Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant – Review

If you go back and look at your life there are certain scenes, acts, or maybe just incidents on which everything that follows seems to depend. If only you could narrate them, then you might be understood. I mean the part of yourself that you don’t know how to explain.


9781844087518
Such a striking cover!

When Adele talks her way into a radical and experimental new university in the early 1970s she longs to leave her old life behind. The appearance of a beautiful and androgynous couple known as Evie and Stevie on campus results in Adele finding herself inexplicably drawn to and obsessed with Evie, whose very existence seems to unsettle everything. This obsession becomes lifelong when a tragedy occurs upstairs at Adele’s twentieth birthday party. Moving across the country and through the decades, this novel charts Adele’s attempts to make sense of what happened that fateful night. 

I had never read anything by Linda Grant before picking up Upstairs at the Party – she was always someone who was on my TBR pile, but who I just never quite seemed to get around to. When a reading copy of Upstairs at the Party appeared in the staffroom at work I practically jumped on it. I love novels that deal with obsession (Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller being one of my favourite books of all time), so the blurb instantly appealed to me. However, when I started reading I found that it dealt with not just obsession, but also the ideas of loss, identity, the passing of time, and how little sense life often makes.

I really enjoyed the way that Grant addressed the topic of obsession. Her success in dealing with it can be seen in how, even though Adele was the narrator of the book, I very much came away feeling as though Evie had been the central character. Despite only being present for half of the book, and not even necessarily overtly at the forefront of Adele’s mind throughout much of the portion where she doesn’t physically feature, her very existence seems to permeate every page.

Through Evie’s absence Grant addresses one of the other major themes of the book – loss. If Adele’s twentieth had just been a normal party and nothing had happened then perhaps her obsession with Evie would have reached a natural conclusion and fizzled out, eventually becoming nothing more than a footnote in her university life. The loss of Evie causes the opposite happens – it ensures that she lives on forever in Adele’s mind, taunting her with the question of ‘what if?’.

My favourite thing about this book though was the incredibly skill which Grant has for conveying the atmosphere of a time or place, and the feelings associated with a certain period of life. She succeeds both in immersing the reader in the radical and rebellious attitudes of the early 1970s, and also in of capturing the feeling of leaving home and having to create a new identity and find your way in the world. I also liked that the novel showed that in reality we never really grow up – life never really makes any more sense than it did before and ultimately years later we are still asking ourselves the same set of questions. It was also interesting for me on a personal level, as I briefly attended the university which Grant is writing about, albeit much later, so could pick out some of the places to which she was referring.

I highly recommend this novel – not only is the subject matter really interesting, but also the writing is so beautiful that at times I found myself in tears simply because of the sheer amount of feeling that it contained. I really enjoy quite character-focused novels, and to me this was one of the best ones I’ve read. The cast of characters is varied and, while many of them are significantly larger than life, they are all relatable in some way. I also particularly enjoyed the way the theme of memory ran through the whole novel, and the question of whether the account that we give of events has to be entirely truthful. This is so much more than just a campus story – it addresses much deeper questions which extend far beyond the university experience. I’m now so excited to read some of Grant’s earlier work!

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant is published by Virago, RRP £8.99
Review copy from the publisher

The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink – Review

Grief is the price we pay for love. It is, we have to believe, better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I had a brother. I learned about love by loving him. He had the first bits of my heart. He died.

In the summer of 1990 Cathy’s brother Matty was knocked down in a tragic road accident. He was rushed to hospital and underwent emergency surgery for the severe brain damage he had suffered. Cathy and her parents waited anxiously, praying that he wouldn’t die. In her memoir, Cathy recounts what happened from that point onwards, and asks whether there are perhaps some fates which are worse than death.

I don’t think I have ever read a book which is so clearly full of so much love. Rentzenbrick made me feel as though I was sitting down with a friend who was telling me her story. It’s a story which left me in tears, but which ultimately also managed to be full of hope. Her writing is both raw and honest, and perfectly conveys the experience which her family underwent, as well as the depth of love she still feels for her brother.

