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.

Men by Marie Darrieussecq

imageI’d just read Heart of Darkness when I saw this book about a white french actress (Solange) who falls for  charismatic black Hollywood actor, Kouhouesso. Kouhouesso wants to move into directing and has a very ambitious project – a movie of Heart of Darkness to be filmed actually in the Congo.

Solange follows him to Africa, saying no to other roles offered to her in the hope of playing the female lead in the film but mainly because she’s pretty obsessed with him.

This is billed as a “witty examination of romance, movie-making and clichés about race relations.” And it’s written by an award winning writer known for being an intellectual, supporting left-wing politicians and having a thing or two to say feminism (both that she is one and that she couldn’t be further from being one!) I felt like I should be onto a winner with this.

But alas and woe is me and all those sad damsel-in-distress expressions, I was let-down! Deserted! Callously abandoned! Much like the actress in this book.

To be honest this left me deeply uncomfortable and as if the stain of it’s liberal racism was all over me. Because this book is racist. I’m sure it doesn’t mean to be, but it is. To begin with I can’t imagine an intelligent, well-connected black actor wanting to remake Heart of Darkness – a book that really doesn’t have any black characters. The only one with any dialogue in it says about 3 servile sentences and ends up dead pretty quickly. Considering that black actors and directors are still hugely under-represented in Hollywood it’s no surprise that any that are there are getting busy making amazing films like 12 Years A Slave.

Then there’s the female character. Well to be honest I’m not entirely sure I can even call her a character. She has a backstory at least – a son left with her parents many years ago so she can pursue her hollywood dream. But even though this dream was strong enough for her to abandon her child it isn’t strong enough to stop her dropping it instantly to moon around after a man she’s pretty sure doesn’t love her …! Her attempts to manage her first ‘real’ interracial relationship show just how racist middle-class France still is, the things she worries about are about as bizarre and objectifying as you can get. Though to give credit where it is due the book does highlight a couple of micro-aggressions so strongly that almost anyone could see how appalling they are.

The plot isn’t awful, just not good enough.

1 Bite

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.

As I Descended by Robin Talley

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Click to Order from Waterstones

Power resides in all kinds of places these days so when Robin Talley decided to take Macbeth as inspiration the first thing she did was change the seat of power being vied for to an American High School.

Maria Lyon is one of her schools most popular students. But since she fell in love with her roommate Lily Boiten there are obstacles in her path that she never dreamed of. They can’t come out but if Maria can just win the Cawdor Kingsley Prize they’ll be assured the same college and four more years in a shared dorm room. But one thing stands in their way, Maria’s one-time friend and the most popular girl Delilah Dufrey. Lily and Maria are willing to do anything―absolutely anything―to unseat Delilah for the scholarship. They hold a seance together with Maria’s best friend Brandon but things get out of hand and before long feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what’s imagined, the girls must attempt to put a stop to the chilling series of events they’ve accidentally set in motion.

I’ve read a fair few Shakespeare plots reimagined over the last couple of years and although most have been lit-fic – written by some of our greatest writers; don’t think that this one – written for the YA market by a fairly new (though already award winning) author can’t compete. It can and it does.

For a start, this isn’t a straight up re-write and some of the ways it honours the original are subtle and quite frankly a little twisty. There are no witches, instead she cast the three main characters in the fortune telling role through the seance, and there are plenty of other deviations too.

One of the other aspects I liked was the fact that there LGBT+ leading characters and that they weren’t some kind of freak show or tragedy device. Don’t get me wrong, awful things are done by and happen to these characters but awful things also happen to the straight characters. Not only that but the issues of being out or staying closeted are raised and stereotypes about LGBT+ people and drug-taking are circumvented. The characters are driven by deep and passionate loves but the fact that they are same gender in these cases is just a fact, it’s obvious that these characters could easily have been driven the same way if they were straight and there were obstacles to their happiness.

This is a great mix of psychological horror and waking drama with a big dollop of the supernatural stirred through it.

