The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Click here to order from Waterstones
Click here to order from Waterstones

This debut novel by Katherine Arden had me hooked from start to finish. Her love of Russian and Russian literature is woven throughout this enchanting and lyrical fairy-tale for grown-ups. Captivated and bewitched by the imagery and I felt much as Vasya does when the Frost King tells her of his birth “the quiet, crystalline words dropped into her mind and she saw the heavens making wheels of fire, in shapes she did not know, and a snowy plain that kissed a bitter horizon, blue on black”.

Set far in the North of old Rus’ this is a tale of the conflict between country lore and Church and the steadfast heart and bravery of a young girl, Vasilisa Petrovna. Vasilisa is the youngest of Pyotr Vladimirovich’s five children an ugly little girl, skinny as a reed-stem with long-fingered hands and enormous feet. Her eyes and mouth are too big for the rest of her and her nickname is frog. But even before she was born her mother knew this child would be different, would be special…magical even; and so Marina gave up her own life in childbirth that little Vasya might be born.

Vasya sees the wood spirits, the house domovoi and the spirit of horses -the vazila; but her new step-mother Anna sees only demons and prays feverishly for deliverance. The one day it seems that Anna’s prayers are answered for the Regent of Moscow has seen fit to send Father Konstantin to the frozen North. Konstantin is devout, spiritual and charismatic. He paints exquisite Icons and charms the village with his beguiling voice. Determined to save their souls he places fear deep in their hearts to turn them from their old superstitions. Soon the whole village is doing his bidding and the little domovoi and vazila are starving and weakened. But Vasya does not turn, these creatures are not myths and mere names to her for they have taught her much and she is determined to nourish them. The horses particularly speak to her and have taught her to ride as one with them, without saddle or bridle and without the modest decorum a young woman should demonstrate. The winters are harder, longer and crueller than ever. The food runs short and the Frost-king is feared – but not as much as the other, the upyr – the dead walking and it is to the Frost King that Vasya must turn to save those she loves.

The story is far more detailed and complex than my brief summary suggests but to explain more would be to a travesty. Arden tells it so skilfully, not a word is wasted and I loved it. I shall be buying it for many of my friends and waiting on tenterhooks for her next novel.

I received an advance copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Bookeaters always say what they think and I think you should rush out and buy it.

Penguin Random House due to be published 12 Jan 2017

5 bites

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Mr Rosenblum’s List by Natasha Solomons

Click for Waterstone's
Click for Waterstone’s

Tam’s second-hand bestsellers book finds…book #3

So here’s the Criteria:-

Each book must be bought secondhand for no more than £1

Each book must claim on its front cover that it is a bestseller

12 books – one per month for a year

Do feel free to join me and share your second-hand bestsellers in the comments!

Mr Rosenblum’s List

(Or friendly guidance for the aspiring Englishman)

by Natasha Solomons

 

Wow what a find – emblazoned with the banner “International Bestseller” and inside I find that this debut novel was translated into 9 languages. This was picked up for 99p so at the top end of my price range.

Solomons was inspired by her a pamphlet that was handed to her grandparents on their arrival in England as penniless immigrants. Jewish refugees fleeing from the fascist regime in Berlin were encouraged to make every effort to become British and to erase every trace of their Germanic antecedents. The pamphlet entitled “Useful Advice and Friendly Guidance for All Refugees” exhorted the refugees to refrain from “making themselves conspicuous by speaking loudly, nor by manner or dress.” It also offered such sage observations as “The Englishman greatly dislikes ostentation…he attaches great importance to modesty…(and my personal favourite) he values good manners far more than he values the evidence of wealth”

On arriving at Harwich dock in 1937 with other German Jewish refugees Jakob Rosenblum and his wife Sadie are handed a copy each of this leaflet and exhorted to study it with great care. In that instant Jakob believes that this flimsy piece of paper is indeed the key, the ultimate recipe for happiness, the rule book by which one could become an English gentleman.

Years pass and Jakob, now Jack, has lived faithfully by the guidance contained in that pamphlet, along the way he has added addendums and points of guidance based on his own acute observation. Furthermore he owns a thriving business, drives a Jaguar, even wears a Saville Row suit and his daughter has started her studies at Cambridge University, and yet, the ultimate badge of his Englishness is denied him. No matter how successful Jack Rosenblum maybe no English golf course will accept his application because he is Jewish. In a moment of inspiration Jack sees that his only way forward is to build his own course and so he sells their London home and buys a ramshackled cottage on a glorious Dorset hillside. The residents of the small village of Pursebury mock gently at this crazy man’s efforts and even unleash the mythical Dorset woolly-pig to try and drive him away, but slowly his utter determination and refusal to be beaten win him some grudging admirers and ultimately some true friends. From here on the book is a celebration of eccentricity and whimsy, the power of dreams and the beauty of the English countryside.

Given the current world climate the book is a stark reminder of the plight of refugees and the trials they face in trying to settle in a land and culture that is foreign to them. The book also shows that harmony is not achieved through living by a set of rules and that belonging is not about being the same as your neighbour. It’s charming, funny, whimsical and painful by turns and an absolute bargain at 99p.

5 bites, the description of Sadie’s Baumtorte process merits that!

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

My Sister’s Bones by Nuala Ellwood

Debut novel
Debut novel

Kate and Sally grew up in the family home in Herne Bay. From early childhood they would frequently witness their drunken father viciously beating their mother and when Kate moved to intervene he would beat her too. Realising that an earlier family tragedy had inextricably bound her parents together Kate escaped as soon as she could and now sees violence and bloodshed on a near daily basis as a war reporter. Sally became an emotionally damaged teenaged mother who struggled to manage her daughter, but life sometimes gives second chances and now she has an adoring spouse. Nevertheless her daughter Hannah ran away at the age of sixteen and Sally is driven to seek refuge in alcohol abuse and denial.

Their father is long dead when the tale begins but now their mother has died and Kate has flown home to settle her mother’s estate. Sally is drunk for most of the time and the animosity between the sisters is such that Kate has opted to stay alone in their mum’s house and enjoy the peace. But peace is something Kate cannot find, suffering from PTSD from her work as a war reporter she can barely sleep and combines pills with alcohol to blot out the vivid nightmares. To add to her misery her long-term lover has ended their relationship in favour of his wife and Kate has miscarried the only baby she might ever have had. Confusing nightmares and family history with current reality Kate becomes certain that there is an unhappy child in the house next door although her neighbour denies it.  Then Kate sees the child again but this time he is crying in the night and her reporter’s instincts refuse to be silenced. Her actions lead to her arrest and she is held for a full psychiatric assessment that involves raking in detail over the past she doesn’t want to face. Released with a restriction preventing her from returning to the street Kate opts to go back to Syria, but before she leaves she pays a visit to Sally and despite their many ongoing disagreements she begs Sally to keep an eye out for the little boy. From here on both sisters find themselves plunged into terrible danger.

The first half of the story skilfully intersperses details of Kate’s life and past as revealed through the psychiatric assessment interview, with the events of the week leading up to her arrest and her decision to return to Syria. The rest of the tale then develops the mystery of the little boy and reveals, as studies have shown, that children who witness domestic violence are more likely to be affected by violence as adults – either as victims or perpetrators.

At its heart this is a tale full of violence, darkness and illness, but it is also a tale of love and of survival. It is packaged as a thriller and it keeps its secrets right up to the terrifying dénouement. It’s a clever, complicated and well executed story with excellent character development and sound psychology behind it. This is Ellwood’s debut novel and she found inspiration for the themes in the experiences of her sister and her father, both of whom are journalists. I found it absorbing and disturbing and felt compelled to read it through in one day.

I give it 4 bites, a meal that leaves a bitter taste but I expect it to be a very popular dish.

 

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Cleaning up in the Valkyrie Suite by Julia Ross

Click through for Amazon
Click through for Amazon

I nearly didn’t read this because of the title, it conjured up a Jackie Collins styled bonk buster in which a Cinderella styled chambermaid shoots from grubby sheets to diamonds. I was therefore unexpectedly pleased to find the main protagonist to be an intelligent fifty plus woman with a wry sense of humour and a real sense of job commitment.

Prudence Baxter spent thirty years of her working life being a Personal Assistant to a CEO until recession wiped out the hundred year old family firm she had dedicated so much time to. Living alone in the glorious whimsical and utterly decrepit Edwardian mansion that she grew up in Pru is desperate for work of any kind to keep the lights on and so, through a series of slight misunderstandings, she becomes a chambermaid in a brand new hotel in the east Midlands. Expected to dress in a pink sweatshirt and matching jogging bottoms emblazoned with the name of the hotel, Pru quickly discovers that modern day housekeeping bears little resemblance to Gosford Park and that far from being staffed by experienced people speaking clearly and demonstrating a proper sense of order the hotel is utterly disorganised and the receptionist can’t speak English. Her interest and curiosity are quickly sparked by peculiarities in the routines and behaviours of her fellow workers and she finds herself on the scent of some very dodgy dealings. A most unexpected meeting with Mark the hotel owner opens her eyes to more than one secret that’s been well hidden and she finds out that there is rather more to one of her old friends than she had realised. With danger lurking around every corner our unusual sleuth sets out to find who is refolding the triangles on the end of the toilet roll in the Valkyrie Suite.

