10 Contemporary Authors I Enjoy Reading

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I am a bit of an old soul. Though I may be physically present in the now, my mind flitters off away into bygone eras- the heyday of the 1920’s, the Depression of the 1930’s or the tumultuous times of the Great and Second World Wars. I wonder what it must have been like to live in the Regency, Victorian or Edwardian periods or in Imperial Russia.  If only I could travel back in time armed with a  package of antibiotics and an iPad!

It is quite natural that my reading should be centered on mostly writing from these periods and genres.  That is not to say that I do not enjoy a few contemporary authors and I hope to build on that list in the following years. Ironically, most of these authors write of bygone eras or have an old-fashioned way with words.

Here in no particular order are a few of my most read, contemporary authors:

1) Alexander McCall Smith:

McCall Smith is perhaps my most beloved contemporary author. I’ve enjoyed delving into both his Isabel Dalhousie series and 44 Scotland Street series, both set in Edinburgh. I’ve also enjoyed the simple stories of the Mme Ramotswe set in Africa. His stories have a simple charm, offer great minute details into daily life and a dry humour. He reminds me of a male Barbara Pym or a modern day PG Wodehouse.

2) Kate Atkinson:

I read Atkinson’s ‘Life after Life’ which was a stunning novel written in an unusual format telling of an individual’s experience of the second World War. There was great depth to the historical detail provided by Atkinson’s storytelling. I cannot wait to read more.

3) Jacqueline Winspear:

If you like the ‘cozy mystery’ genre and if you enjoy historical fiction, then Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is for you. I appreciate Winspear’s great attention to historical detail and exacting prose. She has an eye for documenting the minutia of everyday life.

4)Peter Mayle:

There are a number of books describing expat life in the South of France, but few do so as evocatively as Peter Mayle. All the sights, sounds and flavours of Provençal life are embodied in his sunny, descriptive prose.

5) Paula McLain:

I greatly enjoyed McLain’s novel .’The Paris Wife’, providing a fictional (yet quite believable) account of Hemingway’s life in Paris from the perspective of his first wife Hadley. The narrative is smooth and free flowing and very engaging.

6) PD James:

I remember being quite absorbed with PD James’ Cordelia Grey mystery, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Though decidedly gritty, it was one of those mystery/thrillers that you really cannot put down.

7) Colin Dexter:

Dexter weaves a wonderful web of mystery and history on the streets of Oxford in his Inspector Morse series. They are fast, intelligent and absorbing reads.

8) Helen Fielding:

I grew up reading Fielding’s entertaining ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’. I have a great love for the epistolary format of storytelling and Fielding’s depiction of a modern day ‘Pride and Prejudice’ scenario is both refreshing and extremely funny.

9) JK Rowling:

where would we be without the magical world Rowling has created in her Harry Potter novels? Just as I grew up with the magic of Enid Blyton and CS Lewis’s stories, many generations of children have already grown up with the comfort of the mystical realm of these fantasy novels. I have yet to read the Galbraith novels.

10) Vikram Seth:

I do believe that Seth’s magnum opus ‘A Suitable Boy’ will be a classic that will be remembered and loved many years from now. Not only is his prose lovely, the scope of his novel is quite breathtaking and true to the narrow slice of historical time he has depicted in post- Independence India.

An Equal Music is another favourite book of mine.

Other authors I wish to read soon are  Donna Tartt, Murakami, Adichie and many others.

Tell me, who your favourite authors are, who are living in the present day and age?

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

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‘Five Little Pigs’ deals with the story of a woman who has been convicted and killed for the murder of her husband- the reputable bohemian artist Amyas Crale. Caroline Crale, his wife, is sentenced to death for poisoning her husband, by lacing his drink with the lethal poison coniine. While all the clues point towards Caroline Crale as having committed the crime, in a posthumous letter to her daughter, Caroline admits her innocence.

Caroline’s daughter comes into possession of her mother’s letter  after coming of age. Upon reading its contents she asks the famous detective Hercule Poirot, to investigate the facts of the case and thereby rescue her mother’s name from ignominy.

After Poirot learns of all the facts, he concludes that there are five likely suspects. He likens their personas to the five little pigs of the nursery rhyme.

