Book Review

Review: This Family Of Things, by Alison Jameson (2017)

This Family Of Things was quite a surprise to me. In spite of the blurb implying that lives would change forever, I still underestimated intensity of the emotional rollercoasters (yes, that is meant to be plural) that Alison Jameson would take us on in this, her fourth novel.

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Let’s start at the beginning: The Prologue. What a fantastic opening! It draws you right in, watching a woman (no spoilers) arrive at a house in Oregon, U.S.A., and contemplate this moment in her life. I’ve heard that getting the opening of a novel right is often a difficult aspect of writing that for authors, but Jameson strikes exactly the right tone and balance, catching our attention without revealing too much.

The narrative shifts, in time and location, to a cold, November day in 2013, in the town of Tullyvin, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. By the time this day ends, the wheels have been set in motion for the relationships, attitudes, hopes, and ambitions of the central characters to change completely.

In the rural outskirts of Tullyvin, the Keegan family own a farm and surrounding fields. Passed down through generations, Bird, Olive and Margaret feel like they belong to this land and the surrounding landscape. They understand it, they feel ‘at home’ there. Their lives are in tune with the changes that nature’s seasons bring. This regularity, unchanging year after year, is a source of comfort to them, but now, as each feels their lives somehow slipping away from them, it also feels like a trap. As the novel opens, each of these siblings wonders in their own way if there might not be more to see and experience in the world than the peaceful seclusion of their family.

In the more urban centre of town resides Midge Connors, a young woman fast losing hope of a life that does not include violence or despair. She is the last of her siblings living at home, watching her parents tearing (quite literal) pieces out of each other day after day. After a particularly brutal confrontation with her father, Midge finds herself alone and injured in a cold, wet field.

A field, we discover, belonging to Bird Keegan, who finds her there in her confused state, and takes her back to the safety of the farm.

The collision of these two worlds – the Keegans’ and Midge’s – is the catalyst for the lives of these characters being taken in new, unexpected directions. It’s as though an electric shock runs through each of them, giving them the motivation and confidence to take action.

By the stage at which we are returned to 2016 in Oregon, a lot has happened. These characters experience love and loss; tenderness and violence; poverty, illness, romance. They encounter fear and hope; the comforts of home and the excitement of travel. Yet Jameson masterfully structures the narrative and portrays the characters in a way that grounds these events so much in real, human emotion that it never, in my opinion, feels melodramatic. It could easily have felt chaotic and over-saturated, but it didn’t.

The pace is rather slow initially, but I think this is necessary to really get readers involved with these characters. When I’m reading, I want to understand characters, to be given reasons to stay with them on their journeys in the story, and Jameson does that in the opening chapters of This Family of Things. This initial calm pace also reflects the regularity of the Keegans’ lives, which then provides a fantastic contrast to the upheavals that occur later.

The rural Irish landscape surrounding the Keegan’s farm is a beautifully imposing and particularly memorable feature of the narrative. The simultaneous brutality and peaceful seclusion it conveys makes it part of the stories being told, reflecting and influencing the lives of the characters. I also adored the humour running through the novel: it lightened the tone at important moments, but I also recognised it from some of my own Irish relatives.

Though there are moments in this novel that are incredibly dark and brutal, there’s always a sense of hope in every character that they will find happiness, freedom, or simply peace with the way they have chosen to live their lives. I think that’s incredibly important, and one of my favourite aspects of Jameson’s narrative here: that no matter how many knocks these characters take, they somehow find the strength to move forward.

Full of joy and heartbreak in equal measure, this is a wonderful novel that, I hope, will have you turning the pages with intrigue as I did.

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New edition of a childhood favourite

Ravenclaw House

“Where those of wit and learning will always find their kind” – The Sorting Hat. 

Absolutely adore these new editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, published by Bloomsbury to celebrate the 20th anniversary of this magical book being published. There’s beautiful additional content and illustrations, specific to each house. The covers are so simple and slick, both in design and colour.
I’m so grateful to have experienced the joy and wonder that these books created as I grew up – to have been part of that spectacular atmosphere. J.K. Rowling will always be a hero to me, like she is to countless others around the world, whatever Hogwarts House they may belong to.

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An unsuccessful reading month (with a good ending)

To say that May has been a hectic month would be quite the understatement. Between job applications and interviews, relatives being admitted to hospital, and various other dramas, my reading has unfortunately had to take a back seat.

