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 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 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 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 12 (2015) : The Light Behind the Window

light windowLucinda Riley spins a cracking good yarn. Her books are never going to change the world, but for a few days of engrossing reading, I find them unbeatable. I read and reviewed ‘The Midnight Rose last year and I enjoyed ‘The Light Behind the Window‘ just as much.

When her mother dies, Emillie inherits a large fortune, including a house in Paris and a country château. Unmarried and with no other immediate family, she feels overwhelmed by the decisions and choices she has to make regarding the estate. When Sebastian, an English arts dealer, sweeps her off her feet, she is reassured by his competence. The couple discover that they have a common link, as Seb’s grandmother (Connie) spent much of World War 2 in France and was acquainted with Emillie’s father, Edouard de Martinières. Once married to Sebastian, Emillie divides her time between France and her husband’s family home, a large but shabby house in Yorkshire. As the renovations to the château begin, Emillie unearths secrets which reveal she may not be as alone in the world as she believes.

The novel is told in alternate timeframes, Connie’s and Emillie’s. Their characters are not deeply developed as the story is moved along largely through the plot, which has a great many twists and turns. Although the WW2 elements of the book clearly have some basis in fact, there are a number of unlikely coincidences; but I didn’t care. This is like Enid Blyton for grown-ups and, every once in a while, a fairy tale is just the escape from reality I need.

Film No 45 (2014) : Goodnight Mister Tom

Mr TomWhen I was a child, just starting to get interested in books, my authors of choice were Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild, SE Hinton and later some classics. Neither Jacqueline Wilson nor Michael Murpurgo books had appeared yet, nor had Michelle Magorian‘s ‘Goodnight Mister Tom‘. It was first published in 1981 and I didn’t read it until one of my children had to study it at school and I needed to keep up. (I find myself increasingly having to run to stay level with my kids these days). I found the book to have an enduring story, fragments of which often scoot across my memory several years later. I have seen two stage productions of the work and enjoyed them immensely. The film version of ‘Goodnight Mister Tom‘ was released in 1998 and shown on TV over the Christmas break.

William Beech is evacuated from London during WW2, and billeted with Tom Oakley (John Thaw), a widower whose cottage overlooks the churchyard. Tom and William form an unlikely friendship, to the extent that when Tom does not hear from William once he has been returned to his mother, Tom sets off for London to find him. What he discovers is deeply shocking, but Tom will not be deterred in his efforts to give the boy a better life.

John Thaw is suitably curmudgeonly and Nick Robinson (not that Nick Robinson!) puts in a fine performance as the young William, gradually coming out of his shell and throwing off some of the anxieties he has brought with him from the city.

Filmed in Turville, Bucks (less than 10 miles from where I live, but I’ve never been there), I am sure the film affords a romanticised and somewhat sanitised interpretation of the evacuees experience. Nevertheless, as 108 minutes of entertainment, I loved it. ‘Goodnight Mister Tom’ has earned its place as a modern classic; both the book and the film will be ones for sharing with my grandchildren one day.

Book No 45 (2014) : All the Light We Cannot See

all the lightIf it wasn’t for the fact that I fell asleep at 2.00am, holding this paperback until the words were swimming on the page, I would have read Anthony Doerr‘s ‘All the Light We Cannot See‘ in one sitting. Considering the novel is 530 pages long, that is saying something, and my tenacity was not just because of my 50-book target for the year. This is one of the best books I have read in 2014. It was top of my Christmas list and I got started on Boxing Day!

The blurb focuses on the two central characters in the novel; Marie-Laure Leblanc is a young blind girl living with her locksmith father in Paris. Werner Pfennig is a German orphan with a feverish interest in science and a natural knack for fixing radios; his talent affords him the opportunity to enter a National Political Institute of Education, a military academy. When war breaks out, the Leblanc  leave the city to make for firstly Evreux, then St Malo on the Northern coast of France. Werner continues his training and is sent to war, using mathematical and practical skills to track down enemy broadcasters. The teenagers’ lives intersect for a short, but unforgettable space in time.

