Cousins by Salley Vickers

img_1573There have been many generations of the Tye family at the estate of Dowlands in Northumberland, and the family have had their fair share of tragedy. For Fred, the death of his uncle and the horror of the First World War led to his decision to become a conscientious objector in the second. A generation later and Fred’s son Nat dies in a tragic accident after climbing the walls of King’s College at night. This story is engrained in the family’s history and enthrals Fred’s grandson, Will.

The story centres around Will and his cousin, Cele: first cousins who fall in love and begin a tempestuous affair. The book begins after Will has attempted to literally follow in his uncle’s footsteps. He also falls, but survives and the family gather around his comatose body in hospital. The story is told through the narrative of three women: Hetta, Will’s sister; Bell, Cele’s mother and Betsy, their grandmother.

I really struggled to enjoy this book. It is very plot driven which can sometimes come at the expense of the characters themselves. Whilst I got a good idea of the personalities and drives of the five main characters, the secondary ones often came across as a bit two dimensional, probably because they relied heavily on description by the main characters which wasn’t always forthcoming. There is surprisingly little dialogue, instead there seemed to be chunks of exposition which I found myself glossing over and having to go back.

But despite thinking I might bail on it, the plot did keep me going. The main characters and the general story was enough to make me wonder what would happen to them all. And a bit more action at the end made me pleased I had stuck with it a bit longer. The general themes on family and its ties, and the inevitability of history repeating itself were interesting. But ultimately, the style and the lack of fully formed characters let it down for me.

2 bites

Kelly Turner
My love of reading began at an early age. I am indebted to my parents for putting “Naughty Amelia Jane” by Enid Blyton in the loft when I was five, forcing me to read something else. At the age of sixteen I picked up my first Discworld novel and never looked back. As well as devouring anything by Terry Pratchett I am also a fan of other fantasy writers such as Neil Gaiman and Ben Aaronovitch. In addition I like to read historical fiction, and enjoy a love story or two.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing
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A woman gives birth, then sets a fire to run away leaving her child behind. The child Effia grows into a great beauty and is given in marriage to a white man, a slave trader.

Her mother gives birth to another daughter, Esi. While Effia is living above the slave dungeons her unknown sister is beneath her, laying beneath other women and feeling their urine run down between her own legs before she is dragged away on a slave ship to America.

The story follows their descendents, showing us vignettes that highlight the most important moments of their lives – the moments things changed or coelesced into their true essence. We meet them picking cotton in Mississippi, at political meetings in Ghana, in the coal mines of Pensylvania or the missionary schools of Ghana through to the dive bars of Harlem and the universites of Ghana and America.

I really enjoyed this book, it takes the one fault I found with Roots and redresses it. We stay with each character long enough to care about them and get real insight into their lives but the book also keeps moving down the generations steadily. There’s roughly equal time spent with each character whether male or female. Often characters pop up again in their children or grandchildren’s stories which feels very natural and allows the reader to feel part of the story.

The descriptions are excellent also, I’ve never been to Ghana but I feel like I would recognise parts of it now if I was lucky enough to visit. For that matter I haven’t been to most of the U.S but I’ve seen it and read descriptions of it so often that I didn’t really notice those descriptions so much, they weren’t jarring though so they must have been good.

There are some very visceral scenes in this book, and some really uplifting ones. It does a good job of showing how slavery branded people on both sides of the trade. But at the same time it shows how strong the human spirit is.

4 Bites

 

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

imageWhen the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 it killed Amaterasu Takahashi’s daughter  Yuko and grandson Hideo. If she’d been on time to meet Yuko that day it would have killed her too.

For years she has blamed herself, but all that time she has also blamed someone else. A friend of her husband, a doctor who caused a horrible rift between her and Yuko.

Now she is a widow living in America, but then a  horribly burnt man claiming to be Hideo turns up on her doorstep and she is forced to revisit the past to discover if he really is who he says he is. If he is how is she to live with herself now and what is she to tell him about his mother?

This stunning book made was on the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction long list, I have to say I have no idea why it didn’t make the shortlist! Although I haven’t read every book on that list two that I did read that made the shortlist that were nowhere near as good as this!

I admit I’m a sucker for for poignant stories of parenthood, but this is so much more than that. It side-eyes Japan’s actions before and during the war without ever apologising or justifying the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It faces the horror of the bombing and the aftermath with eyes wide open and unblinking. I’ve honestly never read anything that approaches it quite so honestly, it doesn’t glorify it yet it doesn’t gloss over it either.

It also examines the myriad of relations between men and women and looks at what is forgiveable and who is redeemable. And of course there is the ghost of hope from the past and how to reopen old wounds in the hope that doing so will bring better healing. The writing is beautiful but functional, which suits the main character down to the ground. Definitely worth reading.

5 Bites

 

 

 

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

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Midwinter by Fiona Melrose

MidwinterOne harsh winter night Vale finally argues with his father about the horrible death of his beloved mother years earlier in another land. His father Landyn blackens his eye before he even realises what he’s done setting off a catastrophic chain of events.