However, I finished This Family of Things by Alison Jameson this morning. It’s due for UK release on June 8th, and I would seriously advise you to buy it. A full review will follow after it has been published, but what I will say is that it’s a wonderful novel. There are some really dark moments, but has joy and heartbreak in equal measure. A highlight of the month was getting half an hour to read it outside St. Paul’s Cathedral.

So now my task is to complete Cloud Atlas, and the audiobook of Three Daughters of Eve, and get ready to celebrate 20 years of Harry Potter magic in June!

In other news, I love that the weather is so gorgeous at the moment so i’ll be able to enjoy reading outside with a view of our flowers.

Have a wonderful evening!

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The Glorious Heresies, by Louise McInerney (2015)

The Glorious Heresies. Wow. What a novel! A few days after being so captivated by the story that I read the last 120 pages in 2 hours and I’m still in awe. No wonder it won the Bailey’s Prize last year!

Set in contemporary Cork (Ireland), The Glorious Heresies pivots on the death of a man named Robbie O’Donovan. His demise influences numerous people in the city, whether they knew him directly or not. He is never alive in the novel’s world – he exists only in the memories of others. What this achieves is to show both how brief and fragile life is, and how one life, one death, one moment can have massive, unforeseen consequences. She weaves this wonderful web of interactions – individuals crossing paths often without knowledge of the connections they share or how they have influenced each other’s lives. Community is both real and imagined in this novel: felt keenly through harsh judgments or offers of solace, or understood only briefly at the mention of a name in conversation. It’s a beautiful and remarkable structure.

McInerney’s Ireland is harsh and brutal. So many fundamental aspects of Irish identity are changing or being erased in the twenty-first century landscape of her novel that the characters resort to desperate measures just to stay afloat. This is about people who do not or cannot ‘toe the line’ by conforming to Irish history and identities. Alcoholism, prostitution, drug addiction, rape, murder, child abuse and, perhaps most difficult to accept, the issue of the influence that the Catholic Church has on Irish identity and in Irish politics. There is an underlying anger towards religion itself coursing through the novel, but particularly towards the treatment of unmarried mothers in the Magdalen Laundries throughout the twentieth century. The characters face these traumas, often in the full knowledge of those around them, except no one wishes to confront the terrible truth directly. Neither the individuals nor their relatives, nor the authorities wish to accept the situation, allocate blame or receive the support they really need. People find their own ways of surviving – ways that both connect them with other characters and force them into further isolation. Those “glorious heresies” portrayed in the novel – glorious, because there is often or appears to be, no other option, meaning characters feel no need for shame- show survival of the fittest at its most raw, its most exposed. 

She presents in great detail how characters come to terms with their past, personal and national. This is particularly effective when it overlaps with parent-child relationships, or interactions between older and younger generations. While Maureen Phelan and Tony Cusack are trying to come to terms with their pasts, the younger characters are trying to escape theirs. In the cases of Maureen and Tony’s children, the past they are escaping is the fraught relationships with their parents.

Maureen Phelan is undoubtedly my favourite character. Her caustic humour provides some much needed relief from the often graphic scenes and subject matter that are portrayed – Chapter 10 is ‘laugh out loud’ hilarious. She is flawed, she makes mistakes and rash decisions, but her story and character remain affecting because she is so rarely self-pitying. She also genuinely wants to help people. She’s a perfect example of the ‘wise older woman’ trope from fairytales, except McInerney makes her ‘real’, with this complex past influencing her attitudes and actions. Our knowledge of her mistakes means we take to her advice to other characters much more easily. McInerney also doesn’t signpost that this is her ‘role’ in the story or that she fits the role comfortably – so often, the female characters written for that role are literally cardboard cut-outs of a ‘type’.

McInerney showcases a masterpiece of characterisation with Maureen. The other main characters are beautifully drawn, and often as endearing, but there’s almost an extra dimension to Maureen that makes her truly magical.

In short, I loved pretty much everything about this novel. The first couple of chapters are really great at introducing the main players, and then suddenly drawing them together and revealing the connections. 

Yes, it’s dark and graphic, but it’s also funny and affecting. There are some parts that seem a little slow, but this let you process events, and the underlying tension keeps you turning those pages.

This should definitely be added to your “To Be Read” list!

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April Reading

Happy 1st April, book lovers! Here’s my #tbr list for this month.


