Saturday, March 21, 2015

ACADEMY STREET by Mary Costello

ACADEMY STREET by Mary Costello

Pages: 179
Date: March 20, 2015
Grade: 3.5
Details: Reading Group Read

The blurb:

‘With extraordinary devotion, Mary Costello brings to life a woman who would otherwise have faded into oblivion amid the legions of the meek and the unobtrusive.’
J.M. Coetzee

Academy Street is the heart-breaking and evocative story of one woman’s life spanning six decades. Tess’s childhood in 1940’s rural Ireland is defined by the sudden death of her mother. Later, in New York, she encounters the ferocious power and calamity of love, and the effects of catastrophic fate. The novel resonates with the rhythms of memory and home as well as those of America’s greatest city.

This is an intimate story about unexpected gifts and unbearable losses, and the perpetual ache for belonging. It is exquisitely written and profoundly moving.

My thoughts:

I’m not entirely sure what to say about this book. It was short and it was easy enough to read. There were moments and sentences that made me pause. And yet, as a reading experience this book and the story in it left me cold. I didn’t really care about Tess’s life and everything that (doesn’t) happen to her because to me it seemed as if the author, purposefully, kept me at a distance; as if she didn’t want me to get too involved in Tess’s life. Of course, 177 pages is not a lot when you’re telling a story spanning seven decades. On the other hand, even the incidents in her life that were related in more detail seemed to be purposefully kept vague.

Reading this book, to me felt a bit like watching a documentary in which all the facts were stated without too much attention to detail or the emotions associated with those details.

The reader follows Tess through her life. The first part of the book deals with Tess’s childhood. We first meet her age seven, when her mother dies. We are with her as she goes to school, boarding school, hospital in Galway and Dublin to train as a nurse. We subsequently follow Tess to America where she falls in love for the first time ever and acts on the emotion. While a relationship with the man in question is never on the cards, she does end up with a life-long commitment as a result of her one-night-stand.

This book seemed intent on tripping me up. We get a lot of detail about seemingly insignificant details - for example, why did we need to know about the rat and the teenager trying to get it out of the hole it flees into? When I read the scene I thought it might have significance later on in the story, however if it did, I missed it.

I really wasn’t happy about what happened to Theo. I can’t help feeling this particular event has become the ‘go-to’ climax when an author needs a dramatic conclusion or plot development and I for one am getting a bit tired of it by now.

Having said all of the above, there were a few sentences and descriptions in this book which made me stop and think.

“And his sorrow, for all that is lost, lying silent within him.” - Tess when she cuts her father’s hair.

“Being among people left her feeling lonely, even, at times, endangered. She felt divided from others. Their talk, their dreams seemed to her incidental, artificial, something that had to be got through en route to the real conversation, the heart of the matter.”

Chapter eleven: The lines that sum up the book for me: In the telling it did not seem so bad. She even laughed at times. It was not that it was funny, but neither was it tragic. It was as if she were recounting someone else’s life, from long ago.”

“There did not seem to be enough hours or days or years left in her life to read all she wanted to read.”

“Oh, honey, when it comes to the heart, it ain’t about men or women, but people.” - Willa

Overall this was an easy read, containing a few moments of pure genius, which left me mildly dissatisfied by the time I finished it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015



Pages: 331
Date: Feb 22, 2015
Grade: 4
Details: Reading Group Read

The blurb:

The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh's novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder's infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.

My thoughts:

Well, I’m not quite sure what to say about this book. There were parts of it I adored and parts I couldn’t care less about and wouldn’t have missed if they’d been omitted. But, before I get into that allow me to go back a few decades.

I was in my late teens when I saw the television series of Brideshead Revisited and all I can say is that I was fascinated by the story, the characters, the setting and the period it portrayed. I fell in love with Sebastian and Charles and eagerly awaited each new episode. When I picked up this book I expected to fall in love all over again.

I guess sometimes it is wiser to leave old loves in the past and not try to revive them. The vague images I had in my head and the – rather limited – memory I had of the story would have been enough to keep me mesmerized for the rest of my life. Reading the book now - 30 odd years after first seeing the story – has removed a lot of the glamour from my memories. Which of course means this is anything but a fair review of the book. This is an essay about how my selective memory stands up to the reality of the written word. As it turns out, the written word never stood a chance.

So, back to the story as I found it in the book. I adored the first part of the book. The developing relationship between Charles and Sebastian drew me in and fascinated me. The twenty years between the two World Wars and the ways in which the world changed make for intriguing reading. I watched the interactions between the characters in this book with growing repulsion. Nobody seemed to really connect with others or even want to make the effort to look below the surface. The moment characters did allow themselves to discover the hidden depths in others, almost invariably meant the end of the relationship. All of this kept me turning the pages but in a similar way I would if I were reading a science fiction story; it intrigued me but a lot of it was incomprehensible to me.

To me this read as an extensive story about destruction - the destruction of one man’s dreams and illusions, the destruction of a family and the destruction of a way of life. By the time the story ends, nothing remains of the certainties the story starts with. It made the reading experience similar to watching a train-wreck; horrifying to watch yet impossible to look away from.

