Christodora by Tim Murphy

Murphy, Christodora jacket artThe Christodora in Manhattan’s East Village is home to Milly and Jared, a privileged and artistic young couple. Through Milly’s art program for kids she meets Mateo and they adopt him. He grows up in the Christadora with his potential for greatness constantly at odds with the wound of his adoption.

Their neighbor, Hector was once a celebrated AIDS activist but is now a lonely addict. It looks like he’s on the way out but one last chance is heading his way.

Enveloping the AIDS epidemic from the hedonistic times just as knowledge of the disease starting becoming known 80’s, the awesome energy of the early Activists.Then moving forward to look at the legacy of the virus in the 2000’s and projecting forward to it’s imagined results in the 2020’s this novel is both an incredibly personal story and equally a social document of an era.

This book is astonishingly good. I consider myself priviledged to work for HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust which was set up in memory of Terrence Higgins, the first man to knowingly die because of AIDS in the UK. I was a little too young to really understand the astonishing activism of the LGBT+ community in the 80’s but as I partied in the 90’s and lost friends to it then I started to become aware not just of the disease but of the incredible spirit of defiance and resilience around me.

When Terry Higgins died his partner was still a teenager. Yet apart from setting up the trust (with friends of Terry’s) he also went on to study medicine and fight both the disease itself and the stigma surrounding it. He is both extraordinary and, like so many other people that this book brings to life, completely ordinary.

Because the characters in here are normal people, They are brave and scared, reckless and careful, determined and unsure, hurting and hitting out, loving and hiding from love. They are gay, straight, white, brown, old, young, educated and dropouts. You will know them or people enough like them for you to understand them.

This isn’t just characters though – there is a very strong storyline running throughout it and some surprise twists and turns along the way. I couldn’t put it down!

Full disclosure – this made me sob on the bus more than once! It might be an idea not to read it in public!

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.

Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

cover92853-mediumEverybody knows the story of Anna and the King of Siam – or at least they think they do. Way back in 1956 20th Century Fox released their musical based on this book and the world fell in love with Anna Leonowens and her almost love affair with the King of Siam – a man that seemed to respect her intelligence but remained would still happily have bedded the beautiful teache if she hadn’t been pining still for the memory of her husband.

I loved “The King and I”, and still do. I also loved the 1999 dramatisation of it “Anna and the King” which starred Jodie Foster and was more focussed on the social and political aspects rather than just the beautiful woman wearing beautiful dresses against a beautiful backdrop.

But neither come close to the book. First released in 1944, Margaret Landon used a memoir written by Anna Leonowens and fashioned them into a compelling narrative of her time in Siam. Anna Leonowens was used to life abroad, but in 1862  travelling into a country that was not part of the British Empire was incredibly risky. Still, as a widow she needed to earn money to support her children, young Lois who stays with her, and her daughter Avis, sent back home to a boarding school.

Leonowens considered herself a modern woman, a woman of science. As such she often found herself in opposition to the traditions of Imperial rule and Court life. She found slavery particularly abhorrent and wasn’t overly keen on how women were treated either. Throughout her career there she fought oppression at every turn, even when her household was attacked and her life and that of her young son endangered.

Throughout all of this though there is also a tremendous appeciation of Siam and a love for her friends there, including the King and many of his wives. A wisdom seeps through the pages and a resilience. She always knew she could never win every battle but she fights on anyway without getting too depressed or angered by those she loses. This grace is a trait which helped her and her causes enormously.

There are some moments when the narrative’s dramatic tension dips, and I have to admit I there are times when the constant attitude of the East learning from the West got on my nerves a little, I’d love to read Prince Chulalongkorn’s version of events. Was it Anna Leonowenss’ influence on the young prince that led him to abolish slavery in Siam and introduce democratic reform, or was it influence from somewhere else? Although having said that, even if he wasn’t as influenced by her and the West as is implied, Anna Leonowens is still a legendary feminist figure and I would encourage everyone to read it.

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.

Miss Treadaway & The Field Of Stars by Miranda Emmerson

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Click here to order from Waterstones

Anna Treadway has made a life for herself in London, she lives in a little flat above a Turkish Cafe on Neal Street and has a job dressing the actresses at the Galaxy Theatre.

But 1965 is going to be a disruptive year for her. The American actress she’s dressing –  Iolanthe Green – leaves the theatre as usual one night but doesn’t turn up for the next performance. Soon the newspapers are wild with speculation about her fate. Then the news grows old and it seems to Anna that she is the only person left that cares.

As she searches she stumbles into a different world, a world of jazz clubs and illegal abortions, where the colour of your skin could get you beaten and left in a prison cell.

I have to admit the main reason I picked up this book is because I spent some of the happiest years of my life on Neal Street. So the chance to spend some time there, even in a different era, was too good to miss.

I was a bit worried that this might veer too hard into the romance hinted at on the original blurb and therefore turn into a feast of marshmallow gooiness. However, though there is sweetness in this book, there is also bitterness. Miranda Emmerson has created range of compelling characters from diverse backgrounds without either patronising them or exploiting them. In this she has recreated a honest tableau of London life both in the 60’s and since.

This book has a theme, and a message but it is one that takes a while to emerge. That’s not a problem though as the mystery of Iolanthe’s disappearance and the way that Emmerson’s description’s of London’s wintery nights are seductive and it’s easy to keep reading whilst the message reveals itself slowly.

This is a book I’d definitely recommend – in fact there’s a few people I can think of that would definitely like it so a few copies may well end up wrapped in birthday wrapping paper in the next couple of months!