There is the long time family friend Phillip Blake (a stick-broker- ‘this little pig went to market’), his brother, the reclusive Meredith Blake (amateur herbalist-‘this little pig stayed at home’), Elsa Greer, Amyas’s greedy lover (‘this little pig had roast beef’), impoverished governess Cecilia Williams (‘this little pig had none’) and lastly, the wronged and disfigured step-sister of Caroline Crale-Angela Warren (‘this little pig cried all the way home’).

Sixteen years have passed, but Poirot is determined to unveil the truth behind the murder.

There are a number of people with motives: Caroline Crale was jealous of her husband’s affair with Elsa Greer and is therefore, the prime suspect.

As with all Christie novels, this mystery has you guessing till the last moment. The story is told beautifully from multiple personal narratives and points of view.

‘Five Little Pigs’ has a very good plot and this one in particular is all about understanding the psychology and emotions of the players.

I did miss Hastings and Inspector Japp, however, and Poirot’s musings were shown to a lesser extent than in other novels. Despite that, ‘Five Little Pigs’ is one of those Christies that must be read if you are a fan of her work.

Title: Five Little Pigs

Author: Agatha Christie

First Published: 1942

Setting: Alderbury Estate, Devonshire, England

Main Characters: Hercule Poirot, Amyas Crale, Caroline Crale, Elsa Greer, Phillip and Meredith Blake, Cecilia Williams, Angela Warren

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Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: First Impressions

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‘Mrs Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf, follows a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, middle aged, graying wife of eminent British politician, Richard Dalloway. It is no ordinary day, however. It is the day on which Clarissa will host a glittering evening party, where the creme-de-la-creme of British high society, including the Prime Minister himself, will grace the Dalloway’s Westminster residence.

The novel in its most simplistic form can be viewed as a day in the life of a lonely, married woman but it is so much more than that. It is a novel dealing with many topics of far-reaching significance, not limited to mental illness, the aftermath of the First World War, class structure and homoerotic love.

The narrative structure switches fluidly from the third person to the first person, giving the reader an intimate view of the external and internal worlds of the characters in the novel. The use of free indirect discourse makes us privy to moments of flawless and breathtaking intimacy.

The novel (originally called ‘The Hours’) is leant great structure by the division of the hours of the day by the regular, metallic intonations of Big Ben’s chimes. The regular reverberations help to provide pause to a novel, otherwise lacking in chapters or page breaks- ‘the leaden circles dissolved in the air’.

Despite the novel covering the incidents encompassing a single day, we find time expands and we effortlessly dip into Clarissa Dalloway’s past- her memories at Bourton and the friends she had in her youth. We meet her childhood sweetheart Peter Walsh and also the love of her life Sally Seton. We also meet Richard Dalloway, whom she eventually decides to marry.

The plot of the novel is rather loose but it holds the threads of the stories of several individuals who are directly or indirectly related to one another.

There is the thread of former sweetheart Peter Walsh, freshly returned from India, and trying to secure the divorce of a fresh flame- a married woman in India. He briefly visits Clarissa on the morning of her party and is struck with how much he still loves her.

There is the thread of Richard Dalloway, who shares a sterile yet companionable relationship with his wife of many years. There is a memorable moment when he spontaneously decides to bring Clarissa flowers in the afternoon but despite exerting considerable effort, finds himself unable to tell her that he loves her.

Then there is the thread of daughter Elizabeth Dalloway and her relationship with tutor Miss Kilman. Clarissa finds herself disturbed with their close relationship whereas staid Richard Dalloway brushes it off as being nothing.

Most importantly there is the thread of Septimus Warren Smith, war veteran, victim of shell shock and his Italian wife Lucrezia Warren-Smith. Theirs is a poignant story, where the wife recognizing signs that her husband has lost the will to live, battles to secure his mental well-being and lives in constant fear that he will take his own life.

