Early Warning by Jane Smiley

This is the second in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy which follows the lives of one American family across a period of a century. The first book, Some Luck, took us from 1920 to the end of 1952, and this one, Early Warning, covers 1953 to 1986.

It had been almost two years since I read Some Luck, so I was worried that I would struggle to remember who the characters were and how they were related to each other. On beginning Early Warning, then, I was relieved to see that Jane Smiley addresses this problem by beginning the novel with a family gathering – the funeral of Walter Langdon, the man who, with his wife Rosanna, had been at the heart of the previous novel. The funeral is attended by all of his adult children – Frank, Joe, Lillian, Henry and Claire – some of whom are now married and have children of their own. As the family sit around a table reminiscing about the past, this gives the reader a chance to get reacquainted with the characters.

So far so good, but once the different branches of the family depart and go back to their own homes, things quickly become much more confusing! In the previous book, the action revolved around the Langdon farm in Iowa, but now that the children have grown up, some of them have moved away and there are now Langdons scattered all over America, in different towns and different states. As the years and decades go by, moving from the 1950s to the 60s, 70s and finally the 80s, the grandchildren grow up too and build lives of their own, bringing even more characters into the story. I was constantly referring to the family tree at the beginning of the book and can’t imagine how I would have coped if I’d been reading it as an ebook!

The novel follows the same structure as the first one, with one chapter devoted to each year. As I mentioned in my Some Luck review, this means that, although it keeps the story moving forward, we are also left with some big gaps. When we leave the characters behind at the end of one chapter, we leap straight into the middle of the following year with the next chapter and haven’t ‘seen’ everything that happened in the meantime. It’s an unusual way to structure a novel and while it’s successful in the sense that it makes the trilogy feel different and memorable, it’s too restrictive and I’m glad not all books are written like this!

There is really very little more that I can say about Early Warning. There are some dramas, of course – births, deaths, marriages, divorces, affairs, house moves and changes of career – but there is no real plot, any more than anybody’s life ‘has a plot’. With so many characters, I couldn’t keep track of everything that was happening, but some of the things that stood out for me in this book were the exploration of Frank’s wife Andy’s mental state and the therapy she undergoes, the rivalry between their twin sons, Michael and Richie, and the pressure Lillian’s husband Arthur find himself under as a result of his job with the CIA. I was also particularly intrigued by the introduction of a new character, Charlie, whom we first meet as a small child and who appears to be unconnected to anyone else in the book. Smiley writes very convincingly from a child’s perspective and I really enjoyed reading these sections and guessing how Charlie would eventually fit into the story.

Some of the major events of the period are featured too, including the Vietnam War and the Cold War, and whereas in Some Luck the family on their Iowa farm were largely sheltered from the outside world, this time, because the geographical scale of the story has broadened, there are family members affected in some way by almost all of the world events touched on in the novel.

I have now started the third book, Golden Age, but with yet another generation of characters to get to know, I’m anticipating an even more confusing read than this one!

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Chilean author Isabel Allende is probably best known for her first novel The House of the Spirits, but since its publication in 1982 she has written over twenty other books, most recently last year’s In the Midst of Winter. The Japanese Lover (2015) is the first one I’ve read; I was drawn to it by its wartime setting and by the fact that, unlike some of her other books, it didn’t seem to include any magical realism, of which I’m not really a fan.

The novel opens in the present day with Irina Bazili, a young woman from Moldova, starting a new job at Lark House, a home for the elderly in San Francisco. Irina soon settles in, getting to know the old people in the home and forming a special bond with one of them, a woman called Alma Belasco who is able to live independently on the ground floor of the building but knows the day could soon come when she no longer can. When Irina is introduced to Seth, Alma’s grandson, the two are united in their concern for Alma and their curiosity over her occasional disappearances from Lark House. Eventually they piece together the story of Alma’s life, but this only happens gradually over the course of the entire novel.

