Book No 14 (2016) : Early One Morning

early one morningHave you ever bitten into a jam doughnut, only to discover that it has custard in the middle? Not that there is anything wrong with custard doughnuts, it just wasn’t what you were expecting. That is what reading Virgina Baily’s novel ‘Early One Morning‘ was like. Once I got into it, it wasn’t what I thought it would be.

It is 1943 and Chiara is making her way through the Jewish ghetto in Rome, when she witnesses Jewish families being herded onto trucks by soldiers. When one of the persecuted mothers catches her eye, silently pleading for help, Chiara acts on impulse and pulls the woman’s young son to safety. It  is a brave and dangerous act, as she knows nothing about the child, he has no papers or identification, only that his name is Daniele Levi.

From this dramatic beginning, I was expecting a story of how Chiara’s  compassion would be rewarded in spades, as she and Daniele become increasingly devoted to one another. Her adoption of the boy would be the ultimate act of selflessness, allowing him to grow into a sage and loving boy, grounded by Chiara’s devotion. Only that is not how the tale develops at all. Instead, Daniele is sullen and resentful, is never accepted by Chiara’s own sister and grows into a dysfunctional, damaged young man who is finally banished in order to save his mother’s sanity. When Chiara discovers that Daniele had fathered a child by a young Welsh woman, the wounds of the past are re-opened.

This novel is beautifully crafted and surprising. Chiara is strong yet so fallible, as she struggles to give up smoking and cannot bear to part with the possessions which clutter her small apartment. I have never visited Rome, but the descriptions of the city, through the eyes of Baily’s characters, made the place come alive in my imagination. Daniele is also depicted third-hand; imagined and romanticised by his daughter, despised by Chiara’s sister and protected by the priest, his form is enigmatic and uncertain. There is a fine cast of supporting characters as well, including Chiara’s long-suffering maid, Assunta, and her father’s lover, Simone.

If you like to have your expectations challenged and enjoy stirring descriptive writing, then this is a book you will certainly enjoy. Just don’t expect it to be sugar-coated. Unlike doughnuts.

Book No 13 (2016) : The Girl in the Red Coat

girl in the red coatThe Girl in the Red Coat‘ is Carmel. She disappears from a festival she has been enjoying with her mother, Beth. The reader learns what happens to the young child and whilst her abduction doesn’t appear to be motivated by physical or sexual abuse, what happens to her is certainly creepy.

The novel is narrated alternately by Carmel (who is given a new name by her captor) and her mother. This is not a murder story and is not gruesome, so don’t be put off reading it just because that kind of fiction doesn’t appeal to you. Carmel is chosen because of her spiritual energy and healing powers, so a willingness to believe in those abilities might enhance your enjoyment of the book.

Even before the disappearance of of Madeleine McCann, reports of missing children fuel the fires of every parent’s deepest fear. To bury a child is all of our nightmares, but for a son or daughter to disappear, and never know their fate, adds a whole new level of unimaginable grief. I don’t know how the likes of the McCanns, Ben Needham’s mother or the families of the Chibok girls get through each day. This is why I felt Beth’s character lacked definition; I was unconvinced by the descriptions of her, which didn’t seem to me to convey the gut-wrenching agony that must pervade every waking, sleeping moment of not knowing what has happened to your child. The terrors your mind could conjure about the fate of your child would surely drive you insane?

I was also irritated by the lack of filling in the ‘back story’ about Pa and another character, Mercy. Having read some of the reviews on Amazon, this was a frustration which other readers shared; just too many unanswered questions.

On balance, I am not sure I can recommend this book. Although it held the promise of being a riveting read, and despite the fact that I did finish it in order to find out whether Beth and Carmel would be reunited, I generally found it to be lacking in pace and suspense.

 

Book No 12 (2016) You, Me & Other People

you me and other peopleYou, Me & Other People‘ by Fionnuala Kearney is a bestseller, it having been called a ‘stunning debut’ and ‘a gripping story’. I wonder why I found it mediocre at best?

Adam and Beth have split up after she discovered that he had been having an affair with a young restaurant owner. The couple have a daughter, Meg, who is aware of her father’s wandering and is disdainful. Beth is in therapy, Adam is struggling at work. A phone call from one of his former clients forces him to reveal a far deeper secret, one which has particular implications for Meg.

At just over 400 pages, this book is far too long. The whole of Part One needed some heavy editing; notwithstanding the need to set the scene and establish the characters, it was very mundane. I almost gave up. Adam does not appear to have any redeeming features as he lies left, right and centre, then tries to apologise afterwards. Beth, a songwriter just getting her big break in the States, oscillates between hope and despair, with some sex with a stranger she meets on a plane in between the two. Really, I just couldn’t take the pair of them seriously, the characterisation lacked emotional depth and believability.

