Casting off by Elizabeth Jane Howard

casting off

The fourth book in Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, Casting Off continues where the last book left off.  Originally, this was the final book in the series, the fifth only being published eighteen years later. I think that if I was reading this as the last book then I may have had more questions by the end (mainly relating to Louise and Villy), but I think that the other storylines were resolved satisfactorily.

Sometimes you can pick up a book in the middle of a series and read it as a standalone. I doubt that Casting Off would work if you hadn’t read the previous novels though. The family is too vast and so much has happened to them that, in spite of the potted history and family tree at the beginning, I don’t think a casual reader would find it enjoyable. As part of the series though I think this novel did most of what I wanted to.

We pick back up in July 1945. Rupert has just returned from France, years after everyone thought he was dead and months after he could have. Clary, who kept the faith that he was alive, feels that he abandoned them, and his wife Zoe feels guilt over the affair that she had while Rupert was missing (little knowing that the reason he stayed away so long was that he found love himself, in France). Older brother Edward finally comes clean to his wife Villy, and tells her about his mistress.

The daughters are now grown up and provide the main focus of the novel: Louise, still stuck in her loveless marriage; Polly still struggling to get over unrequited love for Archie, Rupert;s good friend; and Clary, embarking upon her own first love affair.

There is so much going on that it is a wonder that Howard manages to corral all of her characters into a format that makes sense. Having the book split into different sections (‘The Girls’, ‘The Wives’) makes it easier to keep a handle on whose point of view we’re looking from, though sometimes I found myself reading several paragraphs without knowing quite which character I was inhabiting which felt a little odd. Also, sometimes as a reader you want to follow a character for longer which isn’t possible with such a huge cast. I found that ‘The Outsiders’ sections were of less interest (apart from Sid – big cheer for her and Rachel finally sorting themselves out!). I’ve never cared much about Miss Milliment and I’d be happy enough if Villy’s sister Jessica and her whole family vanished. As much as I found Raymond’s storyline touching, it added nothing to the piece as a whole and I’d have much preferred Howard to use that space to go back to Louise and her strange marriage to Michael (and the hideous mother in law who was sadly quite quiet in this novel).

Verdict: definitely one for the fans. It ties up most of the ends but I’m glad there’s another book to go

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain


Once upon a time (well, a month or so ago) I was determined to read all of this year’s Baileys shortlisted books before the winner was announced. With five days to go and three of the novels not yet read that is most definitely not going to happen. My failure is tempered by the knowledge that I have had to give over precious reading time to writing – a new novel which I am obsessed with. Nevertheless I had already reserved a couple of the Baileys books from the library so they will not go unread. Rose Tremain’s book attracted me first due to its relative brevity (as well as being due back to the library today).

Set in Switzerland and beginning in 1947 Gustav Perle grows up in a tiny flat in a small town. He lives with his mother, Emilie. His father, a hero says his mother, died when he was a baby. When new boy Anton moves to Gustav’s town, the boys quickly become friends. Anton is a talented pianist, a prodigy he tells Gustav. Emilie doesn’t like Anton visiting their small flat. Anton’s family are Jewish and Emilie tells Gustav that his father died trying to protect the Jews during the war. Tremain cleverly uses Anton’s constantly supportive parents to contrast the indifference that Emilie shows to her son. When Emilie contracts pneumonia and has to be taken to hospital, Gustav is left alone with only a friendly neighbour to help. She tells him he must wash the sheets where his mother wet the bed, to weak to get to the bathroom, and there is a heart-breaking scene where he goes down to the laundry but is too little to reach the light switch and has to leave the sheets there until the next day.

