Saturday, 18 December 2010

Broken Things

Broken Things by Padrika Tarrant

Bought this one more or less at random from Salt Publishing. I thought I was buying a novel, as it was described as the author's 'first full-length work' but it isn't a novel. It's a collection of beautifully written but weird and somewhat disturbing short pieces. Some are subtly connected to others, and all are connected by their themes of broken things - both objects and minds. They're not really stories - many have no plot. They're more like cameos.

It's the kind of book where every now and again you have to read a sentence several times, because you just love the phrases used. And some of the images will stay with me for a long time. See the excerpt on the link above, for an example.

Monday, 13 December 2010

This Thing of Darkness

This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson

My 15-year old bought this one for my birthday. It's a whopper of a book, nearly 800 pages. And every one of them brilliant.

It covers the story of the voyage of the Beagle in the 1830s. Yes, that Beagle, which carried Charles Darwin on the journey which helped him formulate his theories of evolution. It is the tale of both Darwin and Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the Beagle and a scientist in his own right. The book follows them both during the voyage and in the years afterwards, until FitzRoy's death thirty years later. It is action and adventure on the high seas, and also shows the unfolding of ideas which ultimately led to The Origin of Species.

I can't do it justice here, but if you like action, if you like science, if you like historical, you'll love this book. (If you're into fluffy romance give it a miss!)

Saturday, 20 November 2010


Homecoming by Catrin Collier

My 12-year old bought this for me for my birthday. He was enticed by the cover, read the blurb and decided it was a Mum book.

It's the third in a series, which I didn't realise, though part way through I guessed it must be. The characters were related to each other in such complex ways - two friend married to two brothers, a third friend married to the father of the first, and a fourth friend whose mother is married to the uncle of the second. And they all live in each other's basement or attic flats. I was confused for a while, but now I realise it's part of a trilogy that explains it all!

It's set in the 1950s, and deals with the subject of pregancies, wanted and unwanted. Helen's husband is back from his National Service in Cyprus. While there, he had a brief fling with an officer's widow which has left her pregnant, while Helen can't have children. Two of Helen's friends are also pregnant. As is another girl, the flatmate of the fourth friend, out of wedlock. The plot rattles along at a fair old pace, much of the story being told via dialogue between the various characters. I didn't get much of a sense of place, though the book is set in South Wales. I also found the overuse of dialogue tags quite overbearing after a while - my personal preference is to stick to 'said' most of the time, use other tags sparingly.

The best thing about this book (apart from it being a thoughtful present from my darling!) is the depiction of 1950s attitudes towards pregnancy. The unwanted babies are born in a home for unmarried mothers, and reading about it made me very glad to have been a product of a different, more accepting era.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Dog with Nine Lives

The Dog With Nine Lives by Della Galton

Lovely heart-warming true story of how Della rescues a dog and her puppies from a beach in Greece, then brings the mother home to England. The dog, Lindy, seems to have more than her fair share of luck and survives all sorts of near-death experiences, from being swept away in a river to cancer.

You definitely need a box of tissues to hand - Della is the queen of writing powerful emotional womag fiction and brings all her experience with her writing this non-fiction.

It's a short book, easily read in one or two evenings, and highly recommended.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Tipping the Velvet

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

I'm a fan of Sarah Waters and rate her book Nightwatch as one of my all-time favourites. It took me a long time to get around to Tipping the Velvet though - sounded too raunchy and lesbian for my tastes! But when I came across it in my local WHS and felt desperate for a book I knew would be brilliantly written, I decided to go for it.

Raunchy - yes, lesbian - yes, well-written - yes. Not as good as her other books though, but then it was written earlier and most writers improve over time!

It's 1895. Nancy Astley falls for a variety show star - Kitty Butler whose act is to dress up as a man and sing saucy songs. They meet, and Nan becomes Kitty's dresser and moves to London with her to play the bigger theatres. In time they become lovers, and partners on stage. But Kitty is ashamed of her sexuality and eventually drops Nan to marry her agent. Heartbroken Nan finds comfort in continuing to dress as a boy, and becomes a 'male' prostitute, providing hand & mouth jobs in back alleys. She then gets picked up by a rich sapphist, and spends a year or so as a live-in plaything, until after being caught with the maid she's thrown out. Finally she finds friendship which grows into love with another girl.

