The Stove-Junker by S.K. Kalsi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One of my Top Ten Books of 2015
I received a copy of The Stove-Junker from its publishers, Little Feather Books, via NetGalley, in return for an honest review. I am including this review in Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.
The Stove-Junker isn't so much a book to be read as to be savoured. Kalsi's prose is rich and detailed with a gorgeous rhythm and turn of phrase. However, it did take me a while to get into his writing as it is very different to the other books I have read recently. Of the four books that make up The Stove-Junker, I had nearly finished the first before I found myself truly immersed in the story, but definitely consider that this novel is worth the effort.
We follow Somerset, an elderly man, as he returns to the house he shared with his wife and son many years before, the house which was also his ancestral home dating back to his grandfather's time. Somerset now lives mostly within his own memories and I loved how Kalsi dotted his text with imagined replies to Somerset from his wife, Nora, and son, Cole. We learn early on that Cole disappeared without trace one day, but the whys and hows are only revealed in fragments together with glimpses of how his parents coped with their loss. Other fragments reveal Somerset's unhappy childhood and lead to wondering how many of our actions are inherited and how many are learnt. An iron stove might be repaired with the right tools and expertise, but what can be done with a person? As Somerset begins to restore his abandoned home - although this seemed more like additional demolition to me - further memories crowd his mind, prompted by his location, and we meet the vividly penned characters of his extended family. A small boy appears, ill and in need of care, and always just outside, there is the foreboding imagery of a murder of crows.
From my initial bafflement, I was ultimately swept away by this story. There is a tremendous sense of pain and loss throughout which, at times, I found overwhelming. I did actually put the book aside more than once which for read-it-in-one-sitting me is practically unheard of, but I needed time to think through what I had read and allow the emotional impacts to fade a little before continuing. This review has even been delayed by several days for the same reason. Kalsi's prose requires effort from the reader, effort that is well rewarded admittedly, but The Stove-Junker is not a book to drift through. I think this is an amazing novel.
Buy the paperback from Waterstones.
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
According to the cover, The Best Of Everything was featured in Mad Men. I'm not sure whether it was considered a classic prior to this fortunate product placement, but I am at a loss to understand otherwise how it has suddenly started turning up everywhere!
As an insight into 1950s office life and sexual politics, the novel has some interesting moments and offers a view that is untainted by later political correctness. Its characters are definitely sexist - both the women and the men. They are also unapologetically homophobic and occasionally racist as well. I say occasionally because non-white people are practically invisible even though this book is set in New York!
The Best Of Everything follows three women from the typing pool at prestigious New York publishers, Fabian. Through their eyes, we see the realities for female office workers in the 1950s: the dreadful behaviour they are subjected to by male bosses, and also their own opinions of their jobs. The priority for each woman is marriage and even Caroline, who seemed fairly normal otherwise, suddenly decides the career for which she has worked so hard is worthless compared to the prospect of a wedding ring. I found this attitude, which is endlessly repeated and rehashed throughout the novel, both exasperating and, eventually, boring. None of the characters are particularly well created anyway, but their total lack of self-esteem is bewildering. These women seem to be unable to justify themselves in any role other than Wife, and the one woman, Miss Farrow, who has actually made something of herself by becoming an editor, is mocked for being single. An infuriating read!
Buy the paperback at Waterstones.
Murder at the Savoy by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Searching to add Murder At The Savoy to my Goodreads TBR list I noticed that it shares a title with a Sherlock Holmes story. I've not read the Holmes though so don't know if the similarities end there or not. This is the sixth in the Martin Beck series and I've actually read them all in order (so far!). I think it is the least police-ey and most political story so, although I agree with Sjowall and Wahloo's sentiments - indeed much of their 'evils of big business' warning is being experienced in exactly the same way in the UK nearly fifty years later - I wasn't particularly satisfied with the book itself.
Martin Beck doesn't have much of a role to play and most of the action seems to happen around him. He is also removed from his usual Stockholm haunts so that atmosphere is missing too. I didn't feel the same camaraderie that I enjoyed in previous books, perhaps because the team is fragmented, although there are still great moments. For me, Murder At The Savoy was the weakest of the series yet. It was still a good read compared to many modern formulaic crime thrillers, but I expected better so was a little disappointed. Hopefully number seven will be back on form.
Buy the paperback at Waterstones.
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