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Author:
• Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Helen Simonson was born in Slough, Berkshire in 1964 and spent her teenage years in a small village near Rye in East Sussex, England. She graduated from the London School of Economics where she met her future American husband. She worked as a travel advertising executive and completed a masters degree in creative writing from Stony Brook Southampton, New York.

She has lived in the Washington D.C. Area and Brooklyn, New York, for over twenty years with her husband and two sons.

Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, published in 2010, became a New York Times bestseller and was translated and published in several countries. Her second novel, The Summer Before The War, will be published in 2016.

Edgecombe St Mary is a small village in the English countryside in East Sussex where the two main characters live. Major Ernest Pettigrew, the sixty-eight year old widower, who lost his wife six years earlier, leads a peaceful life in his rural rose-covered cottage called Rose Lodge with a beautiful climbing clematis, the envy of his neighbours. And the good-looking Pakistani widow, ten years his junior, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the village shopkeeper who runs the business with her nephew, Abdul Wahid. Jasmina was born in Cambridge and has been bred by her learned, Anglophile father.

The story starts with the Major still in a daze after the shock following a phone call at dawn from his sister-in-law, announcing his younger brother Bertie’s death from a massive heart attack. Soon after, he answers the door-bell to find Mrs Ali who has come for the newspaper money because the paper-boy is sick. Still feeling the loss of his brother deeply, the major’s knees give way and he is about to faint but Mrs Ali props him up, takes him indoors and sits him down before fetching some water and making him tea.

Major Pettigrew is a conservative, sardonic, well-mannered gentleman who likes to live by his principles. He was born in Lahore and lived in colonial India as a child and is now a retired British Army officer who lives alone. He was happily married to his wife, Nancy, and late in life they had their only son, Roger, who was spoilt by his mother to his father’s discontent. Roger, now in his thirties, works in finance and lives in London. Throughout the novel, the author underlines the major’s disapproval of his insufferably brash son’s lack of respect, tact and bad behaviour.

There is a great cultural divide between the major and his son. The major likes to read classical English authors like Joseph Kipling, John Keats and William Wordsworth. He is a pragmatic person, values traditions, correctness and righteousness. Unlike his father, Roger is an uncultured, manipulative, superficial person, ruthlessly self-seeking, a social-climber who is always attracted to novelties and fashion in all domains. He wants his father to get rid of his beloved books in order to make room for an up-to-date wide-screen television.

The major is sentimental about what he considers his heritage, the valuable pair of heirloom antique guns which were given to his father by a maharajah as a reward for an act of bravery for saving the maharajah’s latest and youngest wife from a train full of murdering thugs. The major’s father, on his death bed, divided the prized Churchill guns between his two sons on the understanding that the two guns were to be reunited when one of the sons died. When Bertie passes away, the major is faced with the greed of his sister-in-law, Marjorie, his niece, Jemima, and his son Roger all wanting to sell the pair of guns and enjoy the money regardless of what the major feels or thinks.

Solid friendship between the major and Mrs Ali flourishes through sharing the same things, like the loss of their respective beloved spouses, their disobliging, bigoted families despite different ethnicity, their love of nature, their passion for literature, especially the works of Samuel Johnson, Joseph Kipling and others. They also have in common a sense of duty as well as being proud, polite and courteous.

The major and Mrs Ali surprise themselves by discovering that their hearts have no wrinkles, they can still feel passion and fall in love again regardless of their advanced age, different experiences in life, different cultural backgrounds and religion. All these elements constitute no barrier to common shared interests, mutual attraction and love.

Helen Simonson undertook a fair amount of research into the Pakistani community in England, the Indian Mughal Empire, shot guns and duck shooting. As for the fictitious towns of Edgecombe St. Mary and Hazelbourne-on-the-Sea, they are a combination of places that the author “knows and loves”.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a well written novel with well depicted, realistic, rich characters where women are portrayed as emancipated, strong, determined characters such as Mrs Jasmina Ali, Mrs Rasool, and Roger’s American fiancée, Sandy.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an endearingly captivating story underlining the differences between the old and the new generation. Despite the humour one cannot help noticing the blatant fanaticism, veiled racism and the insidious link between money and corruption and how money can deteriorate, divide and destroy families. There is also the romantic story between the two protagonists with the assertion that authentic love transcends all obstacles and all ages so long as one is being true to oneself and because as long as there is life, there is hope.