When I first read the synopsis for this book I assumed it was a dual timeline novel with two alternating stories – Irina’s in the present day and Alma’s in the past. Well, it is, but not in the same way as dual timeline novels written by authors like Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton or Susanna Kearsley, for example. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a book with two distinct storylines, but more like a book set in the present with some chapters describing events from Alma’s past.

And Alma is a character with a very interesting past. At the beginning of the Second World War, she is sent away from her native Poland to stay with rich relatives in San Francisco and here she meets Ichimei Fukuda, the son of the family’s Japanese gardener. As time goes by, Alma and Ichimei begin to fall in love, but when war finds its way to America and the Japanese become ‘the enemy’, the Fukudas are sent to an internment camp. The two young lovers are later reunited, only to be separated again, a pattern which will repeat itself several times over the decades and their relationship will endure despite Alma’s marriage to another man. It is this relationship which Irina and Seth find so intriguing and which they hope to learn more about.

Although I struggled to believe in the love Alma and Ichimei felt for each other (I couldn’t sense much passion between them and, for me, it just wasn’t the heartbreaking romance I thought it should have been, given the setting and subject), I did find it interesting to read about the injustices suffered by the Fukuda family, their time in the internment camp, and the racial, cultural and class barriers that stood in the way of Ichimei and Alma’s happiness. However, Allende does not just focus on this storyline; she also delves into Irina’s background and those of some of the other characters, touching on a huge number of issues such as child abuse, homosexuality, pornography, drug use and abortion. All things which are relevant to modern life, but the book was not really long enough to explore them in much depth.

I found plenty of things to like about this book, but there were times when I felt that I was reading a long string of facts and information rather than an engaging story – too much ‘telling instead of showing’ – and there’s also not much dialogue, which could explain why I found it difficult to connect with Alma and Ichimei. I was slightly disappointed, but it’s possible that I just chose the wrong Isabel Allende book to begin with. I know she has a lot of fans who love her writing, so I’m hoping that if I try another of her books I’ll understand why.

This book counts towards this year’s What’s in a Name? Challenge: A title containing a nationality.

The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

I had never read anything by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, so when I saw that she was the next author in Jane’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity. Ideally I would have started with her most popular book, The Home-Maker, but as I didn’t have a copy of that one, it made sense to read the one I did have instead.

The Brimming Cup opens with a prologue set in Italy in 1909 in which we briefly meet Neale and Marise, a young couple who are very much in love and making plans for the future. Marise has a very clear idea of what she wants and expects from their relationship:

“But what would poison us to death…what I’m afraid of, between two people who try to be what we want to be to each other…how can I say it?” She looked at him in an anguish of endeavor, “…not to be true to what is deepest and most living in us…that would be the betrayal I’m afraid of. That’s what I mean. No matter what it costs us personally, or what it brings, we must be true to that. We must!”

Eleven years later, Marise and Neale are married and living in Vermont. It’s 1920 and Marise has just sent their youngest child, Mark, off to school for the first time. Where once she had three children at home all day, now she has none and, with Neale so busy running the family business, Marise’s role as wife and mother is no longer the same as it used to be.

When Mr Welles, a retired office worker, moves in next door accompanied by his younger friend, Vincent Marsh, Marise begins to feel even more unsettled. Vincent makes her think differently about her life and about her relationships with her husband and children. Do the children appreciate everything she has done for them? Do they even truly love her or would they feel the same about any adult who raised them? Is her life being wasted in this quiet little town in Vermont? Forced to question all the things in which she has ever believed, Marise remembers the vow she made in Rome – that she and Neale should each be true to themselves no matter what.

I found it interesting to see how this novel, published in 1919, explores some of the attitudes, views and theories of the time surrounding issues such as childcare, parenthood, identity and marriage. As newcomers to the town, Mr Welles and Vincent Marsh introduce Marise to different ideas and opinions. Vincent’s suggestions that Marise should be making more of her talent as a pianist and break away from the role she has fallen into in the home seem very tempting – especially as she is starting to wonder whether Neale is really the man she thought he was – while Mr Welles’ interest in helping his cousin in Georgia to fight prejudice against black people also gives her something to think about.

