Book No 29 (2015) : The Other Side of the World

other side of the worldCharlotte is happiest outside, wandering the fields, taking in nature. She loves the leaves and the seasons, the cool and unpredictable English weather. But the house she shares with her husband and their baby daughters is cramped and mouldy, leaving Henry yearning for warmth and sunshine.  When he persists with his suggestion that the family emigrate to Perth, Australia, Charlotte is exhausted by motherhood and too lacking in energy to resist. So they make the journey with their young family and Henry takes up his post at the University. His wife however, has no reason to leave the house and she becomes increasingly isolated and frustrated by motherhood. Until she meets Nicholas. When Henry has to travel to India to be with his ailing mother, Charlotte makes a decision which will change her life and her marriage, possibly irrevocably.

The descriptive powers of Stephanie Bishop make this book read like poetry; I could feel the oppressive Australian heat, English rain and Indian humidity. Whilst the plot is simple enough, the evocative writing makes this an engrossing read. It seemed to me a very honest picture of the realities of marriage and motherhood, as Charlotte loves her children but struggles with the loss of her own identity and craves time to be alone, to express her creativity through her painting. In her resentment, she ‘takes it out’ on her daughters; whilst no-one would condone such behaviour, Bishop’s portrayal makes Charlotte a highly credible character.

Born in India but sent to England, Henry struggles with his own sense of not belonging there; ‘England was always secondary.’ Once away from the fens, Charlotte yearns to return. The author uses ‘The Other Side of the World‘ to make her reader really think about what home is, and how the pull of a place can be overwhelmingly strong. What happens when our homing instincts conflict with where we believe our duties lie?

This is a thought-provoking and moving read, one of those rare books whose imprint lurks in the memory long after the final page.

Thank you to NetGalley for the copy of this novel.

Book No 28 (2015) : All My Puny Sorrows

puny sorrowsWhen I bought the paperback, the bookseller at the counter told me that this Miriam Toews’ novel was the best thing to have been written in the past five years. He even gave me an extra stamp on my loyalty card to prove the point. Such was his enthusiasm, I believed him wholeheartedly.

Elfrieda (Elf) and Yolandi (Yoli) are sisters, raised in a loving family. Elf is married and has a successful career as a concert pianist. Yoli has two children by two different men, is in the process of divorcing one of them and tries to earn a living by writing. Despite their differences, they are close, with shared, happy memories. But Elf is not happy now, in fact she is ‘weary of life’ and wants to die. She has made several unsuccessful suicide attempts and is in hospital recovering from the last one. Elf wants Yoli to help her get it right next time, to help her to die. The narrative focuses in the main upon Yoli’s life amidst visits to her sister’s bedside, with flashbacks to their earlier lives, as Yoli grapples with the dilemma of assisting Elf’s suicide.

I have read that ‘All My Puny Sorrows‘ is based upon Toews’ personal experiences, even though it is a fictional work. My problem was that the book just didn’t sustain my interest; if it had been a long article in a Sunday newspaper supplement, I would have read it and enjoyed it, but as an entire novel I found it unsatisfying. There are lots of humorous moments, many of which would make fantastic soundbites – however a successful book is more than a jigsaw puzzle of quotes. I also find myself irritated by novels which don’t use speech marks; whilst dialogue and action are simultaneous in real life, I find it difficult to follow when they are not delineated on the page.

In its defence, I feel obliged to say that this novel  won the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. It was also shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the 2015 Folio Prize for Literature, and the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize. It was longlisted for the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Lots of people, including the lovely guy in Waterstones, clearly rate the book very highly, but it just didn’t work for me. Even though I really, really wanted it to.

Book No 26 (2015) : The Artificial Anatomy of Parks

anatomy of parksThe absolute best thing about Kat Gordon’s debut novel is the central character, Tallulah Park, often known as Tallie. She is twenty-one and she wants to be a nurse, but hasn’t got herself sorted out yet. Tallie lives in a grotty flat by herself and works as a waitress in a cheap cafe for a boss she hates. Her Dad is a doctor and she used to study his textbook, so her medical terminology and knowledge of anatomy is actually very good. This comes in handy when she gets a call from the hospital to say her father is unconscious in hospital following a heart attack. Tallie and her Dad’s sisters, Gillian and Vivienne, keep vigil by his bedside. It turns out though, that Tallie has not spoken to her Dad for 5 years and has lost contact with virtually all of her family other than a cousin, Starr. Using flashbacks to the past, the reasons for the rift between the emotionally damaged Tallulah and her family are gradually uncovered.