As winter keeps the skies dark over this pair of Suffolk farmers they struggle to keep going both financially and emotionally. Each of them running from pain – one into the solace of the land and his dog, the other into anger, stupid decisions and recriminations.

Full disclosure – I know the author of this book personally, she kindly did some dog training with my family and she led a writer’s workshop for a while that my child attended, so I was both very eager and very nervous to review this. As you know if you’ve been reading our reviews for a while we also write honest reviews even when we get free copies (like this time) and even when we know the author. Gulp!

But thankfully I need not worry about offending her with a bad review and having to leave the county she paints so beautifully. This is a heart-tearingly good novel.

It falls completely into the ‘literary fiction’ genre so if action / adventure or scandi crime is your thing this won’t fit the bill, but with it’s bleakness and insight into the male psyche it might be something you want to try anyway. There is a feeling of tension that builds within the story so you won’t miss too much nail-nibbling!

The characterisations are haunting, these are men like men you know. And their problems are ones you will recognise, maybe you’ve even shared some of them.  As it’s told in 1st person from both the father’s and the son’s side it’s impossible not to care about them. Interestingly, when you are looking at each of them from the other’s perspective they still remain true in their mannerisms and language, so although they are at odds the narrative never is. That takes talent and attention to detail.

Personally I was charmed by the dialogue which was true to Suffolk in both language and speech patterns. It showed real respect for the characters and the place which is rare when the characters are farmers and less than rich. The settings are beautifully written too  with flashbacks to the family’s time in Zambia providing a colouful counterpoint to the muted tones of an English winter.

It’s not a long book, but it’s not rushed either. Perfect for a Sunday afternoon in front of a winters fire.

5 Bites

 

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

swing-timeTwo young girls attend Miss Isobel’s dance class in Kilburn in the 80’s. They are drawn to each other by their physical similarities being the only 2 brown girls in the class.

But the girls have their differences as well as their similarities, Tracey, is a talented dancer, lives with her white mother while fantasisng that her black father is a back-up dancer for Michael Jackson instead of in jail. Our narrator can sing but has flat feet and is overshadowed by her political black mother and ultra-supportive white father.  As their friendship grows it gets more and more complicated before they start to drift apart. Then Tracey does something that our narrator decides is unforgiveable. Their friendship is over, but she can’t ever quite forget Traey, not even when she lands a glamorous job or later when she is helping build a school in West Africa.

I loved the first half of this book. Smith’s portrait of the girl’s lives and friendship is exceptional. The narrator is very perceptive and seeing Tracey, and all the other character’s that populate her life, is a vibrant and vivid  experience.  London in the late 80’s and 90’s was my town and I can confirm that Smith sums up the city I loved so much and the people in it perfectly.

But the narrator has a blind-spot, it’s not an uncommon one, she can’t seem to see herself. She is perpetually shocked every time anyone suggests to her that life isn’t all about her. It’s forgivable when she’s younger but by the time she’s in her 30’s I started to find her exasperating. When I finally found out what Tracey’s ‘crime’ had been I lost all respect for her. I could understand how it might have upset her at the time, but to be holding a grudge for that long wasn’t something I could sympathise with. People do get stuck and fail to grow up, but this didn’t seem to me to be an adequate trauma for that.  Therefore by the end of the book, when the one last chance I gave the character to come to her senses failed to materialise, I finished it feeling short-changed.

I know it’s not the novelists job to give us neat resolutions all the time and this did provoke me so I can’t say it was bad, but there was just that spark of inauthenticity in the second half and for me it burned the book down.

3 Bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal

cover78296-mediumIt is 1981 and nine year old Leon has just gained a perfect baby brother called Jake. His mum is sleeping all the time but that’s ok because he’s learnt exactly how to look after Jake on his own, but then he runs out of money and asks his upstairs neighbour if he can borrow a pound. Before he knows what’s happening he and Jake have been taken to live with Maureen.

He teaches Maureen how to care for Jake but it doesn’t seem to matter because the social workers keep telling him that Jake would be better off if he were adopted. He can’t go with him, Jake is white and Leon is not.

Leon struggles to cope with his anger, but a new bike helps give him a sense of release. Then he finds a new friend Tufty, a grown-up who reminds him of his dad and teaches him gardening and politics at the same time. Of course he doesn’t let any of that distract him from his master plan of stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum.

This book is written in the first person narrative and Leon’s voice is utterly believable. It is reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird as it shows racism through the eyes of a child. However this book shows that through the eyes of a black child who is mainly brought up by white adults. This is shows the absurdity of racism in 1980’s very clearly and it is disturbing. I’m only 2 years older than Leon and as far as nostalgia goes this book had it all, the descriptions of settings, of how people lived, and the magic of Curly-Wurly’s is all spot on.