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 Lives She Left Behind by James Long

IMG_1583There are some books which grab you from the first sentence. This was one. I didn’t buy it straight away due to a distinct lack of funds, and absentmindedly forgot the name of it. And the author. Not wanting to be one of those annoying bookshop customers: “I can’t remember the name of the book, but it had a stag on the cover.” I was relieved to find it displayed on a counter when I went back into the shop after payday.

Joanna’s father Toby had wanted to call her Melissa, but he played no part in the final decision because he died more or less in childbirth.

Joanna, or Jo, is brought up by her mother, Fleur in Yorkshire. Fleur is distant and cold. Angry with her husband for dying, blaming her daughter who’s birth precipitated the accident. From the age of four, Jo knows she isn’t alone. She has a friend in her head called Gally. Gally tells her stories about the past, comforts her when her mother won’t, but Gally grieves and Jo doesn’t understand why. Concerned about her daughter, Fleur takes her to a psychiatrist who puts Jo on tablets. The tablets muffle the world around her, and Gally’s voice fades away.

After being forced out of her job as a developer, Fleur relocates them both to Exeter where Jo becomes friends with Ali an archeologists daughter, and Lucy. At sixteen, the trio join an archeological dig in the village of Montacute in Somerset. Jo feels drawn to the village from the moment she hears the name. Away from the constraints of her mother, she stops taking her tablets and feels a growing bond with the area, especially the nearby village of Pen Selwood.

Meanwhile, local teenager Luke stumbles across the dig. Placing his hand on the soil he feels it recoil, and forgotten memories start to rise to the surface. Schoolteacher Michael Martin is still grieving the loss of his wife and daughter twelve years ago. He blames the move to Pen Selwood for their deaths. His wife Gally was never the same after they arrived and met an eccentric old man called Ferney, who died shortly before their daughter was born. A chance encounter with Luke makes him realise the past cannot be put to rest.

This is a difficult to book to review without giving too much away. The Lives She Left Behind is a sequel to Ferney which has been out of print recently, and has now been republished by Quercus. The story moves through time, although this happens mainly through the reminiscences of the characters. The first third of this book was as good as that first sentence promised it would be. I was genuinely intrigued by the story and wanted to know what on earth was going on.

What bothered me as I read more, was the reactions of the characters. Some are expected to believe stories which would stretch anyone’s rational belief, and while there is a moment of incredulity this is often followed with a shrug of the shoulders and willingness to accept that I didn’t always buy. I also disliked the character of Luke at times, finding him selfish and narrowminded. Maybe this is intentional, but it meant I didn’t always want the outcome that the author obviously hoped I would.

However, it’s a good read and would appeal to fans of Kate Atkinson and Kate Mosse. I have not read Ferney, and probably won’t go back and read it as this book has covered most of the ground that the original did. I would be interested to hear what fans of the first book think of the sequel through. Does it offer anything more, or just retread a previous tale?

3 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.

The Spy by Paulo Coelho

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Click here to order from Watersones

Mata Hari arrived in Paris penniless and leaving behind a baby daughter. Before long she was famous for her shocking dance recitals, reputation as a courtesan and her fashions.  But with the war came fear. Approached to become a spy she tries to use her position and fame to become a double agent. Then, in 1917 she is arrested.

From her cell she writes a letter to her daughter, telling her the true story of her life. A life lived as fully and sometimes as foolishly as possible.

Mata Hari has long been a person that others find deeply fascinating, who can resist the mix of sex and spying? Combine that with a well known author like Paulo Coelho and that’s best-seller material right there.

But is it worth the money?

Well, I found this a quick and fairly enjoyable read. Coelho has a knack of simplifying even the most complex topics so that this book could be read by someone who had never heard of Mata Hari and who knew nothing about World War One.

The book paints a vivid and colourful picture, it is full of warmth and all the flaws and follies of humanity.

However when I finished it I felt just a little dissatisfied. Maybe it was a little over simplified, maybe it was just the length, it just felt like a dimension was missing.

Worth it for paperback prices, but I couldn’t in all honesty suggest you pay hardback price for it.

3.5 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 Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

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Click here to order from Waterstones

Thaniel Steepleton is getting by rather than living. His job as a telegraphist at the Home Office earns him just enough to support his widowed sister but not enough for him to afford to pursue his love of music. Then one day he returns to his tiny flat to find a gold pocketwatch on his pillow. It isnt a birthday present from his sister but unfortunately he has no time to investigate further as a credible bomb threat has just come through.

When the watch saves Thaniel’s life in the threatened blast, he starts to investigate where it came from. His search leads him to its maker, Keita Mori – a gentle Japanese man whose seductive world of clockwork and music entrances him. Meanwhile, Grace Carrow will soon be making her entrance into his life but meanwhile she is sneaking into an Oxford library dressed as a man. A theoretical physicist, she is desperate to prove the existence of the luminiferous ether before her mother can force her to marry.

This blend of historical fiction and fantasy creates an enchanting steampunk-esque thriller. A character that can remember the future, one that can see sounds, the aforemantioned theoretical physicist, plus detectives from Scotland Yard, Japanese ambassadors, Irish nationalists and cameo appearances from Gilbert and Sullivan show what a talented writer Natasha Pulley is. Each character is utterly believable even if they barely grace the page.

The plot is intriguing but the author also adds in magical details like a clockwork Octopus with a penchant for stealing socks so there is never a dull moment. But these details are never just gratuitous. I can’t say any more than that or I’ll be guilty of spoilers!

