From the archives – June

As I gaze at the virtual tower of to-be-read books precariously piled up in my Kindle, threatening to virtually tumble if I don’t keep a virtual eye on them, I found myself wondering: what was I reading this time last year? So, I decided to take a little stroll through my imaginary book palace, and revisit the books that punctuated my June 2016.

Feel free to join me. Just mind you don’t bump your head through this door and watch your step as we go down these slightly dark and steep stairs (I really must get electric lamps installed down here, but candlelight is just so pretty).

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I finished reading The Last of Us by Rob Ewing at the end of May 2016 and was delighted when Rob Ewing got in contact with me to thank me for my review. He then agreed to let me interview him. I still have fond feelings towards this book. If you haven’t read it, do it.

 

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Hot off the back of The Last of Us, I burned my way through My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal. Oh, my goodness. It made me cry, and I still mentally hug Leon every time I think of him.

 

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I started reading The Big Picture by Sean Carroll. A brilliant popular science book that explains not just how quantum physics applies to daily life, but how understanding how even the smallest parts of the universe work can inform your philosophy and understanding of life, the universe and everything.

 

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In June 2016, I started working on a theatre production of 1984 by George Orwell. So, I downloaded the audiobook to remind myself of the book so I could compare it to the theatre production. I had originally read 1984 at the age of 13 or 14. Now, in my 30s, I was struck by how bleak it was – I hadn’t remembered it being that bleak. The theatre production was even bleaker. And exactly 101 minutes long.

 

 

So, that’s the tour of the June 2016 archives. Feel free to make yourself a cup of tea, find a comfy chair, and rifle through a few books. Hopefully, you’ll leave with a few suggestions for your own to-be-read list.

Let me know what’s on your list for this month – I’m always after suggestions for my own!

Book review: When I Wake Up by Jessica Jarlvi

cover110929-mediumWhen I Wake Up by Jessica Jarlvi
Publication date:  01 June 2017
Genre: General Fiction (Adult), Mystery & Thrillers
Length*:  5 hours 21 mins
(*based on the time it took me to read this title)
Published by:  Aria Fiction
Available at:  Amazon.co.ukGoodreads
My rating: 2 out of 5

Description

A breathtaking, heart-pounding, dark debut, sure to delight fans of The Girl on the Train and Before I Go To Sleep.
‘Why won’t Mummy wake up?’
When Anna, a much-loved teacher and mother of two, is left savagely beaten and in a coma, a police investigation is launched. News of the attack sends shock waves through her family and their small Swedish community. Anna seems to have had no enemies, so who wanted her dead?
As loved-ones wait anxiously by her bedside, her husband Erik is determined to get to the bottom of the attack, and soon begins uncovering his wife’s secret life, and a small town riven with desire, betrayal and jealousy.
As the list of suspects grows longer, it soon becomes clear that only one person can reveal the truth, and she’s lying silent in a hospital bed…

My Thoughts

I think I must be getting picky in my old age, getting harder to please. I loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I thought Gone Girl was stunning, and Before I Go To Sleep was a delicious treat. So, I was intrigued when I read the premise for this book, eagerly digging into it. However, it turns out this is really not my kind of book. The premise is fantastic, but I found the pace of the novel difficult, feeling as though there were moments that I knew I was meant to find tense and didn’t. I ultimately finished the book more out of a sense of loyalty to the process of seeing the book through rather than being gripped.
I was hoping for a mind-blowing ending that, for me, never happened. For me, if you are going to have multiple suspects in a whodunit, and then tell the story from each of their points of view, as well as giving all of them sufficient motive, there needs to be a clue that it could have been them when the point of view of the narration is focused on them. The one who actually ‘dunnit’ is shown, even in their own point of view, to have been hurt by the accident, and filled with concern for Anna’s well-being. The only sign that they are a fallen angel is a one night stand, and they show regret and a want to recommit themselves to their spouse in light of their guilt. That this person, who doesn’t show a hint of violent tendency or desire for 90% of the book, only shows a violent streak at the end, confirming themselves as the attacker, is disappointing and feels like the never before mentioned candlestick holder that condemns the villains of old murder-mystery stories. Especially as all the other suspects are shown to have violent/seriously dodgy streaks.
So, all in all, I found it to be a disappointing read – sadly, not my kind of book.
Thank you to Aria and Netgalley for supplying me with an advance ebook of this story in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Night Brother by Rosie Garland

cover102770-mediumThe Night Brother by Rosie Garland

Publication date:
  01 June 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length*:  6 hours 17 mins
(*based on the time it took me to read this title)

