Unsheltered – book review

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

Other reveiws of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered focus on the political; the coy way that Trump shadows the book but is never mentioned by name, the crisis in mid-America in employment, health, etc, our hurtle towards ecological crisis. It has all this; it is trademark Kingsolver.

But I read the book very literally.  To be unsheltered is a primal fear. Unsheltered gave me goosebumps. It is as threatening as a horror story, more so because the menace lies in the undercurrents while things on the surface look good enough. Continue reading “Unsheltered – book review”

Educated – book review

Educated, by Tara Westover

As I read this story, I wondered – how much can really be true?

How, given the emotional brainwashing and abuse of her childhood, could Tara succeed so brilliantly – from unschooled junk-yard kid, through Harvard and Cambridge to a PhD in only ten years?  If I was reviewing this as fiction I would call it unbelievably contrived. Continue reading “Educated – book review”

Elizabeth is missing – book review

Elizabeth is missing, by Emma Healey

Maud is a great hero of mine. She’s an old lady who is losing her marbles, but she clings on to the things she does know for dear life. She remembers things long past, but not yesterday. She’ll set an alarm clocks to remind her of something, but can’t remember why she set it.

I’m not Maud yet. I do remember why I set the alarm clock, but the fact that  I feel I need to set it at all makes we wonder if I’m heading that way.

So here’s a lovely book for a book group of women rolling with a bit of a swagger through their fifties. Watch the hesitation in their eyes as they make their funny wee confessions and giggle. Forgot the name of the actor you watched last night? Bought canned peaches again, although they already form a wall in the cupboard? Swear blind you haven’t seen your husband’s keys and can’t explain how they ended up in your handbag? (Hang on, that last one might just be me…)

Elizabeth is Maud’s dear friend. Maud thinks Elizabeth is missing, but is unable make her concerns clear to her long-suffering daughter, or her carer, or Elizabeth’s difficult son, or the police, the doctor.  Maud is confused about a lot of things, and the way this confusion is handled by Healey is gentle and empathetic. We are inside her head and feeling her frustration, but can also sympathise with the way those around her react to her crumbling reality.

The missing friend obsesses Maud so piercingly because, after the war, her older sister, Sukey, also went missing.  She was never found. We go back fifty years into Maud’s clearer memories, but things get more confusing before all the unravelling begins to reform into something unexpected.

It’s hard to categorise Elizabeth is Missing. It’s a lovely character story and a well described study of a woman’s slide into dementia with all the accompanying frustrations and misunderstandings that many readers will recognise.  It’s also a sharp psychological mystery, and a ripping thriller.  There are lots of different aspects to discuss in Healey’s book (not least that it’s her first novel – how does a woman in her twenties develop such acute observation?) For sure it’s a good pick for a women’s book club if, as I say, the odd senior moment hovers around your periphery.  This will make ’em squirm.

A Gentleman in Moscow – book review

If you enjoyed War & Peace…

This is War & Peace-lite, set over a century later with a different kind of war. And while the original covers a huge sweep of country from Napoleon’s battlefields to the St Petersburg salons, country peasants and the exodus from Moscow, Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow is set entirely within the walls of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow’s Theatre Square.

But there is something distinctly Tolstoyian in our hero, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, charming and urbane, surely a descendant of the more famous Rostovs. He is sent into house arrest by the Bolsheviks and goes willingly, considering the alternative, and for 30 years from 1922 is imprisoned in the hotel, first as an honoured guest and later as a respected waiter. We almost see this as a promotion, so conditioned are we by then to look on the positive side of life.

Rostov witnesses the momentous changes in Russia, not Tolstoy-style through the debate of powerful men and the clash on the battlefields, but in the detail of everyday life in the hotel as he quietly observes the changing guests and procedures. We are left to imagine the mentality of the new regime’s leaders who remove the labels from every bottle in the famous wine cellar so comrades receive a egalitarian pot-luck bottle with each meal. Rostov, connoisseur and master of the wine-food match, merely serves the first bottle that comes to hand.

The backing cast of the story are the workers of the Metropol who are trained for service, impeccably courteous front-of-house and a pack of real characters behind the scenes. Rostov is Rostov, his beautiful manners translate from his aristocratic youth to service without missing a beat.

There are three main women who come into Rostov’s life, each in a different context, and he is loyal, generous and playful in his love for each in a very Rostovian way. The women all have beating hearts.

He’s a lovely man. It’s an elegantly written book. Glib? Yes, perhaps. Open the book in the middle and read a few pages to see if the voice is for you. But don’t be fooled, under the light tone, we are still in 1930’s Russia.  Towles gives a menacing feel for the era, without much “proper” history at all. And the end is sublime.

I finished it and immediately recommended it to friends, particularly, but not exclusively, to those who have re-watched the BBC War & Peace series over and over and can’t quite get enough.

And if you still can’t get enough, Amor Towles writes a Q&A on A Gentleman of Moscow on his website, well worth a read to pick up some little details you may have missed.

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