First Thoughts

This week's reviews in brief

Melting The Snow On Hester Street

Daisy WaughHarper Collins; £7.99

Review: Mary Leland

A novel which opens in the most opulent bedroom in America has only one way to go and that’s down. And when Daisy Waugh’s giddy reconstruction of a legendary Hollywood era heads down the slope it takes everyone with it, including, it must be said, Daisy Waugh’s giddy prose.

Rickety though the outlines of a plot which involves a love story and a search and a looming financial maelstrom may seem, this writer keeps her grip on the essentials of her story. She writes with verve and has a keen ear for the comedy of human aspirations, especially those expressed in the magnificence, and munificence, of a time in America when it seemed as if a gilded few could have everything they could possibly want, including each other. These were the myth-makers, the creators of magic worlds which they could somehow transform into attainable objectives even when, as film stars and screen company moguls, they realised that not everything they desired was within their own grasp. This is pre-talkie, pre-prohibition, pre-crash America and Waugh makes powerful use of its tragedies as well as of its comedies, working her story backwards and forwards to provide an intriguing scenario with a cast-list of cinema glitterati and the financiers, publishers and politicians who dominated them as well as the events of the times.

Sycamore Row

John Grisham Hodder and Stoughton, £19.99

Say what you don’t like about John Grisham as a writer, he always delivers the goods. This novel is written to a formula he has made his own.

A struggling brave young lawyer in Mississipi is hired to represent a deceased millionaire in obtaining probate for his will. The will causes a sensation in the small town and as predicted goes more or less immediately to a court-room battle, so readers will know just what to expect.

They won’t be disappointed: the plot involves family intrigue, ancient injustices and betrayals, a low-level racism always ready to ignite at the slightest provocation, and a great deal of that provocation.

As always Grisham throws a net over an entire culture in order to capture its most typical examples, from the presiding judge to the aggrieved litigants, from corrupt attorneys to honest, but black, police officers. This can be absorbing, as Grisham writes up close to his characters, to most of whom he manages to give a human if flawed face.

The plot diverts at all important junctions so that the home life of, for example, a recluse or a social refugee is given as much attention as that of a judge or his colleagues. Dialogue also is one of Grisham’s strengths: people talk the way one might expect them to talk, even if they don’t always say what they might be expected to say.

It’s a variation on the mixture as before, involving some of the same characters from an earlier novel (and film, A Time to Kill) but it’s presented with the style and assurance which are typical of Grisham at his best.

Mrs Griffin Sends Her Love And Other Writings

Miss Read Orion; £12.99/£6.99

There are many many readers to whom news of a new book by Miss Read will seem like tidings of great joy. Her novels and stories of English village life have been popular almost since she first took up her pen to capture the atmosphere, the landscape and the personalities great and small of the community around her.

A school-teacher married to a school-teacher, Dora J Saint had already published essays, educational reviews and radio scripts, but it was with the creation of Miss Read and her rural environment of Thrush Green and Fairacre from 1955 that she found a devoted public. Enhanced by illustrations from earlier books this collection of episodes and reminiscences is not exactly Candleford, nor is it a version of Gilbert White, but Miss Read’s work contains elements of these and other chroniclers of the rural idyll.

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