Published by:  The Borough Press, HarperFiction, HarperCollins UK
Available at:  Amazon.co.ukGoodreads

My rating: 3 out of 5

 

 

 


Description

From the author of The Palace of Curiosities and Vixen comes a dazzling and provocative new novel of adventure, mystery and belonging. The Night Brother shifts tantalisingly between day and night, exploring questions of identity, sexual equality and how well we know ourselves. Perfect for fans of Angela Carter, Sarah Waters, Erin Morgenstern.

Rich are the delights of late nineteenth-century Manchester for young siblings Edie and Gnome. They bicker, banter, shout and scream their way through the city’s streets, embracing its charms and dangers. But as the pair mature, it is Gnome who revels in the night-time, while Edie is confined to the day. She wakes exhausted each morning, unable to quell a sickening sense of unease, and confused at living a half-life.

Reaching the cusp of adulthood, Edie’s confusion turns to resentment and she is determined to distance herself from Gnome once and for all. But can she ever be free from someone who knows her better than she knows herself?

Exploring the furthest limits of sexual and gender fluidity, this is a story about the vital importance of being honest with yourself. Every part of yourself. After all, no-one likes to be kept in the dark.

My Thoughts

When I started reading this book, I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. The language constantly nagged at me, and it took me some time to work out why it felt familiar even as it felt strange: it’s almost the language of fairytales. Until the mention of the Suffragette movement, I couldn’t place the time that the story takes place in and, because of the fairytale feel that comes from the style of language, I wasn’t sure that the story is set in a ‘real’ historical time. The geographical setting is real, and I found myself feeling a connection with the book as parts of Manchester that I know and love (from the couple of years I spent living there) were named and described as their Victorian versions.

It is a striking book: while it is historical fiction, it deals with extremely contemporary themes of gender, sexuality, and identity. The story skilfully questions what it is that defines us as individuals to others, and to ourselves. Through the struggles of Gnome and Edie, it shows how gender and sexuality cannot be defined as binary options, but rather two points on an analogue scale which a person can appear anywhere on. It cleverly illustrates how when the different facets of our personalities are forced to fit into socially acceptable boxes, and we are compelled to fit ourselves in them, it is harmful. We are better off accepting our different sides, seeking to find a way to live with our contradictions peacefully. If we can only be brave enough to share the fullness of the people we truly are with another whom we can trust, fear can be replaced with acceptance.

Rosie Garland’s approach to these questions of gender, sexuality, and identity is inventive and original. Rather than tackle these questions through Sci-Fi or YA fiction (which seem the most obvious genres for these themes), she has skilfully used Historical Fiction to demonstrate that these themes and philosophical questions that we think of as modern concerns are timeless – they have been around for as long as the concept of ‘socially acceptable’ has existed.

The historical setting of the story takes a backseat to the story itself, so if you’re after a historical novel that will closely follow renowned events, or teach you something about events during the Victorian era, you might not get what you are after. You will get a book which is easy and enjoyable to read, with an original plot, and an unexpected outcome. A good book for the daily commute or winding down before bed, it’ll take you out of your own world for a bit and dump you, unapologetically, into the middle of possibly the most dysfunctional family you can imagine.

Thank you to The Borough Press and Netgalley for supplying me with an advance ebook of this story in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

27273869Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman


Publication date:  18 May 2017 (UK)

Genre: General Fiction (Adult)

Length*:  4 hours 45 mins

(*based on the time it took me to read this title)
Published by:  HarperCollins, HarperFiction

Available at:  Amazon.co.uk, Goodreads

My rating: 4 out of 5

Description

A stunning debut. Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live.
Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.
Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.
One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.
Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than… fine?