The novel is an enjoyable read, and as you'd expect, romps along. It's not without its flaws though - there's a scene near the end where all Nan's ex-lovers just happen to be all attending the same socialist rally, so Nan can meet with all of them and gain closure.

But for fans of Waters or anyone with an open mind and a love of Victorian-set fiction, read it and enjoy!

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Devil's Acre

The Devil's Acre by Matthew Plampin

Proof that Amazon's 'you might also like' strategy works - this was a recommendation via Amazon when I was buying something else, and it enticed me so I bought it. I've been reading lots of novels set in the nineteenth century lately. This one is set in the early 1850s in London. The Houses of Parliament are still being built, behind Westminster Abbey is a slum area known as the Devil's Acre.

The book is a fiction based on fact, and tells the tale of the short-lived Colt gun factory set on the banks of the Thames. There's lots of political manoevreing as the larger-than-life character of Samuel Colt attempts to get the government to buy his weapons for the forthcoming war with Russia. A group of disaffected Irish work in the factory and are trying to smuggle guns out for their own purposes. The novel is told mostly from the point of view of Colt's (fictional) secretary, an ambitious young man who falls in love with a factory girl who has been forced into helping the Irish mob. He (Lowry) is torn between wanting to improve his chances by working hard for Colt, his love for the girl, and his unease about the arms trade. It's a fascinating novel, covering a very interesting period of history, and is a good example of bringing actual historical figures to life.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

After a massive stroke, the author was left with movement only in one eyelid. By blinking as letters of the alphabet were read out, he dictated this book about what it's like living with locked-in syndrome. Sadly, he died just after the book was first published in France.

It's an amazing achievement, and is the sort of book which makes you realise how lucky you are and how wonderful life is. Bauby writes with eloquence, warmth and wry humour.

When writing about how he insisted on being dressed in his own clothes, not hospital gowns, he writes: I see in the clothes a symbol of continuing life. And proof that I still want to be myself. If I must drool, I may as well drool on cashmere. Attaboy.

EVERYONE SHOULD READ THIS BOOK, and remind yourself of what it means to be alive.

The Colour

The Colour by Rose Tremain

This was a second-hand buy from the community centre. Set in the 1860s in New Zealand, it follows a couple who have emigrated from Norfolk to make a new life down under. Joseph is running from something, unknown to his wife Harriet. They start with a farm, then Joseph discovers 'the colour' in the creek running through their land. The colour means gold. Joseph then pans for gold on his land, abandoning the farming dream, then abandons Harriet to go to the wild west coast (of NZ south island) in search of wealth.

But it is really Harriet's story, for she is the one who learns to love the expanse of the country. She follows Joseph, and when she believes he has died, she embarks on another, physical love affair.

This is a great story - lots happening, beautiful description, a wonderful evocation of another time and place, more brutal than the one we know but with its own allure. Must read more by this author.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

My So-called Haunting

My So-called Haunting by Tamsyn Murray

What's known chez womagwriter as a 'buddy book' - ie I know the author! Tam has built an incredible world of ghosts and psychics in this, and her previous book My So-called Afterlife. In this one, teenage Skye has a troubled teenage ghost who was killed in a gang shooting to help, and has her own troubles with her boyfriend, handsome bad boy Nico. A lively, humourous and warm book, and one that isn't scared to tackle big themes. The end, while satisfying, doesn't tie up all the strands of the novel and leaves you desperate for Tam's third novel, My So-called Phantom Lovelife which isn't yet published!
If you've got teenage girls in your house I'd say this series is a must.

The Dead Secret

The Dead Secret - Wilkie Collins

Collins wrote this book not long before his classic, The Woman in White. There are some similarities - this too is a mystery story.
A secret, contained in a note dictated by a woman on her deathbed, is the central mystery in this story. Dictated by Mrs Treverton to her maid, but never passed to Mr Treverton as his wife had requested. Years later, Mrs Treverton's daughter gets to hear of the existence of the secret and is determined to find it out, though it's to her own cost.
I was particularly interested in the theme of illegitimacy in this novel, and Victorian attitudes to it, and the class to which you were born.
It's an enjoyable novel - at times too melodramatic and sentimental for modern tastes, but a great mystery, lots of suspense, and plenty of humour in some of the minor characters.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Last Time They Met

The Last Time They Met - Anita Shreve

I picked this one up for 10p from the community centre bookstall. I've had a bit of a mixed relationship with Anita Shreve books - adored Light on Snow and bought several more of hers on the strength of that one, but though I quite liked them I wasn't blown away. But for 10p you can't go wrong and I thought it would make a change from the historical fiction.