 

Well-polished and neatly executed this was a thoroughly entertaining and humorous read that I really enjoyed. Delightfully up to date in its themes (cross dressing, immigration, unemployment) it totally avoided the excessive cosiness that comes with many novels about middle-aged female detectives. Witty and pithy her female characters are feisty and determined and I heartily recommend it.

A good 3 bites from me for this tasty snack

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Second-Hand Bestsellers – Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

You may remember that following my confession a few months ago about picking up bargain books at second-hand stalls I  made a bit of a challenge out of my vice.The criteria I set are:-

  • Each book must be bought secondhand for no more than £1
  • Each book must claim on its front cover that it is a bestseller, award winner
  • 12 books – one per month for a year

This is my Book #2. Do feel free to join me and share your second-hand bestsellers in the comments!

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm- published 1977.

‘The Hugo Award Winning Novel’

Tagline – PLAY GOD: It’s the most dangerous game of all

Hugo Award Winner Locus Award Winner Click to go through to Amazon
Hugo Award Winner
Locus Award Winner
Click to go through to Amazon

Wow! This short book of just 250 pages is a brilliantly thought through vision of a post-apocalyptic rebuilding of the human species. A new society where a child is will never feel lonely or left out and is always one of a number of identical brothers or sisters. The idea of group telepathy was not new in 1977 and indeed was explored in John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos published in 1957.

The story starts shortly before the apocalypse and is set in the beautiful Shendoah valley. Famine and drought are causing international incidents, resources are being hoarded and countries are closing borders. Radiation in the atmosphere is high, pandemics are killing thousands daily and most countries are experiencing zero population growth. Those with foresight are realising that the masses cannot be saved and that human species is on the brink of extinction. The Sumner family is blessed with several brilliant thinkers, lots of wealth and plenty of fertile secluded land. The elders have planned ahead and stockpiled medical and computer equipment, generators, food, building materials, animals, seeds and tools and most importantly gathered together people with skills.

David has been studying in the field of cloning and when tests show that all the men have become infertile the full value of his research becomes clear. At first cloning of humans is vital for the survival of the species but in time sexual reproduction of the species is seen as inferior and those few clones who turn out to be fertile are removed from the society and used as breeding stock to carry the cloned fetuses.

Cloned and cloned again for the continuance of the particular skills of their forebear each new batch of identical sisters or brothers share an emotional and psychological bond bordering on telepathy that proves ultimately to make them not individual thinkers but one part of a functioning whole. In Wilhelm’s novel these groups of children are not sinister creatures with the ability to control the minds of normal humans as in The Midwich Cuckoos but groups of identically skilled beings. Specialism stifles diversity, the individual consciousness is lost as the group consciousness develops, and consequently free thinkers, unique skills and the ability to produce random ideas are eradicated from the new generations.

What makes us human? This becomes the central theme of the book as the decades pass and the new society realise that their continuing reproduction and therefore their very survival will depend on obtaining resources from the ruined cities. To leave their safe valley and go foraging hundreds of miles away in bombed out cities and radiation poisoned landscapes requires skills that these generations were not bred for. Their new utopia is in grave danger.

This book is not dark and violent as many dystopian novels are. It’s more subtle in its depiction of good and bad choices. At the end Mark, who is not a clone although both his parents were, says “You won’t understand this. No one’s alive but me who could understand it. I love you, Barry. You’re strange to me, alien, not human. All of you are… but I didn’t destroy them because I loved you.”

This novel is concisely written, not a word is wasted and yet Wilhelm’s descriptions of the desolate cities and the deep forests lack nothing. It is meticulously thought out and challenging. Presented in 3 main time frames she develops various protagonists as the new generations are introduced and the contrast between the individual and the collective deepens.

This book blew me away. I may not be a lover of sci-fi (though since the cloning of Dolly the sheep in the 1990s cloning has ceased to be fiction and has become a fact) but nevertheless I was immersed in this vision of the future. I can see why it won two awards and I recommend it whole-heartedly for anyone from YA up.

I wish it was longer – that’s my only complaint. I have to give it 5 bites

 

 

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Himself by Jess Kidd

Debut Novel
Debut Novel

Mahoney is a dark eyed, dark haired, leather jacketed lad down from Dublin for a holiday in the tranquil village of Mulderrig, or so he claims as he chats to Tadgh the publican.

His real reason for visiting is…well, rather more complex; raised by nuns in St Martha’s orphanage he’s just received an anonymous letter that was written at the time he was abandoned. Now he knows his mammy’s name, where she came from and even his own name – not that he’s intending to use it. He also knows she was considered the curse of the town. Among the many things he doesn’t know is what happened to her, why he was abandoned, who his father is and why, oh why, he can see ghosts.

With laughing eyes and a charming smile Mahoney attracts much interest and before a day has passed Tadgh has introduced him to half the town and found lodgings for the handsome stranger.

Up at Rathmore House young Shauna Burke is struggling to keep the fine old house going, her mother left years ago and her father took to his garden shed in grief where he reads about fairies and talks to himself in a Protestant accent. Her one paying guest is the ancient thespian Mrs Cauley, tiny in size, mighty in nature and comfortably wealthy she refuses to kowtow to the dogma of the local priest, Father Quinn. Recognising a kindred spirit in Mahoney the old woman takes him under her wing determined to help him find the truth about his mother.

Each year Mrs Cauley finances and stages a show in aid of the Church and this year SHE has decided it will be The Playboy of The Western World with Mahoney in the lead role. Under the guise of auditions Mrs Cauley sets to work asking questions that should have been asked twenty years earlier and uncovering a web of deceit so dark that it is surprising that the sun can ever again shine upon shameful Mulderig. Aided and abetted by ghosts, dreams and love struck women, Mahoney is kept busy following up the leads. Meanwhile with the troublesome priest doing his very best to bring down hell and damnation on the wicked stranger nature has decided it’s time to make its presence felt on the priest.

This book is an entire firework display of delights. The characters are spicy and gnarly despite some small town caricatures and by page thirty I was dreaming of Aidan Turner in the role of Mahoney with Maggie Smith as the force of nature that is Mrs Cauley. Engaging, humorous, dark and witty the dialogue crackled with spite and brilliance as small town secrets were revealed. The lilting Irish phrasing practically sang off the page while touches of magic realism combined to keep what is at its heart a dark and brutal tale from leaving a bitter taste.

I so enjoyed this book I want to read it all again immediately. It has to score a perfect 5 from me

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Holding by Graham Norton

Temporary cover
Temporary cover

Set in Duneen, a sleepy, timeless Irish village this novel would be ideal for an audio book. It perfectly encapsulates the humorous, gossipy voice of Graham Norton as it tells the tale of a fat village guard who bumbles his way through the first real crime investigation that Duneen has ever seen. Guard Patrick James Collins is known to everyone as PJ and in the 15 years as Sergeant his job has largely involved issuing licenses and checking tax discs until one day a builder turns up some human bones on an old farm and PJ finally feels like a winner.

Up on the old Byrne farm the remains of a young man have been unearthed and speculation runs like wildfire through the village that it must be the body of Tommy Burke who vanished some twenty years ago. Suddenly old romances are dragged back into the light of day for handsome Tommy had been engaged to one girl and soft on another before his mysterious disappearance.

Set apart from the village live the spinster Ross sisters, Abigail, Florence and Evelyn. Their lives have been blighted with tragedy and loss and their family home, Ard Carraig, seems to attract sadness. Sweet Evelyn’s heart was broken beyond repair when Tommy vanished without a word.

On the other side of town lives Brid. Never an attractive girl she had lacked suitors until her father’s sudden death meant she inherited his farm. Then suddenly a stream of unattached young men with farming in mind arrive to court to the young woman. Amongst them was handsome Tommy and Brid had thought herself the luckiest girl alive when he proposed. Notice of the engagement was posted and the village buzzed with joy, until Evelyn, seething with jealousy and disappointment, launched herself at Brid in the middle of the street and the young women fought for their man. Oddly that was the same day that Tommy left town, the gossips had it that he was seen boarding the bus with a small suitcase and nothing had been seen of him since.

So this is the tangled web that PJ has to unravel and his investigations affect him as much as they affect those he must question. Unwittingly, gentle PJ finds himself caught up in the lives of the two very different women and in doing so discovers a new side to his nature.

Entertaining, skilfully layered and gently revealing of the characters’ flaws and foibles this is an engaging and cosy read. The language is full of imagery and I was surprised at how well the private thoughts and emotions of the characters were conveyed in just a few words e.g. “She felt transparent without the dark cloud of the past trapped inside her”. Each character was sufficiently developed and individual for the reader to get inside their psyche and sense for just a moment what it might feel like to be a fat, sweaty Guard or a lonely, heartbroken woman. That said it isn’t high literature but I thoroughly enjoyed it and would heartily recommend it to those who like Agatha Raisin, Miss Marple, or Midsomer Murder

 

Like buttery toast and a hot cup of tea when you’re home feeling poorly on a winter’s day. It rates 4 bites from me.