Leon has had his shell hardened by his experiences, but his centre is pure sweetness and it’s impossible not to love him. I was a little disappointed by the ending – it is the right ending for the book I think I just wish it hadn’t finished so soon, I wanted to stay in Leon’s life a lot longer.

Of course the racism shown in this story hasn’t been eradicated, but hopefully this hard-hitting yet charming tale will go some way towards wiping some more of it out.

5 Bites.

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

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

cover79886-mediumIn 1693 René Sel and Charles Duquet, both penniless Frenchmen arrive in New France. They are to work for a feudal lord, for three years in exchange for land and are set to work cutting into the immense forest that surrounds them. A forest that seems endlessly self-renewing.  Duquet runs away almost at once whilst René stays and suffers extraordinary hardship. Eventually he is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman, she bears him children destined to be caught two cultures. Charles starts out in business, first as a fur trapper then setting his sights on extracting the lucrative timber all around him in order to marry well, become a gentleman and transcend his humble beginnings.

Proulx tells the stories of their descendants until 2013. She explores Europe, China, and New Zealand with the Duquets (anglicised to Duke) as they hunt for new markets for their timber and new trees and forests to exploit as the once presumed infinite resource disappears at a disarming rate.

She also explores the lands and lives of the Mi’kmaw and other tribes as the whiteman brutalises their lands and bullies them into a compliance that ends in cultural annihilation.

This is an ambitious and important work from an exceptionally talented writer.  Proulx can depict a character with a few simple strokes of her pen and summon up a forest or a wilderness to surround her readers with just a few sentences and she has put those talents to use to create what I fear will become a tombstone for our murdered forests.

There is only one thing wrong with this book, if you’ve read my reviews before you’ll probably have seen me harping on about books that need more editing on a number of occasions- this time the problem is the opposite. This book should have been longer. There are a LOT of characters but we often don’t get to spend enough time with them. As the book progresses it seems that we spend less and less time with them. In one way this is good as it does give the feeling that we are hurtling towards a terrifying tree-less future, but it did also mean that I cared less about the modern characters fighting this problem than I had about their ancestors that had created it.

Still, when you have a book as long as this and you want more of it rather than less that is a huge accolade to its author.

4 Bites

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

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

imageJohn Wray’s The Lost Time Accidents is an epic novel that follows the path of a the family of a man who seems to die just as he’s discovered time-travel. The final piece of the puzzle is lost with him but his sons believe they can replicate his experiments and find the secret themselves.

As the twentieth century develops and war breaks out in Europe one son leaves and travels to America, while his brother uses the prison camps to conduct more experiments.
Their story, and that of the rest of the family is told in a letter written by the great grandson ‘Waldy’ Tolliver to his lost love. He has plenty of time to write this letter as he seems to have been exiled from the flow of time himself. Can he find his way back and unmake his romantic mistakes?

Time travel will always be a popular narrative for novelists but this one is most inventive in its use. The past isn’t explored by time travel but bought back to life through family stories of  turn-of-the-century Viennese salons and how Einstein’s radical new theory stole their thunder, and reminisces about the golden age of post-war pulp science fiction and how they accidentally inspired a modern religion.

It isn’t until the last eighth or so of the book that we discover if the Nazi Waldy is named after really did discover time travel or not, and what that could mean for the world.

This is a big novel, but quite engrossing. It doesn’t suffer from a lack of editing, every word is either necessary to the plot or necessary to its beauty. It took me about a week to finish it so a good one for when you have regular reading time in your day, I imagine if you had to just read it at weekends it could get a little confusing.

4 Bites

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

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

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 Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

9780349141077A.J. Fikry owns the only book shop on Alice Island and an extremely rare copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane.

But neither of these is bringing him any joy since his wife died. Then one night, when he’s passed out drunk, Tamerlane is stolen.  Shortly after a baby is left in his shop with a note from the suicidal mother. A.J does the right thing and calls the police straight away, in a small place like Alice Island he sees the same officer he reported Tamerlane’s loss to. Before he knows it, and without quite knowing why,  A.J decides to adopt the baby and his life is turned inside out.

The story follows A.J and his daughter through her growing up in his bookshop – frankly for BookEaters like us this is a dream childhood! As the book spans so many years it could easily have lacked tension and become a little dull, but thereis a great cast of supporting characters and  several subplots within this that keep you turning the pages. It has a little romance, some family drama and of course the mystery of the missing copy of Tamerlane.

The writing is subtle, I barely noticed it. But for some stories that’s exactly what you need, it had enough strength and wit to carry the tale but it never pushed it out of the way to take centre-stage.

It’s not a life-changing read (except it might strengthen your dream to run away from it all and open your own bookshop on an island somewhere and if you then follow that dream it could be lifechanging!) But it is a very enjoyable read.

