Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden

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I’ve had this book hanging around for a couple of years; I’d read good reviews and picked it up when I saw it in a charity shop, but didn’t feel immediately compelled to read it. I wish I had done so straight away; this is perfect in every way, and it was pure pleasure to read from beginning to end. Deirdre Madden has a wonderful style; lucid yet lyrical, she is economical with her choice of words and crafts the most beautiful sentences that effortlessly weave a tangible world. This is a quiet, thoughtful novel; one that is to be relished and ruminated on, and that stays with you long after you close the pages. It cast quite a spell on me, and I was sad indeed to leave its characters behind.

The novel opens on midsummer’s day in Dublin, where the unnamed narrator, a famous and highly successful playwright, is housesitting for her best friend, Molly Fox, who happens to be an equally famous and highly successful actress. They have been friends for years, ever since working on a play together in their early twenties, and on this day, Molly’s never celebrated birthday, the narrator finds herself taking a meandering journey reminiscing about their lives together. There are musings on the creative process; on their mutual friend Andrew, whose brother was killed in the Troubles and transformed himself into an English-accented TV History presenter soon after; on Molly’s estranged mother and beloved, psychologically fragile brother Fergus; on how little we know about those closest to us, and on how we choose to construct our lives and sense of selves by who and what we surround ourselves with. Despite being essentially all about Molly and her impact on those she has chosen to gather around her, the novel is cleverly constructed as to rarely feature her, and she doesn’t appears in the present of the narration, becoming a perfect metaphor for the central message of the hidden nature of our true selves.

There is much to say about this book, but there is also much subtly and sensitively revealed throughout that would ruin the reading experience if I gave a more comprehensive analysis of the plot and characters. It is difficult to put my finger on what so captured me while I was reading, or why I found it so refreshing and so profound. There are many fascinating strands; Madden’s insights into the reality of the process of acting and its emotional toll were particularly thought provoking, as were her meditations on the hidden complexities beneath the surface of our relationships with one another. When I find a book difficult to write about, as I have this, then I know it is something truly special; to reduce Molly Fox’s Birthday to a few lines of plot summary and comments on its emotional impact would be missing the point of it entirely. It gave me an utterly different reading experience and introduced me to a voice I cannot believe is not more lauded in the literary establishment. This is true artistry, true magic; Deirdre Madden is a master storyteller, and is proof that there is still brilliance at work today.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

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I have been meaning to read this book ever since I watched the lovely film, years and years ago. I have a romantic notion of a life spent sitting on a porch, drinking sweet tea and eating peach pie somewhere in the Deep South, and this story really captured my imagination when I saw it realised on screen. The book proved to be just as enchanting, transporting me to the world of the tiny clapboard railroad town of Whistle Stop, peopled by generations and generations of the same happily intertwined families, supporting each other through the triumphs and disappointments of their lives.While it is not the most beautifully, impressively written novel in the world, the story it contains is heartwarming, touching and uplifting, with characters so powerfully realised that I felt like I knew them. It is the perfect comfort read.

Evelyn Couch is a 1980’s housewife in Birmingham, Alabama. She is deeply unhappy; she is heavily overweight, has never had a job, has children she has no real relationship with and a marriage lacking in any passion. However, when she goes to visit her mother-in-law at her nursing home, Evelyn finds her life changing when she meets Ninny Threadgoode, a temporary fellow resident. Ninny is a talker, and Evelyn initially finds her chatty companion a nuisance, but soon she is drawn into the stories Ninny tells her about her life in the small town of Whistle Stop in the early 1900s, and the fascinating family and friends she lived alongside. Ninny grew up in the home of her foster parents, Alice and Poppa Threadgoode, who lived in a big white clapboard house filled with children, warmth and laughter. Most loved were Buddy, the cheeky, much adored teenage son and Idgie, the incorrigable tomboy. Both were always getting into scrapes and causing much hilarity for the whole family, but Idgie changed, withdrawing from life, when Buddy died in a tragic accident on the railroad tracks. A few years later, a young girl, Ruth Jamison, arrived in Whistle Stop to work for the church over the summer. Idgie fell instantly in love, much to the amusement of the Threadgoodes, but over the course of that long hot summer, Ruth and Idgie became truly inseparable. However, Ruth was engaged to a boy back in her hometown, and she had to leave. Idgie couldn’t bear it; eventually she went to rescue Ruth from her abusive husband and she brought her back to Whistle Stop. They would go on to live together, running the Whistle Stop cafe and bringing up Ruth’s son, Stump, though there always was a mystery about what happened to Ruth’s husband, who disappeared one stormy night…