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.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

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Click to order from Waterstones

When Chiyo’s mother falls ill she is just a child. She doesn’t understand that her mother is dying and that  her father will not be able to take care of her and her older sister. Then she meets Mr Tanaka and he treats her kindly, she starts to fantasia that he will adopt them… but instead he sells them both. Her sister to become a prostitute, herself into a Geisha’s house. She can train to become a geisha or spend the rest of her life as a maid.

In the same house as her lives one of the most popular Geisha in Gyon. A spiteful girl who decides to make Chiyo’s life as hard as it can be and keep her a maid all her life. But she is befriended by the other girls enemies and slowly she is set on the path to becoming a famous Geisha herself. Many years later she tells her story, from her lowly birth, through the hardships bought by the war and the dazzling but exhausting life of Geisha in 20th Century Japan.

I first read this the year it came out and I fell in love with it – I remember I had to keep checking that it was in fact written by a man (and a western one at that) because the voice just sounded so authentically female. I’ve read it a couple of times since then and yet revisiting it again it still surprised me.

I knew the voice was exceptional, and the story was full of conflicts and passions. I knew the settings were vibrant and the characters varied and richly drawn. But I had forgotten the actual writing.

It is delicious. Full of simmering similes and magical metaphors. Chiyo’s voice is so good because of her turn of phrase. Here is one of the early paragraphs so you can see what I mean;- “In our little fishing village of Yoroido, I lived in what I called a ‘Tipsy House’. It stood near a cliff where the wind off the ocean was always blowing. As a child it seemed to me as if the ocean had caught a terrible cold, because it was always wheezing and there would be spells when it let out a huge sneeze – which is to say there was a burst of wind with a tremendous spray. I decided that our tiny house must have been offended by the ocean sneezing in its face from time to time, and took to leaning back because it wanted to get out of the way.”

But the greatest writing is nothing without a plot and characters you care about, I’ve already mentioned it has these. But it also has that little something extra, it opens a window to a different world and lets us see that regardless of our differences our human spirit is the same.

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.

Find Me by Laura van den Berg

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Click to Order from Waterstones

In a hospital in Kansas there are a select group of patients that all seem to be immune to the epidemic sweeping Amercia. A sickness that begins with silver blisters and memory loss and ends with death has devasted the United States but these patients and their unorthodox Doctor might hold the key to a cure.

One of the patients is Joy. Before she came to the hospital she had a disatisfying job and an addiction to cough syrup. She’d never had much of a life having been in care and foster homes throughout her childhood so she’d figured a few weeks in hospital would be an easy gig. But it isn’t long until their isolation leaves all the patients longing for the outside.

Joy is an interesting protagonist, her flaws and vulnerabilities take centre stage and really are what push her forward in this strange adventure.

This is very much a book of two halves though, I enjoyed the first half set in the hospital, Laura Van Den Berg’s odd, almost dream-like writing style works well set against the institutional structure and feels right expressing Dr Bek’s treatment. But the second half of the book where Joy is trying to travel across the country it seems to lose it’s way a bit. Particularly when she meets another healer with a similar methodology to Dr Bek. It feels a bit repetitious and as the book ended just as she was about to find (or not find) the person she was looking for , it also felt a bit pointless.

I can be a fan of the ambiguous ending when it’s done well, but in this case because there was so much meandering in the second half of the book I really felt it needed a solid ending.

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.

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

IMG_1587God has always been a source of confusion for Peri. Growing up in a household with a religious mother and secular father, she has seen the best and worst of both sides, and the division it has caused between her own parents. She has also had her own religious sighting- a Jinn, the baby in the mist who comes to her during periods of high stress. To help her think through her confusion, Peri’s father buys her a ‘God Diary’ in which she writes down questions she has about God and religion.