An underlying question of this memoir is whether medically prolonging life is always the right thing to do. There are also some links to the current debate on whether or not assisted dying should be legalised, as the current laws means that the process which someone in Matty’s situation has to go through in order to pass away is more painful than it perhaps needs to be – both for the patient and the family. Rentzenbrink shows the reader the thought process which led to her and her parents making this decision in Matty’s case, and also addresses the associated feeling of guilt. For me at least it cemented my view that our attitude towards death does need to change in some way.

I honestly feel that everyone should read this book. I’ve been struggling to write this all evening because I just can’t articulate how perfect it was, and the depth of emotion which it made me feel. I absolutely couldn’t put it down – I had to know what would happen to Cathy and her family. Their strength as a family is evident throughout the memoir and I have nothing but admiration for them. Not only is it beautifully written, but it also addresses really important issues. I hope that this amazing memoir, which I certainly think is another act of love, may help to make things easier for any families who are currently in a similar position. I don’t believe that anyone could read this and not experience a slight change in how they see the world.

Thank you so much Cathy for sharing you story.

-Laura

The Last Act of Love is due to be published by Picador on 2/7/15. I would like to thank them for sending me a proof copy.

Available for pre-order here.

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens – Review

This was the first murder that the Wells & Wong Detective Society had ever investigated, so it is a good thing Daisy bought me a new casebook.

Murder Most Unladylike is written from the point of view of Hong Kong-born Hazel Wong, who along with her friend Daisy Wells forms the Wells & Wong Detective Society at the quintessentially English ‘Deepdean School for Girls’. Initially they are investigating mysteries such as that of ‘Lavinia’s Missing Tie’, however when Hazel finds the body of Miss Bell in the school gym they are determined to solve her murder, just like a real life Holmes and Watson. After all – you can’t trust grown ups to do anything right!

'There's been a rather shocking murder at Deepdean School for Girls...'
‘There’s been a rather shocking murder at Deepdean School for Girls…’

To say I loved this book is an understatement. As a bookseller you tend to have a few faithful books which you love with all your heart and recommend time and time again because you’re sure that no one in their right mind wouldn’t enjoy them. For me in the 9-12 age range that has always been Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson – which has been one of my favourite books for over a decade – however I am now so happy to have found another book which I honestly believe is just as wonderful!

The plot was absolutely superb, and really well paced. I also think it says a lot that I, a 22 year old who is no stranger to crime fiction, was absolutely flummoxed as to who the murderer was. I thought I knew, then realised I was completely wrong, then suspected someone else – and so it continued until the grand unveiling at the end of the book, with all the major characters gathered in a room in true Agatha Christie fashion. This book definitely has no upper age limit – anyone who likes a good old fashioned caper will love this.  It’s funny and clever and keeps you guessing right up until the very end. The humour also lightens up the story so that it doesn’t read ‘darkly’ at all – which is an achievement when you consider that it’s main subject is murder!

I loved both Hazel and Daisy – the contrast of Hazel’s rational and sensible approach with Daisy’s headstrong and incredibly self-assured nature worked fantastically. Both the characters were also completely relatable as, despite the book being set in the 1930s and there being the very important matter of a murder to investigate, Hazel still discusses much more normal issues such as her desire to ‘fit in’ at Deepdean. The supporting cast is also well fleshed out as, despite most of them not being talked about a huge amount, each one was memorable in their own way and had their own unique qualities.

This brings me around to one of my favourite aspects of the book which was that it featured REPRESENTATION. As someone who identifies as the L in LGBT it frustrates me when I look back on my childhood to see how lesbians were literally never mentioned in anything I encountered before the age of 14. I wish more than anything that this book had been around when I was a child because, not only does it show that women can be in a relationship (Miss Bell and Miss Parker were definitely more than just friends before Miss Bell met her untimely end), and talk about girls ‘canoodling’ together in cupboards, but it does it in such a way which doesn’t present this as being either good or bad, but rather just something that ‘is’. Stevens single-handedly proves that the notion that you can’t write about LGBT characters in a child appropriate way is a load of absolute tosh.*

The second book in the Wells & Wong series!
The second book in the Wells & Wong series!