One of the things that really sets this book aside though is the attention to sentence structure. That might sound like a very dry thing to say but when a book contains so many teeny tiny nibbles of pure bliss then the dish as a whole is definitely going to be tasty!

If you want some well-crafted escapism pick this up!

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.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

imageRed-haired, young Dutch clerk Jacob de Zoet journeys to Dejima to make a fortune worthy of the girl he loves. This tiny, man-made island in the bay of Nagasaki, has been the sole gateway between Japan and the West for two hundred years. Now, in the dying days of the 18th-century, the streets of Dejima are thick with scheming traders, spies, interpreters, servants and concubines as the two cultures converge. Jacob is bedazzled – then he meets a beautiful, intelligent girl with a burned face and is intrigued by her to the point of confusion.

David Mitchell doesn’t write short books, an this becomes an epic tale diving deep into the back stories of its large and varied cast. It also examines the socio-economic climate of the island along with superstitions and new inventions.

In some ways this is wonderful, it’s impossible not to get a great sense of the Dejima of the Dutch, so much so that you can easily imagine yourself there.

But this book is too long. You know I usually read a book within 3 -7 days but this one I genuinely thought would take me a thousand Autumns to get through! Because of that it also did get a little dull and confusing in places, it has more than 125 characters! How’s anyone supposed to keep that straight?

I did get to the end though and I did enjoy a lot of it so I’m going to give it 3.5 bites and live with my indigestion!

 

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.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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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.

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

img_2371This was one of Waterstones’ books of the month earlier this year, and attracted rave reviews from a number of the broadsheet newspapers, so I was very keen to get my hands on it! It proved to be a riveting read. I managed to devour it during three evenings, and found it hard to put down. 

It is set in New York prior to the American War of Independence, opening a window into a small and ambitious town (the author’s note tells us there were only 7000 inhabitants at that time) at the edge of a large and young continent. The main character is Richard Smith, a stranger from England, with a £1000 credit note that attracts attention of both suspicious and self-interested kind from different quarters. At first no one knows if the note is real or fraudulent, and no one knows what his purpose is in travelling across an ocean with such a sum, or what it could be used for. Will he dabble in local political struggles? Will he invest in local trade? Will he assume a position as a respectable member of society? Spufford plays his cards very close to his chest until the end, and the reader is left as much in the dark as the New York locals.

There are plenty of plot twists as he falls in and out of favour, and I couldn’t predict at all what was going to happen next. There are a number of places where a section breaks off at a cliff-hanger, which was quite inconvenient as I was repeatedly going back on the promises I made to myself to have early night! This is quite an achievement given that the book is written in 18th century language. The author’s scholarly background perhaps helps to explain how he manages to pull off this difficult stylistic move so exceptionally well. Smollett or Fielding would be fooled!

It is more than just a great story though – there are thought-provoking themes like the importance of trust and reputation and the intertwined nature of justice and politics in those times. It is only until you get to the very last pages that you realise just how high the stakes were for the protagonist, who was a man ahead of his time in many ways, with very modern sensibilities.. The lead female character is also expertly written – flawed but highly compelling – far more than just a vehicle for a conventional happy ending.

I have deducted half a bite because I suspect that not all readers will like the fact that so many revelations are reserved for the last 30 pages. It is a double-edged sword – both intriguing and frustrating – but I would still highly recommend this book as an extremely well-researched and vividly written story. The descriptions especially bring the scenes to life. Four and a half bites.

 

Charlotte Kearsley
My love of reading began when I was very young, and quickly took over my life. On trips to Brighton, my family would see me start walking faster at the sight of the major bookshop in the centre.
I’ve lived in many places since, including London and Rio, and still insist on visiting bookshops as soon as possible! I normally head for literary and historical fiction first, then pick out the quality thrillers. If I’ve time to spare I’ll browse the biography and travel writing shelves. When I’m not spending time with books or books-in-progress in one way or another, I works in the public sector and crafts.

The Last Days of Leda Grey by Essie Fox

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 Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

plague-charmerThirteen years after the Great Pestilence of 1348, plague returns to England’s shores. A dark haired stranger rescued from the sea warns the residents of Porlock Weir of it’s approach and promises she can charm it away for the price of a single human life.

For Will, dwarfed in childhood and recently exiled from his job as jester life could hardly get worse anyway so he cares little about the plague, but Sara, now a wife and mother,  remembers the horror of losing her own parents and fears for safety of her family. Still, any human life is too high a price when plague is still a rumour.

But when the sickness comes and people begin to die, the cost no longer seems so unthinkable...

It seems strange to think that I only discovered Karen Maitland’s work a year ago when I reviewed The Raven’s Head, in that time I’ve completely fallen for her gothic tales and impeccably flawed characters. I’ve delved into her back catalogue since and recently listened to her most famous book – Company of Liars (review coming soon) and BookEater Kelly fell under her spell as well reviewing The Gallow’s Curse just a couple of months ago.

She’s the queen of the dark ages, unlike many historical novelists though, Maitland’s tales mainly focus on the ordinary people. There may be some lesser nobles thrown into the mix to show the contrast in living conditions, but she’s not trying to chronicle the lives of the Kings and Queens. Her research into how people lived in those times imbues her stories with all the taste and texture you could wish for so you can experience the horrors and deprivations without leaving the comfort of your own home!

This book is no departure from her willing formula, there are secrets uncovered, depths of souls are measured, there are mysteries that are smoked in magic, there is love and betrayal and madness and fear.