And another thing. The author uses the ‘F’ word liberally throughout the novel, so why on Earth use ‘sloshed’ and ‘sozzled’, descriptions which my Grandma would have used? The word is ‘pissed’, dear Fionnuala. Pissed.

Oh dear, having said it was mediocre, I rather think I thought it was worse than that. And I didn’t like the title either.

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.

 

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….

 

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 2 (2016) : Our Endless Numbered Days

endless numbered daysBy coincidence, the first two books I have read this year have centred upon people living in little huts. But whereas Guy Grieve’s Alaskan abode was real, Clare Fuller’s ‘die Hütte’ is imaginary. And very creepy.

Peggy’s father is a survivalist. He and his fellow North London Retreaters plan to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. In preparation for this existence, James trains his daughter in essential techniques: they camp out in the garden, eating squirrels, foraging for food and sleeping in a shelter. Peggy’s mother, Ute, is often away from home due to her career as a concert pianist, but James is not too lonely because he has a friend, Oliver. Although unusual, Peggy’s existence is tolerable. But that all changes when her father says he is taking her away to ‘die Hütte’. Deep in the forest, the hut is totally isolated. Then, not long after they arrive, James’ prophesies come true and the rest of the world is destroyed. James and Peggy are the only people left and they have to survive in die Hütte.

Clare Fuller’s ‘Our Endless Numbered Days‘ examines what happens when the extreme behaviour of an unstable parent goes unchecked and a child’s unquestioning trust in a father is betrayed. This novel is deeply unsettling.

I am always honest in my reviews, even when I am swimming against the tide of popular opinion and, in this case, the judges of the Desmond Elliott Prize (the novel won this prestigious prize for new fiction last year). For me, the balance between ambiguity about James’ motives and behaviour as Peggy matures into a young woman, and exploration of his actual actions, was not quite right. I like to have something to think about when a novel ends, but this just left me feeling frustrated! However, this aspect of the writing means that ‘Our Endless Numbered Days‘ would be a great choice for a book club, there is so much to talk about.

The Books 2015 : I did it!

Book pile 2015Having failed my self-imposed challenge to read 50 books in 2014, I paced myself more steadily this year – and I did it! 50 books in a year.

I’ve figured out a couple of things on the way. Firstly, working my way through a book a week was not going to happen by accident; I really had to commit to the task and prioritise reading over other things occasionally. To anyone I have ignored because my nose has been stuck in a book, I apologise!

The other discovery I made is that whilst the Kindle App on my IPad hosts an impressive collection of books (review copies are usually downloads), digital reading doesn’t really do it for me. Maybe its because my IPad doesn’t have that distinctive new-paper-and-ink smell, but I just don’t absorb books in the same way on a device as from real pages in a real book. No doubt someone eminent and learned has researched this phenomenon and can find as many readers whose experience is the exact opposite of mine, but my preference is still for a paperback than a gadget.

There have been some high highs and some low lows during my literary year and I have had a bit of fun organising my 2015 books into a list. I rather like lists and this one is self-explanatory; everything I’ve read, from what I liked best to what I liked least!

In my top 3 books were Bella Pollen’s ‘The Summer of the Bear‘ and ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ by Rebecca Mascull. Both gave me a great deal of reading pleasure and I wholeheartedly recommend them. The latter is due out in paperback in 2016 and I’m planning to read Mascull’s first novel ‘The Visitors‘ next year. Emma Kennedy’s ‘The Tent, the Bucket and Me‘ is probably the funniest book I have ever read in my whole life (although Bill Bryson and Stephen Fry have given me plenty of laugh out loud moments) and I defy anyone not to be cheered by it.

I hope my reviews have given my followers some ideas about what to read, and maybe what to avoid.

1 Summer of the Bear (The) by Bella Pollen
2 Tent, the Bucket and Me (The) by Emma Kennedy
3 Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull
4 Paying Guests (The) by Sarah Waters
5 Valentine Grey by Sandi Toksvig
6 Sea Legs by Guy Grieve
7 You by Joanna Briscoe
8 Narrow Road to the Deep North (The) by Richard Flanagan
9 More Lives than One by Libby Purves
10 Light Behind the Window (The) by Lucinda Riley
11 Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
12 Invention of Wings (The) by Sue Monk Kidd
13 H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
14 A to Z of You and Me (The) by James Hannah
15 Shoes for Anthony by Emma Kennedy
16 Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
17 Lives of Stella Bain (The) by Anita Shreve
18 Children Act (The) by Ian McEwan
19 Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blackman
20 Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
21 Girl Who Wasn’t There (The) by Ferdinand von Schirach
22 I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
23 Sea Sisters (The) by Lucy Clarke
24 Secret History (The) by Donna Tartt
25 Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
26 Something to Hide by Deborah Moggach
27 Taxidermist’s Daughter (The) by Kate Mosse
28 The Blue by Lucy Clarke
29 We were Liars by E Lockhart
31 Harvest by Jim Crace
30 Other Side of the World (The) by Stephanie Bishop
32 Last Pier (The) by Roma Burke
33 Daughter’s Secret (The) by Eva Holland
36 Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty
35 Girl On The Train (The) by Paula Hawkins
34 Miniaturist (The) by Jessie Burton
37 Secrets of the Lighthouse by Santa Montefiore
38 Versions of Us (The) by Laura Barnett
39 Waiting for Doggo by Mark B Mills
40 Best of Times (The) by Penny Vincenzi
41 Cuckoo’s Calling (The) by Robert Galbraith
42 Night Guest (The) by Fiona McFarlane
43 Senator’s Wife (The) by Sue Miller
44 Artificial Anatomy of Parks (The) by Kat Gordon
45 Bad Blood by Arne Dahl
46 Dolly by Susan Hill
47 Find Me by Laura van den Berg
48 Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester
49 All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
50 Girl on the Ferryboat (The) by Angus Peter Campbell 

