the novel in the campus gardens during lunch today. In writing this post a bug has flown out of my hair and now I can’t stop checking to make sure there aren’t more insects all. over. me. Such are the hazards of having this literary vice.

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The Casual Vacancy: Just because you wrote Harry Potter doesn’t mean you should get to publish nonsense


I know I’m a few years behind the tide on hating J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, so forgive the belated review: it’s a boring book and you shouldn’t read it.

Set it Pagford, a quaint British town (think the Vicar of Dibley), the story follows a ragtag cast of characters after the death of town councillor Barry somebody-I-don’t-remember-because-I-don’t-care. The book tries to make itself relevant and interesting by including cyber bullying, drug use, domestic abuse and racism. It succeeds only in being interesting by virtue of how terrible it is. And how difficult it is to remember who any of the characters are because they are all so boring and yawn.

I suspect the editor of the first draft wanted to put the whole thing in a fire, but felt compelled by the sheer force of the Rowling name to let it see the public eye. I jest (only a little). It’s not punishing to read, but it certainly belies the substance of the book to call this a ‘compelling’ read (as do some reviews) or a (ha!) page-turner. With nary a plot detail to compel, nor a character developed enough to be of the slightest interest (Rowling is surely the master of characters defined by a single character trait and stubbornly resistant to any change through circumstance or reflection) it’s a book you read out of a sense of inertia and a quiet fascination with how someone who wrote Harry Potter could also write this terrible thing.

What, if anything, could I say this book is about? Small town politics? Teenage relationships and the lack of parental engagement with youth? Hardly. I do think it’s trying to be about the social mores of our contemporary moment, but reads as an afterschool special that forgot that in order to make a reader care about an issue you first have to provide a compelling… something.

I have to admit I’m pleased it was so bad. Coming off the glory of A Little Life I was pretty sure whatever I read was going to pale in comparison. The Casual Vacancy did not disappoint in this respect. With my palate cleansed I feel ready for another terrific read: suggestions?

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, British literature, Fiction, Worst Books

After the War is Over: Altogether too many descriptions of hats


Here are a few reasons I didn’t enjoy Jennifer Robson’s *After the War is Over*:

1. It was altogether ridiculously predictable in plot: to the point that I anticipated the union of our lower-class protagonist with her Lord for so many chapters I skimmed through yet another obstacle-in-the-path-of-true-love, stopping only to admire the frequent use of ‘visage’ and ‘shirtwaist’ (and other lovely period diction).

2. On the subject of unnecessary attention to historical particulars: It included many (many) pointless detours in plot with the sole purpose of showing off historical detail. Details that were only there (I can only assume) because the author holds a PhD in History and seems quite taken with historical specificity for post-Great War era fashion, dances and food. Detours like visits to dress shops, or bedroom dance lessons. Page long descriptions of historical bathing suits. Really. Detours with no discernable relation to character or theme development. Detours entirely devoted to hats.

3. The protagonist is a repressed, self-righteous free spirit just waiting for the right (rich, handsome, rich, cultured, sensitive, rich) man to liberate her from her self-imposed dourness and expose the true glow of her unique petals of utter stunning beauty flower.

Here is 1 1/2 reasons I did:

1. Because Downtown Abbey got it right: there’s something fascinating about the historical moment of 1919 in which class and gender hierarchies (nevermind accepted and expected rules of decorum) get shaken.

1.5 Because it includes a beautiful scene of our protagonist casting her vote in the first election that allowed women (of certain classes) to vote. And because this reader cannot resist swelling feeling of gratitude and respect for those women (and men) who fought – and fight – so hard for franchise.  That said, this scene takes up the first three pages of the book. So you could read those and then… stop.

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Filed under Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, British literature, Canadian Literature, Historical Fiction