Best read by an open fire in winter after a country romp on  a grey drizzly day. You’ll be more grateful than usual for your Sunday roast after reading!

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.

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood

img_2254Albert Mirrells is a young city man striding into the future when he meets his young cousin from the Yorkshire at the Great Exhibition. Though at first inconvenienced by meeting the simple country girl he is soon beguiled by her teasing intelligence and her sweet song voice.

So years later when he hears that Pretty Lizzie Higgs is gone, burned to death on her own hearth and charged as a changeling by her own husband, he leaves his young wife in London and travels to Halfoak to look into her death. But superstitions are yet to be swept away by progress in this old nook of the world and he soon finds himself caught up in tales of the ‘Hidden People’ and struggling to find any rational explanations. Could the old folk tales be true?

There’s a quote that says easy reading is difficult writing and this book is totally true of that. I read it in one sitting, in about four or five hours, and then felt a little guilty as the author has clearly worked damn hard on this and it probably took a couple of years to write and rewrite. I have put it straight in my ‘re-readable’ pile though so hopefully that’ll give it more of the time it deserves in future.

Although it’s set in a summer that won’t end, this gothic grown up fairy-tale is ideal reading for autumn or winter nights too. There’s a blood-curdling mystery, an unreliable narrator, sullen villagers, folk songs, dandelion clocks, fabulous Yorkshire dialect counterpointing with formal Victorian speech, trains and fairies – I don’t really know what more you can ask for!

The author has skillfully woven traitorous threads and true together so you’re brain will be thinking ‘hang on a sec…’ several times throughout the narrative but unless you’re cleverer than me (which is possible I know!) you will still be surprised by the ending.

4 very satisfied 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 Spire by William Golding

UnknownHere is a novel that illumes the Dark Ages like no other. It doesn’t bathe the whole era in light, instead a single beam lands on Dean Jocelin, a man with a vision, and through him it shows all the passion and human folly that has always been in the world.

Dean Jocelin is convinced that he has been called upon by God to show his greatness and inspire his humble flock. He will do this by building a great spire on his cathedral regardless of the fact that his master builder advises against it as the cathedral was built without foundations. For Dean Jocelin the odds being stacked against it will prove God’s greatness. As the spire rises so does the tension until everyone is at breaking point.

William Golding is best known for Lord of the Flies, a classic that thousands of school children read every year at school. I’ve never read it, I’ve heard so much about it that I’ve never felt the need. Until now. Golding’s writing is exquisite. He is a true master of literature and there wasn’t a single thing about this book that I didn’t love. The characterisation is superb, I listened to this as an Audiobook read by Benedict Cumberbatch and he portrayed them all brilliantly- maybe in the case of Jocelin a little too brilliantly!

But his characterisation are not the only star of this book, the descriptions of the settings are phenomenal too. In the blurb for this book it is described as “a dark and powerful portrait of one man’s will, and the folly that he creates” and although it is powerful I have to take issue with the word dark. This book exposes darkness but it does so with light, and the darkness is in the shadows of buildings and people.

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 Book of Night Women by Marlon James

img_2282If you’re familiar with James’s work, you’ll know that when you start one of his books you enter into a pact with him. He reveals all the terrifying parts of humanity, things normally hidden from view. You accept that during the course of the book you will be appalled, sickened and eventually numbed by reading about violence that is beyond horrifying.

The Book of the Night Women begins in 1785 on a Jamaican plantation. Lilith, a child of rape, is given to an unwilling prostitute and a kind but mentally ill man to parent. In her mid-teens, she is nominated by to become a member of a select group of because she killed a white man (in self-defence) and had set a fire which killed a sadistic and murderous white magistrate and his wife. The Night Women are morally ambiguous, they sow ferment in their community through curses, plot rebellion against whites and revenge against any one threatening to betray them.

Lilith feigns innocence but is privately tortured by thoughts of the children and slaves who burned to death. She is thrown into the arms of an Irish overseer. He really cares for her, and insists that they are equal in the private space of their home, despite the scars he inflicted on her back when she was younger. Both ruthless survivors, the love they share gives them a sense of absolution and it drives her to try and convince the night women that responding to violence with violence can only escalate it to everyone’s cost.

The book has an eventful and tight plot and the story is told from a seemingly omniscient viewpoint in patois. There is no mention of who the narrator really is until the final pages, but James’s technical mastery of point of view is unquestionable. His brilliance as a writer makes Lilith’s incredible character arc believable – in terrible circumstances, and having committed appalling acts, she finally begins to see shared humanity in both black and white people, though self-interested barbarity is all around her.

James explores one of the worst evils of slavery – the way it created fear on all sides. The whites’ greed and fear of insurrection made them brutal. The blacks’ fear of white brutality and the unjustifiableness of their power made them long to inflict violent retribution. James shows that ‘justice’ could be easily dispensed by those with white skin, force or cunning, but he also shows that the price you pay for always getting your own way is a stained conscience and a bitter heart.

If you pledge not to turn away, James will eventually deliver hope, touches of forgiveness and the emancipating power of literacy. I abandoned ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ (his Booker prize-winning story about the assassination attempt on Bob Marley) because it overwhelmed me. I’ve heard many people say that his books are too much for them. Try this book with an open mind and grim determination.

This would get full marks, but such extreme violence written so graphically prevents a lot of people finishing so I am deducting a bite. Four bites.