All of the characters in this novel are intriguing although I found the plot slightly less so. There is a big ‘reveal’ towards the end of the book which I would have preferred to have happened sooner, especially as the reader is made aware of the situation quite early on. It would have been interesting to see how Tallie re-adjusted after the revelation about her family.

The young Tallie really resonated with me. Gordon has captured very well the confusing world in which children sometimes live, catching snatches of adult conversation, witnessing behaviour they don’t understand and being fobbed off with half-hearted explanations. This is especially obvious when Tallie is bereaved and finds herself isolated from her peers. I read in the Acknowledgements that Tallulah was ‘a lot like’ Kat Gordon and wondered if the character was semi-autobiographical. Struggling with grief, not making friends and forming a close relationship with her grandmother, Tallie certainly brought to mind a younger me!

Thanks to NetGalley for the digital review copy of this book.

Book No 25 (2015) : The Versions of Us

versions of us

VERSION ONE

I loved it

This is a mightily clever book, constructed with the precision of a finely-tuned Swiss watch, hands sweeping through time. Jim Taylor and Eva Edelstein’s paths cross whilst they are under-graduates at Cambridge. They are drawn to one another and, after Jim has offered to fix the punctured tyre on Eva’s bike, he takes her for a drink. At least, that is what happens in Version One of their story. In Version Two, Eva and Jim barely speak to one another although he does check she is OK when she has to stop her bike suddenly to avoid a dog. And in Version Three of the tale, Jim sees Eva fall from her bike and, having stopped to help her, he falls as well. In love with her. Having been smitten instantly, Jim can’t bear to let her go and so he suggests they go to a pub on Barton Road.

So, there are three beginnings and each is the start of a different version of Jim and Eva’s lives. Apart and together, their stories weave through the years from 1958 to 2014. There are intersections between the various versions, marker points which anchor the narrative on common ground every now and again, to help readers keep their bearings.

The Versions of Us’ is an enchanting exploration of what our lives may have been if we had made different choices, or circumstances hadn’t been quite the same. The characters in the book are not chocolate-box stereotypes though; this is not a fluffy romance. Both Jim and Eva and their various partners and children are realistically flawed, they make both good and bad choices, have regrets and unfulfilled dreams. This debut novel (and it is hard to believe this is Laura Barnett’s first book) is a really absorbing read, already destined to be a summer hit.

VERSION TWO

I hated it

There are three versions of Jim and Eva’s lives and their stories weave through the years from 1958 to 2014.  Intersections between the various versions, marker points which anchor the narrative on common ground every now and again are supposed to help readers keep their bearings. But it was impossible to keep track of the thread of one version, especially once Jim and Eva started having families of their own and, by the later chapters, step-children and grand-children as well. Over 404 pages, by the end I was reading for the sake of it, still trying to piece together in my mind the past lives and context of the characters in the version I was reading. One reviewer said she got so frustrated that she tackled all the Version Ones first, then the Twos and Threes; I wish I’d thought of that!

Whilst there is no doubt that this is a mightily clever book, constructed with the precision of a finely-tuned Swiss watch, the framework of the book obscured the enjoyment. I feel as if the narrative suffered as a result of the format, and the author would have been more expansive if she hadn’t been constrained by the novel’s structure. It was difficult to really get under the skin of Eva and Jim as just when you are getting to know them, you skip chapter to another version of their lives.

As well as the confusion trying to keep track of the parallel narratives, the characters themselves lead rather joyless lives. Infidelity seemed to be the norm, relationships floundered, there was sickness, alcoholism, unfulfilment and death. Some more light and laughter wouldn’t have gone amiss.

