Book No 11 (2016) Sarah’s Key

Sarah's Key10-year old Sarah’s mother has told her to wear her star with pride, to hold up her head and be proud. But when French soldiers come knocking at the family’s Paris apartment in July 1942, rounding up Jews, Sarah begins to realise that her father may not have been telling her the truth about what was happening in France. Whilst her mother is paralysed by fear, Sarah makes the swift decision to hide her brother from the policemen. Ushering him into their secret hiding place with some water and a teddy bear for comfort, she closes and locks the door. She promises she will come back for him later. Sarah and her parents are taken with thousands of others to a Parisian velodrome (The Vélodrome d’Hiver) before being herded onto cattle trucks to prison camps.. Children of all ages are forcibly separated from their mothers, who are then marched away. Sarah keeps the brass key in her pocket, knowing that she has to get back to Michel. But, having missed an opportunity to escape from the Velodrome, will she get another one?

Julia Jarmond is an American journalist living in Paris, who is asked to write about the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up as the 60th anniversary of the event approaches. The article has come at a busy time in her life, as Julia and her French husband are about to move into a new apartment. But as the writer delves deeper into the background to the piece, she finds that Sarah’s story begins to turn like a key, in her own heart.

I came across Tatiana de Rosnay because she has written a new biography of Daphne du Maurier, which is hopefully going to be available in English very soon. I had honestly never heard of her before, and who can’t fail to be intrigued by someone with a name like Tatiana de Rosnay?

Sarah’s Key‘ has a very rare quality for me – memorability. I read a lot of books and for most of them, if you mention them to me six months later I will probably remember the title and the author, whether I liked it or not and maybe one or two sketchy details of the plot. But, like ‘Sophie’s Choice‘ and Chris Cleave’s ‘The Other Hand‘, ‘Sarah’s Key‘ has a central premise which is very simple in principle, and as a plot mechanism, but has devastating consequences. Becuase part of the story is told by Sarah herself, I was also reminded (in a good way) of Michelle Magorian’s wonderful ‘Goodnight, Mister Tom‘. The Vel’ d’Hiv  round-up actually took place, a fact which renders the novel even more heartbreaking.

Although harrowing and upsetting, this is not a difficult read – some readers would easily manage it in one sitting. I could think of a lot worse ways to spend a couple of hours and don’t be put off by the subject matter; no book about the Holocaust is going to be easy reading, but this has courage, hope and kindness in abundance. A great read.

 

About this blog thing

I’ll great straight to the point. Well, maybe I won’t, maybe I’ll just do a little bit of self-justification first.

The thing is, I am really, really busy with other commitments at the moment, and have hardly watched any films this year. So, I have decided to take a pragmatic approach and confine my blog to books. Reading and literature are my first love and that is where I will concentrate my energy. Apologies to anyone who actually read my film reviews!

I mean, this blogging thing is meant to be fun, for me and for you.

Book No 10 (2016) : The Last Act of Love

Last Act of LoveSomeone accused me recently of being ‘maudlin’. I say ‘accused’ because although I knew it wasn’t a compliment, it is a word I have most often used in conjunction with inebriation i.e ‘a maudlin drunk’ and so I dashed off to Google a definition. It didn’t look good: ‘self-pityingly or tearfully sentimental‘. As to whether that is me or not, the jury is still out (although I suspect there is a modicum of truth in the allegation. I am sad a lot), but one of the main things I loved about Cathy Rentzenbrink’s ‘The Last Act of Love‘ is that she writes without being at all maudlin. She is depressed a lot of time, confused, unhappy and drunk (occupational hazard of having parents who own a pub) but never self-pitying or sentimental.

The book is autobiographical, recounting Cathy’s younger brother Matty’s life, accident and death. Matty was hit by  car when he was just 16 and suffered a life-threatening head injury. Doctors managed to save his life. Or did they? In fact, what they saved was Matty’s body. After the accident, and despite initial signs that he may come round from his coma, Matty never recovered consciousness and survived in what is known as a persistent vegetative state. Eight years after he was knocked down, he died, after his family won a court case to allow water and nutrition to be withdrawn.

I was quite old before I realised that your sibling relationships are very often the longest of your life. Obvious when you think about it, but the bond with our brothers and sisters is totally unique. Cathy Rentzenbrink’s loss is heartbreaking as she describes in searingly honest prose exactly what it is like to care for a totally unresponsive, 6ft tall young man. At times it makes extremely unpleasant reading, but the telling is important. This is not a book about a court decision, it is a book about family, love and surviving when the worst you can imagine actually happens.