The middle part of the book takes place before Gustav’s birth, the story of how his parents met. This is a bleak novel and so I wasn’t expecting a happy tale, but in some ways I could understand why Emilie had turned out the way she did once I knew what she’d already been through (though she is never portrayed as likeable, rather slightly calculating and self-pitying). The real circumstances around her husband’s death were even more tragic than imagined, though I felt that here the rather Swiss restraint that Tremain employs could have been relaxed. Having become involved with Erich’s predicament I found that his actual death was rather anticlimactic. I don’t think I needed it to be more dramatic in terms of what happens, only I think I wanted more detail. I wanted to be there, and to know his thoughts, rather than finding out about it later, if that makes sense.

This is the sort of novel which is quietly excellent. The prose is perfect and never overwrought. I found the dialogue a little rigid but it fit the style of the novel. Both Gustav and Anton are very restrained and, certainly with Anton, there is the suggestion that if they let go too much then all will be lost. I am full of admiration for this book, but I never quite fell in love with it.

The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

the women

Set in Bavaria, Germany, The Women of the Castle follows three women as they come to terms with the end of World War II and the arrival of the Russians and Americans. I do love historical fiction and I haven’t read a huge number of novels set in post-war Germany (The Reader is the only novel that springs to my mind). The premise, seeing three very different women thrown together in a dilapidated castle, intrigued me.

Marianne von Lingenfels’ husband was a Nazi resistor. The castle is his family legacy and so she returns there after his execution for a plot to assassinate Hitler. She is the matriarch of the strange family that is formed after she goes in search of other resistance widows. Benita is the beautiful widow of Marianne’s childhood friend, Connie. Less principled that Marianne, she blames her husband for abandoning her. Rescued from sexual slavery, Marianne hopes that they will become allies, while Benita is not sure that she believes in Marianne’s high ideals. A third woman, Ania, is found in a labour camp and brought to the castle, but perhaps isn’t quite who she seems.

This is a novel that hops around in time, beginning with a prologue in 1938 before jumping ahead to 1945. There are other jumps – filling in the gaps in Benita and Ania’s pasts for example, then moving forward again to 1950. At times I did struggle a little, and if each chapter hadn’t been signposted with dates and location (the castle is, disappointingly, only a small part of the story) then I would have been lost. I did start to wish that Shattuck had concentrated on a story within the castle timeline as there was lots there that was left unexplored. In some ways, as this is a book written around the author’s own family history, and following years of research, I wondered if she had felt constrained to tell a certain story.

The blurb on the jacket cover promises that Benita will begin a clandestine relationship, and that Ania is trying to conceal a complicated role in the Nazi regime. I thought that these would be key moments, exploding Marianne’s dreams, but in reality by the time these revelations come they seem to lack the danger that they would have had if the women had all been together at the castle. When Marianne feels betrayed she just walks away and there is no real consequence (actually, perhaps for Benita there is, but I feel that her actions are driven by complex factors which could have done with more scrutiny).

I thought that this was a well written novel, examining difficult situations within a complex war, and Shattuck does well to make the history enjoyable to read. I just wish that, with the ingredients she had at her disposal, she’d written a story that examined the relationships between the women more closely.

Thanks to Readers First for this review copy in exchange for an impartial review.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

rules of civility

1930s New York – a glamorous city where anyone can make anything of themselves if they have the ambition. Katey Kontent, the daughter of Russian immigrants, is New York born and bred. Her roommate and good friend, Evie Ross, is from a more well to do Midwest family. On New Year’s Eve, 1937, they meet a man named Tinker Grey in a Greenwich Village nightclub, a chance encounter that triggers an event that will leave them all irreversibly changed.

This is a novel which relies heavily on the charm of its narrator, and in Katey Kontent, Towles pulls this off. If I had a time machine and could choose a decade and a place from the last century to visit for a day, 1930s New York would be high on my list. Jazz clubs, gin martinis, fashionable women and young men waiting for their trust funds to pay out. Katey is far more of an observer than a participator, but this makes her more attractive to the reader (or at least to this one). It is the people who Katey meets who direct her year, so much packed in that at times I forgot that only a few months had passed. She finds herself moving in circles far above what she is used to, but never quite lets herself be seduced by the money or the notoriety of others.

