Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Letters - Fiona Robyn

Over the past few years of blogging I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a select handful of published authors.  I’ve found it fascinating to learn a little about their writerly lifestyles and habits alongside talk about their families, interests and amusements.  I’ve picked up tips, numerous reading recommendations and endless encouragement on the way.  And typical me, I’ve hoarded their books, eking out the eventual pleasure of reading them. 

Fiona Robyn had her book on that pile, and I’m allowing her to jump to the top as it’s due out on Monday 2nd March and this seemed the perfect time to read it and share my thoughts! I knew it would add an extra dimension to my reading to feel I know the author if only virtually.  However I didn’t realise how hard it would make this post.  I want to shower The Letters with unconditional praise and say I adored every page.  But I can’t, not quite. 

One of the things that makes me like a book is if I like the people, places or events within it.  It takes an outstanding writer to make me enjoy a book if I don’t like the main character.  And truth be told, I didn’t like Violet.  I didn’t like her attitudes, or her lifestyle.  I don’t think I was particularly meant to like her, but I found it hard even to tolerate her.  The only times when I warmed to her at all were when she was reminiscing about her childhood.  I felt I could have been friends with the young Violet, but not the woman she grew into.  I didn’t like the regular need to use quoted words and phrases within the prose referring to Violet - I felt she might be one of those people who constantly makes quote motions in the air with raised fingers.  I wished she’d have used her own voice, her own phrases throughout and not fallen on the safety net of those marks.  Some might say that Fiona Robyn has created an authentic character if she can inspire this much dislike in a reader!

‘She’d never been a natural at developing connections.  Other people seemed to find them so easy.  She sometimes imagined them as having lots of different coloured strings attached to their bodies, representing the things about themselves that other people would find attractive or interesting.  All they had to do was take the end of one of these strings and offer it to a passing stranger, and the stranger seemed to willingly take it and become a friend.’

That said there were large parts of The Letters that I enjoyed very much.  I loved the letters themselves, the way they appeared out of nowhere and were largely unremarked on by Violet for the majority of the novel.  This allowed me to feel like they were my secret.  It hinted that I might be able to work out their message before she did - I didn’t, which made the final twist all the more pleasing!  I liked and believed in Elizabeth and warmed to her through her words.  I would have liked to have spent more time with her. 

I loved the structure Fiona Robyn chose for her novel.  The shifting back and forth in time weaved the whole together into a neat bag to carry the main plot.  There were sharp observational details throughout, as I would come to expect having enjoyed her small stones for some time. I was most delighted by the seaside scenes, and strangely for me, the cat scenes.

‘She didn’t know why she’d never paid proper attention to raindrops before.  There was a whole country of individual drops, like citizens, and when a new one splashed down it would either find its own place and sit quietly, or it would merge with a neighbour.  If the new raindrop and the neighbour created enough weight they would be smeared across the windowpane by the light wind, and join a whole chain of drops together, gathering speed and fluidity as they streaked down towards the bottom corner of the window-frame.’

I’m sure that readers who get along well with Violet will enjoy a smoother ride than me, but I’m very glad to have read Fiona’s first novel, and wish her all the success she desires for it.  And I look forward to reading the next one, to see who she introduces me to!

Monday, February 02, 2009

My book of the month - January

I’ll admit that once I would have been a bit snobbish at the thought of book recommendations given by a popular television pair.  But over the years I’ve noticed that quite a few novels I’ve really enjoyed have appeared among the Richard & Judy selections.  I recently got a copy of The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite - so when I saw it on R & J’s 2009 selection I thought I’d jump it to the top of my reading pile.  And what a treat it was.

Beatrice Colin tried to do a few things within the novel, and achieved all with a well-handled balance.  Each chapter begins with still image (and for me there is something so thrilling about finding pictures in my novels) and a little snapshot from cinema history.

‘Every evening for a year, barring church holidays, and days off due to ill health, Arnold von Heidle and his wide, Hilda, attended the Union Movie Theatre in Alexanderplatz, Berlin.  Two hundred and fifty films they witnessed, incognito, to assemble their extraordinary statistics.  And this is what they saw: ninety-seven murders, fifty-one adulteries, nineteen seductions, thirty-five drunks, and twenty-five practising prostitutes.’

Then within the chapters we follow the story of Lilly - a gripping rags to riches story.  Her name changes with her role - Tiny Lil, Lilly, Lidi.  From orphan to housemaid to film star - from backroom fumbles to a personal invitation back to Germany from Joseph Goebbels.  Along the way we learn a bit about interwar Berlin life - especially as it impacts on a small group of women. 

We grow to love Lilly, and her perseverance and spirit despite the bad luck that always seems to dump on her doorstep. 

‘With snow thick on the ground outside and the air filled with dozens of burning cigarette ends, the bar gave the impression of warmth if not the real thing.’

This was one of those rare books that I thought about when away from its pages.  I cared enough about the characters to be eager to return to spend more time with them, and I wondered more than a little at what happened to them after the novel ended.  Hence I especially enjoyed the gently omniscient narrator who gives us little glimpses into the fate of those extras who people Lilly’s world - some get their just desserts, some don’t.