Ruth and Idgie formed the centre of Whistle Stop with their cafe that was always open; their black cook Sipsey’s food was legendary, as was Ruth’s gentle welcome and Idgie’s lively sense of humour. They welcomed everyone, including the hobos that caught the railway from place to place due to the Great Depression and the many down on their luck black men who often received their only kindness from white people at the door of the Whistle Stop Cafe. Ninny, who went on to marry Idgie’s brother Cleo, tells Evelyn of all the ups and downs of the various people of Whistle Stop’s lives, alongside trying to encourage her, through the stories she shares, to take charge of her own life and create the future she wants. Evelyn is enchanted by Ninny’s description of her past and soon the world of the Whistle Stop Cafe becomes more real to her than her own. However, Whistle Stop is now a rundown rag bag of houses, with much of the town abandoned due to the decline of the railroad, and the Cafe closed down many years ago. The halcyon days Ninny describes are long gone, but will Evelyn be able to resurrect them through capturing some halcyon days of her own, inspired by the courage and humour of Idgie and Ruth, and the customers of their cafe?

This is such a beautiful tale about what is truly most important in life, and of how much we have to learn from the lives of those who have come before us. I loved every single minute, and I didn’t want to come to the end at all; like Evelyn, the world of Whistle Stop became uncannily real to me, and I could imagine every character, building and delicious plate of fried green tomatoes as if they were standing right in front of my face. It’s rare to have such an utterly enchanting and engrossing reading experience; if you’ve never read this, you must. I’m now going to re-watch the film, as I can’t quite bear to leave Whistle Stop behind just yet!

Wake by Anna Hope

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This is such a brilliant book; one that is both beautifully written and emotionally involving, with a fascinating plot and wonderful characters who pluck at your heartstrings on every page. There are plenty of modern novels out there that try and recreate the experience of war, and many of these have become modern classics – Birdsong and the Regeneration trilogy probably being the most well known. However, what makes this revisiting of WWI so interesting is that it sets itself just after the war, in 1920, in the week leading up to the burial of The Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The battlefields here are not those infamous mud-sodden tranches of France and Belgium, but the homes of three London women who have lived through the war and are still fighting with its aftermath. This is a time and an experience not often written about, and I found it absolutely fascinating and thought provoking to consider the profound change that the war brought to so many people’s lives, whether they lost someone they loved or not. Hope explores the impossibility of resuming a normal life after the emotional and physical toll of living through such horror and grief for so long, and through drawing together the lives of three seemingly disparate women dealing with very different circumstances, she allows us into the world of a battered country whose people were still reeling from the shock of the war, two years after ‘victory’ had been won.

