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  1. Kate Clanchy is known as a poet, and she won the Costa First Novel award for this. It is set in Hampstead in the summer of 1989. Struan Robertson has moved from his Scottish mining town to take up a summer job as a carer for Philip Prys, who has suffered a severe stroke. Prys is one of Struan's literary heroes. At first, Struan appears to feel at a social disadvantage in bohemian Hampstead, where everyone wears sandals and 501s but no-one cooks a meal. Gradually, they begin to appreciate him and he begins to settle in. I just didn't warm to this much. The characters are all a bit stereotyped: the money-grabbing ex-wife, the spoilt teenagers, the second trophy wife, the unpleasant literary giant and the couthy naive Scot who brings insight to their worthless spoilt lives. That's a slight over- simplification of the plot, but the use of Struan as a hick from the sticks really grated on me. Clanchy is a Scot by birth, and my age, but I've seen this before in people who have moved away from Scotland as young adults: a sort of misty-eyed but patronising nostalgia for the simple life we apparently enjoy up here. I did warm to the characters as it went on. I think it works best as a satire of the late 80s, complete with all the markers, like the property makeover boom in which Philip's ex wife indulges. One thing really irritated me. Clanchy waves her Scottish credentials by insisting on frequent references to Struan's education. But she often gets it wrong. You got 1s and 2s in Standard Grade, not As and Bs, and we "get" a particular mark, we don't "take" it. For every time she seems to have done her research, there is another example which showed that she hadn't really. These wouldn't bother anyone but a teacher of 20 odd years, I suspect ...
  2. I really enjoyed this. Antigona is a Kosovar refugee living close to a well heeled part of London, and "Me" is the writer Kate Clanchy, who on impulse offers her neighbour a cleaning job. The two women strike up a friendship and Antigona ends up working as a nanny for Clanchy and her friend, on very favourable terms which keep the wolf from the door. The book deals with Antigona's life, both in Kosovo and in London, and the friendship which the two women develop. In part, it deals with Clanchy's own woolie leftie middle class angst at the situation, handled very well. I learned a lot about Kosovo and Albania (where her family flee to). Antigona belongs to a mountain tribe with a strict moral code, and much of the book deals with how she balances the demands of her brothers, who are in London, and the liberation offered to her by her new home. I also learned a lot about what it's really like to be a refugee in Britain, and it is handled very unsentimentally. By the end of the book, I really felt as if I knew these people. A great read. I'm now off to see if I can find any pictures of the family online, as the book lacked pictures, and I feel I'd like to put faces to the very well drawn characters! Oh, I forgot to say, Clanchy writes beautifully. Well, she is a poet.
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