4 Bites

 

 

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

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 Painted Ocean By Gabriel Packard

imageThis story, told in the first person, begins with 11 year old Shruti’s father leaving her and her mother. Although she knows she should be devasted she admits that “secretly I preferred it without him, cos it meant I had my mum completely to myself, without having to share her with anyone. And I sort of inherited all the affection she used to give to my dad – like he’d left it behind for me as a gift, to say sorry for deserting me.”

It seems she needs all the maternal affection she can get as life at school is hard, as the only Asian she is bullied and friendless. Also her mother’s family are wrangling to get her to desert Shruti and remarry. Things couldn’t get much worse but Shruti isn’t one to give up too easily and tries everything she can think of to get her mother to stay.

Then Meena arrives at school, a fierce, self-determined girl that instantly takes her place at the top of the school hierarchy. She has a soft spot for Shruti though, and so begins a very lopsided friendship.

I’m not going to pull any punches with this review, this book bloody annoyed me. I feel betrayed by it. We all know that rubbish that you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover is impossible to live by, and cover designers and publishing houses sweat blood over getting a stunning cover that portrays something to the reader. They did well here, they produced a cover that sells, it even tells some of the truth about the plot, more than the blurb does. This cover, together with the title promises poetry inside, a story told so beautifully that it’ll break your heart three times over. But it isn’t and it doesn’t.

Instead you get a mess of a book that seems to want to be two very different things at the same time, characters that don’t act the way they should, and ridiculous, unexplained plot twists. Also the fact that Shruti’s voice doesn’t grow up at all even though she goes from an 11 year old to a grown woman is even more insulting.

To be fair, the first half of the book is fine. Not what the cover led me to expect but not bad at all. But once they head to University it all falls apart. I get the feeling that the author thought something more exciting and heartbreaking needed to happen so he hijacked their story, like a boy parachuting an action man into his sister’s game with her barbies.

Not impressed.

2 bites.

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

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Schtum by Jem Lester

imageBen Jewell’s ten-year-old son, Jonah, has never spoken.  He is profoundly autistic. In order to get him into the residential home he and his wife think is best for him, his wife tells him they have to split up.  That it’s just for a while, that their appeal will stand more chance this way.

Now he’s living with his elderly father,  and he’s hit breaking point. Was his wife lying? Has she left him for good?  As Ben battles single fatherhood, his stubborn and disappointed father,  a string of well-meaning social workers and his own demons, he learns some painful home truths. If he can just win this appeal though, maybe everything will turn out ok…

This is Jem Lester’s debut novel, and it’s a powerful one. Often these days fiction depicts those on the autistic spectrum as tortured geniuses, and it’s true that many are high functioning and incredibly talented or intelligent. But it’s also true that many autistic children are locked in their own worlds and find dealing with people confusing and frustrating. They become overwhelmed and lash out, at others and at themselves. Jonah is this kind of autistic, not the glamourous kind but the sort that still wears a nappy at ten years of age but sadly not quite often enough.

Though Jonah’s autism is pivotal to the plot, it isn’t the be all and end all of this novel. The real star (or rather anti-hero) of this is Ben Jewell. The way Jem Lester writes this character is exceptional. We’re drip-fed bits of information on his character and how he’s coped with parenting his child and in all honesty the more we learn the less we should like him. But the sense that he’s redeemable and the deep love he has for his son carries him through.

There is ugliness in this book, but it is truthful ugliness, and that makes it a thing of extreme beauty.

5 bites

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

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

26619902Veblen is your typical kooky pixie girl, as typical as a kooky pixie girl can be anyway! She is a passionate defender of the anti-consumerist views of her name-sake, the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen. She’s an amateur translator of Norwegian, a well-conditioned people pleaser and a firm believer in the magic of squirrels.


Her fiancé, Paul is the son of good hippies who were bad parents, as a result he is trying to be a no-nonsense, high-flying neuroscientist with no time for squirrels. It looks like he’s on track to succeed but how will his relationship with Veblen fare if he does?

Somehow they manage to survive Paul starting a new and not completely ethical job, and then meeting each other’s families. But as Paul starts to see the shit underneath the shine of his job and Veblen starts to talk to squirrels, their relationship suffers.

This has just been long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Personally, although I enjoyed the book overall, it was a little over wordy and over worthy, for my taste. But the characters were sharp and incisive and that kept me reading. Although they were quite extreme I think everyone could recognise relationship dynamics that they’ve seen or experienced. The over-wordiness does mean that it’s visually appealing, I can imagine this as a film in glorious technicolour!

The author also manages to build a lot of tension through the sub-plots and supporting characters so although it seems like it is just an emotional dissection there are actually some very real dissections going on and even some explosions so the story does keep moving!

3 Bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Look At Me by Sarah Duguid

imageElizabeth finds a letter to her father. It’s from Eunice, the result of her father’s bohemian attitudes to love, born after her and previously kept secret from her and her brother.  In a fit of moral indignation, heavily laced with spite, she sends a letter back and unwittingly starts a relationship that won’t end as tidily as she expects. All she really wants is to chasten her father on her dead mother’s behalf. But human relationships are messy.  Eunice is working class, but aspires to more and doesn’t really fit in with the casually creative middle class Knight family.