When she gets a place at Oxford University, she moves from the family home in Istanbul to Britain. There she meets Shirin, British-Iranian and an atheist, and Mona, an Egyptian-American Muslim, who believes her religion doesn’t have to conflict with her feminism. It’s inevitable that Peri is drawn to the enigmatic Professor Azur who runs a series of seminars on God. Alongside Shirin and Mona, in the eyes of a professor Azur they are the sinner, the believer and the confused.

Many years later, and Peri is a mother and a wife back in Istanbul. On the way to a dinner party her bag is stolen from the backseat of her car. In a moment of madness she chases down the thieves, putting her life in danger. During the altercation, a photo falls from her bag of herself, Shirin, Mona and Professor Azur outside the Bodleian Library recalling actions and emotions she thought she had left behind a long time ago.

This is a rich book, in terms of descriptions, characters and themes. The writing is beautiful and quotes from poetry are dropped into a story which is poetic itself. The action moves between modern day Istanbul and Peri’s memories of her childhood and her time at Oxford. In my mind, Peri is immediately relatable. Uncertain, caught between parents, caught between friends. I love how she collects English words, plucking them from books and pinning them onto post- it notes like butterflies. But it is the interactions between the friends which makes this book so special. The conversations between Mona and Shirin are conversations that are being and the world over, between muslims and non-muslims, and Mona argues her point eloquently:
“You’ve no idea how horribly I’ve been treated! It’s just a piece of cloth, for God’s sake.”
“Then why do you wear it?”
“It’s my choice, my identity! I’m not bothered by your ways, why are you bothered my mine? Who is the liberal here, think!”

The one flaw I found with the book was in Professor Azur. I found him slightly cliched at times, and his back story came as a bit of an information dump. But there is an energy about the character, and it’s no surprise people are drawn to him.

If books are escapism, then they are always a way to experience the lives of people whose beliefs are different to your own. This empathy is needed today more than ever. To quote Professor Azur: “If I am Human, my heart should be vast enough to feel for people everywhere.”

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

 

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.

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.

Mr Rosenblum’s List by Natasha Solomons

Click for Waterstone's
Click for Waterstone’s

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

So here’s the Criteria:-

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

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

12 books – one per month for a year

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

Mr Rosenblum’s List

(Or friendly guidance for the aspiring Englishman)

by Natasha Solomons

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood

29245653-_uy2250_ss2250_Felix Phillips is the renowned Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. Daring and progressive, his plays are visceral and often not for the faint hearted. This year he is staging The Tempest, an obvious choice following the recent death of his three year old daughter Miranda: a chance to bring her back to life. But before he can really begin, he is fired. Kicked out in a coup led by his assistant, Tony Price and supported by Heritage Minister, Sal O’Nally. Dazed and alone, he drives until he finds a cabin in the woods as broken as he is, and makes his home there as Mr F. Duke.

In this house, he plots his revenge. For company he has the ghost of Miranda, who grows as she would have done if she had survived the meningitis that took her. He also gets a job as teacher in the Literacy Through Literature programme in nearby Fletcher County Correctional Institute (a little nod to Porridge?), where inmates read, dissect and perform Shakespeare.

Twelve years after he was fired, in the forth year of the Fletcher Correctional Players, Felix is informed that the newly appointed Minister of Justice, Sal O’Nally, and Minister of Heritage, Tony Price will be attending the production of this years play. Felix knows exactly what he must do, he has been planning this for twelve years after all. The play will be The Tempest and he will be Prospero, wreaking his revenge on those who have wronged him.

This book is the latest in the series by Hogarth Shakespeare which gives The Bard’s work a modern twist, following on from The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson, Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson and Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. In this book, Atwood has woven the story and the language beautifully. Phrases from the original Tempest fit in perfectly with the modern text, and some original lines seem shakespearean themselves:

He follows them through the vibrations of the web, playing spider to their butterflies; he ransacks the ether for their images.”

