I’ve read my first two books – 18 to go, although I have three review books to read next before reading any others that count towards my 20. Here are my thoughts on the first two.
#1 The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams
When this book was published last year, there was so much love for it – and it is all entirely justified. I loved this witty novel about lexicography and the rigidity of the dictionary tradition, peppered with a bit of mystery and revenge.
Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary was always going to be a pretender in the realm of lexicography right from the start. Peter Winceworth is one of the employees compiling this edition in 1899. He is a troubled young man, with an affected lisp that has made him the subject of office gossip and bullying. How can a man with a lisp possibly be working on the letter S? Winceworth doesn’t think his colleagues are taking the dictionary seriously enough, and he starts to insert fictitious words. These are known as ‘mountweazels’.
Meanwhile in the present day, Mallory has now been interning for three years at the dictionary’s remaining offices as the only employee other than the owner David Swansby. One of her tasks is to answer the phone – a mystery caller rings daily with threatening messages which she dreads. Another part of her job is to find the mountweazels so Mr Swansby can publish the final historic edition of the dictionary.
Mountweazel: the noun that refers to these bogus entries cooked up and inserted into a dictionary or encyclopaedia as a means of protecting copyright. Misinformation, fake news–gotcha, pal.
The same ruse is used by cartographers with ‘paper towns’ (as in John Green’s YA novel here) or ‘trap streets’ on maps. However, as we get to know Peter Winceworth better, we know his mountweazels aren’t officially sanctioned. Written in 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, natch, and alternating between the two timelines, this novel is so fresh and clever as well as witty. Williams has obviously loved peppering her text with interesting words – some of which you’ll be driven to look up pronto – but that’s never a chore, this novel celebrates language. In Mallory and her girlfriend Pip, she has created a delightful couple who spark off each other throughout and you have to feel for poor David at the helm of the failing company. This was a superb start to my 20 books. (10/10)
In days gone by, I’d be sitting with my Chambers dictionary and thesaurus always to hand while reading, writing (or doing the crossword). The day of the large hardback dictionary is sadly nearly gone – it’s easier to look words up online at Oxford Dictionaries, my Chambers hasn’t been opened in a couple of years! 😢
Source: Own copy. Hardback, 265 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
#2 The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien
I read almost all of this novel on Sunday morning so I’d be ready for book group where it was our ‘O is for’ choice. I’ve read a couple of O’Brien’s novels before and really enjoyed them – her ‘banned’ coming of age debut The Country Girls, and August is a Wicked Month from 1965. Both were earthy and racy tales with women protagonists with some florid language that made me smile.
Her 23rd novel The Little Red Chairs was published in 2015, when O’Brien was 85. She’s certainly lost none of her capacity to shock, telling this story principally through the women in the novel. When a charismatic stranger from the Balkans arrives in a west-coast Irish village, everyone falls under his spell a little, but it is the women the self-styled faith healer is a real magnet to, from B&B owner Fifi who is persuaded to rent him a room, to Sister Bonaventure who goes for a treatment and gets a little thrill without being touched. Then there is Fidelma who begins a secret relationship with him. They are all shocked when the Garda come for him, and Fidelma will suffer terrible consequences.
It’s hard to say more about parts of this novel without spoilers. Having started off as a standard slice of Irish life, things go very, very nasty and take a political turn. Fidelma will escape and end up in London, where she works in minimum wage jobs with other immigrants from Europe and Africa, and visits a centre where they share their stories. The novel returns to the political for the final section which brings things to a close.
It’s clear from the epigraph at the beginning of the novel which explains the title, who the character of Vladimir Dragan is based on, but it does rather creep up on you in the text. O’Brien applies the passion of her writing which has before come out in earthiness and sex to the political and violence, both physical and psychological, The Little Red Chairs is very overtly political and marked a change in her writing (which continues onto her next book Girl, based on the Boku Haram kidnappings).
Our book group found that with the different themes to each section, The Little Red Chairs was a slightly bitty read, with less focus at times. Consensus was that it is a worthwhile and powerful novel, always readable despite the shocking parts. A good one for discussion.
Source: Own copy. Paperback, 299 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)