Well, I loved it. Really a very good read, and amazingly put together. It reads backwards - you start with the couple aged 52, go on to read a section when they are 27 and end with them at 17. (The only other novel I've read with this structure is Sarah Waters' Nightwatch, another brilliant book.)

It's a love story. Two writers meet at a conference in Toronto - they haven't seen each other for 24 years. They reminisce. They are clearly each others' soul mates, but somehow circumstances have kept them apart. The reader pieces together their past from their conversation. They get together, and it is so right, so perfect. Then we are with them the last time they met, aged 27, in Africa, both married to other people, but unable to keep apart from each other. And finally, we find out how they met, aged 17, at school.

Initially I was irritated by certain aspects of this book. The quirky punctuation around speech. The introspectiveness of the characters. And I wondered how on earth it could reach a satistfying end, when it was going backwards to what must be the beginning? But it all made perfect sense in the end, and I finished the book knowing it could not have been put together in any other way.

Thoroughly recommended, whether or not you're a fan of Shreve.

Sunday, 29 August 2010


Wedlock by Wendy Moore

Subtitled, How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match.

And my word, he was indeed Georgian Britain's worst husband! I was drawn to this book by its eye-catching cover, and as my current writing project covers a period from Georgian to mid-Victorian times, I thought it would count as research. Plus I like a bit of biography now and again.

This book was unputdownable - it read like a novel. Mary Eleanor Bowes (an ancestor of the Queen) was Britain's wealthiest heiress when her first husband died, and became prey to a fortune-hunting Irish ex-army captain. He managed to charm her, then tricked her into marrying him by fighting a sham duel in her honour, and being apparently on his deathbed persuaded her to grant the last wish of a dying man. He was carried to the altar to make his vows, then made a miraculous and swift recovery. He then proceeded to abuse Mary, physically and mentally, for the ensuing eight years while he did his best to gamble his way through as much of her fortune as he could get his hands on. Eventually she, with the help of trusty maidservants, managed to escape and whilst in hiding, began divorce proceedings against him. In those days it was more or less impossible to divorce, and even if you did, you could not remarry. The law was biased in favour of the husband, and a divorced woman would certainly not be granted custody of any children. But Mary had a good case, and it all looked hopeful, when her husband found out where she was living and managed to abduct her, and take her on the run. She then endured appalling abuse which nearly killed her, before she was rescued. Her husband was convicted of abduction and later of non-payment of debts, but through contacts, charm and money managed to live quite comfortably while supposedly in prison. Poor Mary died before him, though she was able to live her last years peacefully and safely - interestingly for me, her last abode was within a mile of my home!

This book was completely brilliant. Fascinating and well-written, I did not want it to end. The author has written another biography - of Georgian surgeon John Hunter (who is a bit-part player in Wedlock) - and I have just ordered that too.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Holiday reading

Had two weeks camping in Spain, and read the following books:

Sweet Thames - Matthew Kneale
I enjoyed English Passengers so much I had to try something else by the same author. This one is set in Victorian London, and is all about the development of the sewers. Sounds like a delightful topic, no? It's a great book, though not a patch on English Passengers. Well written unusual story which rattles along nicely. Young Joshua Jeavons has married the daughter of his boss, but she has refused his attentions since they married. When she goes missing he has to go searching, and it turns his life upside down as he finds himself among the low-life of London. The sewers run through the novel in more ways than one.

The Hearts and Lives of Men - Fay Weldon
I'm a long term fan of Fay Weldon so when I spotted this one at the community centre bookstall I had to snap it up. Very enjoyable and written from an arch omniscient point of view. It begins in the sixties, in the world of artists and art-dealers, and spans the following twenty years. Clifford and Helen fall madly in love, marry, have a child, and divorce. It takes them a while but eventually they remarry. Their child, meanwhile, becomes a tug of love child and is lost presumed dead in a plane crash. But she survives (aged 4) and undergoes several adventures before finally being reunited with her parents as an adult. A great book with a happy ending, and worth reading as an example of stylish omniscience.

