Some good reads from pre-blog days, and what I thought about them then… #4

I’ve plundered my master spreadsheet yet again to bring you more of my capsule reviews from my pre-blog years. This batch are all from 2007…

Babycham Night: A childhood at the end of the pier by Philip Norman

Renowned author and biographer of The Beatles, Philip Norman grew up on the Isle of Wight after the end of WWII, where his family’s life was tied up with running the entertainments on the end of Ryde pier. This was a bit of a come-down for his ex-RAF officer father who didn’t really have the entrepreneurial skills needed to make a success of this seasonal business – the result was a neglected childhood for young Philip as his parents were always busy, more so once his dad started going after Joan, the teacher at the roller-skating rink. Philip relied on his adored and adoring Granny who ran the rock kiosk, and held all in thrall.

This was a super memoir, very evocative of the 1950s, end of the war austerity and fading seaside emporia. It would be great to find out what happened next in his life… (9/10) First published in 2003.

Ascent by Jed Mercurio

What if the Russians had got a man on the moon first? This novel follows the life of that cosmonaut from a brutal childhood, through becoming a fighter ace in the Korean War, to arctic exile and finally joining the space race. Yefgenii is single-minded from the outset and strives to escape the orphanage and make a name for himself. The facts that his exploits in the Korean war can never be acknowledged, and when he finally gets into Star City, he has to be the unnamed test pilot of the lunar orbiter and lander, mean he can never gain the recognition that his skills deserve.

Written in a thoughtful, ever so slightly detached style, this short novel is a joy, and for me had a real Russian feel (although I have no experience to back that up!). Mercurio is not afraid to use technical jargon without explanation, but that makes it more real, and totally without unnecessary padding.

I loved this book. (9/10) First published in 2007; later as a graphic novel – BUY here via Amazon affiliate link.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville.

The story of Will Thornhill and his longsuffering wife Sal, who saves him from hanging when he’s caught red-handed trying to make ends meet with a little stealing on the side. Transported to Australia, Will works hard to make his dream come true, becoming freed and claiming land, but it is a tough life and he has the natives to deal with, as well as some extreme fellow ex-transportee neighbours. This inevitably leads to conflict, and Will is stuck in the middle having tried to get on with the aborigines … but when they come to steal his first crop of corn (which he’d planted in their yam patch) it starts to boil over.

A major novel that brilliantly highlights history’s trampling of indigenous peoples by the Empire. The contrast between the squalor of being poor in London and the possibility of making a better life elsewhere works well too. (9/10) First published in 2006.

The Afternoon of a Good Woman by Nina Bawden

Written in 1976, this short novel is quite forward thinking for its time. Penelope has decided to leave her husband after twenty years of marriage. Her reasons are many and complex; and interspersed with the minutiae of her working day – essentially the first day of the rest of her life, as she prepares to strike out for independence, we gradually peel away the layers of her life to see what has led her to this point.

The author very skillfully intrigues us with clues and little revelations leading to larger ones until Pen makes her final decision. Superb structure and written with humour, irony and pathos. (8/10)

The Everlasting Story of Nory by Nicholson Baker

This novel is told from the point of view of a nine-year old American girl spending her first term in an English school. It’s a sweet concept and the author has a good ear for how young girls talk and write – complete with mis-heard words and spellings.

Sweet it is, but it lacks a coherent story arc, apart from Nory’s growing friendship with bullied Pamela. It would have been nice to set it against the run up to an event such as a school play to give some pace. Mostly it’s just a day by day account together with Nory’s rather weird stories she makes up in her mind, and a little repetitive. (7/10)

Have you read any of these?

13 thoughts on “Some good reads from pre-blog days, and what I thought about them then… #4

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      This remains the only book I’ve read by her. I started reading The Lieutenant years ago, but couldn’t get into it.

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I’ll be teaching The Secret River in an undergraduate postcolonial literature course this fall. It’s very effective; this will be the maybe the fifth or sixth time using it for this particular class. There are sequels, too.

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    I’ve read the Nicholson Baker but pre-blog, too (maybe not pre-book journals but I still haven’t finished indexing those … ) and did like it but I liked everything he did back then.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It remins the only one of his I’ve read – I do have Vox, and A Box of Matches on my shelves.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Nina Bawden is such a good writer – I own several more of her adult novels, and ought to revisit them.

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