If I have a complaint about the novel it is that it meanders rather a lot. The will they/won’t they element is also quashed from the start, a prologue which pairs Katey with a yet unknown husband. At first I thought that the main storyline would be about the relationships between Katey, Evie and Tinker. This is set up nicely in the first few chapters, but Evie and Tinker were then missing for months at a time. A more interesting character was Anne Grandyn, introduced as Tinker’s godmother but turning out to exert far more influence on him than Katey first thinks. Towles writes women who belong quite firmly in their time but still have agency. Anne singles Katey out as a potential protégé early on, as evidenced in a scene at the Belmont racecourse, Anne pointing out the young fiancée of a silver -haired multi millionaire:

-You see that thirty-year-old blonde next to Jake? That’s his fiancée, Carrie Clapboard. Carrie moved all manner of heaven and earth to get into that chair. And soon she will happily oversee scullery maids and table settings and the reupholstering of antique chairs at three different houses; which is all well and good. But if I were your age, I wouldn’t be trying to figure out how to get into Carrie’s shoes – I’d be trying to figure out how to get into Jake’s.

Overall I feel there is slightly more style than substance to this book, but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless.

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

little deaths

Emma Flint’s debut was longlisted for both this year’s Baileys Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize, so I expected big things. Little Deaths is based on the true story of Alice Crimmins, a mother accused of killing her own children back in the 1960s. I enjoy novels based on true crime but think they work best where they show us more than we could discover from a Wikipedia search or from reading a non-fiction account of the same case. I loved Anna Mazzola’s The Unseeing, to give a recent example.

Ruth Malone lives with her two children, Frankie and Cindy, in Queens, New York. It’s 1965 and she’s recently separated from her husband. The pair are currently fighting over custody of the children.  She works as a waitress and has had several boyfriends, mostly married men who she met at work. One morning in July she wakes up to find the children missing. The police begin a search, canvassing the neighbourhood for clues and information. They find Cindy’s body first, then Frankie’s weeks later. The story is then split between following Ruth as she deals with this horrifying situation, and novice tabloid reporter, Pete Wonicke who is sent to cover the case.

Having had a quick glance online, it seems that Flint has stuck quite closely to the Crimmins case in terms of the timeline of events (though she does give us a concrete answer as to what actually happened to the Malone’s children). The novel is very well written, and well researched. Flint writes dialogue that sounds like a 1960s TV detective series, not always realistic but evocative of both era and location.  Occasionally though the characters came off as caricatures rather than real people, and I wished she’d done more with Devlin, the lead detective, who I found very two dimensional with his one track determination to punish Ruth for being a bad mother.

I really enjoyed the first third of the novel, but once the initial shock wears off and we move into the humdrum of Ruth and Pete’s lives over the following months, I had a problem with the pacing. The middle did slump for me, and Pete’s frenzied running around, desperate to find clues, was not as exciting as it could have been. The women were not distinct enough, and Ruth’s various boyfriends merged together. Too many conversations in bars or diners became tedious. While I appreciate that the real life case did follow a slow course, this is a novel and to my mind you can then do what you want with it. I also wanted more from the main characters. I wanted to know what drove Ruth to go looking for companionship with these men, even when she knew the police were staking out her house. It’s not normal behaviour and I wanted some understanding of what she was looking for in these meaningless encounters. We get a good sense that she is insecure in her body. She worries about body odour and makes sure the light is out when she brings the men home. I was waiting to discover more of her family history. There seemed to be issues between her and her mother, but it was skimmed over. A missed opportunity.