The Legacy - Katherine Webb
I was once a member at and still get their newsletters, which is where I heard of this book, published following rave reviews at YWO. They were well-founded - I loved this book. It reminded my of Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum - repressed childhood memories and a historical story unwinding side by side with the current day story. Erica and Beth have inherited their grandmother's house. Erica's fascinated by the past and is trying to uncover distant secrets of her grandmother and great-grandmother. Meanwhile, being in the house where they spent summer childhoods is uncovering more recent secrets - what happened to their cousin Henry who disappeared there one summer?

Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier
This is the tale of Mary Anning, the fossil-finder of Lyme Regis, and her middle-class spinster friend Elizabeth. Lyme Regis is just down the coast from me, and fictionalising the lives of real people is a literary idea close to my heart at present... Plus I've loved previous novels from Tracy Chevalier so this was a must-read for me. It didn't disappoint. It starts when Mary is just a girl, who has 'the eye' and can spot the fossils on the beach and in the cliff. She and her family are scraping together a living selling them. When she befriends Elizabeth Philpot, the older woman helps her sell the larger specimens, but both, as women, struggle to gain recognition for their efforts. They become rivals in love but ultimately are reunited. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Basil - Wilkie Collins

This was Collins's second published novel. I'm reading a lot of Victorian novels at the moment, both those written in that era and those about that era. Collins is always good to read for research, as he wrote about social issues of the time. Basil, though not as good as his better-known novels - The Woman in White, or The Moonstone - is enjoyable and also educational about just how shocking adultery and marrying outside your class were considered in the mid 1800s.

A young man from a rich and noble family falls in love at first sight with a tradesman's daughter. He marries her in secret, but is forced by her father to agree not to live as man and wife for a year. Just as he's about to claim her she is unfaithful, and hence starts a tragic chain of events.

This book gave me an insight into just how serious class issues were at that time. Basil's father cuts him out of the family completely when he finds out about the marriage. He'd have preferred almost any other form of bad behaviour from Basil than this. His reaction shocks today's readers probably in a similar way to how the depiction of adultery shocked the novel's first readers in the 1850s.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Rose of Sebastopol

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

I bought this one for 10p from a community centre book sale, and what a bargain it turned out to be! I'm immersing myself in novels writtten during or about the Victorian period at the moment, and this one was a cracker.

Set during the Crimean war. Repressed Mariella is engaged to doctor Henry Thewell. He, and Mariella's cousin captivating and headstrong Rosa go separately to the Crimea, to lend their services in the hospitals there. News arrives that Henry is sick, and has come back as far as Italy. Rosa's letters cease. Mariella and a maid, Nora, go first to Italy and then find themselves drawn to the war in search of Rosa. Mariella has to face uncomfortable truths as she realises Henry has fallen in love with Rosa. She uses her impressive sewing skills to make herself useful in the Crimean hospitals, and continues the hunt for Rosa. During this time she changes from being a shallow, ineffectual young girl to a strong, determined woman. She finds love, she finds Rosa, but the real story is that she finds herself.

I very much enjoyed this novel, and will certainly search out more by this author.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Historic Worthing - the Untold Story

By Chris Hare

Read this to add to my family history research. As with the other book of Chris's I read, it's entertaining and well-written. I learned so much - who would have thought that staid old Worthing, home to thousands of retirees, was once a hotbed of rioting every Bonfire Night? And I never, ever imagined that the following three words would be used together in a section heading: Salvation Army Riots.

To find out more, track down a copy of the book! I bought mine second hand at a Family History Fair. In Worthing, of course.

Friday, 18 June 2010


Pins by Christine Todd

One of my support-a-small-press purchases, which I heard about first on Sally Zigmond's blog (again). Molly finds concrete evidence her husband's been playing away, and buys voodoo dolls of him and his lover to stick pins in. Next morning her husband wakes up dead of an aneurysm.

Molly's guilt-ridden, and worried when the handsome detective seems to take quite an interest in her. As the months pass she finds hubby had a string of lovers, and had been undermining her ad agency business. She rebuilds her business as she rebuilds her life, and eventually realises the detective's interest in her is personal rather than professional. A year on, there's hope for her future.

It's a novel about finding yourself, being who you need to be rather than who someone else expects you to be. Why did her husband keep hurting her like that? Well, says the wise funeral-director character, probably because he wanted to.

