The Spy by Paulo Coelho

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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.

Maestra by L S Hilton

maestra_book_coverIt was bound to happen one day, a best seller written to a computer designed recipe. That’s how L.S Hiltons Maestra “The most shocking thriller of the year” comes across.

The recipe:-
Take lots of kinky sex, add copious amounts of designer shopping, half a dozen over ripe billionaire playgrounds, blend with super yachts, power and money. spice with murder and major art fraud, add a pinch of humour. Leave in a warm place to rise. If it doesn’t rise add more sex and a hedge fund or two.

The computer also says that you must grab the reader’s attention by getting in a torrid sex scene within the first fifty pages. The plot of Maestra didn’t allow for this, so instead the publishers put in a prologue which described three characters involved in a bizarre sex act. This prologue was so badly written that it was impossible to understand who was doing what, to whom and why. This seemingly irrelevant prologue turned out to be an extract from a sex scene which appeared later in the book. After reading it for a second time I was still none the wiser.

All novels are published with the intention of making money and it comes as no surprise that someone came up with the idea that “Fifty Shades of Grey”, but this time instead of EL James it should be written by a gifted and intelligent author, This would surely be a best seller. The author L.S Hilton fits the bill, formerly an historical biographer she is both gifted and intelligent, her writing (apart from the sex scenes) is often beautiful and the plot, involving the art world and money laundering, was well researched. Her knowlege of Italian art was impressive. As an artist myself, I was fascinated to learn about Agnolo Bronzino and Artemesia Gentileschi (I had to put the book down to look them up on Wikipedia).

The clever and convoluted plot moved along at a cracking pace. I read it in a day. Maestra has been described as a bonkbuster and as romp. To me it didn’t fit into either category, it was simply too dark, the anti-heroine Judith Rashleigh was too cold, calculating and cynical to earn any affection. Frankly I couldn’t have cared less if she lived or died.

The recipe lacked a few ounces of warmth and humour, they would have made all the difference. As it was I felt that Maestra was half baked.

Three Bites from me.

Jeff Short
I was born into a Forces family so naturally enjoyed Biggles as a child alongside Enid Blyton.
I fell in love with the Librarian at RAF Akrotiri and read and read so that i could see her every day. The book that I read there that had the greatest impact on me was Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 – set on an American airbase on a small island in the Mediterranean, and filled with military incompetence with black humour. I could never take service life seriously again.
I usually has three books on the go at any one time. Kindle, Audio and a proper book. My favourite genres are military memoirs and thrillers but being compulsive I’ll read anything.

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.

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.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

img_2271This book is flawed but heartfelt, and although I have to acknowledge those flaws I want to say straight away that I totally recommend Roxane Gay’s writing to you as it is full of humour and honesty. I have never felt so much warmth radiating through the words of an academic. Unlike some scholars she writes to communicate and engage with people, and not just to demonstrate how much she knows.

Bad Feminist is a collection of essays which handle a number of topics: her personal experience as an ethnic Haitian English professor, the meaning of feminism to her and the debates about it, and the way that Western culture handles issues of gender, sexuality and race. There is also some commentary on current affairs and the role of social media. Some essays deal with a number of these things, some with just one big issue.

I loved a number of her pieces – one of the memorable ones is ‘To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically’ about her experience of playing competitive scrabble. I laughed out loud as she described opponents trying to psych her out before a big match, and was fascinated by the minutiae of competition etiquette. I felt deeply moved by her openness in ‘What We Hunger For’ about the gang rape she experienced at the age of 11, which was instigated by someone she thought was her boyfriend. Words are often not enough to describe the horror of sexual violence, but she is a fearless and authoritative voice on this topic. There is a wonderful essay on friendship ‘How to be friends with another woman’ which I completely adored. It was light and sharp, written as a list of numbered instructions, highlighting that whilst global sisterhood might be an unachievable dream, our acts of kindness to each other are important and can be truly empowering.

I have deducted a couple of bites because the introduction and essays at the end feel like a bit of an afterthought as an attempt to bring cohesion to the book. I didn’t finish the book with a clear ‘take home message’. There is not enough discussion of the history of the feminist movement and different arguments within feminism for a book with ‘feminist’ in the title. I can’t help feeling that calling herself a ‘bad feminist’ is partly a strategy to get out of analysing these things more deeply, but equally, doing that might make the book a little less accessible.  A very minor point is that she has an irritating writing tic – her essays are littered with the two word sentence ‘And yet.’ I really noticed this, reading the book from beginning to end as I would a novel. It is also heavily oriented towards a U.S. readership in its references and content.