The book follows as situations unfold which lead first to Eunice staying for a few days, through to her having to stay in Elizabeth’s own bedroom for a while. The emotional fall out is impossible to tear your eyes away from.

Reading this book is a bit like watching a high-class version of Jeremy Kyle. All emotions are  laid bare, all personality flaws are on show, every ungracious thought and selfish impulse. It is compulsive.

Sarah Duguid expertly creates these honest, believable characters and her descriptive powers are equally as good. I truly felt like I was right in the room (or the garden, the restaurant, even the theatre) with the characters.

If this book had one flaw it was that the characters weren’t obviously likeable enough. Although I think in this case that worked, there were strong enough hints of motivations and vulnerabilities that I still felt sympathetic towards them. Meeting any of them under different circumstances would have shown their charms more, but if I had been more charmed by them I might not have enjoyed watching them all squirm so much!

4 Bites

P.S Thanks to the publishers for allowing us a free advanced copy to review honestly.

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

imageAll identical twins are tempted to pretend to be each other, particularly when they are young. Helen and Ellie decide to do just this one day. Helen doesn’t think Ellie will manage to imitate her very well, after all she is the leader, the bright one, the popular one, and Ellie just trails around after her. But Ellie surprises her. Then surprises her even more when she refuses to swap back…

Suddenly her sister has everything, her toys, her clothes, her friends, her glowing record at school and the favour of her mother. Now she is the one being taken out of normal lessons for special help, and her frustration at the unfairness of it all is attributed to the cord getting wrapped around her neck during birth just like her sisters tantrums had been. Meanwhile Ellie is blossoming.

The story is told in first person by Helen as it happens and simultaneously from the modern day Helen’s in third person. The Helen of today is a drug addict going by the name of Smudge, and Ellie, now a popular TV personality is in a coma after a car crash.

This is a short book, but it’s packed full of tension and pulls you in right from the start. I read this in pretty much one sitting. It is brilliantly written and raises questions about the role of nuture in childcare, portrays the effects of gas lighting, sibling rivalry and mental illness without ever once being preachy or hysterical, or more importantly diverting from the story.

This is a true psychological thriller and a stand out debut. It could easily be this years ‘Gone Girl’. Read it now! Everyone will be talking about it in the next few months!  I hope we get to see a lot more from Ann Morgan’s pen.

5 bites.

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Palest Ink by Kay Bratt

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Order from your local book shop or click the pic to buy online

Benfu and his best friend Pony Boy are two fairly ordinary teenage boys living in the extraordinary times of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Benfu is the sheltered son of two intellectual’s Shanghai, he is a a brilliant violinist and hopes to persuade his parents to let him study music rather than become a teacher. His mother is more concerned with moving his arranged marriage forward and maintaining their current standing in the community. She can’t stand his best friend. Pony Boy lives on the other side of town and is the son of a mailman.

Both families think the cultural revolution will be a good thing when it starts, only Benfu has any doubts. But as Chairman Mao’s Red Guard begin their assault, leaving innocent victims in their wake as they surge across the country, they all start to wonder what will become of them. A chance meeting with a political agitator leaves Benfu with a packet of negatives showing exactly how dangerous The Red Guard are, as the atrocities continue he and Pony Boy decide to start a secret newspaper to share their knowledge. They call it The Palest Ink.

Books like this are why I love historical fiction as a genre. When it’s done well it can take overwhelming events and show how they effected individual human lives. It is well researched and the author is very knowledgeable about the history and culture of the period. But she keeps the pace and doesn’t allow this knowledge to intrude before its time.

Benfu and Pony Boy’s friendship is completely believable. Though they come from different backgrounds they have very similar values and a mutual respect for each other that is truly beautiful to read – yet manages to stay on the right side of shmultzy as they rib each other quite regularly.

I’d never heard of Kay Bratt before receiving this advance copy to review, and I was a little surprised that a white American woman wrote so easily as two teenage boys from communist China. I’ve since found out that she has written more with these characters, in fact this book is a prequel that was requested by her fans. I’m looking forward to reading further and finding out how certain characters fared.

5 bites

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

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.

Click through to Amazon
Click through to Amazon

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”.

Click through to Amazon
Click through to Amazon

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.

Click through to Amazon
Click through to Amazon

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.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

OnChesilBeach[1]

Set in 1962, the first chapter of this book introduces a young couple arriving in Dorset for their honeymoon.

Both virgins, they are fearful as to what is expected of them in the bedroom. Edward is desperately hoping the sexual act will be achieved ‘without absurdity’ whereas Florence experiences a ‘visceral dread.’

Reflecting the couples internal struggles, the vegetation around the hotel is ‘sensuous and tropical’ as if mocking them for their virginal naïveté.

At first, small steps are made. Together they eat a melon in less than two minutes and Florence manages to flirtatiously eat a sticky cherry but later, when Edward kisses her, she recoils in automatic distaste.

