The President’s Garden by Muhsin Al-Ramli

cover108335-mediumI never get a book thinking that I’m going to give it anything less than a four Bite review. As much as I read I get excited about each blurb I read. The blurb on this book was no different, it promised to show me the interior lives and close friendships of a village in Iraq and how huge political acts on the world stage effect even the most unpolitical lives.

On the third day of Ramadan, the village wakes to find the severed heads of nine of its sons stacked in banana crates by the bus stop. One of them belonged to one of the most wanted men in Iraq, known to his friends as Ibrahim the Fated.

How did this good and humble man earn the enmity of so many? What did he do to deserve such a death?

The answer lies in his lifelong friendship with Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled, who each have their own remarkable stories to tell. It lies on the scarred, irradiated battlefields of the Gulf War and in the ashes of a revolution strangled in its cradle. It lies in the steadfast love of his wife and the festering scorn of his daughter. And, above all, it lies behind the locked gates of The President’s Gardens, buried alongside the countless victims of a pitiless reign of terror.

But sadly this didn’t grip me at all and I ended up not finishing it – in fact I didn’t even get halfway through. I’ve lived in the middle-east, just next door to Iraq in fact so I thought I’d be introduced to rich, complex characters and family dynamics. And to be fair I could see the bones of this but there was no meet on any of it. The story also seemed like it could be interesting but the style of the telling of it let it down.Telling is the right word, the words tell you the story but they don’t invite you into it. It read to me more like a plan of a book or a rough draft.

It is translated from Arabic so it’s possible that some of the fault lies there but I’m hesitant to lay blame in one place, a book may only have the authors name on the cover but it’s usually a group affair so yes, maybe the editor and translator didn’t take good enough care of it but the author is where the buck stops.

If you’ve a short to be read pile and a long train or plane journey it might be worth a punt.

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.

The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

img_2364Samuel Hawley did not have the best start in life and by the time he’s a teenager he is involved in petty crime to keep body and soul together. Then he moves onto bigger jobs with higher stakes but much bigger pay-offs. But when he meets Lily he knows everything has to change.

Years later he moves back to Lily’s hometown with their teenage daughter Loo. It’s time to stop running, he becomes a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school. Meeting her grandmother makes her curious about her mother’s mysterious death and the twelve bullet scars Hawley carries on his body.

Soon Hawley’s past and Loo’s investigations collide. Can they survive?

Okay, first things first, on the official blurb for this book it says that it’s perfect for fans of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. It’s really not. Not that fans of that book can’t like this one (I enjoyed both) but they are nothing whatsoever alike so liking one will not predispose you to like the other.

This is an interesting work, it’s a combination of a literary thriller and a coming of age novel. There’s plenty of action and more than 12 bullets but it also explores what makes a family, living with grief, the value of a human life, first love, community tensions, ecological issues and the sacrifices and manipulations we commit to protect the people we love most. Most of all it’s a story about a father-daughter relationship and how when we do something for love rather than for money we become heroes.

Quite a lot packed into a regular sized novel! And overall it works, most of the characters are convincing and easy to feel at least a little sympathy for. The settings are easy to visualise and the language paints windows for the reader to see into their lives. The story is well constructed, in fact this is where Tinti’s talent excels. She uses the scars on Hawleys body to draw us back into different parts of his past, to show us what made him the man he is and even though I didn’t feel like I had any idea what the point of it was for the first half of it I was happy to trust the author that it wasn’t just going to be ‘killing time’ book. As you can see from the paragraph above I wasn’t disappointed!

My only criticism of it was that there were a few moments when it dragged a bit. But literally only 2 or 3 and it soon picked up again each time. Reading this is like eating steak, there’s a little gristle but there’s also sweetness and nourishment if you persevere. If you like gritty American dramas or books with complicated characters this book is for you.

Four 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 Dark Circle by Linda Grant

dark-circleLenny and Miriam are British Jewish twins that grew up in the shadow of The Second World War. But now they’re at the end of their teens and a new decade is beginning. These East End kids have the world in front of them, even if they might need to live on the edge of the law to make a good life for themselve. But then Lenny goes to sign up and it’s discovered that he has tuberculosis. Miriam is examined and she has it too. The pair are sent away to a glamorous sanatorium in Kent at the expense of the brand new NHS.

Life inside the sanatorium is both fascinating and enervating as they make new friends and discover their pasts and personalities while simultaneously succumbing to the ‘cure’ and losing their own. But when Miriam seems in danger of dying a chain of events no one could have foreseen is set in motion.

Linda Grant’s characters are terrific. They’re not perfect but they are full of life. By the end of the first page I knew I wanted to follow them on their journey no matter where it lead. And for the majority of the book I was glad I had. It opened my eyes to the scourge that Tubercolosis was as recently as the 1950’s. It also showed be the birth of the NHS and reminded me just how amazing this national institution of ours is. Instead of dying slow and expensive deaths, Lenny and Miriam were given the chance at happy and successful lives.

The supporting characters were also diverse and well written, giving a microcosmical glimpse of the new worlds of televison, the politics of the day and the attitudes to sex and sexuality.