 

 

Book No 9 (2016) : At the Water’s Edge

At the Waters EdgeI was raised in deepest, darkest Surrey, where the highest point of the landscape is a hill near Dorking and the biggest lake is probably a man-made reservoir just off the M25. It is a complete mystery to me therefore, why I fell in love with Scotland – maybe it is the contrast. My passion for Caledonia often leads me to choose books with a Scottish setting, including Sara Gruen’s ‘At the Water’s Edge‘.

The storyline seems unlikely, but it works: an American Colonel was accused of faking pictures of the Loch Ness monster. Years later when his son, Ellis and daughter-in-law (Maddie) behave appallingly badly at a party, the Colonel threatens to cut off Ellis’s allowance. To save face and triumph where his father failed, Ellis wants to find the monster himself. He and Maddie together with a mutual friend, Hank, depart for Scotland. The trio arrive at Craig Gairbh, Glenurquhart in 1944; there are blackouts, Anderson shelters and rationing. Whilst the men set about the serious business of monster-hunting, disappearing to the loch shores every day with their cameras and equipment, Maddie is left to her own devices. Struggling with the differences between high-society Philadelphia and the hardships of war-time Scotland, Maddie is lonely at first, but gradually begins to makes herself useful. She forms unlikely friendships with people whom her husband treats as staff. But as Maddie’s confidence in her own abilities grow, she starts to question her place in the world.

This is essentially a love story; not overly complex but with richly-drawn characters whose behaviour ranges from violent to tender, honourable to deceitful and a whole range in between. I loved the contrast between the Maddie at the opening of the novel, and the same character at the close of the final chapter.

Of course I knew all along that they would find Nessie, they just had to be in the right place at the right time. After all, who hasn’t gazed into the depths of Loch Ness and known that it was just a matter of time, and patience? I mean, on our last visit, I know we’d only missed her by a few minutes….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book No 8 (2016) : Night Waking

Night WakingNowadays it is raging toothache or a trip to the bathroom which disturbs my sleep. But I well recall the days when it was a wakeful child. Many a night my husband and I would end up in different beds, or separated in our own by a toddler who snored blissfully until morning whilst we tossed and turned. But in many ways, the morning-after-the-night-before was worse; like a hangover but without the fun. Gritty eyes, swimming vision, dropping off to sleep every time you sit down. Sarah Moss captures all of this beautifully in her second novel, ‘Night Waking‘.

Anna Bennett has been brought to Colsay, a Scottish island, because of her husband’s work; he researches puffins. The couple have a seven-year old son, Raphael, and also a baby, Moth – the latter being short for Timothy but I suspect the name is also indicative of the fact that this tot is so active at night, drawn to his mother like lepidoptera to a bright light. What Anna really wants to do is to get on with the book she is trying to write, focusing on motherhood from a historical perspective.

Whilst working outside their cottage, planting some trees, Anna unearths the body of a baby. Of course, this necessitates a visit from the police who try to discover the identity of the child, but Anna uses her research skills to try to find out for herself who may have buried a child on this remote island. Interwoven with Anna’s own story is that of May, a young nurse who was sent to Colsay in 1878, to try to reduce the number of juvenile deaths. The novel also has extracts from the various texts which Anna is using to carry out her own research.

But Anna is so tired all the time, she struggles to concentrate and spends most of each day trying to reclaim some time to work. Temporary relief arrives in the form of teenage Zoe, whose parents take a holiday let in Anna and Giles’ rental cottage nearby. Zoe likes the children and seems content to babysit for a while, but it turns out that she has her own issues, which make yet another call on Anna’s precious time.

I found the author’s portayal of Anna’s predicament to be true to life, including the charming and ofen funny way in which Moss scripts the dialogue between Anna and the boys. However, there was just too much going on in this book and it didn’t quite hang together properly for me, it was just trying too hard. I would have been happy with considering the tensions and guilt of working motherhood, the isolation of a Scottish island and maybe the historical perspective. But adding in teenage anorexia, Raph’s unusual preoccupations, Anna’s research, Giles’ apparent unconcern at his wife’s exhaustion, infant tetanus, a child who goes over a cliff, a dead baby…..it all felt as jumbled as Anna’s sleep-deprived thoughts. I might be tempted to read another of Moss’ books, to give her a second chance, but I really wasn’t sold on this one, despite its Hebridean setting. Or maybe I’m just tired….

 

 

Book No 7 (2016) : A Place Called Winter

place called winterEvery now and then I read a book which, for weeks afterwards, whenever anyone asks me ‘what shall I read next?’, I press a copy into their hands. So far in 2016, Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’ has been that book.