All of this being said, I cannot remember when I last enjoyed reading an essay collection as much as ‘Bad Feminist’. There is so much emotional power to it, and the rather plain cover doesn’t do any justice to how vibrant and strong the author’s voice is. She writes scathingly about the pressure women are under to be likeable, so I won’t talk too much about how I would like her to be my friend, but instead I will tell you that when she takes an uncompromising position on a difficult issue she wins my support and respect. Three 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 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.

Summer at Skylark Farm by Heidi Swain

cover88547-mediumHonesty Alert! I got this book for the title – my best beloved older sister actually has a farm called Skylark Farm so it would have been rude not too! There was no blurb when I downloaded it so I only had the cover to go on – it looks pretty twee but sometimes we all need a bit of escapism so I thought I’d give it a go! I found a blurb for it online later – here it is and with no big surprises…

“Amber is a city girl at heart. So when her boyfriend Jake Somerville suggests they move to the countryside to help out at his family farm, she doesn’t quite know how to react. But work has been hectic and she needs a break so she decides to grasp the opportunity and make the best of it. Dreaming of organic orchards, paddling in streams and frolicking in fields, Amber packs up her things and moves to Skylark Farm. But life is not quite how she imagined – it’s cold and dirty and the farm buildings are dilapidated and crumbling. But Amber is determined to make the best of it and throws herself into farm life. But can she really fit in here? And can she and Jake stay together when they are so different? A story of love in the countryside from the author of the bestselling The Cherry Tree Café. Perfect for Escape to the Country dreamers, Cath Kidston fans and Country Living addicts!”

Regular readers of this blog will no that this definitely isn’t my usual cup of tea, nonetheless I quite enjoyed this. The writing isn’t brilliant – but it’s also not awful. The characters are fairly two-dimensional (especially Jake) but they’re likeable at least. There’s also a little more tension than the average romance – not just “will they / won’t they”

It hasn’t converted me to the genre, (and my sister’s farm is better – it has goats!) but it gave me a bit of light relief in a week when I couldn’t believe how horrible the world had become.

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 Bones of Grace by Tahmima Nam

The Bones of GraceJust as she’s about to leave Boston to join an archeological expedition to search for the bones of the walking whale Zubaida Haque falls in love.  Zubaida, the adopted daughter of a wealthy family in Dhaka, is engaged to her childhood best friend.  Elijah Strong, the man she meets, belongs to a typical upper – middle class American family.

The book is written from Zubaida’s perspective as if she is talking directly to Elijah. First she remembers their meeting, then the short time they spent together, then she goes on to recount everything that has happened since they last saw one another.

This book made this years Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction Longlist,  the author has been celebrated and nominated for awards many times since her first novel ‘A Golden Age’ was published back in 2007 so you’ll understand how excited I was to get a copy of this book to review. With credentials like that what could go wrong?

But for me, sadly this book went wrong almost straight away. The two meet  in a darkened concert hall, where somehow they are both there alone to watch a Shostakovitch symphony.  Also the main character is at Harvard studying a niche area of palaeontology. She’s also adopted which is a source of shame to her.  This instantly places both of the main characters into such a rarified bubble that it made it hard for me to relate to them. I’m not saying that characters should all be ten a penny, but when almost every characteristic is so far from most readers life experience then we have nothing to hook ourselves onto. No way to pull our selves inside and start to understand those aspects of life that our different from our own. Add to that the fact that by reading this I was instantly placed in the role of Elijah and I was distinctly uncomfortable.

So when I was about a third of the way through this I put this down and I didn’t pick it up again.

There’s nothing wrong with the prose, it has a lyrical melancholic quality which was quite hypnotic. I would certainly be open to trying one of her other books based just on that.  There was one section that I did really enjoy – when Zubaida was on the archeological expedition she really came to life and I started to feel I could like and understand her, but that section came to a fairly abrupt end and there was no sign that the Zubaida I met then would return.

If you’ve the time to spare and you fancy feel in melancholic then give this a go, but I’m only given it 3 bites I’m afraid.

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.