I received an advance copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Bookeaters always say what they think. The hardback will be released on 6th October

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Secondhand Best Sellers –  Inferno by Dan Brown

Following my confession a few weeks ago that I love picking up books cheap at second-hand stalls I thought I’d make a bit of a challenge out of my vice.

So here’s the Criteria:-

Each book must be bought secondhand for no more than £1

Each book must claim on its front cover that it is a bestseller

12 books – one per month for a year

Do feel free to join me and share your second-hand bestsellers in the comments!

Inferno by Dan Brown – published 2013.

Tagline ‘The Astonishing Global No 1 Bestseller’

At this summer’s Lafrowda Day I picked up several novels from a charity stall . Various cheap books were on offer along with other bric-a-brac and I had a great time browsing the offerings that ranged from 10p to the heady heights of £5. I selected this particular book because I have enjoyed the film versions of both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons by the same author and though I found both novels rather pretentious they are fast paced and largely entertaining.

Click for Amazon
Click for Amazon

In Inferno we have many of Mr Brown’s usual elements; a powerful organisation with secret intentions, a morally bankrupt but wealthy fanatic, a seemingly indestructible yet handsome and erudite professor, a young woman with hidden talents, and a high octane chase through exquisite buildings in various countries. Along the way Mr Brown dazzles us with his knowledge of art and architecture and pieces together a giant treasure hunt with clues that only a Symbologist and a lover of the Renaissance could possibly decipher.

In essence the plot is that a brilliant and wealthy scientist decides to save humankind from reproducing to the point of self-destruction by creating a virus that will reduce the global population forever. Protected by a shady Consortium this scientist hides from the World Health Organisation in order to create and release this virus, but with a megalomania born of genius and fanaticism he can’t resist laying a few clues along the way. He wants his great self-sacrificing work to be acknowledged but rather than write a suicide note he finds the time to turn an ancient engraved bone seal into a miniature projector that can reproduce an altered image of the Renaissance painting ‘The Map of Hell’ by Botticello based on Dante’s famous poem The Divine Comedy written some 200 years earlier – sounds complicated? Of course! Why make things easy when you can baffle with brilliance and blind with bullshit? Anyway, the WHO get an inkling of this mad scientist’s intentions and believing that his virus will unleash a C21st plague they are closing in on him and his evil plan. Meanwhile the Consortium is taking steps to fulfil the scientist’s last wishes but the WHO get in ahead of them and call on the services of Robert Langdon (Renaissance expert and Symbologist) to help them decipher the pre-empted final message – only for Robert to suffer amnesia and go rogue. So now the WHO and the Consortium are both hunting him.  Meanwhile Robert – who has of course deciphered the various clues- is racing against the clock to find and destroy this virus before it can be released – all clear yet?

Okay, so the plot requires that you suspend common sense and you don’t ask too many technical questions. Indeed the word ‘Astonishing’ as used in the promotion tagline could carry several different interpretations, but like his earlier novels this book is crying out to be made into a film. However, unlike his previous novels I found that this story had a genuine and thought provoking core which is the premise that over-population will cause man to self-destruct and therefore scientific advances in eradicating disease and prolonging life may actually be detrimental to humankind’s long-term survival. Despite it being an adventure  story the author is urging us to consider whether morally it is time to prioritise between the survival of the masses short-term or the survival of humankind per se.

So what do I think? I confess I enjoyed it much more than his previous novels. It’s not high literature, it isn’t a classic and it won’t still be read in 200 years, if humankind survives that long – but it was fast paced and entertaining,  informative in parts about the Renaissance and has left me pondering that very challenging thought.

More Starbucks than McDonalds so 3 bites for the biscotti

(Just discovered that it has been made into a film and will be released in the UK 28th October)

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn Benson

the-smoke-hunterCross Indiana Jones with Amelia Peabody and out come  Adam Bates and Eleanora Mallory. Fast-paced and exciting with romance and suspense in equal measure this debut novel is full of fun and wit.

It’s nearly the C20th and women young and old are clamouring for proper education, proper employment and most of all the right to vote. If Eleanora Mallory hadn’t been born a girl she’d have been out in the jungles excavating the ruins of an ancient civilisation, but a girl she is and the best job that a top quality university degree and a near perfect score in the civil service entrance exam can earn a young woman is the role of a low level archivist in the public Records Office. What is utterly maddening is that her supervising manager is a lazy, untidy, slapdash excuse for an historian, who is about to sack her because she got arrested for chaining herself to the gates of parliament. While waiting for him to arrive she knocks a stack of papers off his desk and discovers a psalter, hollowed out in the centre it houses a large stone medallion and beneath that a treasure map. Her frustrated spirit rebels and on a whim she decides to borrow the items and do her own investigation but it isn’t long before the absence of the psalter is discovered and Miss Mallory finds that she has stirred up quite a hornets nest. With the aid of an old school-friend she evades pursuit and finds herself on a steamer headed for British Honduras using an alias and dressed in borrowed clothes.

Smartly written with a slightly saucy, slightly tongue in cheek approach to Victorian values, Eleanora and Adam are the perfect role models for a pair of ‘modern’ adventurers. He has to throw his pre-conceived ideas of chivalry out of the window and she has to learn to admit when she is wrong. Chasing across the jungle they are beset by dangers and fall neatly into yet more trouble. Swinging on vines, outwitting scorpions and trying to prevent themselves from being shot by the competition, it reads as clearly as if it were already a film.

Full of adventure and more exciting than Rider Haggard ever was sadly I suspect this will suffer from being considered the literary version of Indiana Jones. The plot is hardly unique but it is fun and the characters are spikey and spicy and the sparks between them are delightful echoes of the relationship between Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in the African Queen.

3 Bites – An entertaining and skillfully written yarn that kept me engrossed.

NB I received an advance copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Bookeaters always say what they think.

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Faultlines by Barbara Taylor Sissel

Barbara Taylor Sissel Click through to Amazon
Barbara Taylor Sissel
Click through to Amazon

This book is the tale of a mother fighting for her son’s reputation and freedom, when he won’t fight for it himself.

Sandy is woken in the night by the call all parents dread. Her son Jordy, has  crashed his car, critically injuring himself and his passengers which include her nephew – her only sister’s only child. The family is torn apart by anger, recrimination and grief when one boy lives but the other boy dies. Sandy finds herself shut out by her sister, abandoned by her parents and deserted by her husband as deepest confidences are betrayed and relationships destroyed.

Jordy won’t fight for his innocence though he maintains he wasn’t driving, but its not what the police say and Sergeant Huckabee is a friend of the family and a hero in their small town. A wedge develops between Sandy and Jordy and no-one seems to want to fight their corner but her.

Across town lives Libby. She and her husband bought a few acres of land on a deserted ranch and were building a new house he had designed when she is suddenly widowed. Struggling to make sense of a number of unpleasant incidents around the build site Libby finds herself unintentionally befriending her late husband’s illegitimate son.

New friendships are made, old relationships tested to breaking point and inevitably somethings can never be the same again.  Petty jealousies and infidelity lie behind bigger actions and sometimes it takes a disaster for people to find what is truly important.

This is a tale of family tragedy and upheaval that explores what it means to be family and the other less likely bonds that form when times get tough. Its well written by an established author and is very much a novel of small-town America in Texas Hill Country.

I can’t rave about it but equally its sound enough though not in the league of Barbara Taylor Bradford, Anita Shreve or Jodi Picoult. I’d give it 3 bites but I wouldn’t want seconds.

I was sent a free advance copy by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The Bookeaters – we say what we think.

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Ode to Second Hand Book Shops

Great Secondhand-book Shops

In my last feature I extolled the virtues of libraries, book exchanges and charity stalls as sources for cheap, or better still – free books! Today I want to share my love of secondhand-book shops. A surprising number of people make a living from selling used books and their very existence ensures that knowledge and stories from bygone eras is not forgotten.

Bookshop Trelissick
Bookshop Trelissick

We tend to think that with the abundance of technology available these days written information can be stored and never lost but in fact technology has moved on so fast that somethings which were stored in the last 30 years are already inaccessible as the method of access has become obsolete – just think of floppy disks. Books have an amazing resilience – they are survivors and heirlooms, some of them in common circulation are hundreds of years old. First editions maybe extremely valuable even though the literary contents have been reproduced repeatedly in subsequent print runs and secondhand-book shops vary from those that recirculate the mass printed, modern paperback offerings to those that specialise in rare and unique books bound in calfskin and lettered in gold.