Leaving Florence to her disgust and panic, we are taken back in time to gain a fuller understanding of the characters, their lives and their falling in love. I didn’t particularly enjoy these sections of the novel but they had the effect of building up my anticipation. By the end, I was desperate to know the outcome.

At the end of this perfectly structured novel, we return to the present time to discover that Florence has left their bedroom and fled to the stark freedom of Chesil Beach where she is huddled against the cold, wracked with despair and guilt.

This is a book to be read slowly. The prose is so elegant, it is almost poetry and you only have to look at the front cover to guess how beautifully the settings are described.

It is no accident that it is set in 1962 as it comes just before the sexual revolution. As such it is a fascinating study of how sexual relationships have changed in the last fifty years.

This is a very powerful book which I know will stay with me for a very long time.

Five bites.

 

 

 

Mai Black
I’ve always loved being surrounded by books, running my finger along the spines or sitting back, gazing at all the titles and authors, reliving those wonderful characters and places, often more vivid than real life.

Many of my books are historical or fantastical in nature but I enjoy anything that looks deep into the human psyche.

My favourites are David Gemmells’ Troy Series, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

The Water Diviner By Andrew Anastasios and Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios

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Click here to get the audiobook version or pop to your local Indy book shop to buy a copy
Joshua Connor has three sons, all bubbling over with life and keen to risk it all in the Great War. All three go missing on the same day in Gallipoli. When the war ends and Joshua and his wife receive their belongings and his wife loses all hope. She insists he goes to find them and bring them home, then ends her life. Connor sets out to fulfil his wife’s dying wish – to travel to Gallipoli to recover the bodies of his sons to bury them next to each other in consecrated ground.

His sturdy personality sees him bypass every obstacle much to the surprise of the British who are busy identifying and burying the dead in between trying to carve up the remains of the Ottoman Empire. When he discovers that his eldest son, Art, may still be alive, he applies his same tenacity to searching for him. But if Art is alive, why didn’t he come home?

This story was inspired by one line in a letter written by one of the British officers detailed to burying the dead. He mentioned an Australian turning up out of the blue to claim his son’s body. A feat almost beyond imagining. Our authors read that sentence and it stayed with them, slowly growing into this work of fiction.

Though the plot stems from the Great War, this is not really a war novel. If anything it is an anti-war novel. It deals with the losing beloveds due to war whatever side you are on. It also looks at how people keep going and learn to love again after such horror.

I enjoyed this, I listened to an audiobook version rather than reading it and the narrators voice was perfect. Joshua Connor isn’t a showy man, but he is a man you want to watch. It’s easy to get drawn into his quest. The only thing that niggled me about this is that it has too much of the Hollywood film about it. It has been adapted as a feature film starring Russell Crowe, but in the end notes it is mentioned that it was written as a screenplay first then rewritten as a novel so this is probably why.

4 bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher

Clickity click for Amazon or pop along to your local library of indie book shop
Clickity click for Amazon or pop along to your local library of indie book shop
Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher is a big fat book. Huge. Gargantuan. Colossal. Behemothic. Leviathan. Cyclopean. Titanic.

Sorry, I got slightly carried away by all the exciting synonyms for huge but you have to admit that, at 1040 pages in paperback, it’s not a one-hander! In fact, it’s one of the books I have on my book shelf but also on my ereader because of its size. Well, I say it’s because of its size but in truth, it’s also because I can’t actually pick up the physical book any more without the binding falling even further apart, and random pages falling out!

Safe to say, this is one of my most read and most loved books. I read it when I’m happy. I read it when I’m sad. I read it when I am stressed or when I want to shut the world out. I read it every summer holidays and every Christmas holidays. I read it on planes, trains but not automobiles. If I don’t have time to read it all, I just put a random page number into my ereader and start from there- there’s no need to remind myself of the story, I already know it.

Coming Home, for me, is emotional perfection.

Which doesn’t blind me to the fact that, actually, it’s a book with a few flaws despite its emotional heart.

Set initially in Cornwall in the 1930s, it follows the story of Judith Dunbar who,  when her mother and little sister return to the Far East to be with Judith’s father, is sent to a boarding school in Penzance. Whilst at school Judith meets Loveday Carey-Lewis, youngest and most pampered daughter of a rich Cornish landowner who takes her home to Nancherrow. The characters are many and varied, and are, in the main, well rounded and relateable. Judith, however, could do with more growth and more openness in how she is written- by the end of the book, I don’t feel I know her any better than at the beginning. This doesn’t prevent me connecting with the book, in fact I wonder if it facilitates it by virtue of allowing me to put myself in her place. I see a lot of my friends and family in Pilcher’s characters and, frankly, could easily imagine my life being Judith Dunbar’s if I had been born in a different year!
The story continues into the war years, and the book does suffer somewhat from the rose-tinted spectacle approach but is still accurate enough to satisfy the historian! In fact, that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. It gives all sorts of little tidbits about the war which turn out to be wholly accurate and real (Yes, I have checked the more obscure ones!), and the Naval parlance is also accurate.

