This Little Bag of Dreams

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

Category: Literature

The Good House by Ann Leary

First of all, let us all put on our English Lit student heads and analyse the title: much easier to do when I tell you that our protagonist is called Hildy Good.

For this is a novel about much more than Hildy Good: it is about what it means to be good. And how our habits become addictions (in this case, alcoholism), and how those addictions impact on not just our lives, but also other people’s.

Hildy Good is 60, slightly overweight, fond of skinny dipping and a damn good realtor (that’s estate agent in non-American English). She lives alone in the quaint New England town of Wendover, full of streets with names like Gingerbread Hill, and right on the Massachusetts coast. She has two grown up daughters, an adorable grandson named Grady, and a gay ex husband. She is also an alcoholic.

So far, so Desperate Housewives, yes? Not exactly. For what is so clever about The Good House is that, in a similar style to Maria Beaumont’s Motherland, our narrator is a distinctly unreliable one. Hildy spends almost the entire book attempting to convince us that she is not an alcoholic, when much of the time, we are unsure if we can believe what she is telling us. But because she is hugely likeable and admirable in many ways (independent, despite her loneliness, and a successful business woman), we are drawn into her view that a couple of glasses of wine is no big deal. And then, of course, it would be a waste not to finish the bottle, yes?

But there is so much more to this novel than alcoholism. There is old/new love in the form of Hildy’s old flame, rich but hobo-esque Frankie Getchell, and a friendship based on shared loneliness between Hildy and the also rich, but fragile, Rebecca McAllister. There is tragedy, too, and I won’t be giving too much away if I reveal that some of that tragedy is personified by Jake, a child with special needs, whose parents are desperate to move closer to a good school. However, I can certainly say that the novel ends on a hopeful note, even if happy endings are in short supply in Wendover.

All in all, then, despite a slow start, I enjoyed The Good House and look forward to the film adaptation. Many thanks to Alison at Atlantic for the review copy.

You can buy The Good House on eBook here. The trade paperback will be available in the UK in October.

The Sugar Girls by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

It is almost 2200hrs and I am sat in my car (don’t ask) in what I imagine is a former miners’ or council estate in Tenterden, a well-to-do town as far removed from the East End as possible. The houses surrounding me, despite their former use, sell for as much as £235,000 for only 3 bedrooms, due largely to their location in this particularly pretty market town. Despite my own location, I can almost hear the giggles of the Sugar Girls, those eponymous ladies of HarperCollins new and bestselling biography, and feel Tate & Lyle’s sugar between my toes like sand. Such is the power of these East End factory women’s stories, brought, as Melanie McGrath says on the cover quote, ‘vividly to life’ by biographers Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi.

This is not the sort of book I would normally read: I suppose that, like Call the Midwife, I would have dismissed it as ‘heartwarming’ and therefore not for me and moved onto another novel. But right from the start, my regional manager could see that there was something very special about The Sugar Girls, and now I can confirm that he is absolutely right. For what can be more interesting than social history? Facts are here too, but it is The Sugar Girls themselves who really bring to life the noisy, hot atmosphere of the Tate & Lyle factory.

That is not to say that you won’t learn anything from this book, although that will, of course, depend on what you know already. I, for one, had no idea that Tate & Lyle used to be two separate companies, and that they only amalgamated in 1921. I was aware that women, for the most part, had to give up work when they got married, but I did not know that the pay gap was as bad then as it is now: Tate & Lyle women earned only 75 per cent of their ‘male counterparts’. More worryingly, I also had no idea that the factory had a bar which could be frequented throughout the working day, and that even those working on machines were allowed to visit this bar and resume working afterwards. Henceforth, dear reader, I expect never to hear the phrases ‘nanny state’ and ‘health and safety’ in conjunction again: consider yourself lucky to be working in modern times.

But, as I said earlier, it is not the facts, but rather the Sugar Girls themselves, which endear you to the Tate & Lyle story. In particular, it is the four women around whom the biography centres, Ethel, Lillian, Joan, and Gladys, for whom you really root whenever life gets rough for them.

As with fiction writers who switch perspectives, such as Sarah Rayner and Karrie Fransman, The Sugar Girls’ structure means that although you find yourself immersed in each individual woman’s story, conversely, you never tire of any of their tales. This is because just as you find yourself desperate to know what the consequences will be of Gladys’s latest work prank, or whether or not Lillian will hear from Reggie, the authors move us on to Joan’s wardrobe or Ethel’s ‘coveted white coat’. They are all quite different women, but are all united by one factor: their love for, and loyalty to, Tate & Lyle.

Be warned, however: this is a real tearjerker. It is best not to read it, therefore, when you are already feeling low. Having said that, with only a Bee Gees concert as my alternative distraction while waiting for the recovery truck, I chose to finish The Sugar Girls. I just had to be sure that Lillian’s, Gladys’s, Joan’s and Ethel’s lives turned out, if not as sweet as the sugar which they used to pack, then at least as successful and memorable.

