Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Everyone I know who's read this book is raving about it. And I am going to rave too. It is definitely up there in my top 10 books of all time. What a marvellous example of writing in distinctive voices. Best characterisation I've ever come across - those women really come to life.

It's set in Mississippi in the 1960s when, to quote Bob Dylan as the author does: 'the times they are a-changing'. There are three first person viewpoints - two are black maids working for white families, bringing up the children but not allowed to so much as use the same toilet as the whites. The third viewpoint is one of the white women - a young writer who has rather more forward-looking views than her friends. She gets to know the black women and together they write a book about what life is like for the black servants. They're treading on dangerous ground in those days of racial segregation and KKK lynchings.

The use of dialect and the rhythm of the language had me even thinking in a deep south accent after a while. I could feel the heat of the Mississippi summers radiating off the page. It's a truly wonderful book and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Alchemist's Daughter

The Alchemist's Daughter by Katharine McMahon

I bought this after having read another book by this author - The Rose of Sebastapol, which I'd bought from a charity booksale for 10p, thus proving that such second-hand book sales CAN benefit the author! I was so taken with The Rose that I bought 2 further books by the author from Amazon.

This one's set in the early 1700s. The heroine is Emilie who's been brought up by her alchemist father, pretty much isolated from the rest of the world. When, aged 18, she meets a dashing young man who comes to learn from her father, the inevitable happens and she falls in love. He is only interested in alchemy if it can make him money, but when he meets the pretty young heir to a large estate he sees another way of making money, and seduces her. She falls pregnant and marries him. Her father apparently casts her off, wants nothing more to do with her. She loses the baby and over the next year or two the marriage breaks apart. Emilie's father dies, and so her husband takes over the estate and begins to shape it into the fashionable country retreat he dreams of. He's having an affair with Emilie's maid Sarah, who becomes pregnant. Emilie, meanwhile, is beginning to notice the local rector, a widower who has an interest in scientific experiment (though not alchemy!) She realises her father was right, she's married the wrong man. She sends Sarah away, but then, after nearly blowing herself up in an alchemical experiment, she discovers that she herself was the daughter of a fallen woman who turned up at her father's door, heavily pregnant and very sick. Her father had taken the woman in, and adopted the child. She decides to go to London to find Sarah and help her. Her husband, now broke, goes off in a slaving voyage in an attempt to make his fortune. Emilie finds Sarah, sick and dying but with the help of a midwife manages to save the baby. The ending is open - but we can assume the husband won't make it back and Emilie can make a new life with Sarah's baby and the rector, and an annual allowance her father had set up for her in the event of her husband leaving her....

Ooops, I seem to have given away the entire plot. Well, no one reads this blog anyway. It's a good book, with a reasonably satisfying ending though not as good as The Rose of Sebastapol. I did enjoy the depiction of the early 18th century - a very different feel to it than to the 19th century books I've been reading a lot of lately. The experiments of Emilie and her father bridge the gap between earlier witchcraft and later true science. A very interesting time, and the book came across as well-researched and well-written.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Christmas Holiday reading

I only read a couple of books on the skiing holiday - too busy drinking vin chaud and going to bed early to nurse my knackered knees to read much. Enjoyed the books I did read though:

Dance Your Way to Psychic Sex by Alice Turing
I can't add a link for this one because it is out of print - the author self-published and only printed a hundred or so copies. I got to hear of it via her blog and thought it the wackiest title I'd ever heard of, so I just had to buy a copy. It's really well-written and certainly quirky. Full of new-age cults and magic and mind-reading and plenty of gay sex. It really isn't possible to do the plot justice in a short review so I won't even try. But I do hope the author writes more books and manages to get a mainstream publisher interested - the world needs her sparky prose and fantastic imagination.

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse
Bought this in a 3 for 2 deal when I was supposed to be buying Christmas presents. It is always dangerous to wander into a bookshop while Christmas shopping. I always end up buying loads for myself. I've previously read Labyrinth which I liked but didn't love, though I can't remember now what it was I didn't love about it, as I always enjoy time-slip novels where historical and present-day stories unfold at the same time. In The Winter Ghosts, it is the 1930s and the hero is still mourning the loss of his brother in the Great War. He finds himself snowbound in an isolated Pyrennees village, and there meets a young woman. They spend the night talking and she helps him to come to terms with his loss. But in the morning she disappears, and he goes searching for her. He uncovers a 700-year old tragic mystery - a community was buried alive in caves in the mountainside...

This is a deliciously creepy, short but satisfying ghost story. Definitely one to read by the fireside during the next snowfall.