Harry Cane is a young man of seemingly limited ambition who is able to live comfortably with his young wife and child without the need to bother himself with a career. His marriage is not without love, but is without passion. Following a chance encounter with an attractive voice coach, with whom he embarks upon an illicit sexual affair, Harry discovers the ardour missing from his matrimony. When the relationship is discovered and Harry faces public disgrace, he decides upon emigration from England to Canada. There is the promise of anonymity, but also land and the chance to forge a new beginning.

The opening chapter of the book is difficult to figure out, as it seems as if Harry is now in some kind of hospital or institution, but his supposed crime is not entirely clear. By the end of the novel, the author has cleverly brought the narrative full circle and the explanations are unexpected.

Gale explores many themes in ‘A Place Called Winter‘, including sexuality, gender, isolation, forgiveness and acceptance, all handled with a quietly confident style, whose simple prose belies the strength of the plot and its main players. The historical perspective and sense of place are highly evocative, capturing both the social and physical landscapes of England and the Canadian prairies in the early 1800s.

The success of the novel lies in the characterisation of Harry Cane and his capacity for love in its many guises; parental, platonic, sexual and romantic. He is also an essentially good man, in the truest sense of the word. Despite Harry’s experiences he retains an almost childlike nature, trusting and guileless. I was with him all the way.

 

Book No 6 (2016) : Life After You

Life after youStill on the death theme after ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘, I chanced upon Lucie Brownlee’s autobiographical account of her life after her husband died suddenly, leaving Lucie and their small daughter bereft. To start with,  the author is writing from a position of disbelief; staring at her husband’s coffin at the funeral, Lucie can’t believe who is inside it. The realisation of the permanency of her separation from Mark is a slow, painful dawning. With the new knowledge comes acceptance and hope.

The situation when my partner died suddenly was not the same as Lucie’s; we had been together only a few years and the child who lived with us was his, but not mine. Nevertheless, I found myself scouring the pages of ‘Life After You’ for common ground. There seems to be comfort in knowing that your own experiences have echoes of others’. Grief is a personal, private affair with no blueprint but I recognised Lucie’s behaviours as she struggled on. Anxiety, panic attacks, crying in public, visiting a clairvoyant, a tentative and wholly unsuitable relationship just to prove you can get back on the bike, so to speak. And the drinking. Oh yes, the drinking. It’s not cool and it’s not funny to be so drunk you can’t stand up and fall asleep in your clothes, the wise-mummy now tells her teenagers. But in the early days of grief, the mind-numbing relief to be found in the bottom of a bottle sometimes feels like the only way to get through the next few hours.

Having your husband die on you is clearly not funny, yet ‘Life After You‘ is shot through with a gentle humour which endeared me to the author and her situation. The tone of the book is frank, matter-of-fact and I laughed, and cried quite a lot as well.

Now I have finished ‘Life After You‘ I am reflecting upon the fact that there are very few people to whom I would recommend it. Not because of the quality of writing, which is insightful and poignant, but because of the subject matter. All I can think is that if you have a friend or acquaintance who has been suddenly widowed, this book will give you a little window into their world. Knowledge which would be invaluable should you be unfortunate enough to ever need it. Because if there is one thing I learned from my bereavement is that what gives strength is the people around us and what remains. Not what has gone.

Book No 5 (2016) : The Angel Tree

The Angel TreeChoosing what to read next is like choosing from a menu. I run my fingers down the literary à la carte and make my choice according to what takes my fancy; something long, not too difficult, a bit romantic and slightly fairy-story. After the seriousness of my last read, I opted for Lucinda Riley; Enid Blyton for grown-ups. And I don’t consider that to be an insult. Like many of my generation, I cut my bookish teeth on Mallory Towers and St Clare’s. Stories to get lost in. I’ve only recently forgiven my mother for not letting me go to boarding school.

Dumped by her American lover when he discovers she is a Windmill girl, Greta Simpson is forced to leave London when she realises she is pregnant. Luckily,  her friend ‘Taffy’ (David) offers her sanctuary at a small cottage on his family’s Welsh estate, and so Greta is drawn in to Marchmont. After a disastrous marriage and haunted by grief, Greta takes her daughter back to London to try and re-build their lives.

The Angel Tree‘ follows the life of Greta, revealed through flashbacks from Christmas 1985 when she has re-joined her family at Marchmont Hall. As well as her grand-daughter, Ava, Greta is also accompanied by her David, now a lifelong friend. David is hoping that re-visiting Marchmont will help Greta to recover her memory, which was lost when she was involved in an accident. Throughout Greta’s unsettled life, David is the one constant. But will they ever declare their love for one another?