I think I would have liked the book more if the story had been just about Sebastian and Charles. I just couldn’t get interested in the second part of the story when it turns into a description of the ‘doomed to fail’ relationship between Julia and Charles. And I guess that’s the root of the problem; in my memory this was a story about those two men. I assume the rest of the story featured in the TV-series as well, but it had faded from my memory, and even now I’ve read the book, no images come to me.

I can’t honestly say whether the way this story was written disappointed me or whether I felt led down by the fact the book didn’t live up to my memories. Either way I have to conclude this fascinating story was not quite what I hoped it would be.

Friday, January 23, 2015


Pages: 350
Date: 23/01/2015
Grade: 3
Details: Reading Group Monthly read

The blurb:

“Three-year-old Dillon vanished in the middle of the night. His father Harry can't forgive himself for not protecting his only child. Yet Harry isn't blamed by his wife Robin: she bares her own secret guilt.
Five years later, thousands of miles away, Harry spots an eight-year-old boy in a crowd - a boy he is convinced is Dillon.
Desperate to find his missing son, Harry's obsession tears apart his marriage, exposing shameful secrets and shattering the one thing he and Robin had left - trust.
Why won't Robin believe Harry? What is she hiding? Can the boy really be Dillon? And how far will Harry go to find their lost son?
The Boy That Never Was is a deeply atmospheric and masterfully crafted tale of love and loss that will chill you to the bone. Fans of Rosamund Lupton and Sophie Hannah will fall in love with this debut from Karen Perry.”

My thoughts:

I’m always disappointed when a book doesn’t live up to my expectations but this time it hits me a little bit harder than normal. I bought nine copies of this book just before Christmas and gave one to each of my reading group members. The blurb sounded exciting and the endorsements on and in the cover were more than glowing:

“Truly remarkable” - Jeffrey Deaver
“ Gripping...this tense, unpredictable novel blends a thriller with an intimate family story to produce a most compulsive read” - John Boyne
“A beautifully written mystery is gripping stuff” - Tana French

I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to endorsements by other authors but these caught my attention since I’m both a fan and admirer of each of those writers. Buying ‘The Boy That Never Was’ appeared to be a very safe bet. Except that it wasn’t and I now find myself in the strange situation where I fervently hope my reaction to this book was personal and mood or genre related.  

I had more than one issue with this book.

For starters I had the twist – at least I think it was supposed to be a twist or a surprise – worked out before I reached the half way mark of this story. I hoped the author would pull an unexpected rabbit out of her writing-hat and prove me wrong, but that didn’t happen.

I couldn’t get involved in the unravelling Robin and Harry’s relationship because I never saw their bond as being tight. Watching love die is not that hard when you never quite believed the love was there to begin with. What’s more, I didn’t like either of them; not the way they were before they lost Dillan and not the way they were portrait afterwards. As a result I wasn’t really invested in whether or not they would manage to hold it all together.

And finally, and I know this is a very personal pet peeve, the frequent use of the words ‘in that moment’ got on my nerves very early on.

Overall I liked the basic idea behind this story and, apart from the repetition mentioned above, the writing was quite good, especially for a debut. Unfortunately neither was enough for me to lose myself in the story or care about the characters or outcome. Fingers crossed my reading group members enjoyed it more than I did.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Pages: 264
Date: 18/12/2014
Grade: 4
Details: Reading Group Read

The blurb:

“Hauled in a cart to a field hospital in northern France in March 1916, an American woman wakes up from unconsciousness to the smell of gas gangrene, the sounds of men in pain, and an almost complete loss of memory; she knows only that she can drive an ambulance, she can draw, and her name is Stella Bain.

A stateless woman in a lawless country, Stella embarks on a journey to reconstruct her life. Suffering an agonising and inexplicable array of symptoms, she finds her way to London. There Dr. August Bridge, a cranial surgeon turned psychologist, is drawn to tracking her amnesia to its source. What brutality was she fleeing when she left the tranquil seclusion of a New England college campus to serve on the Front; for what crime did she need to atone – and whom did she leave behind?”

My thoughts:

“Can a man possibly care for a woman who is not herself? A woman who, with any luck, might change into someone else? Can a woman who is not herself truly care for another?”

I’m a bit ambivalent about this book. On the one hand I loved the story. I liked the idea of exploring the horrors of World War One through the eyes of a woman. We tend to forget they too played important and often horrific roles in this conflict and it’s about time it was given attention. I also appreciated the various layers in the story and the slow unravelling of Stella’s story and life.

Anita Shreve is a good and accomplished storyteller and The Lives of Stella Bain held my interest from start to finish. Having said that, I also found myself a bit underwhelmed with The Lives of Stella Bain. From the moment I started this book I had problems losing myself in the story. Stella’s tale is told in a detached manner and as a result I felt removed what was happening to her.

Initially I hoped the detachment would diminish as Stella’s memory returned. And, if the tone of the narration had shifted from impersonal to more personally involved as Stella returned to who she was and remembered why she found herself in the situation she was in, I would have considered it a masterful stroke of storytelling.

As it was, I felt I never got the opportunity to connect with Stella. She started off as and remained a rather one dimensional character in an interesting but rather flat story. It is quite possible I missed something but to me this felt like a missed opportunity. On the other hand, I can’t deny the story almost read itself and despite my lack of involvement in the story, I had no problem staying with it and finishing this book.