The Cookbook and Bosorne Books, St Just, Cornwall – Philippa and David James

This shop is a warren of tiny rooms, downstairs is a cottage café with a reading area, free newspapers and a selection of books, paintings and arts, a small number of tables and chairs make up the restaurant area plus a tiny outside yard to the rear and a few picnic benches out front. Upstairs are three interconnecting rooms packed with books – even the stairs are lined with books. Cookbook 2016A couple of chairs and some cushions make it possible to sit with a stack of possible purchases while deciding which to buy. The windows are set low and the ceilings slope and there is an atmosphere of timelessness. The range of books on offer is wide and well organised, including art, history, military history, poetry, natural history and books about Cornwall. There are plenty of paperbacks for holiday reading and of course a popular children’s section in addition to rarer and more collectable tomes. packedcookbookOpened in 2003 they are at the heart of this small community in the most Westerly town in England. The whole place oozes genuine cosiness and hospitality and well behaved dogs are welcome. The cream teas are generous with the cream and jam and it is a perfect place to while away a couple of hours just browsing and eating and chatting and eating and reading and browsing…

Trelissick secondhand-book shop, nr Truro

This delightful little find is in the National Trust estate of Trelissick on the edge of an estuary. It is not necessary to be an NT member nor to pay to enter as the bookshop, craftshop and café are all open to the general public. The bookshop is a fairly new development on the estate and a very welcome addition.

Children's reading room Trelissick
Children’s reading room Trelissick

Sited in a quaint cottage just across from café courtyard the shop has two generous rooms with various chairs, tables and a sofa and exudes a feeling of unhurried agelessness. All fiction is priced at £1 and there is an extensive array thoughtfully organised. Children’s books are in the first room allowing the fiction browser peace and tranquillity to peruse the wide selection in the other room.

Why don’t you hunt out a good secondhand-book shop and share its whereabouts with us – spread the word.

 

 

 

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Knights of the Borrowed Dark, Book 1 by Dave Rudden

I had to laugh when I read the first line on the title page of the kindle edition

Dave Rudden enjoys cats, adventure and being cruel to fictional children

‘I’m in for a good one here’ I thought …. and I wasn’t wrong!  In my opinion adults and youngsters are going to love this.

Knights of the Borrowed Dark

Thirteen year old Denizen Hardwick has been raised in an Irish orphanage and knows nothing about his parents. He loves reading and is very good at frowning – in fact he has mastered a remarkable number of different frowns. He has no known relatives and no expectations so he is extremely surprised when he finds a note from Director Ackerby informing him that at 6pm he will be collected by his aunt. At 6pm a car does indeed arrive, a Jensen Interceptor, strangely though it arrives in the dark with no headlamps on and instead of a woman a tall and mysterious man gets out. Denizen is both curious and wary – after all even an orphanage can feel like home – but he willingly gets in the car  to be driven him to Dublin where he is told he will meet his aunt. A monstrous event occurs on the journey and fortunately Grey reveals himself to be rather more than just a chauffeur.  However the response  to everything that Denizen asks is merely that the aunt will explain. Bursting with frustrations and questions when Denizen finally meets his aunt he discovers that she is a Malleus, a warrior and a leader among the Knights of the Borrowed Dark who fights the tenebrous creatures that breach our world. Furthermore he discovers that he is not thirteen as he believed and that he too is possessed of unusual powers.

Clockwork creatures, monsters that shape themselves from objects, iron that runs through the body as well as the soul. Rudden has envisioned new magic and new enemies. This isn’t a Harry Potter rip-off; it is fresh, exciting and humorous.  The cost of wielding magic and the price of superpowers is skilfully portrayed and thought provoking. The writing is witty and sharp, and the action moves along swiftly but still allows for character development. The quality of the writing is excellent and the variety of imagery used for even simple events is delightful, these two particularly appealed to me.

“He ran gloved hands across the steering wheel the way you’d ruffle the head of a beloved dog” or

“A conversation with Simon had the soothing effect of a cool pillow”

This is Rudden’s first novel and the first of a series. Puffin Random House are publishing it and I fully believe that they have picked a winner because it is going to appeal to children and their parents, indeed I couldn’t put it down. I am so looking forward to book 2 for as Rudden wrote in his afterword “Onwards and downwards, to misery unending”.

5 bites and I want more!

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

 

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Reading on the cheap – how do you do it?

I love reading but it would be an expensive hobby if I indulged myself and bought all the new hardback releases I hanker after. However, I am saved from my greed because I often feel overwhelmed in a bookshop, so overcome with the vast selection that I am rendered incapable of choosing just one that appeals. Nevertheless can enjoy such a rush of excitement at the multitude of words, colours and images delineated by the sharp fresh ink and the purring of pages being thumbed, that I usually leave utterly satisfied – even without making a purchase.

Instead I do reading on the cheap.

For free books I signed up to Netgalley, a site that allows you access to some new titles available on-line in exchange for honest reviews. You don’t always get the book you apply for but sometimes you get real gems and it cost nothing. Of course many old classics are out of copyright and are freely available through other sites for Kindle and e-readers. I don’t know how you feel but although I make good use of Kindle the sensory pleasures of a physical book will always lure me in a way that an ebook cannot.

I generally don’t mind waiting for someone else to finish a book first, after all deferred gratification has its own pleasures. So I enjoy libraries, not these modern learning resource centres with computers, but real old fashioned libraries that smell of ink and dust and old calfskin binding. My local library boasts underfloor heating which makes it very cosy in the winter. Naturally I also swap recommendations and books with friends, often forgetting who I’ve lent to (lucky you) or borrowed from ……(sorry).

Then there is the certain thrill of encountering a free book exchange – rather like receiving an unexpected early present. The delight of finding a well -stocked red phone box sat peacefully by a creek

Trevilley Book Exchange - near Lands End
Trevilley Book Exchange – near Lands End

combines with the sense of belonging that comes from knowing that I am but one part of the often unseen community of fellow bookworms.

Exchanges are often found in old red phone boxes but there are many others lurking in unexpected places – such as this well-organised shed. Thank you Patrick Gale.

 

However my favourite source of books is actually not a free one. It is bizarrely … the secondhand stall!

  • There is something so liberating in the reduction of choice
  • In rooting through things other have discarded and finding something of value
  • The appeal of the rock bottom prices on a stall
  • The satisfaction of supporting a charity (usually) – getting and giving combined
  • I frequently find best-sellers of yesteryear that I hadn’t yet discovered

Unfortunately for the authors and their royalties the vast majority of my books are obtained second-hand, but what inevitably happens is that when I get hooked by a writer I have to get hold of their other works – as with Louise Penny and Joanne Harris. This is when I head for the nearest bookshop and armed with the determination to purchase specific items I will resist the siren calls of those other beautiful tomes and will ultimately leave with my purchase complete and my senses replete.

Please post a comment to let us know where you source most of your reading. If you have any great photos of libraries, book exchanges or other local sources please feel free to also post those

 

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evelina

Click for Amazon
Click for Amazon

This is an historical fiction based on well-known public figures and drawing on various documents of the day it tells the dramatic story of Victoria Woodhull.

In November 1872 the US was about to go to the polls to elect its 19th president and for the first time a woman’s name was on the ballot – astounding in itself but even more so considering that women wouldn’t win the right to vote for another 50 years. The author takes us from Victoria’s poverty stricken childhood filled with abuse to the point where she is standing as the Equal Rights Party candidate for the presidency and facing charges ranging from sending obscene material (a newspaper) through the US Postal Services to libel.

Woodhull’s life from beginning to end was full of extremes and contrasts and the harder she struggled to rise above the disadvantage of being a woman the more harshly she was treated. The story starts in April 1853 when Victoria and her family are ‘invited’ to leave the town of Homer, Ohio. The other town residents have had enough of her Pa whose dodgy dealings which include dubious snake oil elixirs and horse trading have culminated in an insurance motivated fire at their mill. Like their mother both Victoria and her sister Tennessee were mediums and spiritualists, and  though Victoria is only 14 years old and Tennie just ten, Pa Woodhull moves the family to a new town and sets them up as clairvoyants and rakes in the paying customers. Within a year Victoria has married a young and handsome Dr Canning only to then find out that his credentials are dubious and that like her father he drinks to excess and is abusive and before long she is trapped by in the marriage by pregnancy. Her husband’s infidelities and lack of credentials force them to move from Ohio to Chicago to San Francisco. Earning what she can as a seamstress Victoria finds herself involved with a theatrical company and becomes an actress but her career is short lived and they return to Ohio where once again her father uses her skills as a clairvoyant to boost the family fortunes.  All of this is barely a warm up for what follows.