My Thoughts

This debut novel seems to have had a stellar start: Shortlisted in the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress, it has gone on to be sold around the world. Pretty amazing for a debut.

The most striking thing about this book is the perceptiveness of human nature which is embedded in the main character, Eleanor. This perceptiveness takes two distinctive angles; Eleanor’s articulate judgement of other people (she says all the things about other people that you’ve thought but never said), and the details of her own nature which she unwittingly reveals as the story unravels from Eleanor’s first person point of view.

As the reader, you live inside Eleanor’s head. This is particularly interesting as Eleanor is not exactly a likeable character but, despite this, you end up caring about her, realising that all of her most grating qualities are a product of coping mechanisms.

If you enjoy novels told by an unreliable narrator, then you will enjoy the intricate and carefully applied use of this narrative device. Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine and the more she says it, the more she believes it and eventually, if she believes it hard enough, it might actually be true. She is completely ‘fine’ in the same way as you growl ‘I’m fine’ at your partner when you’re really not but don’t have the capacity right now to go into all the reasons why.

As well as being completely fine, Eleanor is also completely average; nothing to see here, move along please, or at least that’s how she sees herself. When someone does think there is something better than unremarkable, Eleanor’s carefully assembled house of cards comes tumbling down. The path from an organised life, totally under control, to chaos (much in the style of the second law of thermodynamics) is tracked through three sections of the book, named “Good Days”, “Bad Days”, and “Better Days”.

This is a beautifully executed book, and an emotional rollercoaster. Full of keen observation of the human condition, it is well written and tightly plotted, taking you on a journey of twists and turns, never quite certain where it will take you next.

Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins for providing me with a Kindle edition of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: Little Gold by Allie Rogers

32824973Little Gold by Allie Rogers
Publication date:
  02 May 2017
Genre:  General Fiction (Adult), Literary Fiction
Length*:  4 hours 30 mins
(*based on the time it took me to read this title)
Published by:
  Legend Press
Available at:  Amazon.co.uk, Goodreads

My rating: 5 out of 5

Description:

‘Life affirming and triumphant’ Mark A. Radcliffe

‘Wonderfully moving and atmospheric’ Catherine Hall

‘Vivid and touching… this book left me haunted long after I put it down’ Umi Sinha

‘Brilliantly handled… a great first novel’ Bethan Roberts

‘I found myself engrossed… a vibrant, moving tale’ Alison Smith

The heat is oppressive and storms are brewing in Brighton in the summer of 1982. Little Gold, a boyish girl on the brink of adolescence, is struggling with the reality of her broken family and a home descending into chaos. Her only refuge is the tree at the end of her garden.

Into her fractured life steps elderly neighbour, Peggy Baxter. The connection between the two is instant, but just when it seems that Little Gold has found solace, outsiders appear who seek to take advantage of her frail family in the worst way possible. In an era when so much is hard to speak aloud, can Little Gold share enough of her life to avert disaster? And can Peggy Baxter, a woman running out of time and with her own secrets to bear, recognise the danger before it’s too late?

My thoughts:

I always try to keep notes as I read books so that I will remember at the end of the book what I thought at the beginning. With this book I was so spell-bound, I forgot to take notes about a quarter of the way in. Most of the notes I did take were comments of “Yes!!” against references to solid chocolate Kit Kat fingers with no wafer inside, overcooked oven-baked beef burgers, and other references to my childhood. No surprise really since the story is set in 1982 and I was born in 1983. I was transported back to 1980s Britain with crystal clarity. Even Little Gold’s boyishness and her love of climbing the tree in her garden resonated with me – I was that tomboy girl, who had a tree with a branch that created a nook perfect for escaping to for some peace and quiet. Thankfully, given the course of the story, that is where the similarities with my childhood end.

