This Little Bag of Dreams

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Month: March, 2014

G.I. Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

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As the 8.10 to Charing Cross pulled out of Woolwich, Sylvia Bradley could hardly contain her excitement. At fifteen and a half, she had only just left school, and was thrilled to be joining the crowds of glamorous women who took the train ‘Up West’ every morning to work in the capital’s grand hotels and shops.

It was fitting that I read GI Brides, the second book from the authors of the Sunday Times bestseller, The Sugar Girls, thousands of miles away from home in Perth, Australia. There, however, the similarities between the G.I. Brides and me end. For not only was I reading the book surrounded by my family, I also will be returning to my own country soon. In contrast, the G.I. Brides sacrificed not only perhaps never seeing England again, but also even seeing their own family again once they set sail (or flew, if they were lucky) for America.

For those of you who have read The Sugar Girls, the format of G.I. Brides will be reassuringly familiar. Barrett and Calvi have chosen four brides to tell their stories – Gwen, Rae, Margaret and Sylvia – and each chapter is devoted to one of the women. This interwoven approach keeps the reader interested, for no sooner have you become involved in one of the bride’s latest predicaments, their chapter ends and your focus to redirected to one of the other brides.

What I found fascinating, and shocking about G.I. Brides, was the extent to which the women emigrating for love were reviled by some Americans. Even their new families were not altogether welcoming. Although obviously, wartime, despite involving many nations uniting for a common cause, is a time in which every country involved fights to protect itself. Hence those who were jealous of the G.I. Brides were mostly women, angry that those from another country had taken their men. It is a concept difficult to appreciate from a modern viewpoint, given that we have not experienced warfare on such a scale since WWII.

There are harrowing stories in G.I. Brides, but there is much to giggle at too. Some of the funniest episodes in the book result from the differences between British English and American English. My favourite was when Gwen/Lyn kept asking the train porter to ‘knock her up’ each morning, on her great odyssey across America to California, so that she could glimpse the changing scenery. The porter told her to make sure she told her boyfriend that he ‘knocked her up’ every morning. Little did innocent Lyn know that the expression took on quite a different meaning in America!

I enjoyed G.I. Brides immensely and look forward to what the authors investigate next.

If you have enjoyed this review, you may find this Guardian interview with Nuala Calvi interesting.

Many thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.

The List – Joanna Bolouri

Hilarious review! Def putting The List on my TBR pile.

Having Read The Book

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This is SO far and away NOT a book I would usually have picked up: there is pink swirly writing and a cartoon woman winking on the cover. But Bolouri is hella funny on twitter, so I thought, what the hell! I CAN read a book with pink swirly writing and a cartoon woman winking on the cover. So I paid my electronic money and downloaded it.

Ever since I discovered Adrian Mole I have been a sucker for calendar based writing, so once I saw “Saturday January 1st” introducing the first page, I was in.

Phoebe Henderson is a woman scorned, still reeling from discovering her ex in bed with another women she is seeing in a new year in a mess. Stuck in a job she hates, with no new relationship, and nothing else on the horizon to keep her chin up (other than being totally happy for…

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Ostrich by Matt Greene

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I can tell my parents are unhappy by the way they smile at waiters. In that small act of ingratiation I can see the custody battle to come. It won’t be fought in the courtroom but in HMV and Game. Stocks in Nintendo will soar as my affections are auctioned off to the highest bidder. My teeth will rot.

I picked up this book because of its wonderful cover: a gorgeously retro black and white camera, resplendent in a sea of orange. Yet the camera’s appeal is not merely aesthetic: not only does one of the main characters have a darkroom, but this camera image also serves to remind us that we only ever get a snapshot into the psyche of others.

Twelve year old Alex has problems. His parents hate each other and his hamster Jaws 2 is acting out of character. Oh, and he’s just had major brain surgery. Not quite your average adolescent, then.

What I liked the most about Ostrich was that there was no clichéd terrible sense of foreboding (sorry, a cliché in itself) with regards to Alex’s predicament. Instead, we see him traversing the usual teenage routes of conspiracy theories, re Jaws 2’s behaviour, with his new ‘girl friend’, Chloe, playing Spin the Bottle and tricking younger kids on the school bus. Furthermore, Greene gives us a History Boys-style reasoned debate about why there is no future, and this is discussed in the context of language, rather than Alex’s illness:

Then she took out some chalk and wrote the words I’M THERE on the blackboard.

‘Does that make sense to you?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ I replied.

‘Why?’

‘Because I’ve heard people say it.’

…..

‘But it shouldn’t make sense though, should it? Not if you think about it. Are you thinking about it?

‘Yes,’ I said. And then I started to think about it.

‘What tense is the verb?’ asked Miss Farthingdale.

‘Present.’

‘And what does the present tense mean?’

‘Now.’

‘Exactly,’ she smiled. ‘And how could I be there now?’