Disappointingly, the scenes set in the Correctional Institute seemed to slow the momentum of the piece too much. It was an interesting approach: the inmates (or actors as Felix prefers them to be called) learn about the play and the characters, delve into the themes of the play and even imagine what might happen to the main characters after the play. Although interesting, it seemed a bit too much like a text book at these points. However, I did like the idea of the actors being punished through the denial of contraband if they use foul language. Their first activity is to go through the text and pick out Shakespearean insults and obscenities which they then use in everyday speech for the rest of the book. I get the feeling Margaret Atwood enjoyed that part!

As Felix himself points out, the reason Shakespeare has survived through the centuries is because he focuses on actions and emotions which are synonymous with being human. The Fletcher Correctional Players understand the themes of revenge within The Tempest, and Margaret Atwood has created a novel which brings it perfectly into the modern day.

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.

The Girl With A Clock For A Heart by Peter Swanson

There were several things about this book that drew me in. The title- obvious comparisons with the Steig Larsson books, the cover- bold and a bit film noir-ish, and the description- promising intrigue and excitement:

tgwcfahGeorge Foss never thought he’d see her again, but on a late-August night in Boston, there she is, in his local bar, Jack’s Tavern.

When George first met her, she was an eighteen-year-old college freshman from Sweetgum, Florida. She and George became inseparable in their first fall semester, so George was devastated when he got the news that she had committed suicide over Christmas break. But, as he stood in the living room of the girl’s grieving parents, he realized the girl in the photo on their mantelpiece – the one who had committed suicide – was not his girlfriend. Later, he discovered the true identity of the girl he had loved – and of the things she may have done to escape her past.

Now, twenty years later, she’s back, and she’s telling George that he’s the only one who can help her…

So I was expecting great things. I was expecting to finish it in one go; I was expecting a twisty, exciting plot; I was expecting characters with flawed yet fascinating personalities and I was expecting a thrilling denouement…

I did not receive great things. I didn’t finish in one go; it took several reading sessions. It wasn’t especially exciting although was quite twisty. The characters were flat with no development and an annoying tendency to make unrealistic and outright stupid decisions. The denouement was either a last minute attempt to lay the groundwork for a series, or an example of an author getting totally bored with the story and ‘phoning in’ the ending.

The story plays out in two different times- when George and Liana/Audrey/Jane are at college and 20 years later when they meet again. Aside from the fact they are set in different locations, it is difficult to distinguish them- the voice of the character doesn’t change. There is no hint of development in the way they act or view the world- this is a huge problem considering the experiences the characters, especially George, go through in the intervening time.

The secondary characters are lifeless or unrealistic. The police characters do not act like the police and although they need to make the decisions they do in order make the story work, the fact that the police would never act like they do just makes it all messy and not a great read.

George in particular is not a good character- he is boring and he makes stupid unrealistic choices. Characters making stupid choices I can live with if the author has given them the right motivation for them. George’s motives and his choices do not align, and if I cannot believe in a character’s motivations for his choices, the character is not well written. There is no way that George would make the ridiculous decisions he does simply for the sake of the chance of being with a woman he last saw 20 years ago whom he KNOWS is wanted for criminal activities. He only went out with her for a couple of months. And she certainly isn’t written as an addictive femme fatale so it’s not that she’s just so marvellous he HAS to be with her. It just doesn’t make sense. And this, above all other flaws, is what makes this book so disappointing.

So… yeah. Not great things. Not even good things. Perhaps mediocre things…?

1 bite. Not recommended.

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.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

imageToday Eleanor Flood really is going to be nicer to people, she’s going to be organised and efiicient and really listen to people when they talk to her. And she is absolutely not going to be bitchy or believe herself hard done by when she knows she’s very lucky really.

Then her young son applies make-up before going to school, she gets called by his teacher not long after he’s got to school to come and get him because he has a tummy ache (again) spoiling her poetry lesson. But this day those normal little tugs on the wool of life lead to a complete unravelling.

Before she quite knows what’s hit her she’s trying to track down her missing husband and trying to hide the sister she never speaks to from her son.

