Two Moons by Jennifer Johnston: A Very Short Book Review

There’s a touch of magic about Two Moons by Jennifer Johnston and I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Set in Dublin it’s the story of three women. Mimi and her daughter Grace live in a house overlooking Dublin Bay. Grace, an actress, is absorbed in rehearsals for Hamlet in which she is playing Gertrude, and Mimi, her elderly mother is similarly absorbed in talking to an angel, Bonifacio, who is invisible to everyone except Mimi. Their lives are disrupted by the arrival of Grace’s daughter, Polly who arrives to stay for a few days bringing with her, Paul, her new boyfriend.

Two Moons is a warm and intimate novel, portraying the problems of falling in love at all ages and the difficulties of  growing old and coming to terms with the disappointments of the past with great sensitivity. I especially liked Jennifer Johnston’s style – delicate and light yet at the same time there is a great depth of meaning. The characters are all real and their emotions are so beautifully expressed.

I read it as slowly as possible to savour the experience and I shall certainly re-read it. But I wish I could read it again as though it were for the first time.

All Bones and Lies by Anne Fine: Book Review

Sometimes a book starts off well, only to peter out and other times the beginning doesn’t look at all promising and later the book  improves. Then there are books like All Bones and Lies by Anne Fine that don’t seem attractive at the beginning and carries on in the same vein throughout, despite hints in the writing that it will get better. I didn’t really enjoy this book and only finished it because it’s my Book Club choice for discussion and I think it’s better to read all of it before I say anything about it.

I had high hopes I would like it and that it would be a funny book – Anne Fine has won Awards for her children’s books and the film, Mrs Doubtfire, starring Robin Williams, is based on her book Madame Doubtfire. Although I didn’t enjoy the story, I did find it an indictment of how old age is looked upon by some people – an angry, unsettling and cruel look at our society.

Colin, works for the council and visits his aged mother, Norah. Norah is a grumbler, completely self-absorbed and constantly belittling Colin who can never please her. She had

… spent the larger part of her life making malice an art form. Small wonder that she’d had so little time for jobs or hobbies. She’d put her heart and energies into this business of growing grievances and fomenting ill-will. (page 252)

Colin is at a loss about how to deal with her:

All over Britain people his age were watching clocks in stuffy rooms, nodding along in unfeigned sympathy with their own grizzled back numbers about what tough luck it was that they could no longer get to the shops, what with their shocking bunions. Then they’d go home, pick up the newspaper and find themselves reading about some even more ancient geezer who’d lost both legs in the war and had done his first parachute jump. The world was full of dutiful sons and daughters who had revamped their whole Saturday to cheer some seventy-year-old through a drab birthday only to find that the reason the Social Club was closed in the first place was because all the Over-Eighties had gone off on safari. (pages 135 -6)

Much of the narrative is what goes on inside Colin’s head as he imagines what he will say and do and never quite manages to stand up for himself. His twin sister, Dilys is estranged from her mother and leaves it all to Colin. He worries about everything, particularly the house insurance his mother is arranging. He fantasises quite a lot too, in the garden shed at the bottom of the garden, and also imagines that Tammy, the daughter of an ex-circus trapeze artiste, is his own child.

At times I found it confusing, just what was real and what was in his imagination and how the book hung together. Of course, everything goes wrong as events spiral out of Colin’s control. As I read I hoped above all that I would never turn into Norah.

Book Notes

These are notes on a couple of books I’ve read recently. They didn’t send me rushing to the computer to write about them, but they were good enough to finish.

I wrote a bit about Solar by Ian McEwan in a Teaser Tuesday post, whilst I was still reading it.

Opinion on Amazon is pretty much spread across the board, almost as many people  giving it five stars as those giving it one star. I thought it was OK, not as good as Atonement or Enduring Love both of which I loved.

It’s a story of greed, self-deception as well as climate science, global warming and photovoltaics.  The book is in three sections, 2000, 2005 and 2009 following the life of Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize winning physicist whose fifth marriage has failed.  His previous marriages had all ended due to his womanising,  but this time it’s his wife who has an affair and he can’t stand it. Beard is an unlikeable character, bemoaning his weight, overeating and drinking to excess, lecturing and lechering, stealing his colleagues research and setting up his wife’s lover for murder:

He was self-sufficient, self-absorbed, his mind a cluster of appetites and dreamy thoughts. Like many clever men who prize objectivity, he was a solipsist at heart , and in his heart was a nugget of ice … (page 169)

There are some interesting and some not so interesting parts to this book, some of it great and some not so great. It seemed as though it was really three episodes rather than one story.

The Turning of the Tide by Reginald Hill was originally published under the pseudonym of Patrick Ruell in 1971 as The Castle of the Demon. It’s described on the book jacket as an ‘intricately plotted thriller’. Emily has left her husband, the enigmatic Sterne Follett and is staying in Skinburness, a coastal town on the Solway Firth. At first the reasons for her doing this are not revealed. A sequence of sinister events unfolds, a body is found and Emily realises that her husband is involved – just how or why she has yet to discover.