VERSION THREE

I can’t make up my mind

Having taken quite some time to finish this book, mainly because at times I found it difficult to follow the versions of Jim and Eva’s lives, I am still unsure what I thought  of it. Whilst this debut novel (and it is hard to believe this is Laura Barnett’s first book) is a mightily clever book, constructed with the precision of a finely-tuned Swiss watch, there were parts of it where I was concentrating so much upon remembering which version I was in, that my enjoyment of the story was curtailed. It was almost as if I couldn’t relax into the experience!

But the writing itself is insightful and moving. Jim, Eva and their families are not given to extravagant proclamations of emotion, but there is nevertheless a powerful undercurrent in the book which highlights the every-dayness of love. Love which binds together couples, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends. It is not always an exciting, carefree emotion, but more one that forms the bedrock of our lives, if we are fortunate. Barnett expresses these ideas with a great sensitivity as Eva and Jim weave through the years from 1958 to 2014. There is some exquisite prose: in Part 2, Version 3 (Sandworms), Eva, trapped in an unhappy marriage, takes to the Suffolk coast with her mother and daughter. The writing was so poignant it made me cry, as it did towards the end of the novel.

The Versions of Us‘ is already destined to be a summer hit and I definitely think readers will get the most out of it when they can immerse themselves in Jim and Eva’s various worlds for a reasonable length of time – dipping in and out makes it harder to follow the three versions. It will also be a great book club choice as there is a lot to talk about!

Book No 24 (2015) : Shoes for Anthony

anthonyEmma Kennedy is an attractive blonde, born in Corby and educated at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. As far as I can tell, she has never been an eleven year-old boy. Which makes her first fiction novel for adults quite an achievement; Anthony’s schoolboy perspective is insightful, sensitive and amusing.

In WW2 Wales, Anthony’s Mam has more to worry about and pay for than shoes for her youngest child. With her pitworker husband and two sons, as well as daughter Bethan, plus Anthony and herself, there are a lot of mouths to feed on wartime rations. So Ant has to make do with hand-me-down wellies which make him smell like a ‘mouldy log.’ But Anthony doesn’t mind too much, although he does hoard a picture of his dream brogues. Times are tough but Ant has his mates, a group of lads from the village with whom he spends time scrapping, hanging out in the den, climbing, exploring and getting into boy scrapes. But everything changes the day that a German plane crashes into the mountain overlooking Treherbert. Its occupants are all dead when the villagers arrive. But they soon discover there was a survivor.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from the book as the only other thing I have read of Kennedy’s is the hilarious ‘The Tent, The Bucket and Me.’ ‘Shoes for Anthony‘ is quite different. The author herself describes it as a thriller, but that is not immediately apparent from the relatively slow start. However, the pace gradually picks up until one minute I was laughing and the next crying. This was a genuinely moving read, beautifully recounted and with a very special human touch. I thoroughly recommend it.

Even if your usual style is more Givenchy than galoshes, you are guaranteed to be captivated by Anthony and his wartime community.

Book No 23 (2015) : Song of the Sea Maid

song of the sea maidPersonally, I am not a big fan of fridge magnets with twee mottos, but there is one I do like. It says: “Well behaved women never made the history books“. If Dawnay Price, the protagonist of Rebecca Mascull’s second novel had been a real person, she would definitely have made the history books. In fact, she would probably have been writing them.

Dawnay (there is an explanation for her odd name, but I won’t spoil it) has a rotten start in life in mid-18thC London. A homeless ragamuffin, she lives a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets until a chance encounter sees her taken in by an orphanage. Once there, the young foundling risks being despatched to the workhouse by secretly teaching herself to read and write. Her efforts do not go unrewarded as when local benefactor Mr Woods agrees to educate a child, Dawnay is chosen. Under the dedicated tutelage of Mr Applebee, the naturally gifted Dawnay thrives. Intelligent, curious and determined, she is drawn to the wonders of the natural world and resolves to travel abroad in order to explore and develop some of her ideas about the origins of life, amongst other things. Achieving her ambition to see beyond the shores of Britain, Dawnay secures a passage to a small group of Portugese islands known as the Berlengas. A passionate love affair, natural disasters and the risk of being ostracised by polite society do not deter Dawnay from her chosen path as an explorer, scientist, philosopher and writer.