Written in first person and going through the worst day of Eleanore Floods life almost minute by minute this is addictive reading. I’m not going to lie, I did find Eleanor a little annoying to begin with, really her problems are very much first world problems although at least she does acknowledge that.

There are plenty of flashbacks set into the day and a whole host of interesting characters – Eleanor is a typical New York, artistic yummy mummy type but as the insecurities under the surface start to come out it is easy to warm to her.  The fact that she is funny and self-deprecating helps no end.

What seems to start as a spotlight on the pressures of modern womanhood soon morphs into a more indepth analysis of modern relationships, at least amongst artistic, middle-class New Yorkers!

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 Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

imageToru Okada’s cat, oddly named after his wife’s brother who they don’t like, has disappeared. His wife is upset about this and as she is working and he isn’t she begs him to look for it.

This sets him on a journey where he will meet a succession of characters who all have their own stories. He is also being bothered by a woman who is phoning him claiming they know each other and making increasingly lewd suggestions.

As the story continues, normality gets snipped away at until it seems the pleasantly bland Okada has a much bigger purpose than anyone could have imagined.

I read this book first back in 1999 when I was pregnant and I was so taken with it I almost named my child after one of the characters! It’s a long book and kept me company many a night through a stressful time. Revisiting it has been strange to say the least, I saw it on audible and the idea of spending 26 hours in its company was more than I could resist.

The book is still good, Haruki Murakami has such an intimate and conversational tone to his writing and shares his characters idiosynchrocities in such an affectionate and humble manner that it is impossible not to care for them. Which is just as well as otherewise it really would be hard to spend 26 hours in the company of a man who is ostensibly looking for his cat!

Of course the plot does go further than that (no spoilers here though so you’ll have to read it if you want to know how!) and the stories of those he meets on his journey are fascinating and varied too.

I have to say that I wouldn’t recommend listening to this on audiobook. The reader was talented but several of the characters voices really grated on me, one of which was quite a prominant character so I spent far too long listening to her voice!

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 Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

img_2276Hope Ardern has a very unusual problem, she can’t stay in anyone’s memory. If they turn away from her for just a few minutes it is like they’ve never seen her before and everything about their interactions have vanished from their minds.

It started when she was sixteen, schoolteachers not remembering she’d attended class, her friends forgetting to call her, her dad forgetting to drive her to school until her mother doesn’t remember her at all one morning when she comes down to breakfast and she has to pretend to be a friend staying over. That’s when she knows she has to leave and make her own way in the world, but it’s not so easy to get a job if people don’t remember you interviewing for it so she turns to crime. Stealing is easy when people forget to report you after all.

Stealing is how Hope gets caught up with the quest for “Perfection” – a new app that helps us mere mortals become as perfect as all those photo-shopped images we see everyday.  She’s hired to steal “Perfection” by someone that wants to destroy it, but “Perfection” could make her memorable.

Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was the first book I reviewed for this site and I really enjoyed it, so when I saw this I knew I had to grab a copy! Like that I listened to the audio version of the book, a little longer than the last one at just over 16 hours but the premise sounded really intriguing.

Not a single minute of those 16+ hours was wasted! There’s so much in this book, so much that makes you think. From meditating on memory and the sadness of losing someone to Alzheimers to pondering the cult of perfection that seems to be taking over the world, this book will get you thinking. But it’s all wrapped up in such an intriguing story, and ironically Hope Ardern is a character you’ll never forget.

Claire North is one heck of a clever person and I think I’d like her as my new best friend. Anyone that can weave together the poetry of Byron and Wordsworth with the lyrics of The Macarena this skillfully deserves ALL the awards. And no, I’m not telling you what that’s about – read the book – you won’t regret it!

5 Bites

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

The 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.