So essentially, what I’m trying to say, is read this book. Read it and love it and then go out straight away and buy Arsenic for Tea, the second book in the series. I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to reading this one but now I’m so happy that I did – I just wish that I could go back in time and give it to my 10 year old self so that she could have loved it too.

Thanks for reading, and let me know your thoughts if you’ve already read this one!

Laura

*Trust me, after this book you will not be able to stop using words like ‘tosh’ – it’s utterly fabulous!

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters – Thoughts

No one appeared to have heard me arrive, so after a a little hesitation I went crunching over the gravel and gingerly climbed the cracked stone steps. It was a hot, still summer’s date – so windless that when I tugged on the tarnished old brass and ivory bell-pull I caught the ring of it, pure and clear; but distant, as if in the belly of the house. The ring was immediately followed by the faint, gruff barking of a dog.

IMG_20150406_205012
What a beautiful cover! I love the new designs for Water’s books.

I feel I should preface this by telling you all that I really love Sarah Waters. She’s been one of my favourite authors ever since I first discovered her a few years ago. The Little Stranger was the only novel of hers which I hadn’t yet read, so I thought the time had finally come to give it a try.

The Little Stranger is a gothic ghost story of sorts, following the Ayres family who live in the dilapidated Georgian ‘Hundreds Hall’ in rural Warwickshire. It’s set just after the end of the second world war and is told from the point of view of Dr. Faraday, a district GP who befriends the family and becomes involved in their affairs. Not all is quite how it seems however, and mysterious things begin to happen at Hundreds Hall which cause both the family and the reader to question whether there may be some supernatural powers involved…

Overall I would say that I enjoyed The Little Stranger, which I think simply serves as a testament to how much I love Sarah Water’s other novels, as I would also say that it’s probably my least favourite of hers. I think a major problem which I had with the novel was that I found it took too long to get started. I understand that with ghost stories it is obviously necessary to create an atmosphere of suspense but, while I did enjoy reading the first 300 or so pages, I definitely felt as though I didn’t become properly invested in the story until around 300 pages in. Water’s writing style does lend itself very well however to creating suspense, and I found that I had suddenly become much more unsettled than I had previously realised. It’s a feeling which I haven’t been able to shake since finishing the book, which I think a mark of success.

The endpapers in this book are absolutely stunning!
The endpapers in this book are absolutely stunning!

The character of Caroline Ayres was what really drove me to keep reading. Water’s major strength in my eyes has always been her ability to create the most fantastic female characters and I certainly feel that I would include Caroline among them. She is the 26-year old daughter of Mrs Ayres and elder sister to war-wounded Roderick and probably the most central character of the book besides Faraday. I loved how strong and practical she was; her grounded nature for the bulk of the novel provided a great contrast to the events transpiring at Hundreds. I also liked that, owing to the unreliable nature of the narrator, a certain amount of her character is left up to the reader to imagine. Okay, I’ll admit, I just really love it when I get such a fantastically strong female character. We just don’t get enough of them.

I also enjoyed the political undertones of the novel. Water’s has stated that The Little Stranger began life as an exploration of the shifting classes which occurred after the second world war and I think she does this quite well. A ghost story turns out to be a perfect way of exploring not just the fall of the aristocracy and the rise of socialism, but also of showing how the upheaval caused by the war lasted well beyond 1945. I also really liked how Water’s extended the uncertainty which the Ayres family were experiencing because of their declining position to Faraday, as he himself is anxious about the introduction of the new ‘Health Service’, which he fears will result in losing patients from his books.

So then, would I recommend it? In short yes, I would. But I would definitely recommend other books by Water’s first, as I didn’t feel this to be her strongest offering. If you have a particular interest in gothic ghost stories however, perhaps in the vein of Henry James, this would be perfect for you. As I said, it unsettled me more than I realised at the time, and I don’t think Hundreds Hall will be leaving my mind any time soon.

Thanks for reading! If you’ve read it or are thinking of reading it I would love to hear your thoughts.

Laura