Thanks to Sarah Patel at HarperCollins for a review copy of The Sugar Girls, and both to Sarah and Tate & Lyle for sending sugar packets and syrup tins for Waterstones Tenterden to use in their window display.

The Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

Two confessions: 1)The title put me off reading this book initially. Fussy, I know. 2) It took a good third of the book for me to get into it, but once I did, I was hooked. It made a post-London party delay at a lonely Ashford station pass much more quickly. The premise, composer Oskar goes to LA to get divorced, while his friend looks after his flat, sounds unpromising, perhaps, but the novel is about so much more than that.

The Care of Wooden Floors has not received as much attention as some of the other Waterstones 11 titles; many, myself included, have raved about The Age of Miracles, and The Lifeboat has also had some good reviews. But there is something both very precious and fragile about any debut novel which makes me, as a bookseller, blogger and reader, want to take them under my wing, nurture them and offer them up to my customers lest they be forgotten.

However, The Care of Wooden Floors is infinitely unforgettable. Essentially a tale about two friends, one seemingly perfect and successful, the other failing to make any mark on the world, its protagonist remains, like Rebecca, unnamed, as does the Eastern European city in which the novel is set. This gave the book a certain unnerving element: we neither know who this character is nor where he is. Moreover, it adds to our impression of his utter helplessness to stop events at Oskar’s flat from spiralling completely out of control.

As I said at the start of this review, The Care of Wooden Floors is not an easy book in which to lose yourself: or not initially, at least. Wiles’ style is fairly wordy, and although the book takes place over the course of only eight days, at times it can feel like longer. Yet there is an ever-present level of Schadenfreude running throughout the novel which soon makes reading it hard to resist. From the wine which claims the precious, eponymous wooden floors, to the appalling piano mishap (read it to find out what I mean!), we surely prickle with joy rather than sympathy at his misfortune. Many have judged the appalling series of events at Oskar’s flat to be mere slapstick, but they become sadder and more sinister as the novel progresses.

What I loved most about The Care of Wooden Floors is that Wiles shows us the pointlessness of perfectionism. For Oskar’s tidy apartment, ironically, is sold in the end, and his nameless friend, who becomes obsessively perfectionist himself for a while, is shown to be more likeable than Oskar will ever be, despite his haplessness.

Briefs Encountered by Julian Clary

When I saw the fabulous cover design of Briefs Encountered on Twitter, I knew that I had to read the book. I’d never read a Julian Clary novel before, but the premise, two separate but interconnected stories, one set during the 1920s and involving Noël Coward, the other about the present day actor Richard Stent, sounded too interesting to refuse. Moreover, Clary has set both parts of his book in his own house near Ashford, and since I work at Waterstones Tenterden, the novel has a particularly local appeal.

I was initially rather put off by the inclusion of Clary himself and Paul O’Grady as characters; it struck me as gimmicky and threatened to stop my reading Briefs Encountered altogether. But I’m glad I persisted, because this really is a fantastic novel. I’ve always enjoyed books which alternate between different perspectives (Sarah Rayner does it excellently in One Moment, One Morning and The Two Week Wait), and Clary not only succeeds very well in telling a dual narrative, he also manages to make his characters based on real people as believable as his utterly fictitious ones.

As I work in a haunted shop, I was particularly intrigued by the ghostly occurrences in Briefs Encountered, and as with the novel’s crazy relationships and crazier yet women, I feared that Clary’s writing about paranormal activity would be hammier than Nigella eating a bacon sandwich in a Christmas jumper. But it is all written so deftly and so tastefully that I have found myself ordering Clary’s backlist at work. If his previous novels are as good as this one, then I can’t wait to read them, particularly if he decides to make a cameo appearance.

Doctors & Nurses by Lucy Ellmann

In a tweet: Obese nurse who likes to CAPITALISE things tries to marry doctor, but discovers wife. Gets arrested for murder but avenges doctor instead.

WARNING: this is a FANTASTIC book, but it features lots of random CAPITALISATION, especially of SHOCKING words, so it is not a novel for the EASILY OFFENDED.

Now, whilst I could intersperse this entire review with CAPITAL LETTERS, I shan’t. It may work in Doctors & Nurses, but it would just be ANNOYING here.