Glass by Alex Christofi

img_2300I was drawn to Glass when I was browsing my local bookshop because it had a quirky theme and a beautiful cover. It is the first novel of a young author who works in publishing and it has been described by reviewers as a charming coming of age tale. I found the lead character Gunther genuinely lovable and sympathised with him as he began his journey as a young man into a world full of opportunities and pitfalls. The book’s overall tone is tragicomic, but it won me over throughout because the sadness brings the joy and humour into sharp relief. It is also beautifully written. There was not a single weak sentence.

Gunther is an everyman figure. He is continually bewildered by human behaviour, and he tries in a persistently well-meaning way to make sense of people’s motivations. The story starts with his early life and his devotion to his mother, who really nurtures her idealistic and thoughtful son, and then describes his troubled schooldays. He leaves early and at first works as a milkman, until one day he is unexpectedly presented with a redundancy cheque. He is not particularly ambitious, and really struggles to find the motivation to pursue a new direction. In contrast, his brother, who is more pragmatic, but somewhat selfish, becomes a high achiever despite his deafness.

His mother’s unexpected death and the family’s disintegration due to his father’s grief are early sad notes in the novel, but I rejoiced when Gunther started his own window cleaning business. His exploits replacing an anti-aircraft light at the top of Salisbury cathedral garner local press attention and he is approached shortly afterwards by the shady boss of one of the biggest window cleaning businesses, that wins high-profile work cleaning office blocks in the City. He goes to seek his fortune, Dick Whittington-style, and finds that life in London brings mixed blessings in the form of a roommate with bizarre intellectual pursuits and eating habits, a near-death experience at the top of a skyscraper, and an interesting relationship with a clairvoyant.

I am giving this book five bites because I really appreciated how talented the writer was to make me feel so much empathy for Gunther, the ultimate unlikely hero. Christofi has an incredible lightness of touch, but he also weaves some serious themes into the book – the price of naivety, the effects of grief, how impossible it is to establish a singular ‘truth’ about anything, how difficult it can be to decide who to trust and what role faith should have in our secular world. The descriptions of the places Gunther goes to are always written in beautiful prose and never clichéd. Many of the characters have unexpected but believable eccentricities that bring them to life. It is rare and exciting to read a novel that makes you laugh out loud and makes you think. I want more people to read this very clever book. And I will be buying Alex Christofi’s next one.

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 Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

Before continuing with this review, you might want to read the following disclaimers:
Firstly, this is the sixth book in Aaronovitch’s PC Grant series and although there are no spoilers for this book, there are for previous books (mild ones but even so). If you do not want to be spoiled, stop reading.
Secondly, I received an advance copy of this book for free in return for an honest review. And it is all entirely my own opinion.
Thirdly, you should probably be aware of my deep and abiding love for this series. It is far reaching and all-encompassing*. This review is inevitably coloured by this love and by the many months of anticipation leading up to it. Some people prefer reviews to be entirely objective. I have unashamedly written this review in the context of being an established fan. #justsaying

*Not that much of an exaggeration.

 

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There was much hyperventilating and excited squealing in my house last week. All from me…
My advanced copy of Ben Aaronovitch’s The Hanging Tree had arrived and the excitement levels had reached Def Con 1.

Fans of the Peter Grant series have been waiting many months for the sixth instalment- not helped by the repeated postponement of the release date- and inevitably some sequel anxiety had set in.
What is it wasn’t as good? What if Aaronovitch had run out of ideas? What if he’d written himself into a corner he couldn’t get out of? What if… what if… what if…

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I began.

The Hanging Tree sees Peter enter the world of the super-rich after a party in one of the most expensive buildings in London, attended by Lady Ty’s daughter, ends in tragedy. Peter owes Lady Ty a favour and she’s calling it in.
Using his usual mix of proper police work, annoying his colleagues with his ‘weird Falcon stuff’, and asking the right questions at the right time he follows the investigation to a black market of arcane items, many of which interest the Folly greatly. Unfortunately for Peter, there are others who are also interested in the items… others who are not quite as keen on upholding the Queen’s Peace as he is…

I’ve read this book three times now. And fully intend on reading it again at the weekend.