The story gently leads you into the less than easy life of Little Gold and her brother and sister. That their mother doesn’t make an appearance and is barely referred to for a large part of the book is indicative, and makes their home life all the more heartbreaking.

Peggy, Little Gold’s elderly neighbour, is an instantly likeable character, who seems to radiate an aura of youth that led me to forget how old she really is.

I will avoid describing the events that cause this fragile stasis to unravel but must mention how delicately and gradually these events are introduced, lulling you into a false sense of security where although you feel mildly concerned, you don’t reach a point of outright alarm until the final portion of the story where everything happens quickly and unstoppably, sharing Little Gold’s bewilderment and helplessness.

For the final portion of the book, I was inconsolable, stressed whenever I had to put the book down, worrying constantly in the back of my mind, needing to get back to the book and keep reading. I cried. A lot. It was devastating, but through that devastation remained beautiful, which I think made me cry all the more. Even as I write this, I have a lump in my throat, remembering how it made me feel. Rare and wonderful is the book that can have this effect.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Get it, clear your calendar, and spend a whole afternoon reading it, accompanied by an endless supply of tea, wagon wheels, and club bars. When you’re done, find an ice cream van and buy a 99p Mr Whippy Flake.

Thank you to NetGalley and Legend Press for supplying me with a Kindle copy of this book.

Teaser: The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Philips

I subscribe to Pushkin Press’s email newsletter (https://shop.pushkinpress.com/ – look for the sign up link at the top of the page), and a couple of days ago it dropped a little link to the first chapter of The Beautiful Bureaucrat into my inbox.
Like a hook-in for the bookish, they are teasing you with a little taste, enticing you to hand over your cash… and it works. The first chapter of The Beautiful Bureaucrat is intriguing. Best of all, the grey person our heroine sits across at an interview (complete with indeterminable gender and bad breath) somehow plants their voice inside your head, nasal monotone drawl and all.
Needless to say, it’s just hit my TBR pile. If you want take a taste yourself, you’ll find the teaser here: https://www.pushkinpress.com/the-beautiful-bureaucrat-extract/

Book review: When the Wind Blows by Marguerite Sheen

34728193When the Wind Blows by Marguerite Steen
Publication date:
 31st March 2017
Genre:  Literary Fiction, Mystery & Thrillers
Length*:  5 hours 30 mins
(*based on the time it took me to read this title)

Publication date: 31 March 2017
Published by:
  Endeavour Press
Available at:  Amazon.co.uk, Goodreads

My rating: 3 out of 5

 

Description

On Calvary, the wind never stops…
In the south Atlantic Ocean, sits the island of El Secredo – named Calvary by the first missionary settlers. Little has changed in Calvary since Jebusa Horne first landed on the island and proclaimed it fit for Christendom, in the late 19th century.

The world, meanwhile, has been through a Great War; prohibition and the jazz age have been and gone… When Reverend Smith Prudhomme and his wife came to continue the missionary on Calvary, at worse the Reverend had been warned of ‘Calvary beer’.

What he didn’t expect was Sanchia Mullyon.

Even as a child, Sanchia was different from the rest of the islanders. Spirited, questioning and highly imaginative, the islanders’ were disturbed by her apparent wildness – as wild as the winds that batter Calvary. Scared by her, both her parents and other elders tried to literally beat what they see is the ‘devil’ out of Sanchia. But cruelty begets cruelty and Sanchia becomes known for her brutal cruelness – both from her strength and her words. The only thing Sanchia seems affected by is the island and its animals; it’s well known she can’t bear to see the suffering of animals. Sanchia is now of marriageable age. And on an island that has an influx of men, women are highly prized.

She was promised in her cradle, to Gregory Jodrell; but in her usual fashion, Sanchia refuses to marry not only him, but also any other Calvary man. With a sense of unease in the island community, Reverend Smith is unsure of how to approach the problem. Moreover, Sanchia and by extension, his sympathetic wife Mrs Prudhomme, are chipping away at his once narrow minded views…

Then one stormy night, Sanchia in fear for her life, demands to be married to Gregory, right then and there. Even though it flies in face of all tradition, bordering on insulting, Reverend Smith marries them anyway. If the Islanders had hoped it would ‘tame’ Sanchia, they were wrong. If anything, she’s tamed Gregory.