The novel examines the role of a woman, specifically one who is also a wife and mother. We get the gossip of the neighbourhood women who think Ruth’s a tramp and can’t sing her abandoned husband’s praises loudly enough. Devlin calls Ruth a whore because she doesn’t comply with his view of what a good mother should be. All of this is what was said of the real life Alice Crimmins and it all fits. What jarred for me by the end of the book was Pete. He becomes so obsessed by Ruth that nothing matters. He spends his own money on helping her and fantasises about sleeping with her. It’s written as though Ruth has some superhuman sexual power over men (apart from those who want to convict her, who are in a polar opposite mind frame). For me, the novel began to lose its strength at this point, and Pete became just plain creepy.

Rounding up, this is a very well written novel and is an enjoyable read. Just don’t expect any great revelations on gender roles or deviation from the bare bones of what was a fascinating real life murder case.

Drown by Junot Diaz


Diaz’s first short story collection, Drown, was published back in 1996. I read his later collection, This Is How You Lose Her, last year and both books showcase Diaz’s writing in a similar way. They even share a character, Yunior.

These ten stories are rooted in the immigrant experience, from surviving in the barrios of Santo Domingo to adjusting to life in New Jersey. Diaz writes in a style that is unique, not afraid to use a generous amount of Spanish throughout (there is a glossary at the back but I found that high school Spanish was enough, and often the meanings were easily deduced from the context of the sentence). I read these stories wondering how much material is actually autobiographical, so authentic are the sentences Diaz puts together. Images are vibrant, and it is unapologetic writing. This is how people behave, and if it makes them unsympathetic who cares because that’s how they live.

This is a strong collection, but there were a few stories that I didn’t really engage in – generally these are those which focus on a male protagonist lusting after some girl or another (a theme which I felt Diaz had become stronger on by the time he got round to This Is How…). I probably wouldn’t rush to reread Boyfriend or How to Date… I fell in love with Negocios, the tale of the protagonist’s father leaving the Dominican Republic and making his way to New York via Miami. It links up with earlier stories, explaining what Ramon did when he left his family, those years before he finally flies them over to join him.

To sum things up, if you like short stories but quite like a common thread and love authors with strong voices, this is for you.

The Correspondence by JD Daniels


I’m not usually a big reader of essays (confession: I had to read this collection for my MA course) but ‘The Correspondence’ was a pleasant surprise. This is a brief book, only 126 generously spaced pages, and features six different letters. Quite dark in places, comic in others, I found myself drawn into Daniels’s frequently odd world.

‘Letter from Cambridge’ begins the collection, though potentially it is a bit of a red herring for the rest of the book, being my least favourite of the essays. It follows the author’s introduction to Brazilian jiu-jitsu,  not a topic I am generally interested in (though Daniels did keep my attention) but also talks about his desire to become a writer:

I had always assumed that a writer had adventures and met other people, then told a story about what had happened, or else just made the whole thing up, or both. Now it looked like what a professional writer did was pontificate, you know, like the Pope, about social justice and foreign affairs and the Internet and the energy crisis. But I had formed myself on the Ruskin model. “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way”: thus John Ruskin, who was terrified of pubic hair.

There has been some discussion about this being an examination of masculinity; certainly there are few female characters. For me, I read it as a book about one man, JD Daniels. This book is mostly true, with some embellishments, but Daniels lays his issues out on the page. An alcoholic, suffering still with mental health issues, he’s not afraid to release this onto the page. In ‘Letter from Level Four’ he writes of his stay in hospital: I remember seeing a sign on the door to my floor that said LEVEL FOUR RISK OF AWOL and thinking, Christ, these people must be nuts.

‘Letter from Kentucky’ was my stand out essay of the collection, though ‘Level Four’ is up there also. ‘Kentucky’ turns into a reminiscence of childhood, examining the author’s relationship with his father, with whom he has had a tempestuous relationship. Daniels describes his drive through his home state, returning in order to write a magazine story but writing this letter instead.

More than any of the subject matter, it is the style of the writing that elevates this collection. There are lines that make you laugh out loud, followed by stark personal admissions. Sentences don’t always end up where you might expect. Even if you’re not usually one for memoir, this book is worth your time (and I guarantee it’s a quick read!).