Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This is the first volume of The Cazalet Chronicles. I watched the tv series a few years ago and really loved it. Published in 1990 it is set in the years leading up to the Second World War. It is a sprawling family saga with lots of characters. The three Cazalet brothers Hugh, Edward and Rupert along with their wives and children spend the summer at the family home in Sussex. This is the home of their parents, known as the Brig and the Duchy, and their unmarried sister Rachel.
They are a wealthy family. They all have servants and their children have tutors and go to private schools. Hugh and Edward work in the family's timber importing business. Yet money seems to be an issue. Edward's wife Villy feels guilty about spending money on a new dress, but then buys three. This contrasts with the genuine poverty of Miss Milliment who is employed as a tutor to Hugh and Edward's daughters. Miss Milliment lives in one room in a lodging house and money is a constant worry for her. She is quite elderly and fears what will happen to her when she is too old to work.
War is a constant background to the story. Miss Milliement's fiance was killed in the Boer War and she still treasures his memory. Both Hugh and Edward fought in the First World War, Hugh still suffering the effects of the injuries he received. Then as the story moves on the threat of the Second World War comes closer and closer.
Primarily though this is a book about the Cazalet family. They are a close family and spend a lot of time together. But there are rifts. Rupert's second wife Zoe doesn't fit in. She is much younger than him, she resents her step-children (the feeling is reciprocated) and is prone to tantrums. Edward's wife Villy is dissatisfied with her life and is constantly searching for activities and hobbies to find fulfillment. The children's allegiances and friendships change as they grow older. This process is exacerbated by the introduction in the second half of the book of a new family, Villy's sister Jessica and her four children. Edward's daughter Louise is the oldest of the children and her close friendship with her cousin Polly fades as she has to face some very grown up issues. Jessica's son Christopher is very unhappy and has a dreadful relationship with his bullying father. Then he comes up against Edward's son Teddy, who is anxious to assert his authority.
I enjoyed this book very much. I got really involved with the characters and am eager to read the rest of the trilogy.

Friday, 24 June 2011

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

I picked this one off the shelf because it was going to be the featured book on the Radio 4 Book Club. I read the book but of course completely forgot to listen to the radio programme.
The story is about an elderly man named Leo Gursky. He fled Poland after the Second World War, the only survivor from his village. His immediate family are all dead, murdered by the Nazis. He finds refuge in New York with a distant relative who also provides him with a job as a locksmith. Leo finds the girl who he has been in love with since childhood. He discovers that she has given birth to his child. However, believing Leo to be dead, she has married someone else. Leo doesn't try to fight for either of them, he steps back so they can get on with their lives. He is very, very lonely.
Before the war he had wanted to be a writer, and had in fact written a book about his love, whose name is Alma. Alongside Leo's story we read about a young girl in New York who is named Alma after a character in her father's favourite book. Her father has died, her mother has retreated into grief, and her younger brother is developing a religious mania. In order to make sense of her world she orders things into lists.
I honestly think I will have to read this one again to completely make sense of it. It is so sad, Leo Gursky is heartbreaking (though sometimes funny - he has a great sense of humour). I never wanted to pick the book up to start reading it again because I didn't want to deal with Leo's life, but once I had picked it up I didn't want to put it down because it drew me in. It'll go back on the shelf for a while and then I'll read it again. Next time I'll be hardened to Leo and I'll be able to concentrate on the story more.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Steig Larsson

This story kicks off where The Girl Who Played With Fire left off - with Lisbeth Salander in hospital after being shot in the head. There are dark forces ranged against her. It turns out that she is at the centre of a tangle of corruption involving a government department which has gone rogue. One pull of the thread from her and the whole thing will unravel. So some very powerful people are trying to bring her down.
On her side are Blomkvist and the journalists at Millennium magazine and her old employers at Milton Security. They work together to try and figure the whole thing out. Some of the police working on the case are also suspicious of the official facts and try and uncover the truth.
I was glad that I started reading this relatively soon after finishing The Girl Who Played with Fire. I think I would've been completely lost otherwise. As it was I had some trouble remembering who was who, particularly in the case of the police and government where there seemed to be departments within departments.
Maybe I just wasn't in the right frame of mind for it but I did feel that this one was a bit busy. I didn't understand the need for the sub-plot concerning Erica Berger's move from being editor of Millennium to being editor of a national daily paper. Maybe to show that powerful, successful women sometimes have to deal with sexism just like more vulnerable women like Salander have to? Anyway, for me it was just another set of characters I had to remember.
I am glad I read it, though it wasn't my favourite of the trilogy. I thought it had a satisfying ending. I've read that Stieg Larsson planned to write more in the series and I can see that the last line left it open for that. It's a shame he never got to continue.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Zorro by Isabel Allende

This is Isabel Allende's take on the story of Diego de la Vega, better known as Zorro. The character was first created in the early 20th century for a pulp fiction novel. Since then of course he has appeared in other books and in films and on tv. Rather than concentrate on his later life, Allende imagines his childhood and the events that turned Diego into Zorro.

The story starts in California in 1790 with the meeting of Diego's parents. His father, Captain Alejandro de la Vega, is an aristocratic Spaniard, and his mother Toypurnia is a Shoshone warrior. They first meet when Toypurnia leads an attack on the local Catholic Mission. Diego is torn between the two cultures. He loves and respects his father, and is good friends with Padre Mendoza, the priest in charge of the Mission. His day to day life and his outward appearance is that of the son of a Spanish nobleman. At the same time he is fascinated by the culture of his mother's tribe, and is particularly close to his grandmother White Owl, who is a healer and shaman.

A confident and adventurous boy, Diego pesters his father to send him to Spain to continue his education. It is in Barcelona that he hones his fencing skills, studying with the master Manuel Escalante. It is a turbulent time in Europe with the army of Napoleon on the march, and occupying Spain. The politics there are far more nuanced there than they were in California and it is very easy to get into trouble without meaning to. Diego sees some good people have their lives ruined by a careless word, or inadvertently offending the wrong person. Through Escalante he is inducted into La Justicia, a secret society which fights for the rights of the powerless.

Also in Barcelona he falls in love with the beautiful Juliana de Romeu. His rival for her affections, Rafael Moncada, becomes his first enemy, they fight a duel, both emerge unscathed, but with a burning hatred for each other which will ignite again back in California.

I thought this was a great adventure story. It's colourful and fast. The story never drags. There are darker moments in amongst the swashbuckling: the pirates attack on the de la Vega hacienda is brutal and terrifying, and the treatment of Toypurnia's people at the hands of the colonisers is heartbreaking. I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it.