Sunday, 26 February 2012

Catching the Eagle

Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton

A writer-friend went to a talk by this author, and told me about this book, which I then bought for Kindle. The author had researched her family tree and found a fascinating story which she then fictionalised. Having done something similar myself I was intrigued to see what this novel was like.

In 1809 a huge amount of money was stolen from a Northumbrian estate. In the subsequent days, labourer Jamie Charlton was seen flashing money around, and was arrested on suspicion of having done the robbery. His brother William perjures himself to get Jamie off, but a while later more evidence emerges and Jamie is rearrested and eventually sentenced to transportation. The novel is told from several viewpoints, primarily William's, who is struggling with his feelings for Jamie's wife. The novel romps along, some great descriptions of the hardships of Georgian provincial jails and pre-industrial revolution countryside. The characters, especially Jamie and William, are particularly well-drawn.

I found this an enjoyable novel with a realistic and satisfying ending. The eagle of the title is a thread which ties the whole book together - it's been seen flying around and there's a reward offered for its capture. Jamie's son strikes up an unusual bond with the bird. It is only finally captured at the end, when Jamie is on his way to London prior to being transported to Australia.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Silk and Steel

Silk and Steel by Catherine King

And another book bought directly from a writer I met at the Dunsford novelists' conference! Actually Catherine was my tutor for the small group sessions, too, so I got to know her quite well.

This is a proper thumping good read - a gritty story of 1840s Yorkshire. When Mariah Bowes's mother does, her father reveals he's not her real father and throws her out. She gets brutally raped in a revenge attack - mistaken as the sister of Daniel Thorpe, Mariah's father's ironworks foreman - and takes refuge in the home of midwife Dora, Daniel's aunt, to recover. She finds her niche in life as a dressmaker, and earns some commissions for the local gentry. Daniel is the obvious choice (obvious to the reader!) of perfect man for her, but the author throws endless obstacles in their path, which keep you turning the page and reading late into the night, to find out how they're going to overcome them and get together. I won't reveal all the twists and turns of the plot!

As I'm writing historical novels myself, I read this with a view to learning how it's done. It's certainly inspired me and given me plenty of food for thought.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Jeremy & Amy

Jeremy & Amy - The extraordinary true story of one man and his Orang-utan by Jeremy Keeling

We live not too far from Monkey World in Dorset, and went for a visit yesterday, where I bought this book. I sat down to read it as soon as I got home and stayed up yesterday evening until I'd finished it.

It's a memoir, covering the story of how the author, aided (not much) by his orang-utan Amy whom he'd hand-reared, along with Jim Cronin set up Monkey World which is a sanctuary for abused primates. Jeremy grew up in a zoo - his parents owned their own zoo and kept pumas in the back room. He had a horrendous childhood, although is thankful for the opportunities he had to learn about animals. After various jobs in zoos or looking after private menageries, he met Cronin and shared his dream of building the sanctuary, which finally got off the ground in the early 90s and is now world-renowned.

It's a lovely read - the animal characters come at least as alive as the humans, and I was left impressed at the author's obvious dedication to the animals. They aim to look after primates who've been abused in laboratories or discarded pets, or ex-circus. They don't enter into the politics of the situations - they just take the animals and nurse them better, then give them a wholly better life.

Yesterday it was cold, and a lot of the animals were indoors. But the capuchins were lively, and an orang-utan put on a brilliant show for us, swinging on a strip of towel she'd looped over a bar, and kissing the glass between her and her appreciative audience with every swing. Happy animals (on both sides of the glass!) I recommend a visit, as well as the book!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Getting It Off My Chest

Getting It Off My Chest by Janice Day

Another book bought after meeting the author at the Dunford novelists' conference. It's a cancer memoir. Aged 39 Janice was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Over the following years she had several more operations, lost seven stone and a husband, and reinvented herself. Along the way she refused chemotherapy in case it upset her children, but survived nonetheless.

This book is sad, funny, honest and wise. At times I laughed out loud - the author has a side line as a stand-up comedienne and it shows! Woke him indoors reading it last night - he was asleep beside me and although I tried to keep quiet, the bed shook rather a lot...

If you're a bit squeamish beware - there are some detailed descriptions of how a breast can be reconstructed using unwanted tummy fat; and you'll be crossing your legs tightly when you find out where the surgeons get suitable flesh to make a new nipple.

Brilliantly written, an engaging read and whether or not you've suffered from cancer I'd recommend this book. At the end you feel uplifted and full of respect for a warm, brave and witty woman.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

How To Do Everything And Be Happy

How to do everything and be happy by Peter Jones

I met Peter at a novelists' conference last weekend, and bought this book direct from him. My husband likes self-help books. Not sure I've ever read one before - but I loved this one. It's written in a cheerful, engaging style. There are lots of great ideas for ways to improve your life - from having days off, where you don't plan anything and just go with the flow (Peter calls them Boxing Days for reasons explained in the book); to keeping lists of things you want to do, goals you want to achieve. Then he explains how to make time (book appointments with yourself in your diary) to do those things and progress those goals.

He's preaching to the converted here - I discovered the value of setting goals (or resolutions) a few years ago, and enjoy nothing more than a pottering-about weekend. But even so, following the book's advice I've set up a Now List memo on my phone, and am having next Friday as a 'Boxing Day'...

This is the perfect book (available as a paperback or ebook) if you have a vague 'is that it?' feeling about your life, and want to do more and be more. Thoroughly recommended, and the author is a very nice chap indeed.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Coward's Tale

The Coward's Tale by Vanessa Gebbie

I've 'known' Vanessa online for many years and have read some of her short fiction, so I was intrigued to see how her unique style would translate to longer fiction. This book is no disappointment - it's certainly original and has a lilting, lyrical voice which I defy anyone to read without hearing a Welsh accent.

The book is really a collection of short stories, linked by place, characters, and history. It's set in a fictitious Welsh mining town, the scene of a pit disaster which is just within living memory - at least the town beggar, Ianto Jenkins, remembers it. The townspeople all have their own quirks and foibles, and Ianto knows their stories and their parents' stories, and will tell the tales to anyone who'll listen. In many cases, it was the pit disaster which left its impact on the families for several generations.

There are all sorts of unusual characters in this book - the woodwork teacher who tries to carve feathers from wood; the undertaker who points his stick and walks everywhere in the straightest possible line; the illiterate ex-collier who is keeping his hands black with coal, as he told his wife he would only look for another job when the black left his hands.

There's a dreamlike quality to some of the stories. There are some beautiful images, quirky though not terribly real characters, and the strongest sense of place I've ever come across in a novel. It's a sad, wistful read and gets my vote for most original voice.