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Category Archive for 'England'

Marian Evans, the author known as George Eliot, is sixty years old as this biographical novel opens in June, 1880, and she is on the train to Venice for her honeymoon with new husband, John Walter Cross, a handsome young forty-year-old. Hiding her face behind a white lace mantilla so that she will not be pestered by fans of her books begging for autographs, she believes that the mantilla, “though not completely hiding her face…distracted from it, from her large nose and broad jaw, and she welcomed this because she believed that she was homely.” She had lived happily with philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes from 1854 until his death in 1878, and though she called herself Mrs. Lewes, they had never married. Lewes, already married, had an “open marriage” in which his wife ultimately had four children by another man, all of whom Lewes supported, and he was legally unable to get a divorce. As the train bearing the newlyweds heads toward Venice and a new life, Evans has reason to be alarmed by her new husband’s behavior – “It was as if he were drifting away from her, going farther and farther into his own world, and she didn’t know why.” He’d been frantically making plans for the wedding and their house in London; he hadn’t been sleeping; and he’d hardly been eating. Though he’d been as attentive to her needs as always, he was now hyperactive, operating at a level of speed and intensity she had never seen before, constantly moving and unable to relax. Author Smith’s research makes much of this novel come alive, providing both realism and excitement to this biography as she recreates the life of this intelligent scholar/author and how she became a success as a novelist.

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In an electrifying novel that uses simple images and straightforward, often abbreviated thoughts to create deep emotions and subtle themes, debut novelist Max Porter revitalizes the whole concept of the novel, creating a work that is so unorthodox and so difficult to describe in its structure that it sometimes verges on the bizarre. Despite the constantly changing structural elements, however, the voices of Dad and his Boys remain direct, unpretentious, and completely realistic as they tell of their reactions to the sudden death of their wife and mother from an accident which has left them overwhelmed by events and not sure how to react or acknowledge what they feel. In a consummate irony, Dad, an academic writer, has been working on a book, overdue at the publisher, called Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis, which examines the poems of Ted Hughes following the death of his wife, Sylvia Plath. It’s been five days since the death, and Dad and the boys are alone now. All the family and visitors have left, the boys are asleep, and “Grief felt fourth-dimensional, abstract, faintly familiar. Suddenly the doorbell rings, and when Dad opens it, “there was a crack and a whoosh and [he] was smacked back, winded, onto the doorstep…There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.” He is lifted above the tiled floor and finds feathers between his fingers, in his eyes, and in his mouth. Crow has arrived. With Crow incorporating wild and unexpected elements, including humor, into this book about grief, the novel explores death and its aftermath in new ways. Unique and intriguing.

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In this memoir of a man’s life, from his problematic childhood in the rural south Yorkshire mining village of Hoyland Common in the late 1950s, through his current, highly successful adulthood in Sheffield, also in South Yorkshire, author Richard Hines makes total connection with his reader in “gentle and familiar” ways. Rarely, if ever, have I had such a feeling of intimacy with an author as he tells about his life and draws me in completely. The key to his whole life took place when he was just fifteen – the summer that he “manned a kestrel,” a small hawk. The first half of the book focuses on Hines’s childhood, beginning in 1955, when the author is eleven and living in Hoyland Common, a town in the shadow of the coal pits. His father and grandfather both worked in the mines, and as Hines reminisces about family life back then, we see a poor, working family dealing with a typically active young boy, sometimes in trouble, but mostly attentive to the “rules.” Close to his father, who is injured on the job more than once, Richard Hines also admires his brother Barry, six years older and an excellent student, with whom he shares a bedroom. Always a lover of birds and animals, the author keeps a magpie at home, a bird which, having never lost its wildness, terrorizes the neighborhood and inspires him, eventually, to release it into the wild. Not until he is on his way home from a hike to Tankersley Old Hall one afternoon does he see and get close to his first kestrel, a bird he decides that someday he will bring into his life. And he does. Vividly and honestly created and absolutely captivating.

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On the surface, The Illuminations, the fifth novel by Scottish author Andrew O’Hagan, appears to be a simple story about Captain Luke Campbell, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and his grandmother, Anne Quirk, with whom he has always been particularly close. Luke has returned from the fighting with issues which prevent him from becoming close to those around him, perhaps reflecting some aspects of PTSD. His beloved grandmother Anne, now eighty-two, is staying at a co-operative living facility on the west coast of Scotland, where the other residents and a caring staff are trying to keep her from harm as her developing dementia begins to become dangerous. A former art photographer, whose work has recently interested a group which hopes to present a retrospective showing, Anne spent time in Canada, New York, Glasgow, and eventually Blackpool, before she mysteriously stopped doing any photography in 1963 when she was in her early thirties. Luke, whose mother Alice’s issues have always prevented her from becoming personally connected with her son, has come to Scotland after the war to try to help Anne. Packed full of thoughtful imagery, well-developed characterizations, subtle changes which reveal the longings of the heart, and actions which each character hopes will inspire new beginnings, The Illuminations lives up to its title.

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As the novel opens on March 30, 1924, the Nivens, Sheringhams and others throughout England are celebrating Mothering Sunday, a holiday in which the citizens, aristocracy and servants alike, all celebrate their mothers. Servants are especially happy, as they all get a day off to travel to their homes and visit with family. Jane Fairchild, who works as a housemaid at Beechwood in an atmosphere much like that of a small Downton Abbey, will not be traveling, however. A foundling deposited at the door of an orphanage shortly after she was born, Jane has never known a mother or a father, does not know any birth name she may have had, and has spent her whole life in an orphanage – until, at age fourteen, she entered “service.” At sixteen she begins working for the Niven family, which, in the aftermath of World War I, has reduced the number of their household servants to two – Milly, the cook, and Jane, the maid. As we learn in the opening pages, Jane, now twenty-two, has been having a secret sexual relationship for the past six years with the only surviving son and heir of neighboring aristocrats who live near the Nivens. The young man, Paul Sheringham, will be entertaining Jane in his own house and in his own bed for the first time on this holiday, and, at his request, Jane will arrive at the estate’s front door as an equal, not at the servants’ entrance. Paul’s parents and the Nivens are off visiting with their friends, the Hobdays, celebrating Paul’s future marriage to Emma Hobday, a woman of “appropriate” class. The wedding is to be held in just two weeks. A close look at a young woman’s growth as an independent thinker.

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