Emily is staying in a house facing the long spit of land called the Grune, a sandy raised shingle beach. She suspects someone has been in the house, moving her things, she sees a green face looking in the window at her, an American staying at the local hotel goes missing, there are two archaeologists digging in a patch of furze and gorse. Then she is attacked whilst walking back from the hotel. She doesn’t know who to trust.

I wasn’t totally convinced by the plot, although there is plenty of tension. There was no way I would have guessed the outcome which I thought was a bit far-fetched. The descriptions of the location, however are very good:

They walked along the shore in a silence which became almost companionable after a couple of minutes. The sun was quite low now, shooting a line of varnished brightness up the Solway, laying a golden boundary between England and Scotland. The line of the tide running down to the Irish Sea was obscured by light. Her mind played with the phrase for a moment, then let it be washed away by the gentle lap of the ebbing water which, with their own footsteps, was the only sound. It seemed to merge with the silence rather than break it, just as the buildings that were now in sight seemed to lie flat against the frieze of grass, sea and sky rather than intrude into it. (page 12)

I borrowed both books from the library.

Teaser Tuesday – The Beacon by Susan Hill

I’ve just finished reading The Beacon by Susan Hill. It’s a short book that can be read in one sitting and it’s beautifully easy to read, written in a straight forward style, moving between the past and the present. It’s compelling, drawing a picture of a family, four children and their parents living in the Beacon, an old North Country farmhouse. It’s also full of tension, of unspoken feelings and emotions as each child, Colin, May, Frank and Berenice grow up and leave home. Except that May came back after a year at university in London, unable to cope with ‘the terrors’ that began to assail her.  As the years pass, May is left at home caring for her widowed mother, after she suffered a stroke.

I have two teasers today. The first is a description of one of May’s terrors:

When she lay down again she saw strange shapes before her eyes, trees with branches that curled upwards and inwards and turned to ash and blood-covered beaches dotted with mounds of sand-coloured snakes which stirred and coiled and uncoiled. Her own heart was beating extremely slowly and as it beat she felt it enlarging, swelling and filling out like a balloon inside her chest and stomach and finally growing up into her brain. (page 53)

And the second is about Frank. Frank is the mysterious one, the loner; the others felt they didn’t know him and said that no one knew what went on inside his head – it was one of life’s mysteries. There are hints throughout that Frank is different and it is only in the latter part of the book that it becomes clear why none of his siblings have any contact with him and don’t want him to know of his mother’s illness and death.

He did little speaking but a great deal of staring out of large green-grey, slightly bulbous eyes. He followed people too, his father and the men about the farm, his mother in the house, the other children at school almost anywhere. Turn round and Frank would be there, silent, watching, following. (page 32)

It’s a short, powerful book about truth and memory, about the ordinary everyday outer lives we  live and the inner turmoil and tensions within us. It’s also about what we make of our lives, how we express ourselves and about how other people see us. It’s amazing.

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly event hosted by MizB where you share ‘teasers’. I’ve adapted it a bit in this post, to include more information about the book and longer teasers.

Gone To Earth by Mary Webb

Gone to Earth by Mary Webb was a favourite book when I was a young teenager.  I was reminded of it when I was reading Jonathan Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls recently and I wondered whether I would still enjoy it. My memory was that it was a beautiful book about a young woman and her seduction by an older man.

Reading it now I was struck by the lyrical, poetic quality of Mary Webb’s writing.  I’m pleased that I still enjoyed this book despite its melodrama and occasional moralising and philosophical  comments. I particularly liked the descriptions of the Shropshire countryside and its recreation of a rural community in the early years of the 20th century.

As John Buchan wrote in the introduction:

The book is partly allegory; that is to say, there is a story of mortal passion, and a second story behind it of an immortal conflict, in which human misdeeds have no place. Hazel Woodus suffers because she is involved in the clash of common lusts and petty jealousies, but she is predestined to suffer because she can never adjust herself to the strait orbit of human life. (page 7)

It’s the story of Hazel Woodus, torn between two men, Edward Marston, the gentle country minister she marries and John Reddin, the hard-living, fox-hunting squire of Undern. She is drawn to Edward, attracted by his gentleness and the security she finds with him and attracted to Reddin by his passion and sensuality. ‘Edward appealed to her emotions, while Reddin stirred her instincts.’ (page 187)

But, despite her fascination with these two men she wanted neither:

Her passion, no less intense, was for freedom, for the wood-track, for green places where soft feet scudded and eager eyes peered out and adventurous lives were lived up in the tree-tops, down in the moss.

She was fascinated by Reddin; she was drawn to confide in Edward; but she wanted neither of them. Whether or not in years to come she would find room in her heart for human passion, she had no room for it now. She had only room for the little creatures she befriended and for her eager, quickly growing self. (page 88)

She’s superstitious, her world is that of ancient legends, of the Black Huntsman and the death-pack hunting over Hunter’s Spinney, a world of magic and beauty too, of the woods, birds and animals. She’s naive  identifying with her pet foxcub, Foxy, predestined to be hunted and the victim of man’s cruel nature.