Woodhull’s life was full of extraordinary contradictions, behaviours and questionable judgements and some of these are well brought out in the book. She became a vocal feminist and suffragette who decried marriage and fully supported the notion of free love, yet she was married four times in protestant churches and that despite being a spiritualist who disapproved of organised religion!  Although an ardent feminist she and Tennie sought and obtained the protection and patronage of very wealthy men, most notably Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt who taught them to read the ticker tape and play the stock market; indeed so successful were they that they became the first female stockbrokers and opened business offices. Financially secure they supported Roxanne Clafin, their abusive mother and indeed she and several other family members lived in Victoria’s home and were dependent upon her and Tennie, including the now sickly Dr Canning. Angered by her lack of influence and control over her daughters Roxanne blamed Colonel Blood (Victoria’s second husband) and  in 1871 she swore out an affidavit to the effect that he had corrupted the women and weaned them from their mother’s love in order to prostitute them. He was arrested and the case went to trial. The papers had a field day, such celebrity gossip allowed for a vast amount of vitriol to be unleased and many opponents of their unique combination of political progress and social climbing gave vent to their feelings in print. Less than a year earlier Victoria and Tennie had launched the Woodhull and Clafin Weekly paper to promote their causes and indeed it was this very paper that was to land them in such jail when Victoria, in explaining why both her first husband and second husband lived with her, advocated her belief in Free Love. She cited the hypocrisy of an eminent public figure (Reverend Beecher) who denounced immorality yet lived with another public figure’s wife (Theodore and Elizabeth Tilton). In part of the article co-written by Tennie another public figure’s hypocritical behaviour was revealed and a quote from Deuteronomy was used. Bizarrely it was neither Beecher nor Tilton who laid charges but a United States Postal Inspector by the name of Anthony Comstock who brought the complaint claiming that it was obscene – and the phrase he objected to was none other than that drawn from the Bible!

 

I must emphasise that Evelina does thoroughly cover all of this and the book is quite long and yet somehow it feels squashed. The first three years of the story from 1853 to 1856 are told in some depth but then suddenly the events from 1856 to 1864, are skated over  in half a dozen pages in order, I felt, to get us to the point where the author really wants the story to start. It is apparent that the author wanted to be as accurate with historical details as she could and it is clear that she did a mountain of research. However, because the story is in the first person, in chronological order and stuffed with detail it wasn’t long before I developed the impression that I knew what Victoria did but not who she really was. I started to wonder if the book was truly a novel or a biography in disguise; it felt more as though I was reading a very thorough Wikipedia entry.  I think that the detail of the later years particularly 1870 to 1872 overwhelm the earlier chapters. Where was the depth of emotion, the reflection and the introspection such complex people might be expected to have and that I would have expected from a novel told in the first person? We do not get to see Victoria through other people’s eyes except through quotes from trials and newspapers that are by their very nature one-sided. Woodhull’s life was so full of drama and contradiction that for a fictionalised retelling it could easily have done justice to a 3 or 4 piece book series and that would have allowed for more character development in all of the major figures.

This is a very hard book to rate, I am certain that many readers will be fascinated and absorbed but for me although the story is remarkable the telling of it is not. I almost feel that I should apologise because this was so thoroughly researched and meticulously written but I found it largely indigestible and can only award 3 bites.

 

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Penzance Literary Festival 6th – 9th July

http://www.pzlitfest.co.uk/events/     Well what fun!

I must confess that fellow BookEater Rachel  and I have been gorging ourselves at this year’s Penzance literary fest. We decided that for starters, and in order to work up an appetite huge enough to cope with all the delicious offerings that followed, we’d better begin with a good walk – and a good walk was exactly what we got.

Acorn-150x150We gathered with a handful of others  – both locals and visitors outside the Acorn at 6pm on a sunny evening. Our guide was the knowledgeable and entertaining Anna McClary who speaks with a charming lisping Germanic accent. Anna had clearly spent much time researching in the archives and journals of the amazing private but public Morrab Library (anyone can join for £3 per day or £30 py) that is a treasure trove of local knowledge.

Opposite the Acorn is the picturesque Phoenix House. Once the Registrar’s Office for Penzance it was here that Dylan Thomas finally managed, on the third attempt, to marry Caitlin – the two earlier intended visits had been abandoned in favour of drinking. Anna read Thomas’ poem ‘The hand that signed the Paper’ which seemed most appropriate in this week of Brexit fall-out.

We strolled through the quaint footlanes of central Penzance towards the Art School and alongside the leafy, almost hidden gardens of the tall pastel houses that have been home to so many writers, painters, musicians, poets, actors and artists. We traced the streets and paths that feature in Patrick Gale’s novel ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ and stood gazing at blue, white and pink houses wondering if it was this house or that he was picturing as he wrote of Rachel’s studio. Anna skilfully handed out photographs of old Penzance and read poems and snippets from other writers while casually throwing out comments such as “Of course Morwenna’s first attempt at suicide was in the lido” as we admired the sight of the wonderful art-deco Jubilee swimming pool framed against the indigo sea. Branwell House Little gems of local history were shared and stories exchanged including my tale of how I was offered the Branwell house for £1 – an offer that had I taken it up would have put me on a very different path through life.  Maria Branwell was born and raised here – but in 1812 she married Rev Patrick Bronte and moved to Yorkshire where she had six children including the famous Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

Charles Dickens, Rosamunde Pilcher, Dr Johnson, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolfe amongst others were all mentioned but the purpose of the walk was entertainment rather than a lecture so great detail and lengthy explanations were avoided. Instead our group ambled and chatted, soaking up the ambience and laughing at the gossipy anecdotes and razor sharp observations garnered from the letters and diaries of authors who have visited or resided in Penzance.

Everyone enjoyed the walk and for Rachel and I it was a delightful hors d’ouvre before the authors’ talk (Patrick Gale and Julie Myerson) and the Shackleton lecture that we had booked for the next day.

 

 

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

The Fire Child by S. K. Tremayne

click through to Amazon
click through to Amazon

Cornwall is a land of striking contrasts. Brutal industrial ruins are pockmarked across the county, yet age has made them oddly beautiful against the bare skies and boiling seas that frame this piece of rock. I live here and have a deep affinity with the mine ruins, the arsenic poisoned soil and the enormous tumbled pieces of granite that strew the landscape so when I see a book with a mine engine house on its cover I have to give it a go.

I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the cover blurb and I wasn’t really sure what to expect, the synopsis seemed at odds with the cover image. Indeed in the early chapters the reader could be mistaken for thinking that they’ve picked up a rewritten ‘Rebecca’ as the author introduces them to;

  • a wealthy widower – Richard Kerthen,
  • an historic estate by the sea – Carnhallow,
  • a dead first wife, Nina – famed for her impeccable taste and who died in mysterious circumstances,
  • a beautiful new wife desperately hunting for the truth – Rachel.

However despite the characters and the setting the similarities soon end and the story finds its feet.

Richard Kerthen is descended from a long line of mine owners reputed to have an unnatural sixth sense for finding the lode- a gift that the Cornish term tus-tanyow  ‘the people of the fire’. For hundreds of years the Kerthens have been eating in their great house above the tunnels and shafts that made them rich and in sight of their dark and sinister mine houses. Mines in which hundreds of men, women and children toiled to earn a pittance and risk their lives. The Carnhallow estate was built on the blood and labour of the miners and the bodies of some unfortunate souls still roll around in the drowned passages far below. Richard’s new wife Rachel has a lot more mettle and fight than the second Mrs de Winter ever showed and their relationship is passionate. Indeed Rachel quickly becomes like a tigress guarding her cub as she seeks to help her young step-son Jamie recover from the traumatic and eerie loss of his mother, but the harder she tries the more haunted Jamie becomes. Just as Rachel is determined to protect Jamie so is his father, but for him the enemy may be a lot easier to identify than a ghost and it isn’t long before Richard starts to wonder whether Rachel maybe the cause of the trouble. Their separate loves for Jamie threaten to pull them apart and they each become convinced that the other has become a threat. Suddenly the status quo is turned upside down and Richard finds himself exiled from his ancestral home while Rachel joins Jamie in seeing ghosts.

I don’t want to reveal the clever twists and psychological elements of this tale but I do want to recommend it. I quickly got past my initial feeling that it was a ‘Rebecca’ rip-off and became immersed in the story and the landscape that Tremayne portrays. I live in the very area that the book centres on and I smiled as she took me on a road trip through the little villages and along routes I know well.

The plot I give a wholehearted 5 bites to but the execution of it I can only give 4 bites as the pace was inconsistent  – nevertheless it was a captivating read and I couldn’t put it down.

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

The Bad Miss Bennet Abroad By Jean Burnet

This is a second outing for Burnett’s recreated Lydia Wickham (nee Bennet) from Pride and Prejudice. In the previous novel “Who needs Mr Darcy – the adventures of the Bad Miss Bennet” Burnett challenges us to overcome our dislike of the silly, spoilt girl and to see instead a would-be-independent woman fighting within the restraints of the age and using her charms and wiles to further her social standing and financial security. Having enjoyed royal romps, scandal and espionage in England in this second novel the young lady is headed abroad as a Lady in Waiting in the Portuguese Court.

Click through to Amazon
Click through to Amazon

The Bad Miss Bennet Abroad is definitely not a ‘Jane Austin by extension’ novel of calling cards and social gatherings, of sprigged muslin frocks and proper etiquette. Although there are the waspish asides and the frothy light tone to the narrative that I associate with Austin the content is quite different. We are led on a romp across the oceans, encountering pirates and spies along the way and into the exiled Portuguese Court in Brazil where Lydia is to serve as a lady in Waiting to the bride of the  heir.  Needless to say it is Lydia who catches the eye of the heir and her short stay with the  Royal Court results in jewels and rather more. While I could indeed imagine the licentious Miss Lydia becoming embroiled in such a romantic pickle I would have thought her too experienced and wily to then fall into the troubles she encounters on her return voyage. However despite the adventures and dangers that beset her at every turn and provide numerous opportunities for her to mature and mellow Lydia remains whiny, shallow and annoying and I wanted to swat her like a mosquito.