Charlotte Kearsley
My love of reading began when I was very young, and quickly took over my life. On trips to Brighton, my family would see me start walking faster at the sight of the major bookshop in the centre.
I’ve lived in many places since, including London and Rio, and still insist on visiting bookshops as soon as possible! I normally head for literary and historical fiction first, then pick out the quality thrillers. If I’ve time to spare I’ll browse the biography and travel writing shelves. When I’m not spending time with books or books-in-progress in one way or another, I works in the public sector and crafts.

Small Island by Andrea Levy

img_1550Three years after the end of the Second World War, former RAF volunteer, Gilbert Joesph, decides to move from Jamaica to England in order to better his life. Penniless, he is unable to afford the money for his ticket until Hortense, proud and stubborn, offers to pay his way. But she has one condition- that they get married so that Hortense can join him in England once he is settled.

Based in England during the war, Gilbert’s has no misconceptions about the Mother Country. But when Hortense arrives at her new home- one room within a shared house owned by Queenie Bligh who Gilbert knew during the war, she struggles to fit this post war England with the England of her fantasies. A teacher, Hortense is convinced she will find a teaching post in London. But when her attempts to find work are rejected by fellow teachers, and she is forced to walk in the street to make room for white pedestrians, her dreams come crashing down around her.

For Queenie, three years since the end of the war means three years since her husband should have returned. Renting out her rooms to those who can’t get board elsewhere has made her the gossip of the street, and lost her friends along the way.

Small Island, winner of the Orange Orize for Fiction in 2004, is written in the first person, from each of the main characters view points. The plot moves between the characters personal histories and 1948. Each voice manages to be unique to the point where you could probably tell who was speaking without the name at the start of the chapter.

The description of Britain and its personification as a mother is particularly strong. The idea of her as broken, dishevelled after the war and rejecting her own children who came from other countries was incredibly powerful, especially as many of the newly arrived immigrants, like Gilbert, had fought for England during the war. The title could as easily refer to the mindset of the English as much as the size of Jamaica or Britain.

For me, the most upsetting part of the book is that it could be written today. The hateful xenophobia which spews from the mouths of Queenie’s neighbours wouldn’t be out of place on Twitter in 2016. In 70 years we seem no further forward. It highlights the racism facing immigrants still prevalent in the modern day. We have not learned from history and so we are caught in a doomed cycle of repetition.

4 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.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl

imageIn Everfair Nisi Shawl has taken the real and horrific events of King Loepold’s colonisation of the Congo and spun them through the prism of ‘what if’.

She came up with an alternate history with overtones of steampunk. In this history the native population gained access to steam technology including Dirigibles by way of the Fabian Society. Their allies have also purchased land from Leopold and set up the state of  Everfair; a safe haven for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated. Together they fight back against Leopold’s disgusting murderous excesses to protect the land of Everfair.

That concept, that cover – I was sold. Then when I found out I’d be able to review this for Black History Month I was over the moon- I couldn’t wait to read it and share a glowing review stressing that black authors could write in any damn genre they wanted and do it well.

They can of course, but sadly this wasn’t the book to prove that. I just couldn’t get into it and I ended up putting it down twice and picking up other books before finally putting it down and giving up on it before I was half way through.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what was wrong with it, if indeed the fault was in the book not in me. I think in the end it came down to two things, the structure of the book wasn’t great – it should maybe have started later in the story and flashbacked more to establish characters motives etc. The other thing was that there were quite a lot of characters and I got confused between them – particularly the white characters so I was then unsure about motives and whether a particular character would do a certain thing only to eventually figure out I wasn’t reading about who I thought I was reading about!

Even though I didn’t finish this I don’t want to rate it too low. I have a feeling that if I pick it up again in another 6 months and have another bash at it I might finally get it and love it.

So for now – 3 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 Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

cover92468-mediumCora is the sum of her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother bought from Africa, stayed put. But her mother ran and Cora never heard of her again. Now she is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia and as she’s reaching womanhood her already wretched existence is about to get a whole lot worse. When newly arrived Caesar, a slave from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad and asks her to run with him the spirit of her mother comes out and she says yes.

To begin with I liked this book, the slave row that Cora lives in is very different from others I’ve read, distrust and betrayal run rife through it and though that’s uncomfortable in all honestly when people have been abused to that extent they’re not all noble and don’t all stick together.

But then this book took a sudden jolt off the rails. You see the author decided to imagine the Underground Railroad that so many slaves used to escape, as a real Underground Railroad. Running from the Deep South all the way to the north. Hmm. I was so confused I had to check if I’d been wrong all this time.

Though he didn’t make it a grand railway – just a series of dilapidated box cars some pulled by steam locomotives, some driven by hand pumps, I personally still found it disrespectful to the memory of freedom seekers and those that helped them.

However I persevered, the blurb told me that at “each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.” I thought that had to be worth reading and considering I’d seen this book all over Litsy and Instagram I knew it was popular.

Sadly I remained disappointed, it wasn’t an awful book, but to me I felt that the structure and the cleverness of the theme got in the way of what could have been an excruciatingly good book. Whitehead’s writing is wonderful, there are some sentences in there that would shame a poet. His characters are good, but again the structure got in the way as he had a habit of telling us about a character after they left the narrative- I would have cared about them a lot more if I’d known them better earlier.

This is a case of the new not outdoing the old. To understand the heritage of so many African-Americans and the horrors of the slave trade you’re better off reading Roots.

3 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.