Halfway through ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ now and it is genuinely one of the most powerful books I’ve read. I’m only sorry I’ve not read it sooner!

 
After that are three books that have been sitting in my room for months untouched because of uni work etc. Really excited for ‘The Paying Guests’ because having read Waters’ other works, I love her plot construction, and I’ve heard great things about this novel too. ‘The Glorious Heresies’ was last year’s Bailey’s Prize Winner and ‘Cloud Atlas’ is one of those books that everyone seems to have read so it seems like I’m missing out.

 
Hopefully I’ll get to read more but all these seem like hefty reads so we’ll see.

 
What are you hoping to read this month?

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Currently reading

I’m currently reading ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell and it’s so good.


It was recommended by a friend and I was unsure at first (I don’t venture into non-fiction often) but Gladwell is such a great writer and the concept is fascinating. It’s essentially exploring the different circumstances that might benefit (or hinder) an individual’s success, circumstances beyond their innate capabilities.

The way Gladwell frames each ‘case study’ is great, and he shows links between them so clearly. For some reason, I always associate non-fiction with ultra-complex, dense terminology and composition, but I’m flying through this.

There’s a quote from The Times on the blurb that says:
“He is the best kind of writer – the kind who makes you feel like you’re a genius, rather than he’s a genius.” That’s pretty spot on!

 *I love my new bookmark. I went to see The Cursed Child on Sunday and it is marvellous! 

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Books for Change: Days 6-8

​Day 6: Favourite First Line 

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” – Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

This is my favourite book of all time* and du Maurier created a fantastic opening for it. It has everything: the intrigue, the suspense, an almost mystical atmosphere.
Who’s the speaker? Where/what is Manderley? Why is the speaker dreaming of going back? Where are they now? 
The entire first chapter is just so beautifully Gothic, with the description of the house and grounds, thebreader moving through the landscape through the narrator’s eyes.

Simply spectacular. *special thanks to @novelobservations who first introduced me to this book, and to du Maurier’s writing. She bought me one of these awesome mugs!

Day 7: Favourite Short Story

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter

I was torn between The Bloody Chamber story from this collection and Monte Verità by Daphne du Maurier.

I went with Carter in the end, because I think her use of underlying themes in traditional fairytales to create new stories is nothing short of spectacular. This collection, and much of Carter’s writing, is divisive to say the least, but personally, I love the imaginative extremes she experiments with. 

I love the tense, Gothic atmosphere and pacing of The Bloody Chamber story (perhaps that’s why I was torn between this and du Maurier). There’s so much skill used in drawing these vivid characters and experiences, and creating that sense of unpredictability. Like the narrator, we are drawn almost compulsively forward, despite the uncertainty and foreboding.
In short, it’s a wonderfully complex and tense story. And that’s without the weaving in of complex ideas Carter manages here.
Day 8: (International Women’s Day) The book that changed my life.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara.

This was incredibly difficult because there are so many that have changed the way I see the world, approach life, or simply the books I want to read more of.
However, when I read A Little Life last year, it really moved me emotionally in a way I hadn’t expected. 

Some of the experiences detailed in this novel are dark to say the least, but they’re so ‘human’, so real, and the darker aspects of the characters’ experiences are counterbalanced by uplifting, hopeful moments. It’s a novel about friendship, love, acceptance; about dreams and ambitions, success and failure; about negotiating the transition from youth to adulthood. New York is there in all its complex vibrancy, the opportunities and realities of life in the city explored throughout. The four central characters are wonderfully, vividly drawn: we are frustrated by some of their actions as much as we are in support of them. 

This novel changed my life because it made me consider afresh the world around me, and how small actions can make big differences to another person’s life. It showed once again the importance of compassion, empathy and understanding. The novel celebrates difference and diversity AND the basic essences, like love and friendship and happiness, that connect everyone too. I got so enmeshed in the stories being told that some parts actually made me cry (and that never happens). It was harrowing because it really felt like I knew these people, and I desperately wanted things to change for them. 

I also appreciated how brilliantly constructed it is: moving between the characters and the different ‘moments’ in their lives seamlessly. Even though it’s a long novel, I never felt like it was dragging. It’s truly a work of art, a masterpiece of literary genius.
If I ever doubted that novels written in the twenty first century would be considered ‘classic’ in the way that, as an example, the Brontës are, Yanagihara’s novel put paid to that.