Overall a quick and silly read that was not to my taste but is well written and I’m sure will be enjoyed by fans of this genre. I can only give it 2 bites but I’m sure others would savour it more.

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Elizabeth Peters; ‘Every year another dead body’

Elizabeth Peters was a pen name for Barbara Mertz. Mertz was a prolific author who wrote under three different names because her agent insisted that her reading public would be confused by her other style and genre. Barbara Mertz

As Elizabeth Peters she created a wonderful series of 19 novels around the adventures of fictional archaeologist Amelia Emerson nee Peabody and her unique family. Set in late Victorian times her heroine is cut from the same cloth as Emily Hobhouse (welfare campaigner for Boer women), Florence Nightingale and Emily Pankhurst – intrepid, intractable, intelligent and inquisitive.

The tales begin immediately following the death of her father  when, provided with a reasonable inheritance Miss Peabody sets forth on a trip through Europe to Egypt. Here she develops two passions; one for the history and archaeology of the ancient Pharaohs and the other for the obstreperous, bull headed, brilliant and irresistible Professor Radcliffe Emerson. Together they tunnel their way through one chaotic situation after another. Finding adventure isn’t the only thing that happens;  ‘every year another dead body’ becomes the standing joke as each season’s excavations in Egypt inevitably dig up more than pottery shards and mummies. Croc on sandbank

The books span a period of forty years and encompass many of the political and social changes of the time. Mertz was fascinated with Egyptology and studied it at University and beyond and her depth of knowledge and the love she had for the subject is clearly reflected in the characters. The books are much more than just adventure novels with a good dose of humour thrown in; they are very well crafted and skilfully written. Parasols and Egyptian cats, spies, unrequited love, treasures, politics, fashion and Sherlock Holmes are all part of the amazing tapestry into which the stories are woven . With the stories told mainly from Amelia’s perspective Peters manages to make her annoying, self-righteous, funny, lovable and self-deprecating all at once. When Peters introduces us to the child prodigy that is Ramses, only child of Emerson and Peabody,  I thought at first she had gone too far. The boy seemed to be the embodiment of the worst of both parents and at one point I couldn’t decide who I thought was the more obnoxious – Peabody or her young son! And yet how I laughed, in fact I nearly cried. The character developed and as Ramses grew and matured my heart swelled with motherly pride.

Many reviewers portray Peabody as a female Indiana Jones but I think that rather misses the mark. Instead of disregarding the social mores and limitations imposed upon women in that era she rises above them with aplomb. She uses her wits, her charm and her deep understanding of social behaviours to achieve her ends. She is an astute observer of others but is as often wrong in the conclusions she draws as she is right! Dignified and determined she maintains both her standards and her expectations of others, regardless of whatever adventure she finds herself in. I often think that Dame Maggie Smith and Amelia Peabody would have had a lot in common.

My husband recently had an operation and I introduced him to these while he was recuperating, he loves them. I picked up one just to refresh my memory and ended up reading my way through the whole series again in a month, resulting in serious book hangovers at work….If you long for something refreshing, engrossing, light hearted and yet well crafted pick up the first one in the series “Crocodile On The Sandbank” – just don’t blame me when you end up reading all 19 in a row. And if, when you have finished them, you can distill the qualities that make me so addicted to them, you’ll be as good at ratiocination as Amelia!

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

The Timeweaver’s Wager by Axel Blackwell

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Click through to Amazon

I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to this second novel by Axel Blackwell as his debut novel Sisters of Sorrow blew me away so I was delighted to be sent an advance copy for independent review.

So what’s it all about? Well, as the title suggests there is an element of supernatural but much of the plot is rooted in American small city life.

Glen is a young man wracked with feelings of guilt and failure because he did not intervene to save his girlfriend from being raped and murdered seven years earlier. In his desperate attempts to assuage the guilt and find a way of bringing the perpetrators to justice he started a small project aimed at tackling violence. His endeavours caught the attention of Alan Fontain a wealthy and charismatic entrepreneur who poured money and other resources into it and became mentor, father figure and best friend to Glen. Under their partnership The Constance Salvatore Project grew into a highly successful program for the community with dramatic crime reducing outcomes; but for Glen the success of The Project merely served to emphasis his failings and isolates him from the memory of the Connie he loved.

With much of his life in limbo Glen lives in an apartment above his sister’s garage. Sophia was a registered nurse and partway through her year’s internship in a hospital when, just months after Connie’s death, a terrible car accident left her with a brain injury causing seizures and memory problems. Glen and Sophia find their lives irreparably changed by the events and look out for each other as best they can.

Stifled by the very success of the project Glen has told Alan that he needs to leave and find another way to make amends but Alan is more than reluctant to let him go. Finally Glen realises that he must take control of his future and he makes a public resignation at gala dinner thus forcing Alan’s hand.

The first third of the tale is basically the introduction to, and history of the characters that brings us to the point of Glen’s resignation. From here it takes on a very different atmosphere for this is where the Timeweaver and the wager come into it. Alan insists that before Glen leaves he listens to the truth about Alan’s own past and then he will be free to go. What Alan reveals has the power to change Glen’s life if he really wants it.

Who doesn’t have a conscience that pricks. How many of us have claimed that given a chance we would go back if we could and do something differently, display moral fibre, prevent something we knew to be wrong? So why didn’t we do it at the time? Perhaps we were really frightened, or selfish or maybe just embarrassed. How many of us would truly be prepared to lose everything we have, to go back and undo a wrong that we had allowed to happen. This is the extraordinary choice that is suddenly offered to Glen – go back, be fifteen again and die failing to protect Connie, or continue with the empty charade of his current life. I won’t spoil the plot, if you want to know the outcome you must read it for yourself.

So what did I think of it? I enjoyed the premise of the story and felt real warmth in the relationship between Glen and Sophia. I loved the idea of Samir’s wager with God and thought that the strands of the plot were brought together extremely well in the final third of the tale. But it felt very much like a three chapter book comprising the introduction, Alan’s story, Glen’s story. The novel is very short and I feel that too much of the story was told rather than experienced with the result that the first two thirds read more like extended notes or potted histories. In contrast the final third was excellent, I experienced the drama, the fear and the action and it really flowed. Overall my view is that The Timeweaver’s Wager had all the promise of Sisters of Sorrow but felt rushed and lacked the nurturing that it deserved.

3 Bites

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Out of the darkness, Katy Hogan

 

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This novel is about the fog and pain of loss and the extraordinary healing bonds that can be forged when we let our barriers down. It is also about spirituality and life after death. It opens with Jessica who ten months on from the death of her mother is struggling with the void in her life and has delayed dealing with the practicalities that fall to her, the only child, to sort out. Her anger and sadness cause her to have an out of character one night stand with a stranger – who she never sees again. Realising she must do something to take control of her life she reluctantly joins a bereavement group and so triggers a series of seemingly casual meetings that, combined with her unexpected pregnancy, are about to change her life.

Among those who Jess meets is Alex, a young American woman who has recently moved to Brighton. Alex left her previous job because of major health problems and is starting life over as a voluntary art teacher. However since her move to Brighton Alex has come to believe that she is being haunted. In a search for answers she persuades Jess to accompany her to a spiritualist church meeting where, despite cynicism and farce, a meaningful message is received.

Hannah, a fellow attendee at the bereavement group, is drawn by chance into the friendship with Jess and Alex. Hannah’s mother has been lost in bitter grief for a year and Hannah has had to bear both grief and loss without the love of her mother or any support from her controlling husband. But hidden bonds connect the friends and these three young women support and strengthen each other and by extension their families. Their friendships are further deepened by the birth of Jessica’s son and they are all feeling more positive.

The hidden bonds gradually reveal themselves and bring the families closer just in time to deal with further unexpected tragedy.

This debut novel from Katy Hogan shows real promise. It is warm, considered and well thought out and she uses her own experience of  the spirit world to underpin the tale. The world of the medium is shown as a strange blend of the dowdy and the flashy, the inept and the skilled. The twists in the tale are cleverly concealed and although some might think it all a little too coincidental and tidy I found it heart-warming and entertaining. My only criticism is the feeling I had that Katy tried too hard to shape each line and to add the right number of adjectives, similes and metaphors, consequently some paragraphs have a formulaic feel. Nevertheless it is a good read, thoroughly enjoyable and I imagine it might well be uplifting for those struggling with grief. I’m torn between awarding a 3 bite accolade or awarding a 4 – why don’t you give it a go and see what you think.

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

We Are All Completely beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

SPOILERS        ALERT      SPOILERS          ALERT     SPOILERS

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The author drew her starting point from a number of experiments into the similarities and dissimilarities in behaviour and communication that occur if you raise a human baby and a chimpanzee baby together. This story focuses on the lifelong impact and the emotional fallout such an experiment might have on both the chimp and the humans involved.