I didn’t actually live in Cornwall when I first read this book but now that I do, it just increases my enjoyment of reading it- I know all of these places!! Even the ones she makes up a name for! (Porthkerris? Yes, ok if you insist!) Pilcher grew up here in Cornwall and her love for the county shines through her wonderfully evocative descriptions. She makes Cornwall sound amazing all year round- although I do question the number of magical summer days with no rain they seem to have!

This certainly isn’t high literature but that isn’t why I read it. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to be whisked away for a few hours (actually many hours).

5 bites (but really 4 if I’m being more objective about it)

 

 

Rachel Brazil
Although well-known amongst my family for my habit of falling asleep with a book on my face, I’ve not let the constant face bruises deter me from indulging in my favourite pastime. There is no famine, only feast, in my house with every flavour of book available for consumption.

I’m happy to sample almost anything from the smorgasbord of literature available but can always be tempted with a juicy murder mystery or sweet little romance.

The Vacillations of Poppy Carew by Mary Wesley

Click for Amazon or rummage in a book shop!
Click for Amazon or rummage in a book shop!
Mary Wesley CBE (1912-2002) was 71 before she wrote for adults and in the last 20 years of her life she published 10 bestsellers. Drawing upon the social upheaval and revolution in sexual mores that arose between the 1930s and 1960s her books are a delightful glimpse at the idiosyncrasies and values of the English upper class. Written with an economical but wry touch she focuses on mannerisms and style rather than in-depth character development and she neatly ridicules values and assumptions as old and new worlds collide. Often employing stereotypes in order to make a point, Wesley sets them up like skittles as she reveals them for what they are.

Poppy is presented to us numb with grief and shock from the revelation that her beastly, long-term boyfriend Edmund, has dumped her for another woman. In the midst of this turmoil she rushes off to see her terminally ill father, only to have him laugh himself to death with relief at her news. Bruised, confused and hurting Poppy moves into her father’s house to make funeral arrangements and promptly discovers that there was a great deal more to her dad than she ever knew and that she is now most comfortably provided for. Following her father’s last wishes she ignores convention and arranges for a full rococo funeral with horse hearse, mutes, plumes and trappings, and thus opens the door to a remarkable array of people, who all go to great lengths to avoid being honest about their feelings for each other.

Among this panoply of characters is a pig farmer with a soft heart, a novelist with writer’s block, an elegant, elderly beauty and several members of the landed gentry and horse-racing community. As the funeral wake warms up, the evil Edmund and his fiancée, Venetia arrive. Edmund is already finding that his new inamorata has more backbone than he does and that it is highly unlikely that he will be the one wearing the trousers as their relationship develops. Seeing an opportunity to return to more comfortable ground he whisks Poppy into his car and almost before she knows it he has her on a flight abroad with him. His job is to negotiate with the Minister in charge of the Government run tourist board in a minor and politically volatile un-named North African country. Here Wesley displays her wit to great effect as she imbues Edmund with the stereotypical traits of a public school twit and sets him in an alien culture where he mistakenly believes himself to be in a position of influence. Meanwhile the love struck pig farmer is in hot pursuit of them having lost his heart to the fair Poppy as she stood by her father’s coffin, the blocked writer is rethinking his literary plan to bump off his erstwhile wife, and the Right Honourable undertaker is having difficulties with his stablegirls.

I read this in 1986 and have revisited it several times. Light and wittily observant it is refreshing to laugh at the characters’ predicaments and to be entertained by their flaws, mannerisms and actions. There is no manipulation of our emotions, no need for us to bond with these characters or to fret over their woes and yet each character is just likeable enough to make the various outcomes a satisfactory resolution.

A 4 bite 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.

The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas

KashmirRed magazine described this novel as “An epic tale of family secrets, love during wartime and dangerous liaisons” and I would second that.
After her father’s death Mair Ellis finds an exquisite pashmina shawl folded carefully away in a drawer. Knowing that her grandfather was a missionary working in Kashmir in the 1940s, Mair takes the opportunity to retrace what little she knows of her grandparents’ travels, in search of the story behind the shawl.

The current day is interwoven with the story of her grandmother Nerys as she transitions from a missionary’s wife in a remote and mountainous area to an independent and adventurous woman in the lush beauty of Srinagar. The rituals of British army life and social niceties of the time are juxtaposed with the poverty and harshness of life for the traditional weavers as Raj life in colonial India draws to an end and the political landscape changes.
Mair traces her grandparents to the mission at Leh and she travels to the little village discovering more clues to their story. Although she is travelling light she carries the shawl with her and researches its origins. On the way she encounters a charming couple called Karen and Bruno who invite her to join them and their young daughter on the journey to Srinagar. In mirroring this next stage of Nerys’ journey Mair becomes a witness to the unfolding of a tragedy.