Ok: let’s begin. For that’s certainly what Ellmann does in Doctors & Nurses, serving us a graphic prologue describing the Big Bang, which er, in her book, was a bang of the sexual variety:

‘It was deep, it was ROUGH, this mating…Lava spat far and wide as the ramming went on…the NOISE he made as he wedged himself into her…All the friction and fiction of lovemaking’

Fast forward to chapter one, where we meet Jen, an obese cake addict who is about to go for an interview in an isolated doctor’s surgery. She gets the job, and it transpires that her boss is none other than Roger Lewis, with whom she once had carnal relations on an aeroplane. They fall in love, or lust, at least, and marry: or almost do, until they are thwarted at the altar by Francine, the surgery receptionist who also happens to be Roger’s wife and mother to their two children, Edward and Adele. I hope I don’t have to tell you which classic inspired that storyline.

What I loved most, in terms of style, about Doctors & Nurses was both Ellmann’s logophilia – she clearly adores the sound as well as the meaning of words – and the Verfremdungseffekt. Even from the very beginning, we are urged not to willingly suspend our disbelief:

‘A RURAL BACKWATER. Can’t you see how FRIGHTENING that sounds? Sounds like a place in which you might quietly DROWN.’

Conversely, Ellmann’s use of stream of consciousness when she introduces Jen encourages us to identify with her and thus forget this is fiction. Her assumption that we know other characters also reinforces the idea that we are part of the story:

‘Hot. Need a HAIRCUT. Need to put my hair up. Boxes. Need boxes. Hot. Pink. Sweaty. Sore foot. Hair. Job interview. VOMIT: pink-noodle vomit on the street! Who’d eat that? Dog maybe. Pink POODLE perhaps. Better than Urma Thurb’s food though…Urma Thurb used to be NICE…Now she’s too busy.’

Ellmann’s ‘leading lady’, Jen, loves cake, sex and handbags; she hates couples, teenagers and children. In fact, she ‘hates EVERYONE’. She is a bizarre mixture: both a parody of today’s oxymoronic woman, quoting Nietzsche while Keeping Calm and Eating a Cupcake, and a social outcast in the style of Frankenstein:

‘Nobody can quite BELIEVE anyone DARES look like Jen. That meandering flesh, the flesh of AGES, flesh of LEGEND, a SAHARA DESERT of flesh…’

Essentially, the entire novel is a rant: a rant about the oppression of women; a rant about body fascism; a rant about male figures of authority. Ellmann even finds time to rant about modes of transport:

‘AEROPLANES HAVE RUINED THE WORLD. They are the source of all human misery…BECAUSE of them,you are expected to attend every goddamn wedding, funeral, baby shower, circumcision and retirement do on the PLANET…’

But because all this ranting is conducted in such a madly humorous way, Doctors & Nurses is entertaining rather than a diatribe. Although the rant which lists the many and varied conditions which the body can suffer may be one you choose to skip (I did when I first read the novel).

A word of warning: if the C word bothers you, then don’t bother reading this. Having said that, it is so overused in the novel that it loses its ability to shock. Moreover, it would be a shame to miss out on such an original piece of work, purely because it includes a word which offends you. Because Ellmann’s book has it all: sex, death, violence and handbags. What else is there?

How would I sum up Doctors & Nurses? Easy: Jane Eyre meets Wetlands. Ellmann even ‘pays homage’ to Brontë’s masterpiece after the doomed wedding service:

‘So now begins the lavish period of EXILE, in which Jane Eyre wanders starving across the MOORS…and considers marrying the sexless SINJUN and converting the INJUNS. All that stuff after the aborted wedding is a FIASCO – and it takes up a third of the book! It’s the biggest black hole in English literature!’

Buy it NOW: and never look at a HANDBAG the same way again (sorry, I couldn’t resist including some CAPITALISATION).

The House That Groaned by Karrie Fransman

Firstly: I am a graphic novel virgin. Secondly: this is a brilliant introduction to graphic novels for graphic novel virgins everywhere. Fact.

Karrie Fransman tells the tale of Barbara, a busty single woman selling beauty products who has just moved into the eponymous house on the brilliantly Dickensian Rottin Road. It soon transpires that the flat is neither the ‘cosy’ nor ‘charming hideaway which the elusive Godfrey’s Estate Agents promised. Moreover, there are leaks, lusty prank phone callers and loud nocturnal lovers. It is enough to make anyone go insane.

Aside from Barbara, there are two other rather isolated female characters in The House That Groaned: Janet, who leads The Do or Diet Group in the building, and Demi Durbach, who has the unfortunate ability to blend into her own furniture. Like Barbara, Janet is also troubled by voices at night, although hers come in the form of prank phone calls, inviting her to join the Midnight Feast Front. She is more loathe to do this than most might be, having lost six stone (as well as her gay husband shortly afterwards).

It’s a cliché perhaps, but the house itself is a character, and certainly a more interesting one than the men. My friend, who has himself illustrated graphic novels, suggested that the leaking corner of Mrs Durbach’s ceiling resembles the female sexual organs. This isn’t something I’d thought of myself, but is certainly an interesting theory. For given that the women of the house are either abandoned (Janet’s husband left her), ignored (no one helps Barbara move in) or blend literally into the furniture (Mrs Durbach), it makes feminist sense for the house to be female, to contain lots of different personalities, appetites, and voices.