The collective threads of the story are brought together in climax at Clarissa’s evening party, when Peter Walsh, Sally Seton, other friends, family and members of the Dalloway social circle (including Septimus’ physician Sir William Bradshaw) congregate at their home. It is here that the news of Septimus Warren-Smith’s death by suicide  reaches the ears of Clarissa. Her spontaneous reaction to the news is one of annoyance that the Bradshaws should sully the mood of her party with this unwanted piece of information. By being privy to Clarissa’s inner thoughts we witness her raw, self-centred but honest reaction to the death of a man she never knew. Despite her jarring initial reaction, we later find Clarissa, drawing away from the party and musing privately about the life of the man and the circumstances of his death.

In a way Woolf uses ‘Mrs Dalloway’ as a medium to criticize the treatment and understanding of mental health issues, a subject that was very near to her heart.

Perhaps parts of Woolf herself are strewn in bits and pieces across the broad scope of the novel. She inhabits the personas of many of her main characters but it is evident that she doesn’t wholly inhabit any of them. She and Leonard Woolf are not as upper middle class as the Dalloways, neither is she the slightly mindless socialite that is Clarissa Dalloway. Woolf does share the mental issues of Septimus Warren- Smith ,however, and traces of her relationships with men and women are to be found in ‘Mrs Dalloway’.

‘Mrs Dalloway’ is a book that I have a feeling I will read many times, to distill further insights and information upon successive  readings. Moreover, delving into that beautiful prose is a treat unto itself, even though the reading experience is not the easiest.

Title: Mrs Dalloway

Author: Virginia Woolf

First published: 1925

Characters: Clarissa Dalloway, Richard Dalloway, Peter Walsh, Sally Seton, Septimus Warren-Smith

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The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield-Fisher

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In her 1924 novel, The Home-Maker, Canfield-Fisher targets the issue of gender roles in society.
In the novel, a middle-class American couple, a victim of circumstances, are forced to switch their working roles. The husband, suffering from paralysis takes up the mantle of duty in the home, while his wife goes to work in a departmental store. It is here that she flourishes and in many ways finds an outlet for her more creative and innovative ideas. The husband fulfills a more nurturing, patient role with their children in the household. The entire family finds a balance that was hitherto unknown to them.

 

In this book, far ahead of its times, Canfield-Fisher raises awareness, that it is not gender but personality that predisposes men and women to roles in the work sphere, be it inside or outside the home.

 

About Dorothy Canfield-Fisher

Dorothy Canfield-Fisher, whom Eleanor Roosevelt named: one of the ten most influential women in the US, was one of the forerunners of American literature, who as early as the first decades of the twentieth century spoke up for racial equality and female rights.

 

#femmemarch

This post was in celebration of the #femmemarch that Resh @thebooksatchel has created to honour the power of women in literature.

 

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

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Young Mary Preston has been invited to spend the summer at the sprawling country estate of  Rushwater, belonging to Lady Emily Leslie. ‘Wild Strawberries’ is the story of that very idyllic time, Mary Preston’s romantic entanglements and the summertime activities of the landed country gentry.

Rather than being made to feel like the poor relation, down and out on her luck, Mary is welcomed by her Aunt Agnes (Aunt by marriage) and Aunt Agnes’ mother- the very vague but likable character of Lady Emily. Aunt Agnes and Lady Emily have secret plans to forge a match between Mary and the widowed second son of Lady Emily- John Leslie. Despite John cutting a very tragic figure, there are more Mr Leslies’ for Mary to contend with. There’s the youngest son- David Leslie, charming but rather unreliable. Will Mary be able to follow the true callings of her heart during this glorious summer at Rushwater?

‘Wild Strawberries’ was a beautiful, bucolic summer read.  What really endeared this book to me were its host of rather wonderful characters: the vague Lady Emily forever looking for something, the doting young mother Agnes, always making excuses for her children’s behaviour and flitting about without a care in the world, the charming self-centred playboy David Leslie and the mature, thoughtful mannered widower John Leslie.

Throw in the French neighbours, the pompous figure of Mr Holt, a few midnight balls, summer walks and shopping trips down to London and you have the makings of yet another stellar read from the very funny Angela Thirkell.

As with other Thirkell novels, the beauty of the novels don’t lie in the weak plots but in the rather full bodied, lovable characters. They have mannerisms and flaws in their characters but they are always very believable. Thirkell imparts to them such well timed, comedic humour that these books are a joy to read.