Augustown by Kei Miller

augustownAugustown is a slum village that has become a suburb. It’s history isn’t exactly illustrious, but it did once have a preacher that could flew.

It is this story that blind Ma Taffy decides to tell her grandson when he comes home from school distressed and with a small of not-rightness attached to him.  Quite why she is compelled to tell him this story is unclear at first, but she is worried that something terrible is about to happen, and somehow it’s all tied up with the preacher that flew and the callboose seller that hung himself. So maybe, if she gets the story out, she can stop it somehow.

This was a much quicker read than I expected, and quicker than I wanted it to be! Not that it is really short but the writing flows and brings the reader along with it.  Kei Miller uses language in lyrical manner, only the dialogue is written in dialect but the rhythms run through the text as a whole.

The descriptions of Jamaica in the 80’s are lively and although I’ve never been there I did spend time in other Caribbean islands in the 90’s and I felt like I was right back there.

Although there are promises of magical realism in the book it twists the expectation that sets up neatly. It’s true to its characters and their stories of hope and tribulations.

Worth a read – 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.

Roots by Alex Haley

haley_rootsWhen I was a child Roots was a cultural phenomenon. It spent 22 weeks at the top of The New York Times Best Seller List and was made into a TV series that EVERYBODY watched. It changed people.

But as I was only little I only got to hear about it and see snatches when I’d sneak downstairs for a drink, which would be a lot when it was on!

But it was published 40 years ago this year. Has it stood the test of time and does it still have something important to say?

It follows the story of Kunte Kinte from his birth in a small village in The Gambia through to his kidnapping and being taken as a slave to America. We stay right with him as he tries to understand the land he’s been taken to and as he attempts to escape. We continue to follow him as he slowly, begrudgingly settles into slave row and eventually finds love and even has a child of his own.  The book continues to trace the lives of his descendents for the next six generations.

Now this makes it sound like it’s a HUMUNGOUS book, I mean it’s got to be longer and more confusing than war and peace right? Wrong. It is long, coming in at just over 800 pages, admittedly with very tiny writing, but the story is very clear and totally absorbing. We stay with Kunte Kinte (and his family) for around half the book then spend a good couple of hundred pages with his grandson Chicken George (and family), before continuing down the family line.

This book is both incredbibly harrowing and very uplifting. It’s definitely still worth the time to read, I felt I’d learned quite a lot of truths about the facts and horrors of slavery after reading it. It reminded me that the slave trade and indeed racism in America today isn’t just an American problem, us Brits might have abolished slavery more than 30 years before they did but the people that bought the majority of the slaves to America and set up the practice were the English.  That being so it is encumbent on us to do more to help eradicate it, both in the U.S and here. If all you do to help is get a better understanding that’s still something and I would strongly recommend this book for that.

It also reminded me that the African’s that were stolen were not the savages that they were beclaimed to be then, in fact their civilisation was just as valid as our own, a large amount of them were muslim and although the society Kunte Kinte came from had a version of slavery it was nothing like the brutal slavery that was inflicted on them. There ‘slaves’ were better off and more respected than most English peasants in fact. Their society also held women and men in very different roles and would definitely be considered sexist by todays standards, however, when compared to the staatus of women in western society at the same time they certainly weren’t worse off.

Which brings me neatly to my only criticism of the book, which is that although the author clearly respects women immensely, they didn’t get much of the spotlight in this book. Kunte Kinte had female as well as male descendents but the men get a lot more ‘column inches’ than the women.

Overall though, not to be missed!

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.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

narrow-roadWinner of The Man Booker Prize 2014, this extraordinary novel on the surface is about Dorrigo Evans, an army surgeon who finds himself in command of several hundred fellow POWs forced into hard labour to build the notorious Burma Railway between Bangkok and Rangoon in WWII. Flanagan’s approach to telling the Story of Dorrigo turns the novel into much much more than just a run of the mill WWII saga. We see vignettes not only from Dorrigo’s life before, after, and during the Second World War but also snippets from those around him- Amy, the great love he leaves to go to war, his fellow POWs, the Japanese Army officers who oversee Dorrigo’s section of ‘The Line’. It is, as the marketing hype suggests, “a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.”

One of the best things about this book is that although it is fiction, it is based within a history that is vehemently real. Knowing that, although these specific events didn’t take place, the bravery, strength, cowardice and evil depicted really happened adds an extra dimension to the tale.
Getting inside the heads of the Japanese and Korean soldiers blurred the lines between what I believed to be the established truths behind this history and ripped apart my black and white approach to this era. Shades of grey fill the page with humanity and the unfairness of history.

This is Richard Flanagan’s tribute to his father who was an Australian POW on the notorious Burma Railway. Richard’s father was on the railway with the famous Weary Dunlop who, in the words of one of his men, became “a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering”. When asked if Dorrigo is inspired by Weary, Flanagan emphatically responds that “Dunlop is too extraordinary a character for fiction.” For such an extraordinary book with such extraordinary characters, that says so much.

Flanagan’s style of writing, particularly some of his grammatical choices, and his approach to chronology take some getting used to but you are quickly swept up into the rich fabric that Flanagan weaves with his descriptive writing.

I must have written and rewritten this review two dozen times over the past month or so. To try and get my thoughts and feelings about this book down on ‘paper’ feels at the moment like my own personal Everest. I simply do not have sufficient words to describe the impact this book had on me.

In despair, and with my deadline looming, I looked back on the conversation I had with my fellow Book Eaters ten minutes after finishing and decided to share with you my initial thoughts.