The landscape of the remote Shropshire countryside is brought to life, its beauty and tranquility contrasting with the old, musty dark haunted corridors and rooms of Undern. Undern was the place where the magic was not good, a place of deep sadness, that drew Hazel in within its walls.  The weather and the seasons too reflect the growing tension and suspense as the winter storm raged around Undern and across the countryside:

A tortured dawn crept up the sky. Vast black clouds, shaped like anvils for some terrific smithy-work, were ranged around the horizon, and, later, the east glowed like a forge. The gale had not abated, but was rising in a series of gusts, each one a blizzard. … From every field and covert, from garden and orchard, came the wail of the vanquished. (page 258)

One of the main themes throughout the book is the cruelty of humans, the savagery of civilised man and the sacrifice of the innocent. Hazel is horrified by the domination of the strong over the weak:

… the everlasting tyranny of the material over the abstract; of bluster over nerves; strength over beauty; States over individuals; churches over souls; and fox-hunting squires over the creatures they honour with their attention. (page 99)

Civilisation,  Mary Webb maintained was based on vicarious suffering, all built up on the sacrifice of other creatures. It reminds me a little of Thomas Hardy’s novels with its romantic melodrama and poetic intensity. There is the same sense of impending and inevitable tragedy, without hope of relief and like Hardy there is that love of nature and pity for the weak that pervades the story.

(Note: page references are to my 1935 hardback copy of the book.)

Sunday Salon – Sunday Selection

Recently the weekend is the time when I’ve just finished a book and am deciding what to read next. This weekend is no exception. Yesterday I finished Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth, a book I first read as a young teenager. This is a dramatic romantic tragedy, first written in 1917. It tells the story of Hazel Woodus and her marriage to Edward Marston, the gentle, local church minister. Hazel is an innocent, a child of nature, wild and shy and a protector of all wounded and persecuted things. She becomes the prey of John Reddin, the squire of Undern who is obsessed by her. I’ll write more about it in a later post.

Because I enjoyed Gone to Earth so much it’s hard to find a suitable book to read next.  I have started All Bones and Lies by Anne Fine, which is the choice for my local book club. But so far I’m not sure if I want to finish it. It’s about Colin and his mother, who could complain for Britain. He has a twin sister who is estranged from her mother, making up a unhappy family who don’t get on. It’s about old age and the problems of carers and  up to now I’m not finding it at all uplifting. It paints a sad picture of the frustrations of old age and the problems of everyday life. I’ll give it a few more pages before deciding whether to finish it or not.

Other than that book, I have several library books I could read next.

  • The Beacon by Susan Hill – a short book (154 pages), examining truth, mental health and memory. Maybe that’s not right for me today as it sounds like another family with problems.
  • Missing Link by Joyce Holms – a new author for me, this book is a murder mystery a case for the detective duo Fizz and Buchanan. This one looks promising.
  • The Missing by Andrew O’Hagan – about people who disappear from society, a merging of social history and memoir. Described on the back cover as ‘elegantly written, affecting and intelligent.’

I’ll also look at some of my own books, to reduce the growing pile of to-be-read books. I started A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book a while ago. I think I’ll start that one again, or maybe look at Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, or a shorter book such as The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch.

Although writing posts like this does help a bit to clarify my thoughts, sometimes I just can’t decide what to read next and today is one of those days.

Teaser Tuesday – Solar by Ian McEwan

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be ReadingShare a couple or more sentences from the book you’re currently reading.

I started to read Solar by Ian McEwan on Saturday. I’ve borrowed it from the library and on Saturday I discovered I couldn’t renew it because someone had reserved it. It’s due back tomorrow and I really wanted to read it.  So I stopped reading Gone to Earth and Agatha Christie’s Autobiography (my current books) to concentrate solely on Solar.

I think it’s a strange juxtaposition of the story of a scientist, Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize winning physicist whose fifth marriage has failed, set against a scientific background. I love it when McEwan writes sentences such as this on page 8:

Then her absence hung in the summer dusk like garden bonfire smoke, an erotic charge of invisible particulates that caused him to remain in position for many pointless minutes. He was not actually mad, he kept telling himself, but he thought he was getting a taste, a bitter sip.

And I also am full of admiration for his detailed description of Beard sitting opposite a stranger in a train, both eating salt and vinegar crisps from the same packet:

Inevitably the second crisp was less piquant, less surprising, less penetrating than the first and it was precisely this shortfall, this sensual disappointment, that prompted the need, familiar to drug addicts, to increase the dose. He would eat two crisps at once. (page 123)

But he loses me somewhat with sentences like this:

Without the ‘entexting’ tools the scientists used – the single-photon luminometer, the flow cytometer, immunofluorescence, and so on – the gene could not be said to exist. (page 131)

As I haven’t finished this book yet it’s too soon to decide what I think of it, but so far I’m liking it, despite those words I have only a vague idea about their meanings. Parts of it actually made me laugh out loud, at the morbid humour, but I wonder if it could have done without the science and stood just as well as a story about an ageing, womanising, narcissistic, overweight and food-obsessed man.