Title: Wild Strawberries

Author: Angela Thirkell

Published: 1934

Setting: Rushwater Estate, Barsetshire, England

Characters: Mary Preston, Aunt Agnes, Lady Emily, John Leslie, David Leslie, Madame Boulle, Joan Stevenson, Gudgeon.

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The Ghost of Tennyson in Monica Dickens’ ‘Mariana’

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Mariana by Monica Dickens

Mariana‘ by Monica Dickens is a coming of age novel about a young girl, striving her whole life, to find the perfect love. It’s a story that has great depth and one of the most striking endings I have read in the longest time.

Mary lives with her working mother and uncle in a small flat in London. She remains disconnected to her everyday life in London but highly anticipates the time that she can spend during the holidays, with her extended paternal family in the countryside. Her first love is for her cousin. But the love is rather one sided.

We witness Mary’s emotional awakening as a young child, besotted with cousin Denys. Later as a young woman, we find her engaged to a young Frenchman in Paris, called Pierre. Though Pierre helps her to overcome her loneliness in a foreign city, Mary knows that the relationship is tinged with her doubts. Later, when she is working in England, she finds love in the most unexpected way. Sam, a young architect is everything she has always, unknowingly been looking for. With Sam there are no doubts, no fears or insecurities. But with the outset of the Second World War, lives fall into jeopardy. Can Mary’s love survive the ordeal?

While Mary is enrolled in drama school as a young girl, she is asked to recite Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana’. As revealed later in the novel, this is quite a pivotal moment in the novel. Mariana is a poem about a woman who is disconnected from society and despondently awaits the return of her love. The poem is laced with doubt and desolation. There is an absence of a conclusive ending in the poem, just as there is in the story by Dickens. But there is a faint whisper or a premonition of what may come to pass. Some endings are best left unsaid.

It is only at the end of the novel that we fully realize that Dickens’ Mary is Tennyson’s Mariana and the full force of Dickens’ genius strikes us.

  • Title: Mariana
  • Author: Monica Dickens
  • Publisher: Persephone Books
  • Year of Publication: 1940
  • Setting: Somerset, England, London and Paris

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

image.jpegStartlingly, ahead  of the time, this is a story dealing with the themes of drunkenness and debauchery and the strong will of a Victorian woman, determined to change her fate.

Anne Brontë’s writing deviates from both her sisters, in having an air of realism in it’s narrative  The style is wonderfully lucid and the storytelling very proficient.

The Plot of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The ‘Tenant of Wildfell Hall‘ tells of the story of a young mother, Helen Graham and her small son, who quite mysteriously come to live one day at the quite dilapidated Wildfell Hall. The neighborhood is thrown into quite a tumult and everyone is quite curious to know more about Helen Graham’s personal history and how she came to be alone.

Helen’s reclusive air and dislike for company, added to the resemblance of her son Arthur to the local Mr Lawrence, further fuels nasty rumors. The gossip reaches the ears of landowner and farmer Gilbert Markham.

Gilbert forms a close friendship with Helen Graham. The friendship threatens to assume a more romantic turn and Helen tries to discourage Gilbert’s amorous efforts. However, one day she is compelled to reveal the mystery of her past by letting him read her lengthy diary entries.

Upon reading the diary, Gilbert comes to know of her tragic married history. Married to an alcoholic and abusive husband named Arthur Huntingdon, Helen is forced to flee from the persecution of her husband in order to protect her son.

It is quite a modern story and I imagine, must have shocked Victorian audiences when it was published in 1848. To have a woman, openly resisting her husband’s torture, trying to live separately and capable of acquiring an independent means of income, was certainly ground-breaking for the time.

I enjoyed the story overall but had a minor quibble with the weak narrative device- that of a letter written by Markham to a friend describing all events and including the lengthy diary.

One can’t help wondering, with the literary genius that Anne Brontë and her sisters had, what kind of works they would have produced in later life, if they had been permitted to live longer.

  • Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  • Author: Anne Brontë
  • Date published: 1848
  • Setting: Yorkshire, England, 1827.
  • Characters: Helen Graham, Gilbert Markham, Arthur Huntingdon.

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