I found a lot to appreciate and enjoy in this novel, but I can’t say that I loved the book as a whole and I’m not sure yet whether Dorothy Canfield Fisher is really an author for me. There were times when some of the writing felt a bit too sentimental for my taste and there were some plot developments towards the end, involving another family, the Powers, which felt unnecessarily melodramatic and out of balance with the rest of the story. I will probably try at least one more of her books, though, because it could just be that this one wasn’t the best of introductions for me. I’m tempted by Rough-Hewn, which was published after The Brimming Cup and seems to be a prequel, but maybe I should read The Home-Maker instead to see why so many people love it so much.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

days-without-end Sebastian Barry is one of my favourite Irish authors; having enjoyed his last three novels, The Temporary Gentleman, On Canaan’s Side and The Secret Scripture, I began to read his latest one, Days Without End, not really knowing or caring what it was about. I knew I could count on Barry to have produced another beautifully written novel and I was sure that would be enough. Unfortunately, it wasn’t – I still found things to like and to admire, but this just wasn’t my sort of book.

Thomas McNulty and John Cole are “two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world” who meet in Missouri as teenagers while sheltering from the rain together under a hedge. It’s the 1850s and Thomas, having lost his family to the famine in Ireland, has fled to America in search of a better life. John, who was born in New England, is the first friend Thomas has made in his new country and the two quickly become inseparable. The first thing they need to do is find employment and here their youthful good looks prove useful when a saloon owner offers them a job as dancers, on the condition that they dress up in women’s clothes to entertain the local miners.

At seventeen, considering themselves too old to continue their dancing act, Thomas and John leave the saloon and join the US Army. Fighting first in the Indian Wars and later in the Civil War (on the Union side), it’s a difficult life and the two young soldiers face dangers and obstacles ranging from hunger and illness to extreme weather and encounters with Native Americans. Throughout all of this there are two things that sustain them: their love for each other and their relationship with Winona, a young Sioux girl separated from her family during a raid.

Days Without End is narrated by Thomas McNulty and this provides a link with several of Barry’s previous novels which tell the stories of other members of the McNulty family (he has also written several which focus on another Irish family, the Dunnes). Thomas, though, is obviously from an earlier generation of McNultys; the other novels are set in the 20th century, which makes this one feel a bit different. Another difference is that this book is set in the American West rather than Ireland – and I think this is probably why I had a problem. Westerns are not a genre I would usually choose to read (although I did love Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers) and too much of this novel just didn’t interest me at all.

If the setting does sound of interest to you, then I would have no hesitation in recommending this book even though I didn’t particularly enjoy it myself. Sebastian Barry is a very talented writer and there are some beautiful passages in this novel; the poetic narrative voice didn’t always sound very convincing coming from the down-to-earth soldier, Thomas McNulty, but that didn’t really matter – the beautiful, poetic writing was the reason I chose to read this book, after all.

What I did struggle with was reading page after page of descriptions of army life, buffalo shooting expeditions and battles against the Sioux. I don’t think the balance between these aspects of the story and the more personal aspects was quite right and I very nearly gave up on the book halfway through. I kept reading mainly because I wanted to know what would happen to Winona – and I was rewarded with an interesting and dramatic ending to her storyline.

Days Without End has its good points and its bad points, then, and I think my disappointment with it is entirely due to my personal reading tastes. I shouldn’t have assumed that just because I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Sebastian Barry I would love this one too, despite a setting and subject which didn’t appeal to me. I’m still looking forward to going back and exploring his earlier novels; I have a copy of Annie Dunne, which sounds much more like the kind of book I would enjoy, so that’s probably the one I’ll be reading next.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

The Aviator's Wife Melanie Benjamin picks such interesting subjects for her novels, introducing us to historical figures who, despite their significance, we may not know much about: first Alice Liddell, the inspiration behind Alice in Wonderland, then Lavinia Warren or ‘Mrs Tom Thumb’, and now Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh.