My only criticism of the book was the end. I know many people want to know what happened to the characters after a book ends but this book follows both of them right to the end of their lives. It really wasn’t necessary nor did it feel that the author had a message to deliver to us readers by sharing the rest of their lives. It’s not awful, just not necessary and takes some of the power out of the story.

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.

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

cover75683-mediumTracy Chevalier is well known for her historical novels, Girl with a Pearl Earring was a best seller and made into an incredibly well known movie too. So you might be expecting something similar, after all many authors churn out novel after novel that are reflections of their best known work.

Not this novelist. This is still historical fiction but set as far from the civilisation of the renaissance as you can imagine. It is more recent times, the mid eighteenth century, but Chevalier is exploring the lives of Americans struggling to eke their existence from the land.

Tom and Sadie Goodenough have moved to tthe Black Swamp with their children and if they can manage to get 50 trees to bear fruit the land is theirs permanently. But they’ve only got three years left to do it and last year they lost nine trees and two of their children to swamp fever. Sadie is a vivacious flirt turned bitter and drunk, Tom a quiet, determined man who loves his apples more than his children. Their fights are getting meaner until one day something happens to rent the family apart.

The first part of the story is told first from the perspectives of Sadie and Tom. Then in letters from their son Robert, trying to make his fortune panning for gold, before we hear from his perspective directly as he settles into a new role as a tree collector. The settings, though of deep poverty, are richly described and enveloping as the novel examines what family means, the ties that bind and those that don’t.

It is compelling, the characters surprise you with their depths and determination and it is also a fascinating portrait of 18c America, from the backwaters to the prairies to cities like San Fransico. Amongst the characters are the forebears of the modern day redneck and businessman alike, I felt I had a little better understanding of why America voted Trump in, but also that if most of them had read this book they would have known that the nostalgia trip was not all it’s cracked up to be.

If you enjoyed Barkskins by Annie Proulx or A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale you’ll love this.

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 Existence Of Pity by Jeannie Zokan

img_2362Sixteen-year-old Josie Wales is the daughter of Baptist missionaries growing up in Columbia in 1976. Although mostly isolated from the turbulence brewing in the outside world, nothing can protect her from the turbulent times ahead within her own family.

Josie finds herself drawn to the Catholicism of her adopted country, she starts to confide her secrets in their maid instead of in her parents. Just normal secrets, like her new boyfriend but she is to discover that her parents’ have secrets of their own, ones that have the power to destroy their life.

This is one of those deceptive books. It poses a whole bunch of serious moral questions but does so in a voice so young and fresh that a sweet summer breeze seems to be floating around them, whispering to you to relax and take it easy, making it a deceptively easy read.

Not to say there is no action, or conflict, far from it. Josie is battling her entire family in different ways, and she is battling the unnoticed arrogance of the missinary culture. Add to that the danger her brother is determined to court, bringing the violence of Columbia’s mafia to their very door. It is quite startling how the author manges to keep the summery atmosphere going throughout, all to often writers would be tempted to use dark, depressing similes for such events that would have shredded the important physical context of the story.

This book would be a good read for Young Adults and Adults alike. For me with my interest in religions and their affects on the world I found it had a lot to say but yet it never preached. It does have an autobiographical ring to it and I would be interested to see how the author will write other books, this is a strong debut and could be the start of solid career, but I’m a little worried it may be the one book she has in her. I hope not.

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.

On the Other Side by Carrie Hope Fletcher

cover103046-mediumWhen Evie Snow finally passes away, surrounded by her loving family, it seems like her life of sacrifice has paid off and her own private heaven awaits. But when she gets there she finds the door won’t open.

Evie’s soul must be light enough to pass through so she needs to get rid of whatever is making her soul heavy. For Evie, this means unburdening herself of the three secrets that have weighed her down for over fifty years, so she must find a way to reveal them before it’s too late. As Evie begins the journey of a lifetime, she learns more about life and love than she ever thought possible, and somehow, some way, she may also find her way back to the only man she ever truly loved . . .

If you imagine ‘The Five People You Meet In Heaven’ but re-vamped by Jojo Moyes or Cecilia Ahern then this book is pretty much what you’d get. Pretty much, but not quite. Because Carrie Hope Fletcher has a somewhat more inventive mind so really you’d need to twist in a bit of Lewis Carroll or Erin Morgenstern too.

Now romances aren’t generally my thing, but I tore through this. It was easy to read with characters that were likeable but certainly weren’t too perfect. In fact Evie’s actions annoyed me a bit and I found myself asking why she would give in to her family’s wishes so easily. But then I realised that she had been conditioned to since birth and that sometimes, no matter how much drive a person has, it is impossible to break those chains.

The author is young and this is her debut novel, she has a huge fan base already though as she is a YouTuber, actor, singer and has been starring as Eponine in Les Miserables. She is known to an entire generation as a ‘big sister’ figure and she shares her love of reading with them. This popularity definitely helped make this a best-seller when it came out in hardback last year. It’s about to be released in paperback and I hope it reaches new audiences.  I’m looking forward to reading more of her work and I hope she continues to be brave and imaginative. Her writing is good but I think with time and determination it could be even better, I think she has more stories to share.

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.

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
Click here to order from Waterstones

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

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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

image
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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.

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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”.

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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.

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.