All in all, this is a pretty awful book. The characters are wooden, they are stereo-typed and make terrible choices. There is a very dubious portayal of mental illness in Cheska’s character and Greta seems to lie without compunction. The plot is predictable and uninspiring and the whole thing could have done with being edited down to about two-thirds of its final length. I also spotted more than a few jarring grammatical errors (yes, I am a punctuation pedant).

But did I care? Not a jot. There is room in my reading life for Lucinda Riley as well as Lionel Shriver, I just allowed myself to drift along. The words slip through my mind like sand in an egg-timer, almost imperceptibly and requiring very little effort. Continuing my earlier culinary references ‘The Angel Tree‘ is a bit like the literary equivalent of a Chinese takeaway – it’s quite satisfying at the time, but an hour later you’ll have forgotten all about it and will be hungry again!

Book No 4 (2016) : Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Smoke gets in your eyesDeath has always been a big part of my life. My Mum will tell you I was quite a morbid child at the best of times. Having suffered a number of significant bereavements by the time I’d reached my early twenties, my preoccupation with the Grim Reaper was well, set in stone. I don’t think anyone who knows me well was particularly surprised when I decided to pursue a qualification in Civil Funeral Celebrancy.

Studying for the celebrancy course revived my interest in many things death-related and so I came across Caitlin Doughty’s fascinating autobiographical book ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium’. The author was in her early twenties when she made an unlikely career move and become a crematorium operator. The book not only recounts Doughty’s experiences at the pointy end of disposing of dead bodies, but also lays the foundations for a much wider debate about the whole business of death. Although set in the US, the issues she raises are also relevant to the UK. As well as examining the death rituals of historical and contemporary cultures and belief systems, Doughty also challenges the modern ways of disposing of the dead. We have become distant from the actual processes involved in caring for our loved ones after death, preferring instead to entrust those final ministrations to strangers, whom we pay for their skills. Doughty cites some 10 pages of sources for her work, testament to her meticulous research and obvious knowledge of her subject. I was particularly fascinated by the references to Jessica Mitford’s seminal work ‘The American Way of Death‘, which criticised what Mitford saw as funeral directors’ profiteering and led to national debate.

It all sounds as if it would make very heavy reading, but that is not the case at all. Whilst the author does not shy away from some of the detail you would expect – decomposition, the disposal of medical remains, embalming and dressing a body, there is no salaciousness or irreverence. Instead, Doughty writes with compelling conviction about a subject which she has clearly made her life’s work and which is an important one for all of us. There is even humour, although never a lack of respect for the dead.

In some ways it is difficult to recommend this book as I have no doubt that most will shy away from even thinking about the subject matter. After all, death is the only certainty in life and most of us would prefer not to think about the realities. But I believe the discussions Doughty initiates are essential ones for 21st Century society and reading such a frank, passionate and enlightening book is a great way to open the debate. Go on. Read this book and then talk about it with your loved ones. It might just change your life. Or your death.

Book No 3 (2016) : The Visitors

The VisitorsWhen I was a child, I was fascinated by the life of Helen Keller, an American deafblind woman whose world was transformed by the patience and techniques of her teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan. Sullivan literally unlocked Helen’s world, enabling her pupil to flourish: Keller was the first deafblind person to achieve a BA and she went on to become a renowned author. It is an amazing story.

Rebecca Mascull’s ‘The Visitors‘ deals with a similar theme, as Adeliza (Liza) Golding is trapped in a world of blackness and silence. She can see something, but the vague apparitions seem somehow unrelated to Liza’s daily struggles. Her life changes when her father engages Lottie, a hop-picker, to help draw his daughter out of her lonely world. Using simple sign language initially, Lottie gives Liza the tools to communicate.

What is particularly clever about Mascull’s writing is the way in which the construct and complexity of the narrative develop in line with Liza’s gradual acquisition of  language. The reader goes with her on a journey into an ever-expanding world, leading Liza eventually to the Boer War. Her evolution from a frustrated, lonely young child into a self-assured but, more importantly, equal young woman, is an inspiring read.

Song of the Sea Maid‘ by the same author was one of my favourite books of last year. I was impressed by the strong female characters, the historical detail and unusual plot and it was the same with ‘The Visitors‘. This novel actually has some roots in Mascull’s own family background. I don’t think Becca Mascull gets the exposure she deserves – I rate her alongside Tracy Chevalier and Geraldine Brooks. Certainly worth a try if you like your historical fiction with a twist!