I enjoyed this novel - it's written in first person present tense and has a snappy style. It's quite American in places (set in Chicago; the author is English but lived for years in the US) and there's plenty of humour. Couple of small points didn't work for me - Molly had a secondary career as a non-fiction writer and had this career to get back on track as well which seemed unnecessary. (Why do writers so often make their characters writers as well?) Related to this, she was writing gardening articles but preferred to sell her marital home with a big garden and look for a high rise condo which she felt was more 'her'. I'd have had the properties the other way round.

Overall a good read and definitely recommended.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Talking to the Dead

Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore

I bought this for 10p from the community centre book stall. Beautifully, poetically written. The setting is an old country house, during a very hot summer. You feel the oppressive heat, and almost long for the inevitable storm to clear the air.

Nina is helping her sister Isabel after a difficult birth. She becomes attracted to Isabel's husband and they begin an affair. Nina and Isabel have always been close, and you start to think, maybe too close. The presence of the baby, who Nina doesn't seem to relate to as you'd expect her to, brings back memories of the girls' brother who died from cot death. Or so the story goes. Nina begins to have different recollections of her childhood days.

Isabel's a delicate character - she has an eating disorder and is agarophobic. But we begin to learn what might have caused her problems as she struggles to regain her health after the birth.

The storm, when it comes, is shocking and upsetting. This is not a cheery read, but it's a beautifully written book and I'd recommend it to fans of Dunmore.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

English Passengers

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

Wow, this was a good book. I mean, a really good book. Up there with Cloud Atlas as one of the best books I have ever read. In some ways it reminded me of Cloud Atlas - all the different voices in each section of the book, and there're some similarities between this book and one of the Cloud Atlas novellas.

In the 1850s, a mad English vicar, a doctor with unsettling theories about the relative merits of different human 'types', and a lazy youth whose parents want to make a man of him, inadvertently charter a Manx smuggling vessel, not knowing that stowed in the hold are barrels of brandy and other contraband. They are destined for Tasmania, which the vicar believes is the true site of the Garden of Eden. The smuggling vessel is on the run from English customs officials.

There's drama on the oceans, and when the expedition reaches Tasmania and treks through the bush they meet with life and death situations. I can't explain the whole plot, there is way too much of it, but there's humour, farce and drama throughout. Threaded through the tale of the three hapless Englishmen is the history of Tasmania's aboriginal population. This is one of those books where you learn some history as you read on - white settlers exterminated the entire population within about 30 years. There are some shocking incidents, based on actual history.

The novel's narrated in sections by different characters - an aborigine, the ship's captain, the vicar, the doctor, the youth, and shorter sections by other minor characters. Each one has a wholly different voice - you hardly need to read the section heading to know who's talking. It's a great book to read to see how this can be done, and the effectiveness of using different voices for each character.

I was blown away by this book, did not want to get to the end though I did want to know what happened to all the characters. Very satisfying ending. Thoroughly recommended - if you like historical novels you will love this one

Friday, 14 May 2010

Living In Perhaps

Living In Perhaps by Julia Widdows

Bought this one after reading a review on Sally Zigmond's blog (she has great taste in books, so I just follow her around like a puppy...).

Really enjoyed it. Brilliantly written, cleverly drawn unreliable narrator who you know you just can't trust from one page to the next. But what I loved most was the details of sixties suburbia, so beautifully observed. The author has created a world which felt so real I was really there. Carol's adopted, feels alienated from her family, isn't sure who she is, prefers visiting the eccentric neighbours, and living in her made-up world in which she's far more important.

The ending was left hanging - up to the reader what to believe. After all, the narrator's been lying all through, so who knows what really happened?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

A spot of social history

I've just finished reading 'Through the Hard Times and the Good' by Chris Hare. This is a non-fiction book, a social history of Worthing from the early 1930s. It focusses on the creation and works of the organisation now known as Guild Care, which was previously known as Worthing Council for Social Services, and was a forerunner of the welfare state in Worthing.

The reason I bought and read this book is because I've been researching my family history, and my mum's side of the family are all from Worthing. Not only that, but my great-aunt was one of the original founders of Guild Care. In fact, she seems to have been something of a saint. I never met her - she was dead long before I was born - but I'd heard she was 'a bit of a charity worker'. Well that's the understatement of the century. She worked tirelessly, for no pay, for decades, helping Worthing's poor, needy and elderly. Some examples - she arranged for free dental treatment for children, care homes for the elderly, nursery provision for the young. A memo arrived from the Government, suggesting the setting up of Citizen's Advice Bureaus. My great-aunt got straight on to that the next day, and Worthing was the first town to get a CAB. Methold House, Guild Care's HQ in Worthing, is named after her.