Although I penned that sketchy synopsis, you could have discovered one for yourself online; but what a book-jacket can’t convey as well is how Doerr’s writing draws you in, as if you are a fly caught in an intricate web. There are threads which lead you further and further into the centre of the story, nothing is insignificant, no details are wasted, until everything pulls together into a tight pattern. Doerr evokes the magic of childhood imagination as Etienne flies with Marie-Laure on the Magical Couch, the courage of resistance as Mme Manec joins with other Malouins to undermine the enemy, the pull of the sea, humour, comradeship and so much more.

And what about the title? What are the lights we cannot see? Both Marie-Laure and Werner find themselves trapped in darkness but are inspired and courageous nevertheless. The beacons which guide them through the blackness cannot be seen, but still shine brightly; love, hope, friendship, belief, bravery – all of these can lead us out of the gloom.

Writing about this book has focused my mind more carefully on what I am doing here on this blog than probably any of  the other works I have reviewed. If you want to know what a book is about, probably best to look on Waterstones website and read a synopsis, but if you are looking for a recommendation for a book you might enjoy – read this one!

 

Book No 25 (2014) : The Gift of Rain

rainMy favourite book of all time is ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier and my list of top 10 novels has remained pretty much unchanged for quite a long time. However, one recent addition to my Greatest Books was Tang Twan Eng’s Booker-Prize winning ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’. It was with some hesitation that I embarked upon ‘The Gift of Rain’, wondering if I would be disappointed after awarding its successor with the highest personal honour I able to bestow! As it turns out, I need not have worried.

‘The Gift of Rain’ is Tan’s first novel and was itself listed for the Booker Prize. This work was one of those rare things for me – a book which seemed to sink into the very pores of my body. Whilst I was reading it, I was completely transported. Even when I wasn’t actually reading it, the images it conjured were still swimming around in my head. When I’d finished reading, I felt as if a constant companion had suddenly vanished from my life.

Set in Malaya in the 1940s, the novel is the story of Philip Hutton, a young man of Anglo-Chinese parentage. Philip forms a relationship with a Japanese diplomat, Hayato Endo, a master in the martial art aikido who undertakes to teach Philip his skills. When war breaks out, the Malay communities refuse to believe that the Japanese will invade their territory. When Philip learns the truth from Endo, his sole aim is to safeguard his family from the malevolence of the occupying forces. His decision to collaborate with the Japanese sets in motion a train of events which distances Philip from the very people he seeks to protect. But the bond with Endo-san cannot be broken. Their destinies are linked from previous lives until the end of time.

This book was an experience for me, not just a good read. It was almost like watching a weaver work on a loom. As the shuttle moves across the threads of the warp, the author lays down the pattern. But it is only as the fabric grows, that the full picture begins to emerge. You have to see the novel in its entirety to appreciate its intricacies. To begin with the book is subtle and slow-moving, but this pace begins to speed until by the last third of the book, you  are reading a page-turning thriller.

I’d like to be able to think of a natty phrase to end my review but I can’t think of anything fitting. I simply loved this book.

Book No 5 (2014) : Painter of Silence

painter of silenceThis novel was described so eloquently by a friend at our last village Book Group meeting, that I swiped it out of her hands there and then! Written by Georgina Harding, ‘Painter of Silence’ was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012 – although it did lose out to Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’.

Augustus and Safta are raised together in Romania. He is the son of the cook, she is the daughter of the house at Poiana. They share an unbreakable bond, made all the more poignant by the fact that whilst Augustus is a talented artist, he is profoundly deaf and never acquires language. He watches quietly, observes the behaviour and senses the mood of others, although the world is frequently a bewildering place for him. Safta and Augustus are separated by the outbreak of WW2 and the invasion of the Russian armies, but they are reunited when Augustus seeks her out at the hospital where she has enlisted as a nurse. Through the medium of his drawings and mini figurines, Augustus draws upon his memories to portray to Safta the story of his life and the fate of her pre-War lover. The ending is both surprising and satisfying.

It’s a beautifully atmospheric book, underlining the importance of place and suffused throughout with Safta’s gentle care for Augustus. I recommend it.