And what about 2016? Well my Christmas stocking included Guy Grieve’s ‘The Call of the Wild‘, Paul Heiney’s ‘One Wild Song‘ and ‘The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair‘ by Joel Dicker, so my TBR pile is already stacking up. I’m also looking forward to reading Clare Fuller’s ‘Our Endless Numbered Days‘ and ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways‘ by Sarah Winman. Reading is as essential to my wellbeing as oxygen so I’ll be reading on. I will continue with the blog, but am undecided about whether to repeat the 50/50 challenge – watch this space!

Book No 43 (2015) : The Blue

the blueFate must have been having a laugh when she gifted me with an innate love of the sea, coupled with debilitating motion sickness. As a child, twenty minutes on the 441 bus with my Nan, up Egham Hill to the Great Park was enough to leave me retching. So as I can’t be a real sailor, I have to take my sea-faring pleasures vicariously. Hence my choice of books such as Lucy Clarke’s ‘The Blue‘.

This intriguing thriller tells the story of Lana and Kitty, two best pals who have their own reasons for wanting to leave the UK. With a random spin of the globe, they head for the Philippines. The girls join the glorious yacht ‘The Blue’ and its eclectic crew. Although they have never sailed before, Lana and Kitty soon adapt to the idyllic life on board; swimming, snorkelling and camaraderie. They try their best to abide by the on-board rules of Aaron, the skipper, and form friendships with the rest of the crew – Joseph, Shell, Heinrich and Denny. But their trip starts to turn sour after a night of heavy drinking, when one of the crew members goes missing at sea.

Lucy Clarke is clearly a traveller. She captures the lure of the sea and adventure beautifully, transporting the reader to the clear blue waters of the ocean, but also describing the menace of stormy weather. I could feel the warm sun and smell the tang of salt in the air. As the mystery within the novel begins to unfold, I was drawn deeper into the story, keen to see the secrets of ‘The Blue‘ revealed. If, like me, you are an armchair mariner, this book will probably float your boat. It did mine.

Thank you to NetGalley for my copy of this book.

Book No 42 (2015) : Dolly

dollyI was in the unfortunate position of having had to spend some time in the Minor Injuries Unit of our local hospital over the weekend. It turned out that it was long enough for me to be able to read the whole of Susan Hill’s short ghost tale ‘Dolly‘. (Actually, I was sitting there long enough to have read ‘War and Peace’, but that is a different story!)

The narrator is Edward, who recounts time spent at Iyot House, the home of his great-aunt, Aunt Kestrel (fabulous name!), and her dour maid, Mrs Mullen. The trio are joined by Edward’s cousin, Leonora, a flame-haired, unfathomable young girl with a foul temper. She both bewitches and confuses the young Edward, although Aunt Kestrel is more kindly and pragmatic in her approach to her great-niece, believing her to be over-indulged and spoiled. From the numerous gifts sent to Leonora by her mother, it certainly seems as if the youngster is used to getting her own way. But her heart’s desire is a doll, and although she knows exactly what she wants, her mother never sends the Indian Princess dolly. When Edward takes it upon himself to make sure that Leonora receives the gift of her dreams, his decision has frightening lifelong repercussions for everyone.

As I turned the last page of this book, the over-riding question in my mind was ‘why’? The plot just didn’t seem to conclude satisfactorily, as I was left wondering. In any novel, there is often ambiguity, leaving the reader to consider several options as to what might have happened, and this can be interesting and fun. But the ending of ‘Dolly‘ felt unfinished, as if Hill ran out of ideas before she had to meet her agent’s deadline. I was disappointed with ‘The Small Hand‘ last year and feel that maybe ‘The Woman in Black‘, which I found genuinely unsettling, remains unsurpassed.