We first meet Anne Morrow, daughter of the US ambassador to Mexico, in 1927 at a reception attended by Charles Lindbergh who has recently completed his first solo flight across the Atlantic. Everyone expects Lindbergh to be drawn to Anne’s beautiful older sister, Elizabeth, but instead it is the shy, quiet Anne who catches his eye and when he takes her up in his plane for a private flight, she finds that she shares his love of flying. Soon Lindbergh proposes and Anne accepts, but she quickly discovers that being married to one of the most famous men in America is not going to be easy.

Before reading this book I had heard of the Lindberghs but knew almost nothing about them so, for me, The Aviator’s Wife was very educational as well as being an enjoyable story. I’ve never given much thought as to what being an aviator actually involved and it was interesting to see how the Lindberghs use their roles as aviators to perform a range of useful and varied tasks including charting new routes and mapping flight paths for passenger planes, flying over places of interest to take aerial photographs, and delivering aid to disaster zones. Flying in those early aircraft must have been an amazing experience – the description of Anne’s first flight with Lindbergh is wonderfully written and sounds both terrifying and exhilarating.

This book gives us some fascinating insights into what it is like to be a celebrity. The Lindberghs have very little privacy and everything they do attracts attention from the world’s media. They are followed by reporters and photographers everywhere they go, though as quiet, reserved people neither Charles nor Anne seem very comfortable with being constantly in the spotlight. Charles has already learned to deal with it in his own way, but Anne often finds it difficult. Their fame eventually leads to tragedy – I won’t go into details here (if you’re familiar with the Lindberghs’ lives you will know what this tragedy was and if not I won’t spoil the story for you) but this part of the book was heartbreaking and made even worse by the fact that the way Charles chose to deal with the disaster was completely inadequate.

The relationship between Anne and Charles becomes more and more tense and strained as the years go by, but even as Charles grows increasingly cold and distant, Anne tries to stay loyal to her husband and is supportive when he expresses his controversial views on Hitler and the Nazis, despite the fact that she’s not convinced that he’s right. Charles is portrayed as a complex person with some good qualities but also a lot of bad ones. He tries to control every aspect of Anne’s and their children’s lives and at first it’s frustrating to see how Anne allows him to do this, but eventually she begins to move out of his shadow and finds some independence. As well as being her husband’s co-pilot, navigator and radio operator, Anne becomes an accomplished pilot in her own right and is also the first American woman to obtain a glider pilot’s licence. She later starts to build a successful career of her own as an author, publishing books including the best-selling Gift from the Sea.

I’ve enjoyed all three of Melanie Benjamin’s books but I think this one is her best so far. I was left wanting to learn more about Anne Morrow Lindbergh and feeling that she really deserves to be known as more than just ‘the aviator’s wife’!

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

Until I picked up The Sisters Brothers last month I had never read a western before and didn’t think I would ever want to read one. But after Patrick deWitt’s novel, with its unusual title and cover, appeared on the Booker Prize shortlist earlier this year and so many people were saying they enjoyed it, I thought I’d see what it was like.

The Sisters Brothers is set in the 1850s during the Gold Rush and has everything you would expect to find in a western – guns, horses, saloons, duels, drinking, fighting, and gold prospecting. I know this might not sound very appealing to a lot of you, but I hope you won’t let it put you off because at the heart of this novel is a wonderful story about the relationship between two brothers. They are Charlie and Eli Sisters, names that are feared throughout the wild west. Charlie and Eli are hired killers, who earn their living by taking orders from the mysterious Commodore. When the Commodore tells them that their next assignment is to find and kill the prospector Hermann Kermit Warm, the brothers set off on an eventful journey from Oregon to California.