“I’ve just finished The Narrow Road To The Deep North.
It’s taken 8 months. I’ve had to put it down and leave it alone so many times and stop myself from picking it back up until I’m able to deal with the emotions it brings. I’ve read the last 75 pages with tears streaming down my face. It’s a book that has punched me in the gut over and over. I don’t know if I’ll ever be strong enough to read it again and yet I don’t know how I can bear the thought of never again opening the pages of a book that has truly changed the way I think in a fundamental way.

I truly don’t know if I recommend it. In almost every way I do, but it is a book which is fiction and yet not fiction. The truths in the story have shred my heart into tiny pieces.

 

5 bites. If only there were more bites to give…

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 Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

the-pillars-of-the-earthKen Follett tells the story of how this historical fiction classic was written on his website.  In a nutshell, The Pillars of the Earth was the result of his pursuit of a passion for medieval architecture that awakened when he first visited Peterborough Cathedral. Immediately after it was published it did moderately well, occupying the number one bestseller spot in the UK for a week, but it was not the runaway hit that ‘The Eye of the Needle’ had been, and at first there was nothing to indicate that it would become a kind of sleeper-hit. He now says that it is his most popular book, and that the majority of people who write to him ask him about Pillars. He puts its perennial popularity down to the fact that he followed his gut instinct, and readers rewarded him word-of-mouth recommendations.

It is clear that nothing other than passion can drive you to write an epic spanning the civil war years of the 1100s, and Follett had to overcome the misgivings of many of his colleagues and go far outside his comfort zone to write this novel, but it was worth it. Those times were so different from ours (I noticed particularly how difficult and expensive it was for the monks to obtain books before the printing press!), but Follett writes so vividly that he brings a period that could be remote so close that we can see and smell it. Rather than giving in to the temptation of making it a kind of potted textbook full of dates, the events of the period are filtered through the effects that they have on the lives of the characters.

It is plain that life was very political then, as now, and you were dominated by the alliances that were often made and broken for you during the course of your life. Livelihoods could be won and lost at a word from the king (and it could be even more complicated when they were contradicted by another monarch that the first king was fighting at the time).

The book follows a number of everyday heroes. Prior Phillip’s fortunes are most important, as the actions of the other characters are largely judged in the light of what they say about their loyalty to him. Prior Phillip is described as the kind of person who is loved through his actions rather than his words, and I had the same response to him. Phillip was orphaned at an early age, narrowly escaping death thanks to the intervention of a monk, and he rises up through the ranks of the church based on his enterprising spirit and keen sense of social and moral justice. He is not a paragon, however. He is like the CEO of a highly diverse business providing education, social welfare, housing and products like wool and cheese, and with all that pressure he couldn’t possibly be. CEOs rarely are. In the book he is often preachy, overly rigid, and over-ambitious, but because he fights tirelessly for good, we forgive him.

The drive to build Kingsbridge Cathedral and develop the town that grows around it becomes the main source of momentum in the novel. The community of supporters around Prior Phillip’s programme, including the other men of God, masons, merchants, knights, outlaws and dispossessed gentry all have their own stories, but they share a loathing of the same antagonists: William Hamleigh of Shiring and his partner in crime Bishop Waleran Bigod. The conflict between Kingsbridge and Shiring resembles a war of attrition and it encompasses nearly a decade. The novel analyses medieval morality through it, and we find the moral mazes that the characters get trapped in are not so different from our own. The problem of knowing when to compromise and when to hold fast to your principles is as old as time, but it is still very important to explore. The ending is incredible, and the writing packs an absolute knockout punch, I was holding my breath throughout it!

This book is so large at 1069 pages that if it hadn’t been for the deadline of a book group meeting, it may have sat on my shelves for a while. Ken Follett says that his biggest challenge was to find more and more things to say about the same cast of characters and maintain the narrative drive throughout the book’s length, but if he was flagging as a writer, I couldn’t tell as a reader. In fact, there is quite a lot of sex and sometimes shocking violence (for a novel about monks) but I never felt it was gratuitous, and to a degree it reflects the way life was back then. The violence is never excused, although the motivations of the perpetrators are always made clear.

I was sometimes aware of some irritatingly clever plot devices that Follett used to try and make this huge and complex story a little bit easier to tell – the one I remember in particular is where Prior Phillip is conveniently placed at the top of Lincoln Cathedral for a big battle between the two claimants to the throne, and can therefore handily give us a birds eye view of the soldiers’ manoeuvrings. In all honesty though, given the scale and scope of this extraordinary novel, this is a pretty trivial criticism.

If you could be put off by the presence of a lot of religious characters, don’t be. Follett shows that there are good and bad elements in every person and category of people, and the clergy are no different. He also shows the spiritual growth and decay of various characters convincingly. All in all, it is a gripping tale which draws you into a different world, and for me the plot never plods. I have no hesitation in giving it four and a half bites.

Charlotte Kearsley
My love of reading began when I was very young, and quickly took over my life. On trips to Brighton, my family would see me start walking faster at the sight of the major bookshop in the centre.
I’ve lived in many places since, including London and Rio, and still insist on visiting bookshops as soon as possible! I normally head for literary and historical fiction first, then pick out the quality thrillers. If I’ve time to spare I’ll browse the biography and travel writing shelves. When I’m not spending time with books or books-in-progress in one way or another, I works in the public sector and crafts.