Alex became a bit like spending a month surrounded by your family: you veer between loving them and wanting them to go away. Greene is a genius, but sometimes, it felt like being entertained by a stand up: Alex’s cleverness is constant and occasionally irksome. But for the most part, I found it endearing, particularly when he talks about his French class alter ego, Marcel, and the limitations to his life:

(In many ways my life is so much simpler in French. I don’t get headaches or déjà vu in French because I don ‘t know the words for them. Moreover I don’t worry about my parents’ marriage or my own mortality or why I haven’t had a wet dream because these are emotions I am not able to express. Sometimes I’m jealous of Marcel. I think that if I moved to France I’d be a completely different person. (For one thing I’d agree with people a lot more and for another I’d spend much more time in libraries and swimming pools.)

Deliberately, I imagine, the novel veers between the present and the past (but not the future, of course), and this switching can be confusing for the reader. All in all, however, this is a brilliant début novel which deserves to be noticed.

Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly

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Are you living in the moment?

Me neither. I’m trying to. Really, I am. Periodically, throughout the day, I stop what I’m doing and say to myself, This is it. This moment is all you have. Enjoy it. Feel it. Embrace the Now.

You know the drill: house, work, 2.4 children. Barely enough time to eat, let alone romance your husband or practise mindfulness. So when your daughter’s teacher phones to tell you she’s in A & E, you don’t think twice about making the trip to France alone. After all, there is your other daughter to look after, the hotel to run, your mother in law to entertain. And look, here is your friend from university, ready to step in and take your place in your absence. Hold the fort, I mean. Of course I mean hold the fort.

For, barely two weeks later, the overworked and undersexed Natty returns from France, with her seriously ill daughter, to find that her husband Sean has shacked up with her so-called friend, Eve, who is evidently oversexed. So much for the sisterhood.

Soon, however, we realise that Eve is not the superwoman, domestic/sex goddess she purports to be. Her crimes, despite the obvious sin of husband stealing, range from the casually cruel (trashing Natty’s make-up) to injuring herself, making it look like GBH, with Natty the perpetrator. Natty struggles to convince the police, and even her own family, just how psychotic Eve is. But then an anonymous note arrives, telling her that Eve has wrecked homes before. Is everyone else convinced by this evidence? And can Eve be stopped before it’s too late?

Daly writes as grippingly as she did in her début, Just What Kind of Mother Are You?. I especially enjoyed her further exploration of today’s harried mothers in the form of Natty, and thought that her characterisation of überbitch Eve was spot on.

What I love perhaps the most about Daly’s writing is that it is set firmly in the luscious landscapes of her home, the Lake District, contrary to the idea that all modern novels are set in North London. I do hope she continues in this fashion.

Zenith Hotel by Oscar Coop Phane

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When I wake up, my teeth feel furry. There’s a foul taste in my mouth – a nasty sort of animal taste. Still, it’s better than at night, when I have the taste of other people and their filth.

Fans of Lou Reed and the Velvets will recognise the seedier side of life portrayed in Zenith Hotel. The novel is told from several viewpoints: we hear from a prostitute, Nanou, the highly sexed Robért, the psychotic ‘jailbird’ Dominic, the suicidal misanthrope, Victor, the moped-repairing, newly separated Luc and the heartbroken widow, Pio. Despite their differences, they are all connected by one thing : they sleep with Nanou.

What I loved the most about Zenith Hotel, despite its bleakness, was its absolute honesty and its refusal to bow to the reader’s demands. For example, Nanou only lets the reader so far into her rough existence, unwilling to discuss any of the seedier aspects:

I don’t intend to go into detail and tell you about my childhood, my love life and all my woes. I’m not going to tell you how I ended up like this – you’d get too much of a kick out of it. All you’re going to get is my day. If you were expecting me to talk about rape , being abandoned, HIV and heroin, you can fuck off, pervert.HIV

Zenith Hotel is refreshingly honest about how, in the most literal sense, we are absolutely alone as human beings, just as it is frank about our sexual fantasies. Emmanuel fantasises about other women when he sleeps with Estelle, when ironically, despite partaking in the closest human contact possible, Nanou maintains that we are alone even during sex:

Go on, try, get married, fuck old whores, have kids, read novels, you’ll always be alone.

Given this honesty, Zenith Hotel can be quite challenging to read at times, and some characters occasionally descend into a rant. But despite that, I found it a most engaging début .

The Book of Souls by James Oswald

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Having loved the first Inspector McLean novel, Natural Causes, I had high hopes for The Book of Souls. I was not disappointed.

The novel begins with the death of Donald Anderson, a serial killer who just so happens to have murdered Tony McLean’s fiancée, Kirsty Summers, ten years ago. Despite attending his funeral in order to gain that elusive ‘closure’, McLean starts seeing Anderson everywhere. The plot thickens further when copycat murders start to occur. Is Anderson still alive? Or is someone merely imitating his methods?

Although The Book of Souls had a slower start than Natural Causes, soon enough, I was taking the novel everywhere with me. I loved the clashes between McLean and his nemesis superior, Dagwood, and the fact that McLean carries on in pursuit of the truth, regardless of Dagwood’s opinion. It was good, too, to see the return of the slightly supernatural, John Connolly-esque touch introduced in Natural Causes. And like all good crime novels, I was one step behind McLean, only realising the culprit when he was caught.

My next task is to purchase The Hangman’s Song, where I hope to see the relationship develop between McLean and Emma, his on-off love interest.