The story is told from Rosemary’s point of view, however it is told inside out and back to front so for simplicity’s sake I have tried to summarise it in a linear fashion. Rosie’s father, Vince, is a research psychologist attached to a university and in the 1970s he and his wife decide to adopt an orphaned baby chimp they name Fern and to raise her in their home alongside their new baby girl. The two babies bond as if twins and influence each other’s development. Rosie copies many of Fern’s behaviours such as jumping on desks, turning cupboards and drawers upside down and wrapping her arms around the legs of the research students, while Fern learns potty training and sign language and chooses to wear skirts. Everything the girls do is observed and noted by the graduate assistants and Vince. Rosie’s verbal skills are encouraged and her vocabulary is developed extensive with daily coaching and both girls are both taught signing as a way to communicate. Rosie acts as Fern’s interpreter conveying more complicated thoughts and desires that Fern does not have the language to convey. Lowell, Rosie’s older brother by some five years has bonded just as closely with Fern, but unlike Rosie he understands that this set-up is different from the norm and that he and the girls are part of an unusual experiment conducted by their father. Everything seems great from Rosie’s point of view but then one day she is sent away by herself to stay with her grandparents. When her father collects a week later he takes her to a new house as if they have just moved home – but Fern is no longer part of the family. Years pass and Rosie goes to college – she struggled to mix with other school children and found it hard to establish lasting relationships. Her love of talking and her vast vocabulary no longer serve her well and she has become nearly silent. Lowell is unable to forgive the family betrayal of Fern. When he discovers that she has not been sent to live on a farm as their father told them but that she is kept in a cage in a research facility he too disappears from the family and becomes associated with the Animal Liberation front.

This story is about sibling bonds, love, loss and blame. Rosemary has tried to blank out the thought that she caused her parents to send Fern away but she lives with a sense of guilt and responsibility. Her happy, loving mother has a breakdown, her protective older brother keeps running away and she is no longer the centre of attention for her father and a load of students – her world has changed immeasurably, her twin is gone and she is not like other little girls.

I thought the theme of the book was fantastic and there is no doubt in my mind that Fowler is a skilful writer. However, I really didn’t like the way the story is told from the middle, then backwards and forwards. It isn’t until page 77 that the reader is allowed to know that Fern is a chimp and while I appreciate it was because the author wanted us to see that from Rosie’s perspective Fern was her sister I found it so bewildering that I nearly gave up twice.

The depths of emotions such as loss and betrayal are conveyed by Fowler without great drama but the reader is left in no doubt about the implosion of every relationship within the family. Fowler however causes us to wonder who suffered the most as a result of this experiment, Fern or the family. She references real experiments that showed baby chimps raised by humans believed that they were human and when separated from their humans they became depressed and withdrawn and if able to sign would express feelings of hurt and loss.sarah-chimp Chimps have a strong social order and the females are subservient to the males, but chimps raised by humans and then returned to live with other chimps do not know how to behave and can be harshly treated. Fowler makes it clear that although Rosemary’s family is nearly destroyed by the decision to send Fern away there can be no doubt that Fern suffered in equal measure.

The book is sad but at least Fowler chooses not to end it leaving us feeling utterly bereft but to take us forward to a time when the family is in part reunited but in a very different way.I would like to give this book a higher rating but I can only give it 3 bites as i found it so hard to get into.

 

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Feature Friday – Serial Detectives

dalzielIt is funny how rarely my viewing tastes and my reading tastes coincide. There is nothing I like more on the television than a serial detective with some real character – my absolute favourites being the late great, gruff Warren Clarke as the grumpy Dalziel and kindly, untidy David Jason as Jack Frost. Yet when it comes to reading I find that I rarely go for serial detectives – somehow the balance between plot, detail and character often fails to excite me. However, there are three who have managed to get right under my skin. So let me share my favourites with you by starting, in reverse order, with the famous Sherlock Holmes.

I grew up on Conan Doyle’s tales of this inimitable man. A man so analytical and observant that he could ascertain your domestic status, profession and place of residence, simply by the condition of your clothes and ‘toilette’. His experimentation with chemistry, his encyclopaedic knowledge and his acute observation made himbook holmes brilliant in my eyes, but it was the solace he found in playing the violin together with his occasional, less socially acceptable behaviours, that revealed him as a man at odds with his own feelings. As a child I realised from these stories that it is often the flaws a character displays that makes them more appealing. At over 120 years old his many adventures with Watson have truly stood the test of time. They have been recreated numerous times through films, series and plays. Sherlock’s character has been discussed, analysed and re-invented endlessly and each depiction of the great man has something creditworthy about it. However nothing beats the ‘mind’s eye’ and I would recommend that you keep a volume of the original short stories on a shelf – for those occasions when you are short of time but want a complete read.

A couple of years ago I would have put this next detective in first place. The Jackson Brodie series, by Kate Atkinson had me hooked straight away, but just like marmite it seems these books are either loved or hated. one good turnIf you read detective novels because you like a clearly defined plot then these definitely aren’t for you! Brodie is an ex policeman turned private detective who has a chequered past. Divorced and rather a poor judge of women his attachment to his daughter is key to his softer side. I always get the feeling that he is a man who grew a conscience later in life and now feels compelled to act although he knows it will inevitably go wrong. The storyline mixes up seemingly random incidents and apparently unconnected crimes. Various characters, some skilfully drawn and some deliberately clichéd, are thrown into the mix. In the later books these other characters hold the stories together and sometimes it seems that Brodie is little more than a walk on part. Life is portrayed as messy, often bleak and sometimes brutal and occasionally the tone of a book veers too closely towards the malicious and depressing despite the touches of humour; but somehow I always admire Brodie’s moral compass – case historieseven when I don’t particularly like him!

The television adaptations avoided much of the darkness in the books and Jason Isaacs portrayed Brodie in a likeable way that I was quite comfortable with.

 

My all-time favourite literary detective turns out not to be British but Canadian. Two years ago I picked up a second hand copy of ‘Bury your Dead’ by Canadian writer Louise Penny. I hadn’t read any of her previous works and was unaware that there were several earlier instalments in this remarkable series. Her writing is fluent and evocative and captures the beauty of Quebec, the piercing cold of the Canadian winters and the timelessness of the old village of Three Pines in haunting detail. Before I had finished that one book I how light gets inwas hunting down the rest of the series.

Our hero is Chief Inspector Armande Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Wise, worldly and honest, he longs for a simple life, but it isn’t the homicides he has to investigate that prevent him from enjoying one, it is the Sûreté. Gamache’s loyal team are as important to the stories as he is and they reveal more of their characters, their strengths and their failings with each case they investigate, and their personalities are gradually rounded out by their reactions to the forces that threaten them. Gamache comes across as a deep thinker who says little but feels much and who has incredible compassion for the eccentrics, the forgotten and the bury your deaddamaged, he most definitely doesn’t judge a book by its cover. My image of Gamache, his team and the village of Three Pines is so detailed that I could not bear to have it ruined and I have avoided all links to the film that has been made of the first novel.

Penny has written 11 books in the series, each one focusing on a different murder or disappearance. The books have a strong timeline and woven subtly through the series are references to a subplot that gradually takes shape and which ultimately explodes seriously damaging  the Sûreté, Gamache and his team. I would rate each novel in the series as a minimum 4 bite and several as the full 5 bite.

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Today’s tragic teenagers

I was witness this week to a display of such utter ignorance of the unique magic of books that I was left wondering whether I had been sucked into a parallel universe where everything I hold dear is perceived as worthless.

It’s reading week at our tertiary college and one vibrant and passionate teacher has set about transforming an area into a book junkie’s delight. Colourful copies of a diverse range of extracts, shocking, amusing, saddening or uplifting have transformed a wall and virtually shout “Read me!” as you walk along. Tables are laden with books and magazines for borrowing or browsing, blind dates with the literary world lie discreetly packaged in brown envelopes for those who like a random pick and copies of brand new give away books are piled high.

I drew these goodies to the attention of my class of 16 year old students and said I would delay the start of our maths lesson just so they would have an opportunity to assess what they might want. There I was, anticipating the glee of children let loose in a sweet shop, so imagine my horror (if you can) when none of them even left their chairs!  Thinking they had misunderstood I repeated that all the books were free and that they could grab one immediately. No-one moved.  With a growing sense of bewilderment I tried again “Well when did any of you last read a book?” – general silence greeted me- “You must have read a book once” I tried. Finally one student piped up “The last time I read a book was in year 7”. A chorus of “yeah me too” comments echoed around the room. vicki pollard

Gobsmacked !!!!! My first emotions were sadness and pity for these girls who are missing out on one of the greatest pleasures life affords. The second wave of emotions was a combination of frustration and dismay. It is almost as if  the parents and  the education system believe that once a child has been taught the fundamental mechanics of reading then their responsibility is discharged.