The book moves its centre of focus back to the 1940s and to Nerys, who following a miscarriage, is persuaded to leave the remote Leh and accompany a friendly European couple as they travel by pony to Srinagar. Befriended by Myrtle and Archie, Nerys is introduced to the social life of the lakeside city and the glamour of life in the Raj. Strong-minded and impetuous, Myrtle reaches out to Caroline; a young English woman recently married to an army officer and clearly unhappy. The three women become firm friends and, as Caroline is discovering that an affair has lasting consequences, Nerys is embarking on a relationship of her own. The three women strive to maintain an appearance of normality as the world around them changes rapidly and those they love are endangered.
A magician who can make an airstrip disappear, an unusually disguised pregnancy, luxurious houseboats, a forbidding monastery, rabid dogs and a mysterious mountaineer are woven through the story. The tale is intricate and multi layered and contains many diverse elements that gradually coalesce to a whole. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately lent it to my mother thinking that she too would appreciate it; however her view was that it was too complex and that it would have been more effective as two books. Although it is a very pleasant and entertaining read it does require concentration and attention to detail for the ending to make sense. I shall be keeping it on my bookshelves for a future reread on some wet weekend.

My rating a definite 4 bites and probable seconds– yummy!

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.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

Harry Cane is the privileged elder son abandoned by his father after his mother dies in childbirth. Although he is excruciatingly shy, he loves and protects his younger brother Jack as they grow to adulthood.

But bad things happen to good people and although the pair seem to settle into happy marriages an unexpected seduction leads to him being forced to abandon his wife and child. He signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies and is promised 160 acres, his to keep if his soft hands and weak back prove up to the task of cultivating it within three years.

On route he meets the brutishly manipulative Troels Munck, a terrifying friend yet one that seems set on helping Harry, first finding him work for a year as a farmhand so he can learn the ways of the land, then finding him his own homestead and helping him prepare for the start of his stay.
But Harry’s instincts about Troels are right and the man tries to destroy every happiness that Harry has built. Can Harry survive this and put the pieces of himself back together yet again?

Harry is a man I fell instantly in love with, not romantic love I hasten to add, but a sympathetic love, the kind of love you have for a good person who doesn’t deserve to be suffering, and you fear can’t cope with much more. The kind of love you feel for a child in distress.

But Patrick Gale isn’t just expert at drawing complex male characters, he extends this skill to every single character he writes, no matter how small. He has the same skill at bringing surroundings to life so when you are reading one of his books you feel like you are right there in the story. Yet he does it in such an unassuming manner that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how he does it. When you read a Patrick Gale book, you know you’re in safe hands.

This is no ordinary Patrick Gale book though. This is the edgiest work of his I have ever read. He has stepped away from books set in the middle-class gentility and the raw historical setting of this might be a bit of a challenge for some of his regular fans. But for me,  I loved it.

5 Bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Influenced by Khadija Grant

As this is indepently published you'll need to click here to get a copy.
As this is indepently published you’ll need to click here to get a copy.
Two inner city kids, David and Sam, are born into a life of poverty and abuse. David is the smelly kid at school, his dad has no job and beats on him and his mother. Sam is the smart girl with big dreams, but her mother and father are both dead and she’s cared for by her crack addicted stepmother. They may only be ten, but they are searching for a way out.  Daniel lives across the street from them, in one of the nicer houses. His life seems much better with parents that love him and a decent standard of living. But all is not as rosy as it seems and he wants he more from life, much more.

This book follows these three through their teenage years and into adulthood. It traces the effect of the people they meet on their lives, whether that be their family, those that try to mentor them or each other. David’s crush on Sam grows over the years but he doubts he’ll ever be good enough for the girl that dreams of having the big house and the pink Range Rover. He needs money and he needs to become man enough to stop his father’s beatings. Both seem like impossible dreams until he meets KG, an older boy who takes him under his wing and gets his sister Cathy to help him with his education. Sam has also found a mentor, Amina from the ‘It takes a Village’ programme who is busy encouraging her to work hard and ask hard. Daniel, longing for adventure, falls in with a bad crowd when he visits his family in Florida and sets up his own bad crowd when he returns.   As the story grows there are one or two confusing moments as it jumps forwards through time and it took me a few sentences to catch on to the fact that it had jumped and that the characters were older. Apart from that flaw though it is a good story. The way the characters lives intertwine and the effects they have on each other are believable and get you really caring about them. There were dark moments that I thought they would never overcome and bright bright moments that seemed to floor them just as much. And that is the way life is, sometimes the good is harder to embrace than the bad. Overall though I enjoyed this book and the message of hope it brings. It seems to be written specifically for the disenfranchised youth in America’s cities and I hope many of them read it, but I’d still recommend it to a UK audience, even one not so young or disenfranchised! After all it is by understanding each other’s struggles that we can help to overcome them even if only in a small way.

4 Bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.