Ada is a middle aged housewife in Hackney, her world seemingly preoccupied with her cleaning, shopping and husband Jack, who spends most of his time at his allotment. She has lived her entire married life in her house, content with the little she has, happy in her marriage and in her close circle of neighbourhood friends. However, the visit one morning of a door-to-door salesman, a former soldier, reveals the deep tragedy of Ada’s life. He seems to want to tell her something about her only child, Michael, who never came home from the war, but he leaves, frightened, before Ada can question him further. Three years on, she still doesn’t know how he died, and this haunts her; she sees him everywhere she goes, and cannot let go until she knows his fate. Across town, in leafy Primrose Hill, Evelyn, a 29 year old ‘spinster’ from a wealthy family, shares a flat with her best friend and works in the Pensions office responsible for handing out money to ex-soldiers. She is deeply unhappy, still grieving the death of her fiance at the Front, and unable to move forward with her life or take any joy in her existence. Her job, dealing with the emotion and anger of soldiers reduced to nothing to live upon, depresses her even further. However, one day, a man comes asking not for money, but for information about his old Captain. Evelyn is shocked to hear him name her brother, who survived the war but came back an utterly changed man, and seems to spend most of his days soaked in whisky. Initially Evelyn refuses to help, but horrified that her brother may have committed an atrocity in battle, she determines to seek out answers. Meanwhile, Hettie, a teenage dance instructress at the Hammersmith Palais, is trying to find love and laughter amidst a world of broken men and despairing women. Her father is dead, her brother incapacitated by the horrors of what he experienced and her mother lost in grief. Her home in Hammersmith has lost any life and she is desperate to escape, but the strict confines of her mother’s rules and the financial dependence her family now has upon her prevents her from living the life she wants. One night, however, a handsome man asks her to dance at a shady nightclub in the city. Attracted by his cool, mysterious demeanour, Hettie can’t resist the chance to get to know him better, in the hope that he might be a ticket to a new start.

Meanwhile, the process of choosing the body of an unnamed soldier and bringing it back home is ongoing in France, and the anticipation in London is building. For so many people who have never seen the bodies of their dead, or where they are resting, this is a deeply personal event; a chance for them to say goodbye, to grieve afresh, to experience the funeral they never got to give their boys. For the men who served and returned, it is a chance for them to weep for the comrades they lost, and acknowledge their grief publicly, perhaps for the first time. A nation in mourning looks to the body of this poor soul as a way to achieve a collective catharsis; a chance to put the lid on the war once and for all, and to move on, together, to a better future. For Ada, Evelyn and Hettie, The Unknown Warrior has an indidivual significance, and each will wrestle with their desire to both go and watch the ceremony, and to stay away, as they confront the grief his burial resurfaces, and consider how to allow themselves to find happiness again.

This is such a remarkable book that brings the period to life through its troubled characters and the drab, dismal setting of a scarred and dirty post-war London, filled with unemployed men and grey-faced women lost in a world that has become so different from the one they used to know. It is beautifully and inventively written, adding something unique and genuinely enlightening to the canon of contemporary historical fiction. I was delighted by how much I enjoyed it, and it is particularly promising that this is Anna Hope’s debut novel; I can’t wait to see what she writes next. Wake is not one to miss, and in the centenary of WWI, essential reading.

The Night Circus

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A school book club necessitated me picking up The Night Circus, which I had heard of, but never felt particularly compelled to read. It all sounded a bit twee; an artfully designed black and white striped circus that only appears at night, two talented and gorgeous magicians trained by mysterious and nasty rivals and lots of eccentric and improbable people floating around doing eccentric and improbable things. A glance through also revealed a confusing myriad of different time periods and random sections written in the second person. I wasn’t sure it was going to work for me, but I plunged in anyway.

The basic plot of the novel hinges around a deal made between two powerful magicians, the mysterious Mr A H and Hector. Hector’s daughter Celia and Mr A H’s orphan protégée Marco are bound together as opponents in a challenge with no rules and no time limit. Neither Celia nor Marco know who their opponent is or when the challenge will begin, and they grow up being trained in the arts of magic and illusion with no idea how or when they will be called upon to use their skills. The game begins when The Night Circus is created; it will serve as the board for the players to move their pieces upon, showing off their abilities with more and more elaborate creations, building a legendary, mesmerizing circus that draws people from all over the world every night.