In the USA the proportion of teenagers who “never” or “hardly ever” read has tripled since 1984 and a third of 13-year-olds and 45% of 17-year-olds say they’ve read for pleasure less than twice a year. Nielson books found in the UK that the percentage of non-readers in the age range 11 -17 grew from 13% to 27% between 2012 and 2013 . Yet research and analysis carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have identified that reading for pleasure at the age of 15 is a key factor in determining future social mobility, infact, it was shown as the most important indicator of the future success of the young person.

Surveys amongst teachers have regularly produced lists of the top 100 books they believed a child should read before leaving school. Time and again the same books are repeated. Many of these books and plays are classics but boy are they old. 35 years ago more than half of them were required reading when I in school and it seems little has changed; from Romeo and Juliet, via Pride and Prejudice to Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies. Pride and prejudiceThe books are frozen in time but our teenagers are not; their expectations, their learning styles, their environments have all changed. In this media savvy, technological age confident enthusiastic readers may stick at books they find challenging or irrelevant but those who are less confident or who find it hard work are hardly going to engage in them by choice.  I know loads of young people who never read the set texts for an exam, instead they rely on the reading notes and a brief skim of the first and last chapters. The books simply don’t excite them and forcing them to study books they can’t engage with risks poisoning the whole magic of reading for pleasure. I say let’s stop imposing middle-class interpretations of what should be read and instead encourage all youngsters to read for pleasure before we expect them to read for education!

I asked my fellow bloggers for some thoughts on what they would like to see on a GCSE reading list and these are some of their suggestions.

Girl at War, Sara Novic

The Palest Ink, Kay Bratt

The Fault in our Stars, John GreenNeil Gaiman

The Harry Potter series, the Northern Lights trilogy, and just about anything by David Walliams, Neil Gaiman, or Roald Dahl.

What would you like to see as curriculum reading and exam material from ages 12 to 16?

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Mental Health Issues in Fiction.

Prior to the C20th poor mental health, as presented in fiction, was a condition seemingly suffered only by mad, ‘possessed’ men and hysterical women. In C19th literature there was a tremendous surge in depictions of women wrongly committed to asylums because their behaviours were contrary to the expected middle-class norm of domestic figurehead and obedient wife. As medical understanding of mental health issues increased through the late C19th and into the C20th depictions of mental health became less sensationalised and more honest, sometimes brutally, shockingly honest. Authors felt able to examine their own problems and use their individual experiences to develop characters who didn’t have life all worked out. Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ is a largely autobiographical novel of a young woman’s sad and gruelling fight with severe mental illness. Sadly it did not exorcise Plath’s ‘demons’ and she killed herself shortly after writing it.

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The C20th and C21st have seen a widening of the type of characters portrayed with mental health issues or other conditions that would once have been labelled as ‘odd’ or ‘frightening’ such as autism or obsessive compulsive disorder. Men and children with such issues are much more common in literature than they used to be and many books are now written from the point of view of the character with the condition. One such book that became a bestseller is Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  The novel is narrated from the perspective of Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old boy who describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties”.

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Haddon wrote on his blog that “Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger’s….if anything it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. It is only in the book blurb that the phrase ‘autistic spectrum’ is mentioned but nevertheless the novel did a huge amount to widen the general public’s understanding of the condition and the difficulties encountered by people with the condition and their carers.

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Nathan Filer’s ‘The Shock of the Fall is a novel in the first person about 19 year old Matt Holmes. Matt is a schizophrenic burdened with a sense of a terrible guilt about his brother’s death and confined to the claustrophobic tedium of a secure mental health ward.

Filer, a registered mental health nurse, writes with a professional understanding about the process of treating schizophrenia and with an independent and critical eye about the many frustrations felt by patients trapped within the mental health system. However the book is not a study of schizophrenia but is instead a book about grief and coming to terms with loss and the effect of the experience on Matt, who has schizophrenia. The novel won the 2013 Costa first book award and was the subject of an intense publishing house bidding battle.

Patrick Gale’s ‘Notes from an Exhibition captivated me. Written from the varying perspectives of each family member the story encapsulates the highs and lows of living with a parent who is bi-polar and the difficulties of coming to terms with guilt and loss when a family member dies. The narrative moves around in time and place with the memories of the each character and the saddest most poignant memories are often those relating to birthdays.

Notes from an exhibitionRachel, the erratic mother with bi-polar is selfish, cruel and talented in equal measure. I felt frustration bordering on anger at her behaviour towards her children but this ebbed away to be replaced by a deep sadness when the events that damaged her are laid bare in the last few chapters. Frustration is an emotion often experienced by those who care for loved ones with mental health problems and there must be many readers who find this book touches them deeply.

Just yesterday I finished ‘The Earth Hums in B Flat’ another debut novel, this time by Mari Strachan. Told from the perspective of Gwenni a 12 year old lass, the story is set in a tiny poverty stricken Welsh town in the 1950s. Gwenni loves reading and has a curiosity for life which combined with a vivid imagination sets her apart and marks her as ‘different’ from the other youngsters. At first I wondered if Gwenni was meant to be on the autistic spectrum but as I read on I realised that it was her curiosity and wild imagination that worked to set her apart. In contrast it is Gwenni’s mother who suffers an unnamed mental health condition. The stigma of asylums and suicides fuel the mother’s fear of gossip about her daughter and she fails to recognise any potential in the girl.

The Earth Hums in B FlatFortunately Gwenni is quite independent and resilient and her Tada (dad) loves her very much. For me this novel contrasted creativity and free spiritedness with the tendencies of those with mental illness to focus in ever decreasing circles on themselves.

Last but not least on my list of modern novels that deal with mental health issues is The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes. Keyes writes from personal experience about the weirdness of being depressed and I found her pithy descriptions of the illness expressed many of the random thoughts and feelings I experienced when clinically depressed. The heroine, Helen Walsh, is an Irish private investigator; good looking, curmudgeonly, tough talking, and about to experience her second episode of severe, delusional depression. The Mystery of Mercy CloseUnable to keep up with the mortgage payments she has lost her flat and had to move back home with her mum and dad, who seem to live on a diet of tea and biscuits. Never one to go under easily Helen believes that if she keeps going she will outrun her depression, and so takes on an urgent missing person case.

Now I don’t usually enjoy satire very much and initially felt quite uncomfortable, but a few dozen pages in and I started to get with the rhythm and tone. Helen’s twisted inner thoughts and her sombre irritated view of life gradually hooked me. The more I learned about Helen the more I appreciated her sardonic analysis of her own depressive thoughts. The family shortcode for referencing the worst parts of the previous suicidal episode epitomised the attitude of many families who find a way to accept the mental illness of a loved one and to move on. The book had me aching with the pain of depression and laughing at the same time. I don’t think I would recommend it as a must-read to anyone still experiencing clinical depression but as an after tonic I found it great.

 

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

fireI can sum this novel up in one word – Scrumptious!

Actually that doesn’t sum it up at all but it does tell you what I think of it. The plot is a complex interweaving of family secrets, illegitimacy, politics and war. Woven throughout this tapestry is Fire, a beautiful young woman in shape and face. However Fire is more than that for she is part human and part monster. The Dells is a land with animals and humans but there are also other creatures, the Dellians call them monsters. These monsters bear the shape of normal horses, butterflies, lions and other animals, but their colouring is vibrant, iridescent and any shade of the rainbow. In short their appearance is astounding and alluring and their minds have greater capacity for cunning so the skies are filled with beautiful but deadly raptors that hunt human flesh.

Fire is the only human monster and she has the ability to read the thoughts of those around her and, if necessary to control or disrupt those thoughts and even cause people to actions they would never otherwise do. It is in effect a sixth sense. This sense is not something Fire would wish for but her monster presence makes her irresistible to many, particularly men, who would otherwise lose all sense of propriety and self-control when they are near her, and so she is driven to use this ability for self-defence. Some people have learned to guard their minds against monstrous control but many cannot. Her father Cansrel was the Dell’s most famous monster, beautiful and cruel in equal measure he had controlled the late king’s actions and sought to do likewise to the king’s son and heir, Nash. Circumstances intervened and Cansrel and his influence died but by then country was in turmoil and on the edge of civil war.

The Royal family are employing every weapon at their disposal to keep the throne and so Fire is summoned from far away to be used as a tool to read the minds of spies.

This novel is part of the captivating Graceling series but is self-contained and just as rewarding whether read before or after the others. From a timeline point of view it is a prequel to Graceling, and someone who is only a minor character in Fire goes onto be central in the next tale.

I loved the twists and turns of this plot and how Fire matures through the story. She gradually learns that she doesn’t have to hide herself away but that she can use her presence and her sense for greater benefit. The male protagonists are each  individual and well-drawn, from old wise Brooker in his wheelchair to Brigan the surly commander in chief, and King Nash who has trouble controlling himself. However I did find the early chapters rather dry and wondered if Cashore had struggled to find the best way to start. Nevertheless she has created a vivid picture of family loyalties and old secrets and combined it with a love story and a sprinkling of fantasy.

I have started a winnowing of my many bookshelves but this is one book that will be staying firmly put in my home, to be read again and again.
Too good to be a 4 but slightly less than a perfect 5 – you judge.

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.