And when a shipwreck lands the writer, Miss Lenox Robbins, and a mysterious man who can’t talk on their shores, Calvary and Sanchia are forever changed…

A gripping and intense novel, When The Wind Blows is a tale of a woman’s fortitude in the face of her home and community.

My thoughts

This is an e-book ‘reprinting’ of a title originally published in hardback and paperback in 1975. The author, Marguerite Sheen was a British writer who died the same year as this book was originally published. Her first major success was Matador, published in 1934, which was picked up by the Book Society in Britain and the Book of Month Club in the US. Her book The Sun Is My Undoing (published 1941) was a best-seller, both in the UK and the US, and was the first part of a trilogy saga about the slave-trade and Bristol shipping. Although she never achieved critical acclaim, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1951. Her life spanned the Victorian, Edwardian, and modern eras and her observation of unprecedented societal, cultural, and technological change is evident in this novel.

It took me a little time to get into the story – my notes on the opening pages contain comments referring to what felt like odd wording, however the unusual and old-fashioned language soon reveals it’s character, lending itself to delicious phrases such as “filling them brimful of churned white water and spray” and “leaving them exposed like the vertebrae of some prehistoric monster”. Although this contributed to an opening which felt a little slow to begin with, it soon puts you into the mindset of the island and its inhabitants, who all speak with a heavy dialect, whose root I couldn’t decipher, but reminded me of the dialect used in Tony Harrison’s The Nativity. Be prepared, too, to have your dictionary and notebook at hand – words like “frowardly” (of a person difficult to deal with) and “pusillanimity” (showing a lack of courage or determination), which are little heard these days but feel delightful to say, are scattered throughout the book.

What is striking about the island of Calvary is not just its remote south Atlantic setting, but that nature has seen fit to make males so abundant that the birth of a girl is hoped for and celebrated. Whilst this could have lead to a matriarchal society, this is tragically not the case, with the female’s role being one of servitude amongst a militantly patriarchal structure.

Sanchia, as the only available female of marriageable age, is promised to George Jodrell, the most eligible bachelor on the island. As children of the two families which represent a kind of aristocracy on the island, they are expected to continue both their bloodlines. This duty is held above all else by the islanders since the predominance of men and lack of women mean that very few family lines will survive. George happily submits to this pressure, but wild child Sanchia rejects it, and all the customs and values of the island. Sanchia is desired by all of the men on the island, and the desires of Samson Hawkins are for, a short while, focused on, teasingly suggesting the possibility of a love triangle which never comes to fruition.

The shipwreck is when the story really kicks off and the tension and pace explode, with events and twists happening relentlessly. Perhaps, in this way, the narration is as unpredictable and forceful as the winds that batter the island.

The arrival of Lenox Robbins and the dumb man turn Sanchia and the island on their heads. Miss Robbins provides a refreshing change of tone with her polemic and self-important English, directly challenging the island’s way of life, the way the islanders think, and places blame unapologetically at the feet of Reverend Smith Prudhomme, who she thinks should make use better use of his position. She brings humour with her blunt observations and inability to stay out of other people’s business. The dumb man, unable to speak, due to the shock of his shipwrecking, is mysterious and intriguing, and given the fact that he contributes no dialogue, is nevertheless charismatic.

The latter part of the book moves with extraordinary pace, and the stakes are continually raised to the extreme, providing unpredictable twists that keep you on your toes and continually guessing how this will all end. Given the extraordinary end climax that the book builds towards, the very ending felt a little disappointing, as though it had been cut short by a page or two. All the same, this was an enjoyable read, and a brave undertaking of both narrative choices and a cast of characters, for whom my sympathies continually swung for and against.

Thank you to Netgalley and Endeavour Press for providing me with a Kindle copy of this book.