This was a very readable book, well researched and illustrated. I feel I got to know my great-aunt as a result of it. It would be of interest to anyone interested in social history, or the history of Worthing.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Wasted by Nicola Morgan

I bought this one because I follow Nicola's blog, and she seemed so excited about this book's publication, I wanted to see what it was all about. It's a YA novel. Sadly I am not a YA, and therefore am not its intended audience. Also I now realised that I didn't actually realise what a YA novel really is. I suppose I thought it meant roughly the same as a crossover novel, ie one meant for kids but which also appeals to adults, like the Harry Potter series. But no, Wasted is an entirely different thing. It's aimed, I would say, at older teenagers. Fifteen and upwards. I think I'd have loved it when I was seventeen.

Actually I should rephrase that. I think I would first have loved it aged seventeen. I'm 44 now, and loved it anyway. When I bought it, I thought I'd pass it on to my kids. My older son (now 15) might like it in couple of years time (though there are no battling Romans or exploding orcs in it, so his tastes will need to broaden first). My younger son (now 12) is definitely too young for some of the themes.

That's what surprised me most about this book - the underage drinking, getting into clubs on false ids, spiked drinks, knife crime, alcoholism. Yes, all this goes on in real life. Yes, I guess all kids of the target audience range will be aware, to a greater or lesser extent, of all this. But I was surprised these things make it into books aimed at teens. (That's why I said I realise now I didn't know what YA fiction really was. When I was that age, there was no such genre. When you grew out of Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome, you read your mum's Catherine Cooksons and Shirley Conrans, or your dad's Arthur C Clarks. Well, that's what I did anyway. It was that or my brother's Commando comics.)

Anyway the novel's been an education to me, in many ways. So what did I think of it?

Well, as I said, I loved it. Great voice. I would have said I don't like third person present tense, but it's absolutely right for this book. The language is simple and slightly staccato, but the prose is so well-formed it pulls you along quickly. The viewpoint is omniscient, we are hovering over the action, knowing everyone's thoughts, being given hints all through that tiny actions and decisions the characters make now are going to have unguessable and far-reaching consequences for them.

Because that's what the book's about - chance and luck, and infinite possible futures.

The time frame of the book is those halcyon days at the end of the summer term, when you've finished your last exams and are therefore free to do what you like. Jess joins a band and falls in love with Jack. Jack's obsessed with tossing a coin to make decisions, to make a sacrifice to fate in order to ward off bad luck. There's a gang of tarty girls who've got it in for the pair of them. Some bad stuff happens. Some bad stuff nearly happens. As the novel progresses, two versions of some chapters are given, to show how tiny differences can have huge effects on events. At the end the reader is invited to toss a coin to decide the final outcome. (I got heads. Sorry, Jack.)

It's a very unusual book, in terms of the voice, the theme and the structure. I hope it does very well.

Monday, 26 April 2010

The Missing

By Juliet Bates (Linen Press)

I bought The Missing following a review by Sally Zigmond, which led me to the Linen Press website. I also read a piece by Linen Press publisher Lynn Michell in which I was appalled to find that she makes a LOSS on every book sold via Amazon. Well I knew small presses made a lot less through Amazon than by selling direct, but to make a loss!?! I resolved to always buy small press books direct from the publisher, and also to try to buy about half my books from small presses in future.

Anyway, what about the book? It appealed to me because of the mystery element - who was this woman who may or may not be Anastasia, daughter of the Tsar? I've recently read another book about the end of the Russian royal family so was familiar with the events. But The Missing is an altogether different book, with themes of missing persons (of course!), and missing memories. How we rewrite our memories to fit with what we want to believe, now.

Journalist Frances is in Paris, trying to track down a woman named Ania believed by some to be Anastasia. But she's also trying to track down her past, her mother who walked out when she was six. And is she trying to find herself as well? There are stories within the story here - different versions of Ania's history given by different characters, and different takes on episodes in Frances's past as well.

