Mini Reviews Part Two: Tolkien, Rowling, Tremain, and Mercer

I have been very lucky this week. In between a very busy time at work
(yes, that's my sneaky way of apologising for how far behind I've gotten in replying to blog comments and visiting all of you!),
I've read not just one or two, but four really good books.

I'm not sure if my mini-reviews do justice to the books I like to showcase. For a writer, I have a hard time describing why certain books touch me the way they do. It might be because, nine times out of ten, I'm very deliberate in choosing the books I read. Looking at the list at the bottom of this blog, it might not seem that way, but I do tend to lean towards certain authors, and don't willingly read many new or modern writers. Which is why I have a hard time with reviews -- I'd give five stars only to real classics, and so everything else I read is either brilliant, and I want to give it five stars, but I'm not yet sure if it's a classic, or it's good but didn't knock my socks off, and I can only give it three or fours stars and then my reviews lose all meaning, since most of the books end up in this category. Or it's by an author from many generations ago and reviewing someone like, say, Maugham, on Amazon or Goodreads just doesn't seem necessary, beyond praising him on my blog.

But I can't not say anything, especially for this week's crop, so here they are in the order in which I read them, with some brief commentary:

No Man's Land by Simon Tolkien


"From the slums of London to the riches of an Edwardian country house; from the hot, dark seams of a Yorkshire coal mine to the exposed terrors of the trenches, Adam Raine's journey from boy to man is set against the backdrop of a society violently entering the modern world.
Adam Raine is a boy cursed by misfortune. His impoverished childhood in the slums of Islington is brought to an end by a tragedy that sends him north to Scarsdale, a hard-living coal mining town where his father finds work as a union organiser. But it isn't long before the escalating tensions between the miners and their employer, Sir John Scarsdale, explode with terrible consequences.
In the aftermath, Adam meets Miriam, the Rector's beautiful daughter, and moves into Scarsdale Hall, an opulent paradise compared with the life he has been used to before. But he makes an enemy of Sir John's son, Brice, who subjects him to endless petty cruelties for daring to step above his station.
When love and an Oxford education beckon, Adam feels that his life is finally starting to come together - until the outbreak of war threatens to tear everything apart."
I never know quite how to explain it, but my favourite setting for novels is WWI and WWII. There's just something about the heroism of everyday folks during these awful wars that renews my faith in humanity each time I read a new story or non-fiction account of all the good that was done in the midst of the horror, of all the bravery, honour, and self-sacrifice.
There were a couple of war-time events described in this book that were new to me. Tolkien deftly weaves factual information into the story, without any feeling of stopping to explain things to the reader. Any novel about war has to balance the telling of atrocities on a grand scale with the humanity of the main characters and Tolkien does this very well, without becoming maudlin or losing the thread of the story.
The war is central to the story, but not the only focus. Yet Adam's experiences as a child in London and then in a mining town in the north - and for a short time in Oxford - all provide a glimpse of the last few years before the war, before the world was changed forever. I always find it hard to believe that after the sea-change of this war, the world actually plunged into another one that was even worse. This book shows well how disjointed -- and in how many different ways -- the men and women were who returned from the front, or from other wartime experiences.
I've been a fan of Simon Tolkien's writing since his first book, as I also enjoy murder mysteries. And yes, he is a relation of the Tolkien. The dedication of No Man's Land to his grandfather kind of had me subconsciously seeking elements of J. R. R. Tolkien's work in this novel; there might be a few references -- if they were done deliberately, they're very subtle and I liked spotting them.


Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling


"It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.
While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places."

Actually, there are co-authors to this one -- Jack Thorne and John Tiffany. And it was only from reading the credits that I realised Imogen Heap did the music!
It's interesting to see where certain scene divisions were made, prompted no doubt by the play format. These might have been written differently in novel format. (I like the play format but wish this was a novel, as I miss all the descriptions and the nuances of thought and emotion.) Some people have commented that Rowling's voice is missing from this script, but I didn't have that impression at all, except maybe in the tone of some of the stage descriptions. Especially that opening line describing Harry as "a thirty-seven year old man". As if that's all he is! They'd just spent a line on Ginny and the kids; was it really that hard to write something more elegant like "their father, Harry, a thirty-seven year old man..."?

But that's just a quibble. I really loved going back into this world for its poignancy, gentle humour, and strong characters -- never mind how they perceive themselves, they all have a depth to them that's very characteristic of Rowling. I always think of her in that 60 Minutes interview during which she showed off her trunk full of scribbled notes and timelines and pontifications. She's like Diana Gabaldon in that way -- any question you might have or analysis you might try to make of her characters, you know she's already thought through every angle and nuance already.

As for the rest of my thoughts, Theresa and I had a conversation on Twitter the other day (well, it was mostly me being excited):


I just realised that, of course, the play is still on, at the Palace Theatre in London. Wonder if there are tickets still available? I'd like to see it now that I've read the script!