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Author:
• Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Jenni Mills was born in Birmingham, England, in 1952 and was educated at Edgbaston High School for girls. From 1970 to 1973 Mills studied at Sussex University, followed by an MA with distinction in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University where she is at present tutoring part-time. Jenni Mills wrote most of Crow Stone while preparing for her Creative Writing MA. .

Jenni Mills worked in broadcasting for nearly thirty years before writing her first novel. She has presented and produced programmes for BBC radio, four of which won her an award and has worked as a director for both BBC-TV and ITV. She also works as a freelance television director and has written articles for newspapers and magazines.

Jenni Mills, like her character Katie, has been very fond of archeology since her childhood and the fact that the limestone quarries around where she was brought-up have been mined since Roman times, influenced Mills to write Crow Stone without too much effort.

In one of her interviews, Jenni Mills says she found a quarry near Corsham and went underground there in order to be able to describe in detail what goes on in the mines. She found the experience “thrilling rather than scary”. She conversed with a female mining engineer after Crow Stone was published and realised that she described Kit’s job well, when the woman mining engineer told her: “I believe you were writing about me”. She now lives in Wiltshire, in the West of England.

Jenni Mills has written two novels to date: Crow Stone published in 2007 and The Buried Circle published in 2009.

Crow Stone intertwines the past and present story of Katie, an introverted, vulnerable teenager who lives a difficult, under-pressure life, with her austerely temperamental and violent father since her mother left them when she was small. Katie is a bright student who realises her childhood dream and becomes the successful mining engineer Kit Parry, despite her difficult relationship with her father and her uncovering his atrocious deed in the summer of her fourteenth year which changes her life for ever. The novel follows the evolution of Katie and her interaction with the various occurrences and people that she comes across in life.

After several years of hard work, Kit accepts an interesting project for stabilising the dangerously unstable quarries that run under Bath, her home town that she had left in a big black car when she was fourteen and decided then to change her name to Kit as a new start in life. She has never returned to Bath since then, nor ever seen her father again. All the painful memories that Katie has tried to bury all these years are going to resurface and haunt her on her return, twenty years later. Her father now dead, the adult Katie who becomes Kit is still susceptible on the inside but offensive on the outside. Some wounds are difficult to get rid of, they stay implanted in the psyche for ever.

In her new assignment, Kit has to withstand the hostility of the other male workers in a field dominated by men and where workers believe that a female engineer brings bad luck to the mine shafts. Not everything is negative though – the long sleeping flame is rekindled when Kit finds out that the site manager happens to be the same Gary Bennett that her superficial, foolish, unreliable, friends, Trish and Poppy and herself used to be infatuated with from afar when they were all teenagers.

The author describes masterfully and in an amusing way, the psychology and behaviour of teenage girls portrayed by Katie, Trish and Poppy, whether at school or outside it, underlining Trish’s strong character which contrasts with Poppy’s and Katie’s.

Katie is very enthusiastically passionate about archaeology and geology and ironically the two big events in her life take place while she is in the quarries. Her first disturbingly macabre discovery was at Crow Stone quarry during the summer of her fourteenth birthday and the second fantastically thrilling event of the decade was the uncovering of the lost Roman Mithraic temple with the help of her colleague and friend Martin Ekwall, the senior lecturer in archaeology at Sussex University.

The story takes place in Bath, one of the oldest and most charming cities in England, full of historic relics above and below ground. The author embarks with her readers on a journey of concealed underground labyrinths of quarries and the historic, touristic attractions of Bath, like the famous Royal Crescent built by the eighteenth century Freemason, John Wood. There is also some information about the Mithraic mysterious religion which was practised in the Roman Empire, a cult with a saviour, sacrifice and rebirth.

Crow Stone as the author puts it, is about “fear and survival” and the setting turns out to be perfect on “all levels: mythical, metaphorical and emotional”. A captivating psychological thriller with a well constructed plot.

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