To sum it up in a word- HOORAY!!!

There was no need for the sequel anxiety, no call for the trepidation- Ben Aaronovitch hasn’t lost his touch!
That’s not to say this book was perfect but I really enjoyed it and felt it was an excellent example of his writing skills.

The world that Aaronovitch has built over the series gets richer and more nuanced with every instalment- and I include the comic books in this- and some sub plots that have been weaved into the previous stories come to fruition without feeling rushed or shoe-horned in. Aaronovitch isn’t afraid to play the long game on this series and as a result there are many ‘no way!’, ‘blimey’ and ‘WTF?!!’ moments in this book as storylines and characters that have been waiting their turn suddenly get a chance to shine.

The plot cracks on at a very speedy pace and, as usual, twists and turns and doubles back until you end up at a place that you could never have predicted from the opening chapter but are very glad you’re there.

There were moments of high tension, moments of light relief and moments where I laughed my socks off. There are the usual geeky references, science/magic mashups, and the slightly dark, somewhat nonchalant humour that seeps into the prose, imbuing it with a perfect blend of comedy and drama. As a fan, there was an awful lot to keep me on side and happy.

The cast of characters is becoming more extensive every time and the additions here are worthy ones, be they brand spanking new or previously mentioned characters who now have an expanded role in the series.

Inevitably, this does mean there is less room for some of the other characters and I must admit that I did miss some of my favourites- the lack of much going on in the Folly itself was disappointing and I also wished that there had been more of Beverley. But you can’t have everything and what we did get was top notch!

 

4 bites for this excellent addition to the PC Grant canon! Read the whole series right now…

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.

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.

Himself by Jess Kidd

Debut Novel
Debut Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanahIfemelu left Lagos and the boy she loved there to go to college in America. The Nigeria she left was under military dictatorship, and her boyfriend Obinze was going to join her in the free world. But then 9/11 happened and he couldn’t get a visa.

Through this enforced separation  Ifemelu goes through some awful times but eventually finds friends and a job as a successful feature writer. But thirteen years later she can no longer ignore her feeling of displacement and yearns to return home.

With the passing of time Obinze has become a wealthy man, but neither of them has ever forgotten the honesty of their relationship or the mystery of its ending. Can they face each other again or have they both changed too much?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie can’t seem to write a book without it winning an award and she deserves them. This book has everything- love, conflict, social commentary, believable characters and excellent writing. The structure of this book is wonderful, it’s clever, but facilitates the story perfectly. We meet Ifemelu as she is about to enter a new hairdressers, a place where she will be sitting for hours with other African women giving her the chance to reflect on her experiences as an African woman in America. Far from being melancholy though, the story remains vibrant and immediate. Interspersed with this are some of Ifemelu’s blog posts from her successful blog ‘The Non-American Black’ which are conversational and insightful.

We also follow Obinze’s story, through which we see the changes in Nigeria as well as in his own personal life.

I fell in love with these characters and would really like to have hem as neighbours so I could hang out with them both, keep up with the gossip and set the world to rights! I can’t recommend this book highly enough – it’s stormed into my all-time favourites and I know I’ll be recommending it for years to come.

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.

Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun

cover89737-medium-1Taduno is living a quiet almost dreamlike exile in the UK when a stained brown envelope arrives from his homeland. He knows at once that things are not right with the love he left behind and feels he has no choice but to return no matter the danger he may be in.
When he arrives home he finds that no-one recognises him, not his neighbours, not his girlfriends little brother nor anyone else. He was a famous singer whose face was everywhere so this is particularly odd.

He discovers his girlfriend Lela has been abducted by the government – to get her back he has to sing their praises but he has lost his voice as well as his identity. He must find both but lose his integrity to secure her release.

This is an unusual book, it deals with violent and corrupt oppression in a gentle and lyrical fashion. There’s a little magic realism thrown into the mix and it has a parable like quality to it.