A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu

images“But history teaches us that our greatest wrongs, crimes against humanity and genocide, arise from cultures where hatred has become part of the air citizens breathe,” writes 2016 Man Booker Prize long listed A.L. Kennedy, as part of this anthology of writing on asylum seekers. Over the past 18 months, we have been bombarded with anti-immigration rhetoric by politicians and the media and, post-Brexit, the number of hate crimes against immigrants is increasing.

Lucy Popescu is a writer and human rights activist and came up with the idea of this anthology back in 2014. Funded via a new website called Unbound, this book came about through crowdfunding. It brings together a multitude of writers; combining fiction, non-fiction and poetry to add a positive voice to the topics of immigration and asylum seekers. Writing is not just confined to the current refugee crisis, but also reaches back into living history and beyond. Sebastian Barry starts the collection with the story of a family leaving Ireland for Quebec. The journey takes place in 1847, but the terror and desperation could easily describe the horrors facing refugees today. “In this way we were described as a plague on our country and nothing more than vermin and rats.”

We are encouraged as readers to think more about the ordinary people who find themselves in such terrible circumstances. Roma Tearne’s heartbreaking The Colour of Pomegranates tells the story of Khalid who is forced to flee Baghdad after an allied bombing raid kills his wife and children. While the protagonist in Stephen Kelman’s Selfie, finds themselves thinking about the man who tried to sell him a selfie stick in Rome, and how he came to be there.

In one of my favourite pieces of writing, To Avoid Worse, Joan Smith compares the lives of Otto Frank, father of Anne and Abdullah Shenu, a Syrian Kurdish barber. Both men saw the dangers of the regimes that they lived under, 70 years apart. Both men understood that to have any chance of saving their families they must make desperate decisions. Both men were sole survivors. Otto Frank survived the holocaust which saw the murder of his wife and children. Abdullah Shenu survived the dangerous crossing from Bodrum to Kos. The photograph of the body of his son, Aylan, face down on the beach reminded us all, even the media, of the human cost of the crisis.

There is positivity too. Hassan Abdulrazzak, Nick Barley and Katherine Quarmby all tell stories of their individual or family flights, from Iraq, Hungary and Yugoslavia respectively. They all talk of the welcome they received from the UK, their adopted country and the safety that it afforded. We have a long history of welcoming those in need that we should be proud of, and that we mustn’t forget.

The collection ends on another positive note. A.L. Kennedy writes “ ..love is stronger and more sustainable than hate, that self expression can mean more than self indulgence. We have values. This dark time can teach us about light.” Together we can make a difference, and this anthology reminds why it is so important.

4 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.

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

imageJulia Pastrana sometimes even wonders herself if she is actually human.  She speaks, thinks, sings and dances like a human, but the thick hair all over her body and the posters and news stories that proclaim her to be a ‘bear-woman’ or hybrid Orang-Utang take their toll.

Her unusual looks combined with a pleasant singing voice and a talant for dance do provide a career in the circuses and theatre’s of America. Soon she is the toast of the elite, but can her heart ever find similar adoration and acceptance?

The story mainly focuses on Julia and her parts are told in close third person from her point of view. As such we develop tremendous empathy for ‘The Ugliest Woman In The World’ as we hear her thoughts, fears, triumphs and hopes throughout.

However hers is not the only voice herad, later in the book when we meet the manager that will make her famous, his perspective is often shown too and the tale as a whole is shot through with small vignettes from the life of a modern young woman called  Rose. Quite the opposite of Julia – much desired but little travelled preffering to surround herself with lost treasures in her attic room in South London. Her stuff means more to her than her relationships with those around her.

This was an easy read, it’s skillfully written and although many of the characters are ‘freaks’ or ‘curiosities’ we get to see their humanity over and above anything else. In fact it wasn’t too long before I started hoping that Julia Pastrana had been a real person and decided to Google her – just not till I got to the end of the book as I didn’t want to spoil it!

The descriptions of the carnival, theatre’s and locations are terrific but they don’t take centre-stage at any time, they are always the perfect backdrop to the human action taking place.

Oddly the most bizarre character in this story is the one who appears physically to be the most ‘normal’ – a nice twist and one that drives home the point that it’s what’s on the inside that counts!

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.

Star Sand by Roger Pulvers

imageIn the last months of World War 2, sixteen year old Hiromi sees a man on the beach at night about to shoot himself. He is rescued by another man and dragged into a cave.  When she follows to help she finds they are both army deserters—one American, one Japanese.

Though they should be enemies they bond instantly and  Hiromi, alone in the world herself, resolves to care for them. But when another joins them the dynamics are upset. Fatally.

Years later, three skeletons and a diary are found in the cave but it’s another 50 odd years before a young female university student notices something odd about the diary and finally solves the mystery of who died in that cave and who lived.

I was intrigued by the premise and more so because I’ve read very little fiction on Japan in the war. The beginning of the book, which is basically Hiromi’s diary is terrific. It’s well crafted, maybe a little too well-crafted to ring true as the diary of a 16 year old, but as it turns out that’s not a bad thing. The characters are immediate and vibrant and it’s easy to get caught up in their story.

But about thirds of the way through it switches voice to the modern day university student and her voice did not ring true to my ear. She sounded more like a sixteen year old than someone who must have been around 22 – and she most definetly did not sound like a university student.

It’s quite a short book, almost a novella, and I think more time spent with the characters in the cave, and a better university student (or a different device to show the plot twist altogether) would have served this much better.  In the end it all felt a bit rushed and slapdash, which is a shame as it starts as a lovely attempt to honour both the Japanese and the Americans that were dragged into World War 2.

3 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.