Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Canvey Island by James Runcie / Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald / Swans Are Fat Too by Michelle Granas

Canvey IslandCanvey Island by James Runcie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our copy of Canvey Island, discovered on a campsite book exchange, was ex-library and had been mislabeled on the spine as biography. I didn't realise this until I was about to start reading it so my thoughts over the first few chapters were probably affected by expecting a true memoir rather than a fictional tale.

Canvey Island begins during the real-life flooding in 1953 which caused considerable damage and loss of life all along that part of the British coast. I remembered having previously watched a TV documentary about it. Our young 'hero' Martin describes finding himself alone, swimming through the flood waters to safety, but having been forced to leave his mother trapped en route. Each chapter is told from a different point of view with the various family members taking turns to advance his story through the following decades. While I have read other books where this device works well - The Spinning Heart springs to mind - I wasn't so convinced here because the characters aren't all strongly defined. I thought Aunt Vi, Claire and George had distinctive voices, but the others morphed together. I was particularly disappointed that Martin seemed bland. His life seemed more to happen around him than because of him.

I liked reading the well-researched periods of the flood and its aftermath, and also about the Greenham Common Encampments. Runcie has obviously taken time over the small details in order to make this historical side of the novel accurate. Perhaps it is a bit heavy on the nostalgia and the racist incidents, while undoubtedly realistic, make for uncomfortable reading. As a tale of family deceptions and intrigue, Canvey Island is pleasant enough and I would recommend it for a cosy winter read!

InnocenceInnocence by Penelope Fitzgerald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've still not ultimately decided whether to award Innocence a three-star Good rating or a four-star Great rating. On the plus side, I did enjoy the writing style and there are many instances of dry witty humour that got me smiling. Fitzgerald's characters are unusually direct with each other, often to the point of downright rudeness, and they behave in unexpected ways. I particularly liked Barney, Cousin Cesare and Aunt Mad who both have strongly drawn mannerisms, but I was less appreciative of the two leads, Chiara and Dr Rossi, who were vague by comparison. I think I got a good sense of the Florentine residences and Valsassina from Fitzgerald's inspired descriptions.

However, I definitely did not like that the novel simply stops instead of having an ending. It is almost as though the publisher has missed off the final chapter! Several of the story directions are almost as frustrating. The writing does not dwell at all on its characters' emotions so I often found it difficult to understand why they followed certain paths. Their lack of social convention explains some instances but others remain baffling and I still have no idea what Chiara and Rossi actually saw in each other.

Innocence was recommended to me by a friend who lent me her copy of the book. I am looking forward to discussing the work with her now that we have both finished reading it. Hmmm!

Swans Are Fat TooSwans Are Fat Too by Michelle Granas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my Top Ten Books for IndiePrideDay 2016.

I was unexpectedly delighted with Swans Are Fat Too as it is a lovely story of a frumpy, overweight maiden aunt being effectively dumped upon from a great height by her family, yet ending up gaining the confidence to go for her dreams. I think I first found the novel via twitter and had it on my Amazon wishlist for ages before buying. To be honest, I wasn't expecting such a good book. I'm not sure why!

Hania is a world class pianist but has failed to make a career of this in America because her obesity alienates shallow audiences. When her grandmother dies, Hania is persuaded to return to her native Poland for the funeral. Upon arrival, she discovers that the relatives with whom she thought she would stay have actually absconded leaving her with the sole care of their emotionally damaged children, Kalina and Maks. The situation is bleak but Granas manages to inject a lot of gentle humour into her tale. She walks a careful line around Hania's obesity, laughing with her rather than at her so, as the reader, I was always rooting for Hania to succeed. She is a wonderfully resourceful woman and I enjoyed seeing her confidence grow through the story. The will-they-won't-they burgeoning romance with Konstanty upstairs is a great counterpoint to the escapades of the children and I was often cringing with embarrassment for Hania too. The lake!

A large part of Swans Are Fat Too is taken up with Hania's work translating and editing a history of Poland for Konstanty. We get to read a lot of this work too which could have been overly dry, but it is clipped into short sections and interspersed with Hania's comments querying Poland's historical reliance on their more bloodthirsty leaders when deciding upon heroes and erecting their statues. I thought that the same is so true of Britain! I wouldn't say I learned much history from Swans Are Fat Too because there's a lot of information and I wasn't in studying mode. However, the concise presentation gave an interesting overview and, of course, great insights into both Hania's and Konstanty's characters.

I don't often read women's fiction and romance stories so Swans Are Fat Too was a departure from the norm for me. However I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would happily buy more of Michelle Granas' writing.

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