Firmly rooted in history, but not at all dense, this is an absorbing read. Dawnay reminded me just how much we take for granted in the West, including women’s education, free speech and some semblance of equal rights (although we still have a way to go!). Unfettered by social conventions, which were extremely rigid in the 1750s, she forges her own path in life. Her ideas are heretical yet she refuses to be subdued. This book is a testament to self-belief, intellect and hard work. With Tim Hunt’s comments about #distractinglysexy women in laboratories recently, ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ explores some extremely topical themes.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book; it is published today by Hodder & Stoughton. Although not a YA book per se, it would make a fantastic gift for any young female who is struggling with identity and finding her place in the world. ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ is a positive affirmation of what it is to be sexy and smart; the two are not mutually exclusive.

Book No 14 (2015) : The Narrow Road to The Deep North

narrow road 2To say that ‘The Narrow Road to The Deep North‘ is a book about the Burma Railway is like saying that The Titanic was a boat: it doesn’t do justice to either its magnitude or its lasting impression.

Dorrigo Evans is an Australian surgeon; his life is turned upside down when he embarks upon a passionate affair with Amy, the wife of his uncle. Despite her ‘perfect imperfections’, Dorry knows he has met the love of his life. WW2 erupts and Evans, a serving Army doctor, is captured by the Japanese and finds himself trying to save the lives of his comrades as they build a railway line under the orders of the Japanese Emperor. Thoughts of Amy sustain Evans but when he returns to Australia it is not to her, but to Ella. The war over, Dorrigo is feted as a hero but he cannot reconcile the horror of his experiences with a peacetime life in a loveless marriage. Interwoven alongside Evans’ story, are those of his Japanese captors, fellow prisoners and his lover. The beautifully-crafted plot is far more intricate than my brief summary allows and I felt some degree of closure when the final part of the novel’s three sections addresses the fates of some of the major characters once the war has ended.

Reading the middle section of the novel, which recounts life in the POW camp, was like watching a horror movie through my fingers. I literally just wanted it to stop: the heat, disease, violence, hunger, mud and shit. But for me these were words on a page. Knowing that the events are a fictionalised account, based upon the real experiences of Allied troops, heightened my revulsion. Some men had to live it, all I had to do was make it to the end of the chapter.

This novel moved me to tears several times; Flanagan describes emotion in a way which seems to capture the very essence of what it is to be human. This has been by far the hardest review I have tried to write on this blog; every version I’ve drafted has been deleted because it failed to convey just how this book affected me. Like a louse on a POW, Flanagan’s book niggled away at me, making me return to it time and time again to rasp at its layers of meaning, even though the process was painful. Now it’s over, I’m sure this book has left a scar on my mind, which will twitch like an old wound when I come across accounts of the Death Railway.

Book No 9 (2014) : Enquiry

enquiryThere are many famous authors whose books I have never even considered reading. Given that I need to make my way through 50 volumes this year, I decided I need to move out of my literary comfort zone, which tends towards classic novels and contemporary literary fiction. I’m prepared to admit to a certain reluctance to attempt writing which I perceive to be too popular. OK, I am getting to be a bit of a book snob in my old age! To counteract this creeping pomposity, I decided to sample the work of some writers whose names I instantly recognise, but dismiss as being not quite ‘my thing’. Dick Francis was the first of these household names which I have hitherto completely ignored!

‘Enquiry’ was chosen at random from a shelf in the charity shop. According to reviews though, I luckily picked one of Francis’ classics. The book is a mystery thriller, concerned with the enquiry conducted following jockey Kelly Hughes’ second place finish in the Lemonfizz Cup. His failure to win arouses suspicion of betting irregularity – both Hughes and his trainer (Cranfield) have their licenses withdrawn, leaving the yard facing ruin. Hughes is convinced he has been framed and sets out to prove it. The trail causes him to question many in his racing circle and sends him to private investigators and Jockey Club dinners. No doubt about it, Hughes is a sexy hero – he’s gritty, witty, determined, and drives a Lamborghini!

There was nothing at all to dislike about the book; the characters are somewhat stereotyped, but still credible. It’s cleverly plotted, fast-moving and leaves no loose threads at the end.

I can’t say I’d rush to read many more Dick Francis but I’ll try anything once.

Apart from Sophie Kinsella, that is.