The brothers encounter lots of memorable characters on their travels (including a ‘weeping man’, an orphaned boy and his horse, and a dentist who introduces Eli to the joys of the toothbrush) but the focus is always on Eli and Charlie themselves. Charlie is the more dominant and aggressive brother, while Eli is more cautious and sensitive, which causes some conflict between the two. I was pleased to find that both characters did develop and change, at least to some extent, over the course of the book. Charlie had seemed a completely unsympathetic character at first, but I later found that he had a bit more depth than I’d originally thought. And while Eli wasn’t exactly the most pleasant of people either, I couldn’t help liking him as he did at least have a conscience and wanted to be a better person – even if he didn’t always manage it.

The Sisters brothers are the type of characters we would more often read about from the opposite perspective, as the book’s villains – but in this book, with the story being narrated by Eli, we are supposed to accept them as our heroes (or anti-heroes, maybe). It’s a testament to Patrick deWitt’s writing that he makes it possible for us to care so much about a pair of murderers and I think this is due partly to Eli being such an appealing narrator. Some of the dialogue is very funny and there’s lots of dark humour, but I should probably warn you that there are also some fairly graphic scenes of violence and cruelty, though I think this is to be expected considering the setting and the profession of the two main characters.

The chapters are short and there’s always something happening: in the first fifty pages alone, Eli is bitten by a venomous spider, his horse gets attacked by a bear and a witch tries to put a curse on the brothers. It all felt slightly surreal and sometimes it was hard to see where the story was really leading but it was so much fun it didn’t matter. Later in the book, though, there were some passages that were quite sad and melancholy, which I thought gave the second half of the book a noticeably different feel to the first.

As you can probably tell by now, I loved this book, which I think proves that it doesn’t matter if something is described as a ‘western’, a ‘romance’, a ‘mystery’ or anything else: a good story is a good story and The Sisters Brothers was one of the best I’ve read this year.

The House of the Wind by Titania Hardie

The House of the Wind is a novel consisting of two storylines, one set in the present day and one in the 14th century. In 2007 we meet Madeline Moretti, a young lawyer living in San Francisco. Maddie is grieving for her fiancé, Chris, who has been killed in a car accident. She is also involved in a complicated legal case involving a large company suspected of putting the health of their employees at risk. In an attempt to help Maddie cope with her bereavement away from the stresses of her job, her Italian grandmother arranges for her to spend some time in Italy with a family friend. When Maddie arrives in Tuscany she becomes intrigued by the legend of the Casa al Vento, or House of the Wind, which tells of a woman who emerged unscathed from the ruins of a house destroyed by a storm.

The second main thread of the novel is set in the same area of Tuscany in the year 1347, a time when a mysterious and deadly disease is spreading across Europe. Maria Maddalena, known as Mia, has been raised by her Aunt Jacquetta and hasn’t spoken since her mother’s tragic death. When two young pilgrims come to stay at Jacquetta’s house, Mia slowly begins to find her voice again and at the same time makes some surprising discoveries about her past.

The House of the Wind is the first book I’ve read by Titania Hardie. I thought her writing was beautiful and whether I was reading about 14th century Tuscany or modern day California I was able to become completely immersed in the time and place. I also liked the way so many different elements of myths and legends, religion, poetry, medieval medicine, arts and literature were incorporated into the story.

The obvious similarity between Maddie’s story and Mia’s is that they are both young women trying to deal with their pain and grief (more than six centuries apart) but there are lots of other connections between the two and these are slowly revealed to us as the novel progresses. Although both of the storylines were engaging, I found I was much more interested in the 14th century one and it was fascinating to learn what life was like in Tuscany during that period. However, I’ve read a lot of books with dual timeframes and it seems to be almost inevitable that I’ll like one more than the other (usually the historical one due to my love of historical fiction). I expect there will be plenty of other readers who prefer the present day storyline!

The only problem I had with this book was that the pace was too slow for me in places and there were times when I felt the plot wasn’t moving forward at all, which made the book feel longer than it needed to be. Other than that, I enjoyed The House of the Wind and as I haven’t read Titania Hardie’s previous novel, The Rose Labyrinth, I still have that one to look forward to.

I received a copy of this book from Headline for review