The circus itself is the main attraction of the novel; it is beautifully and atmospherically brought to life on the page, and the central idea of a circus that appears overnight and moves all over the world with no warning is brilliant. I loved the concept of subversion and danger in a game to the death being played behind the scenes of a pleasure ground. However, unfortunately, The Night Circus is a very inconsistent novel. Its moments of brilliance are undone by excessive amounts of extraneous detail that prevent the novel from becoming a coherent whole. Entire plot strands that introduced extra characters, time periods and locations felt unnecessary and bolted-on. The reason behind the competition was never fully explained and as such my interest began to wane towards the end as it became clear that there was not going to be anything in the way of a revelation that would justify the entire premise of the novel. It’s a shame really, because so many elements of the story were fantastic in their creativity. I felt that overall Erin Morgenstern had too many ideas and didn’t know when to stop; a more streamlined plot and character list would have made this a far more compelling and enjoyable novel. Apparently there is a film in the works; perhaps it will work better on screen than it does on the page.

The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick

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This is such a wonderful, heartwarming novel. I can’t say enough how much I thoroughly enjoyed reading every word of it. The author, Matthew Quick, wrote the marvellous The Silver Linings Playbook, so I was really looking forward to finding out what quirky and heartwarming tale he was going to spin this time around. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest; this is a truly lovely, inventive and whimsical journey into the world of an adorable man named Bartholomew who I fell in love with from the very first page. It’s warm, witty, touching and true, and perfect for those of us with romantic souls.

Bartholomew Neil is 38. He has spent his entire life living with his mother in a run down Philadelphia neighbourhood, but she has recently died from cancer. Bartholomew has no friends, no job and little idea how to cultivate either. Without his beloved mother to guide him, he is lost, and so he turns to his mother’s hero Richard Gere for advice, writing to him about his everyday routines, his problems and his innermost thoughts in an attempt to understand the world he lives in and how he should move forward with his life. Aside from Richard Gere, Bartholomew has support from Father McNamee, his mother’s priest, who arranges for him to have some grief counselling from a student psychologist, Wendy. Wendy wants Bartholomew to ‘find his flock’ and ‘leave the nest’, and encourages him to find ‘age appropriate goals’ to help him gain some independence. Bartholomew’s two goals are to have a drink with someone his own age in a bar, and to have a drink with the Girlbrarian, a young and pretty librarian he has fallen in love with from afar, but for someone who has never had friends and for whom the mere thought of talking to a girl is enough to bring him out in a cold sweat, these goals appear almost impossible.

Things take a turn when Wendy asks Bartholomew to attend group therapy. At group therapy, Bartholomew meets Max, who is exactly the same age as him and slightly deranged. To their surprise, they hit it off, and Bartholomew manages to meet his first goal. But his joy is soon tempered when Wendy shows up to their next therapy session with bruises, and Father McNamee leaves the church and moves in with him, spending all day drinking whiskey and praying to a God who apparently won’t answer back. The people who were supposed to help Bartholomew now need his help, but will he be up to the task? And can he manage to meet his final goal with so many issues starting to pile up on his plate? Using the wisdom of the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere and a belief in Jung’s power of synchronicity, Barthomolew is about to find that he is capable of much more than he ever imagined, and that the world can indeed be a surprising and magical place, if you give it half a chance…

This is such a clever, thoughtful and enchanting story that manages to weave many random ideas and plot strands into one beautiful coherent whole, in which several damaged people are brought together and are changed by the power of kindness, trust and faith. Matthew Quick’s ability to bring Bartholomew alive is absolutely brilliant, and I flew through the pages in my desire to discover how his story would resolve itself. If you’re after something that will entertain and charm while also making you think and reflect on your own life and the way in which you interact with others, then this is the perfect book for you. It’s just the right blend of lightweight and literary; absolutely perfect for curling up with on a lazy afternoon. Thanks to Picador for sending this to me to enjoy…and I hope you will enjoy it when it comes out (in the UK) in April!