The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

"What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in 'neutral' Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav's father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.
As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav's are entwined.
Fierce, astringent, profoundly tender, Rose Tremain's beautifully orchestrated novel asks the question, what does it do to a person, or to a country, to pursue an eternal quest for neutrality, and self-mastery, while all life's hopes and passions continually press upon the borders and beat upon the gate."
There's a quote from The Times on Tremain's website: "Tremain has the painterly genius of an Old Master, and she uses it to stunning effect."
That's the sort of line I wish I could come up with in book reviewing, because it describes so effectively the feeling I got when reading this book. I've read two of her other books, Restoration, set during the reign of Charles II, and The Road Home, about East European migrant workers in England, and I keep being amazed at how she can write about such distinct times and people while capturing the senses and voices of each.
There's a wonderful Swiss-ness to this book, as far as I can tell as someone who's only lived here two and a half years, so far.
I can't say better than Clare O'Dea has in her review of this book. And, of course, it's a very timely book, given current tensions over refugees (do these tensions ever end?).
Here's one of my favourite smaller bits:
"Soon after arriving in Paris, Gustav saw clearly that the best time to visit an unknown city was in the autumn. He understood that everything which gives to a foreign metropolis its outward expression of hostility -- the grey contours of builsdings from which you feel you might be forever excluded, the pavements with their freight of hurrying passengers -- was sofdtened and made human by leaves falling and dancing in the wind. He felt that there was a sweet melancholy in an October rain, and on fine days, the cries of children kicking their way along the strewn sidewalks or across the gravelled walkways of the parks, searching for conkers and sweet chestnuts, sounded pure and lovely in the clear air."


Who We Were Before by Leah Mercer


"Zoe knows that it wasn’t really her fault. But if she’d just grasped harder, run faster, lunged quicker, she might have saved him. And Edward doesn’t blame her, though his bitter words at the time still haunt her, and he can no more take them back than she can halt the car that killed their son.
Two years on, every day is a tragedy. Edward knows they should take healing steps together, but he’s tired of being shut out. For Zoe, it just seems easier to let grief lead the way.
A weekend in Paris might be their last hope for reconciliation, but mischance sees them separated before they’ve even left Gare du Nord. Lost and alone, Edward and Zoe must try to find their way back to each other – and back to the people they were before. The question is: do they really want to?"

Leah Mercer also writes under the name of Talli Roland. This book is due to be released in October; I read it through NetGalley.

I just could not put this book down. Oh, I know, we all say that all the time, and I rush through most of the books I read. But this one was truly gripping, the kind of story that makes you want to go home and hug your family. I tried (on Leah's FB page) to describe it as having a tightness in how the emotions are wound -- everything's screwed to breaking point and all you can do is follow the characters as they walk along the edge of a cliff. Will they fall? Will they finally find each other and learn to trust that the other will hold them back from the edge?

I won't say anything more for fear of spoilers. I really hope there's a way to have a sequel -- or at least have these characters appear in the background in a later novel. I want to linger in their world a bit longer.


I note in passing that each one of these books made me cry. And no, I didn't get any of my own editing done (yes, that's my sneaky way of providing a quick ROW80 update). An ironical event this week was the release of Scrivener on iOS - finally! - just at the moment when I got my first ever smartphone, an Android, and migrated my entire life to that, dropping the iPad. Of course, there's no Scrivener for Android at the moment! But I've come to realise that no matter how much I say I'll edit during my commute, I can only really do that on paper. Typing up edits will have to be done at lunchtime, or by going in early to work. I need some motivation...

Especially because there are more books to come -- not least the latest book in the Inspector Gamache and Three Pines series by Louise Penny!

What books have moved you recently?
Any interesting blog posts I should definitely read?

Comments

I'm sure everyone has just gobbled up the new Harry Potter, even if it's in play form.
S.P. Bowers said…
I've heard such different things about HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD. I'll admit I'm a little scared to read it. I just don't know.
Talli Roland said…
Aw! Yay! I am so happy you enjoyed it - if 'enjoyed' is the right word. You're one of the first people to read it apart from editors and beta readers. Thank you, thank you.
Denise D. Young said…
I read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and loved it. I know some people were disappointed in the play format, but I thought that the characterization was great and the dialogue was wonderful, so no complaints from me. I haven't read any of the others you mentioned but they sound fascinating!
Rachel Walsh said…
Tolkien's book sounds great, as does Rose Tremain's. I'll have to add both to my TBR list, thanks!
Have you read Tremain's "Merivel"? It's the sequel to "Restoration" and I absolutely adore it. Sir Robert Merivel is easily one of my most favourite literary characters. :-)
Hi Deniz - what great post ... with such interesting notes on your four books ... then finding Talli here too. They've all been added to my TBR list ... along with all the others here - but I'll get to settling and reading properly.

I can't emphasise how much I've enjoyed Patrick Leigh Fermor's trilogy - granted I've only read one ... but I bought the others as I definitely need to read them. I briefly wrote about the first in my #1 Bran Tub posting ... which is an eclectic mash up ... so his books I'd definitely recommend ...

Cheers and so good to read this post - Hilary
Deniz Bevan said…
Thanks for visiting, everyone!
Ooh, you're right, Hilary, I've been meaning to read Patrick Leigh Fermor. Must move him up the list.
Eep, Rachel, I had no idea there was a sequel to Restoration! My wishlist grows ever longer...
Hi Deniz - I've reminded myself to come back to this post ... so I'd say your mini reviews are a great idea - especially as you set an amazing example for us all to follow re range of authors to read.

I've just read "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" ... fascinating story about life on Guernsey during the War and how they kept their spirits up through books, while people who'd never settled to read - did so. Yes it's fiction ... but there's a lot of 1940s history here ...

Now I'm going back to read your reviews! Cheers Hilary
Hi Deniz - I've just noted this post for reference for later on - when I hope I'll have more time to read these. Glad you noted the Leigh Fermor trillogy ... I got into Lady Susan (Jane Austen's short epistolary) ... but didn't enjoy it.

Have just read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society ... lots of information on WW2 ... and being on Guernsey - it's not a true story, but based on similar facts ... books, effects of War, relationships ... not too heavy - yet full of fascinating information.

Cheers Hilary
ignore one of them!!!!!!
Deniz Bevan said…
Ooh, Hilary, I *have* read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Only a few years ago, and then I wondered why I'd never read it before. Such a lovely and intringuing book!

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