Brian is certainly the most fascinating male character. Since a childhood stay in hospital, he has been fixated on women with facial disfigurements or obesity issues, so The House That Groaned, with its leaks, creaks and secrets, is the perfect place for him to experience his fantasies.

In terms of style, I particularly enjoyed the different fonts Fransman uses to illustrate her characters’ actions or phone calls:

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At first, I didn’t like the fact that Fransman uses only blue, black and white to illustrate The House That Groaned, but on a second reading, I realised that the muted tones were perfect for this deliciously mad tale.

I shan’t tell you the ending, of course, but as with all the best stories, it’s not at all what you might expect.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

This is probably a book which most of you will read after watching the film with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. This is no bad thing: it is a great film which is very true to the novel, and Fiennes and Winslet are as brilliant as always. But if you’ve not watched the film, then please do read the book first. Michael Berg is fifteen years old. One day, walking home from school, he is violently sick, and an older woman takes him into her apartment to clean him up. Whilst having a bath, Michael notices Hanna watching him washing; embarassed, he dresses hurriedly and flees.

But Michael cannot forget the woman who cleared up his vomit (how vomantic), so he takes her some flowers to thank her. After he returns the favour by filling up her coal scuttle, he bathes again and once again catches Hanna watching him. This time, he is not embarassed. This time, they have passionate sex and it is implied that he loses his virginity to her.

A relationship begins; a routine of bathing, sex and reading ensues. Hanna asks Michael what he’s reading at school and then asks him to read to her. Teacher and pupil roles are reversed regularly: Michael teaches Hanna about literature, Hanna teaches Michael about sex.

Time passes. Hanna is angry with Michael when he joins the tram on which she is working and acts immaturely; their relationship is a secret from his family and friends and ultimately cannot compete with the latter. One day, Michael knocks on Hanna’s door and she has gone – for good.

Schlink skips a few years and we meet Michael again at university. Like his author, he is reading law. It is the late Sixties, the Vergangenheitsbewältigung-era in Germany. He observes a war criminal trial and is stunned to discover that one of the defendants is none other than Hanna.

As the trial progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the other defendents, who were low ranking concentration camp workers, are determined to walk free and see Hanna take the entire responsibility for the murder in the church during an imfamous death march. When Michael realises that Hanna is prepared to face a life in prison rather than reveal her secret, a secret which would absolve her of a great deal of responsibility, he also finally realises what that secret is: Hanna is illiterate.

I shan’t reveal the rest of the plot: it is pretty obvious to you, I’m sure, that Hannah goes to prison. But that’s not the end of the story. What is the end? And who is the eponymous Reader?

Schlink’s novel broke my heart and angered me all in one go. History has rightly taught us to view the Holocaust purely from the Jewish perspective, and for Schlink to suggest we sympathise with a Nazi war criminal is extremely controversial. But the problem is, he is not only writing about the German problem of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, he is also writing a love story. For I believe that Michael never stops loving Hanna. She is punished for her crime, and he is punished for his.

The Two Week Wait by Sarah Rayner

Two women. One gay and single, one straight and married. So far, so different. But they both have one major thing in common: they both want a baby.

I finished reading The Two Week Wait yesterday in Starbucks Piccadilly and I had to try desperately hard not to sob into my over-sugared venti latte. Unlike my coffee, this is not a froth-filled novel. Rayner is not afraid to tackle controversial topics; in One Moment, One Moment, it was bereavement and sexuality, in The Two Week Wait, it is infertility.

Lou is in her thirties and has been told to have a child before it is too late. Her girlfriend Sofia, however, is not altogether keen on the idea. Should she forget about having a child or go it alone?

In another town in England, cancer sufferer Cath has just been given the all-clear. In her early forties, it would be hard enough to conceive naturally, never mind the fact that her ovaries had to be removed.

Could Cath and Lou help each other? Will they both be able to conceive? And if not, can they imagine a future without children?

What I really loved about this novel was that Rayner has really done her research into IVF and other similar treatments. For example, I had no idea that such a scheme as egg sharing existed, nor did I know about ICSI ( intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection).

I also enjoyed meeting One Moment, One Morning’s characters once again. It was reassuring to see Anna move on from Steve, Karen rebuild her life after losing Simon, and Irene, Lou’s mum, welcome Lou’s pregnancy. What’s also great is that while One Moment, One Morning is a fantastic read, The Two Week Wait is a stand alone novel, which you can read without any prior knowledge of these characters.

So trot along to your nearest Waterstones and pick up a copy of The Two Week Wait. I guarantee that, like me, it will have you sobbing into your caffeinated drink of choice.