The writing is good, the descriptions of the town he lives in in England is excellent so I felt drawn in straight away. His descriptions of his home are a little sketchier – it could be just that I found them harder to see as I’ve never been there though.

His characters are good as far as they go but my criticism of the book is that females are pretty much completely absent. Even his girlfriend who is more of an abstract figure who is used as a catalyst rather than a real living breathing human being. Though this does add to the fairytale like effect I do think it’s unnecessary and it ends up as a flaw.

The hero is a very likeable character and his dilemma and how he eventually deals with it makes sense. It isn’t an overly long book but you’ll enjoy the time you spend reading it.

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 Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

the-tidal-zoneThis book tells the story of a family’s response to tragedy, in the form of their daughter’s unexpected and life threatening anaphylactic shock and the search for its cause.

The narrator of The Tidal Zone is Adam, a liberal stay-at-home Dad and part-time academic, who is researching the re-building of Coventry cathedral after the Second World War.  As the book progresses, the reader finds out a lot about topics as varied as life in US communes and the health risks of keeping a cat.  A great deal of ground on  contemporary politics and ideas is also covered while he recounts conversations with his family as they try to move past their shock.

Like Adam they are all lovable idealists. His wife is a principled and overworked GP, his father a self-sufficient jack-of-all-trades, and his eldest daughter Miriam aspires to become a lawyer, talking with a precocious level of confidence and uncompromising strength of feeling about gender politics, the environment and minority rights, among other things.

I noticed that in the reviews of this book that I read in the broadsheets, a number of journalists have called it a ‘state of the nation’ novel. It takes a centre-left view on most things, which I loved, because I am sold on all the arguments of the left, but whatever side of the fence you sit on, this book will get you thinking about some of the most important issues in current affairs.

I’ll give you a couple of examples of the highly topical references that Sarah Moss touches on – after Miriam’s respiratory failure, one of the doctors taking a long time to come to a diagnosis is a ‘Dr Chalcott’. I also read an apocalyptic political reference to the betrayal of traditional labour values by Blair in some of the description on p.90: ‘four unkempt horses stood in a field with a coil of rusty barbed wire and something under a flapping blue tarpaulin’. As Miriam recuperates in hospital here are numerous asides and references to the underfunded NHS and its human cost on front line staff as economic imperatives force ruthless compromises in all sorts of ways. In relation to the way it tirelessly discussed the question of how to maintain a fair health system it reminded me a little of ‘So Much for That’ by Lionel Shriver. The sections on architectural history consciously invite comparison between the evacuees of blitzed Coventry and the refugees who are currently seeking safety from the turmoil in the Middle East and Africa. This book is not a light read.

Because once you start analysing all this, it becomes hard to stop, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the reasoning behind the title, as half way through we were still in the heart of the Midlands. A tidal zone (as coastal dwellers will know) is the area along the seashore that is below the water at low tide and above it at high tide, and the penultimate scene sees Adam and his youngest daughter explore the beautiful creatures that live there, caught in the spaces where the water remains when the tide goes out. The question I then asked myself was what the tide represented – the flow of money into the welfare state? The flow of empathy and compassion towards people who are different? I couldn’t decide, but I knew throughout that this was a book with lots of symbols ripe for interpretation and reinterpretation, and rich in poetic prose.

The major drawback of this book is its stillness. While this allows for beautifully written moments of everyday life that are laden with metaphorical significance, it also means that the plot is not compelling, and doesn’t really offer a resolution or ending in a conventional sense. The journey the reader takes is Adam’s journey towards accepting the randomness with which tragedy can occur in anyone’s life.

Overall my reading experience was slow but rewarding. I am giving it 3 bites because whilst it is not a must-read, I appreciated the chance to spend some time thinking about the hard choices society is making in the company of this incredibly erudite and politically aware novelist. I can recommend to you my strategy if the debates get too overwhelming; visit somewhere beautiful to remind yourself of the capacity that nature and mankind has for good. Adam does.

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.