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.

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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 44 (2015) : Waiting for Doggo

doggoDoggo belongs to Clara and Dan, having been rescued from Battersea Dogs’ Home. When Clara leaves without warning, she leaves Doggo behind, forcing Dan to persuade his new employers that a virtually hairless, scruffy mutt would make a valuable contribution to the office environment. Somewhat reluctantly, the boss agrees, leaving Dan and Doggo to negotiate their new working life together, in a trendy ad agency.

Although a dog owner (I have a cocker spaniel named after my favourite author), books which feature humanised animals are not a big hit with me, so I was relieved to discover that the pooch in this book can’t actually talk. However, the more I read, the more I realised that the book would have been greatly enhanced if Doggo could give his view on Dan’s life. Especially when his colleague tries to frame him by bringing a frozen turd to the office in a Tupperware box, then transferring it to a carefully chosen spot and trying to blame the deposit on the dog. If I were a dog, I’d certainly have something to say about that.

It is embarrassing to admit how long it took me to realise that the title of this book is a play on the words of Samuel Becket’s ‘Waiting for Godot‘. I mean, it was at least half way through. I think the pun is the only reference to the classic work though. Maybe ‘Waiting for Doggo’ has delusions of black comedy, but frankly I didn’t find it that clever.

Thank you to Net Galley 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.

Book No 38 (2015) : The Paying Guests

paying guestsThis book reinforced the main reason why I fell in love with reading in the first place. I grew up, like so many youngsters of my age, on Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild and CS Lewis. During school holidays, rainy days and weekends, I would lose myself in a book, much to the frustration of my much more active sister who was always urging me to ‘do’ something! Reading was the gateway to other places and it still is. Sarah Waters’ ‘The Paying Guests‘ did what I love in a novel, which is to draw me into another world.

It is the 1920s and Frances Wray and her mother have been left in debt. Once a busy home, with two sons and servants, their Camberwell house is now echoing and lonely. Although only in her mid-20s, Frances has become a drudge, behind with the latest fashions, often with only her mother for company and lumbered with all the household chores. To make ends meet, the Wrays decide to take in lodgers, or ‘paying guests’. Lilian and Leonard Barber are a young married couple, whose presence brings the house to life. Frances and Lilian strike up a cautious friendship which develops into a passionate, illicit affair. The couple long to be together but are constrained by their situations. Then, one night, a terrible accident takes place which threatens to wreck their future. Can Lilian and Frances’ love survive this ultimate test?

Until I got a few chapters into the novel, I had forgotten that Waters writes about lesbian relationships and, in this instance, the setting is at at time when such romances were not publicly acceptable. The gender of the protagonists in ‘The Paying Guests‘ adds an extra twist to the novel; Frances Wray is complex and unconventional, with a past history of political activism. The setting is full of contemporaneous details such as fashion, decor, social expectations etc. London is unsettled in the wake of war, with veterans out of work and families grieving their lost men.

Part romance, part thriller, this book kept me engrossed throughout; the author achieved that very clever feat of keeping me rooting for the bad guy. I was even tempted to sneak it under the covers with a torch, just to find out what happened next!

Book No 31 (2015) : Something to Hide

something to hideRebecca‘ by Daphne du Maurier is my favourite book. One of the things that intrigues me about it is that I always find myself rooting for the bad guy. Maxim has committed a terrible crime, but I want him to get away with it. And so it was with Petra in Deborah Moggach’s latest offering, ‘Something to Hide‘.

Petra is having an affair with a married man; the man married to Bev, her best friend. Everyone thinks that Jeremy and Bev have the perfect marriage, despite not being blessed with children. But Petra knows differently, because Jeremy is going to leave his wife to move into Petra’s Pimlico pad. At least, that is the plan. Of course things don’t go to plan, this is a novel, for heaven’s sake! When Jeremy is taken ill, it is Petra whom Bev calls upon for support, flying her out to the African home she shared with her husband. Dramatic irony is used to great effect as Petra tries to hide Jeremy’s adulterous love affair from his wife.

Wang-Lei, a successful Chinese businessman, hires a surrogate mother when he and his wife are unable to have children. The surrogate, Lorrie, needs the money from the surrogacy to replace the life savings she lost in an internet scam. And what exactly is the nature of Wang-Lei and Jeremy’s business in Africa – there are rumours of poaching? So, everyone has something to hide.

Moggach creates charismatic people;  such was my empathy for her characters that I was quietly willing them on to succeed in their respective deceptions. Set in England, Africa, China and the US, ‘Something to Hide‘ has a cleverly constructed plot, with several unforseen twists.   Like a good jigsaw, this book will keep you quiet for a couple of hours and you won’t be happy until you have slotted together all the pieces. Definitely one for your holiday suitcase.

Thanks to NetGalley for the copy of this book.