Throughout the prose is beautiful, descriptive and melancholy. It carried me along in a gentle and seductive way, and I enjoyed the book immensely.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Hope Against Hope

Hope Against Hope By Sally Zigmond

Romping Victorian drama - two sisters separated by circumstances at the dawn of the Victorian era, when railways were the New Best Thing. We follow their fortunes in Harrogate and Paris, and eventually they're reunited.

Lovely memorable characters. Great plot. And Harrogate itself becomes a character - I love it when the setting becomes alive like this, without reams of description. It was a page-turner, a book for the beach. I should have left it for my summer holidays but couldn't.

I like historical fiction and am drawn to literary historical novels more than the family saga type. This one fell cleverly somewhere in between.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Affinity - Sarah Waters

I'm a big fan of Sarah Waters' books. I love historical fiction, and her World War II book, The Night Watch, was one of the best books I've ever read. So when I spotted Affinity while browsing idly in WHSmith one day I decided to treat myself.

I wasn't disappointed. While it didn't knock The Night Watch off my top spot, it was hugely enjoyable and hard to put down. I found myself curled up out of the wind, beside a stream which fed into Buttermere lake, reading it last week. Was annoyed when the rest of the family wanted to get on with the walk.

It's a spooky tale of a Victorian spinster who becomes involved with a woman in Millbank prison. The woman's been convicted of assault - she's a spirit medium and something went wrong at one of her sittings, a girl got hurt and her patron died of a heart attack. As the story progresses and the spinster becomes more and more involved with the convict, you have to decide whether the ghostly happenings are real or fraudulent. You're sucked into liking the convict character, so you want to believe her, but is she for real?

Monday, 29 March 2010

Bit of biography

Just read Alistair Duncan's The Norwood Author. It's a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, covering the few years he spent living in Norwood. During this time he wrote several Sherlock Holmes stories including the notorious one where he kills off his hero.

I bought this one following reading an interview with the author on Helen Hunt's blog, and reading her review of the book on Bookersatz. A pleasant enough quick read, though I expect appeals more to diehard Sherlockians more than to me. I was hoping for a little more social history, I guess, as I'm fascinated by Victorian times. There were bits of it, but not enough to really grab me. Nice little book though, and well illustrated.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Just finished

The Wave Theory of Angels - Alison MacLeod.

I bought this one after quoting on my other blog from Alison's essay in Short Circuit. I Googled her to find out what sort of thing she wrote, and liked the sound of this book.

What a mix! 13th century Christian philosophy (are there 9 realms of angels or 10?); 21st century String theory (how many dimensions do you need for a Grand Unified Theory, 10, or 11?) Daughter Christina of heretic wood carver Giles in 13th century France falls into an unexplained coma. The cathedral towers come crashing down. Daughter Christina of physicist Giles Carver falls into an unexplained coma. The twin towers come crashing down.

It's not a novel which can easily be summarised. It's very clever; in places perhaps a little too clever for me (kept hearing that whooshing noise concepts make as they went over my head); but I do like a bit of modern physics. The connectedness of all things. Couldn't put it down once I got into it.

This month so far

Three books by buddies:

A Mother's Guide to Cheating - Kate Long. Excellent as always, finely observed emotions of family life.

My So-called Afterlife - Tamsyn Murray. Teen fiction, lively, fun, and made me cry.

Prestwick - David Hough. Gripping page-turner. Satisfying ending. Am never getting on a plane again.

A book from a small press:

Breeze from the River Manjeera - Hema Macherla (Linen Press). Indian girl comes to England for an arranged marriage. Husband is a brutal pig and his family are even worse. She's treated as a slave, but eventually manages to break free of them and forge her own life. English is not the author's first language so writing this book is quite a feat. Enjoyable story which kept my attention throughout. In places perhaps a tighter edit would have improved it.

A book from a Waterstones promotions table:

Sacred Hearts - Sarah Dunant. In 16th century Italy a girl is forced into a convent to separate her from the unsuitable man she's fallen in love with. She can sing, and the convent's reputation is built on its muscial prowess. She's a pawn in the church's politics, but she rebels against it, and with the help of the convent's apothecary, eventually gets out. Great characterisation, and an unusual but believable setting. I was completely hooked.

In the beginning...

... there was a reader with a poor memory. She'd read and enjoy a book, and a month later would forget what it was all about.

I know, she thought. I'll create a blog and write a few notes about each book I read. Just for my own benefit, you understand, as a reminder. I wouldn't expect any one else to read or comment on this blog.

Unless they wanted to, of course.