The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

IMG_2406This is the story of Charles Strickland as told by a writer who at first is an acquaintance of his wife.

When we first meet him he is a conventional stockbroker, but then out of the blue he abandons his wife and children to move to Paris and become a painter. Our narrator is sent to plead his wife’s case but finds a selfish, determined man who cares nothing for what anyone may think of him. Even of the few that think he is a genius. After learning all he can in Paris, his lack of money drives him to Tahiti, a country full of inspiration.

Our narrator catches up with his story there – finding that the tropics did little to soften his selfishness but everything to inspire his art.

This book is actually inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin, yeah the reference to Tahiti does rather give that away doesn’t it?! In some senses this does echo Gauguin’s life. He was a stockbroker for a time and did give it up to paint. But how close this is to the truth of Gauguin’s character I couldn’t say.

However the book does lampoon the automatic forgiveness of celebrity rudeness because genius’s can’t be expected to act like normal people! It does not close it’s satiric eye to the comedy of manners Edwardian society lived by either.

There is some sympathy in the book too, in Paris there is one person who recognises Stricklands genius and tries his best to support him, Stroeve. Although as a character he doesn’t escape mockery or misfortune, his generous nature shines through adding real warmth to this narrative.

It’s not an overly long book, a good one for taking on holiday overseas, read the London and Paris sections on the plane and enjoy the time in Tahiti on a beach somewhere!

3.5 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.

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.

The Book Of Mirrors by E.O. Chirovici

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Click here to order from Waterstones

Literary agent’s receive hundreds of submissions but when Peter Katz receives an unfinished manuscript entitled The Book of Mirrors, it stands out. The author, Richard Flynn is writing a memoir about his time at Princeton in the late 80s, documenting his relationship with the famous Professor Joseph Wieder who was brutally murdered in 1987.

Peter Katz is fascinated, he believes the full manuscript will reveal the murderer and make him a fortune. But Richard Flynn has died and the finished manuscript is missing, so he hires a detective to try and piece together the end of the story.

This is a very odd book, it is a murder mystery but it’s also an exploration into memory, love and obsession. It’s also odd because I really enjoyed it, loved every page and couldn’t put it down but then a week later I could barely remember it … Is this book trying to keep it’s own secrets but making me forget???!!!

I flicked back through a few pages and it all came back to me – vibrant characters, great pacing, good scene-setting, and terrific subplots. It has literary overtones too so if you like mysteries but you also like something a bit high-brow then this is definitely the book for you.

It might be a while but I’ll definitely re-read this one day – I just wonder if I’ll remember it afterwards!

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.

Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Bites

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

Freeks by Amanda Hocking

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Click to order from Waterstones

Mara is the daughter of the fortune teller of Gideon Davorin’s Traveling Sideshow, a carnival full of misfits whose talents veer over into the supernatural. As such she has always longed for a normal life in a normal town where she can listen to Madonna instead of cleaning out the tiger cage.

They’re all struggling financially so when the small town of Caudry, Louisiana offers them a big pay-packet for a weeks work they jump at it. When they get there Mara meets local-boy Gabe, and loses one of her best friends. But are the two connected?

Soon after another performer is mauled by an unknown beast. The carnival realises that there is something very scary lurking in the town and they begin to suspect they have been lured there. They can’t just leave so they have to get to the bottom of things which means Mara has to take control of a power she didn’t know she was capable of—one that could change her future forever.

Regular readers will know that I’m not that into shlock horror but I can be persuaded by a good one and this one has certainly done that. First of all it’s a perfect YA book – an ordinary girl that just wants to fit in but can’t because of parents, a fit boy promising love but with a hint of danger thrown in, the extraordinary future beckoning and the potential to fall and lose it all.

Secondly the horror in it is done very well, the pacing is great – even in the more relaxed moments I was still a little tense and had to keep going to see what would happen, the horror is gruesome but not titillatingly so but most importantly the author offers several nods to the cliche’s of the genre without actually jumping into them. This was brilliant, it showed how much she respects her readers.

The final thing which pushed me to fall for this book was the fact it was set in the 80’s and the music and culture of that decade are woven throughout. Brilliant not only because the 80’s really was the era of shlock horror but also because I’m an 80’s girl! So i definitely recommend this for Young Adults in their 40’s 😉

Overall it’s a fun, pacy read with likeable characters. Definitely potential for a sequel or series to come out of it too.

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 Spy by Paulo Coelho

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Click here to order from Watersones

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

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

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

But is it worth the money?

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

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

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

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

3.5 Bites

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

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

The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue

img_2252Kay Harper is spending the summer as an acrobat in the Old City of Québec, her new husband Theo has decamped there with her and the two fall in love with the quaintness of the place. In particular Kay falls in love with a puppet in the window of the Quatre Mains, a toy shop that is never open.

One night, fearing she is being followed, she notices the lights of the toy shop are on and the door is open. She dives inside.

Theo wakes up curious at her absent, by evening it is clear that she’s missing. Searching for her he starts hanging around the circus and bonds with one of the workers. But the weeks drag on and he falls under police suspicion himself. Eventually he has to head home. Then his mother-in-law contacts him convinced she saw Kay on television and the quest to find her is back on – but it will stretch the limits of his sanity.

I’m a little bit at a loss for how to describe this book. It was a sensory feast, full of colours and shade, scents and seasons. But all overlaid with tension, despair and hope. There is a fantastical element to it but that never overtakes the sense of reality about it. The characters are varied but even the most unbelievable are believable.

It’s a fairly quick read, a little more body to it wouldn’t hurt but it’s not necessary. I can’t give it five bites because it didn’t make me question anything but I’ll definitely look out for more books by Keith Donohue!.

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.

Dear Amy by Helen Callaghan

imageMargot Lewis is a schoolteacher going through a divorce whose student Katie Brown has recently gone missing, but police are minimising the investigation as they suspect Katie’s run away rather than been abducted.

She’s also the agony aunt for The Cambridge Examiner where she gets her fair share of crank letters. But when she recieves one from Bethan Avery, a local girl that went missing years ago, saying she doesn’t know where she is and that she’s been kidnapped she feels compelled to pass it on to the police even though she’s sure it’s just a cruel hoax. Then more letters arrive, with information that was never made public. How is this happening?

I’ve not read a thriller in a fair few months but the premise of this was intriguing enough to make me sneak it onto my ‘To Be Read’ pile – how is she getting the letters out if she can’t get herself out? I knew they’d be some intriguing twists and turns.

I’m not keen on reading about any form of abuse so I am fussy about these kinds of books, only really picking them up if it seems like they’re not exploiting the idea of exploitation – always a difficult balancing act. Though there were undoubtably uncomfortable moments in this book I personally think the author treats this topic well. We know that violence including rape is perputrated by the kidnapper but it isn’t even described let alone used to titilate.

The psychologial twists in this are truly ingenius, I’m not sure whether some of the PTSD symptoms are accurate because they were described so believably I felt no need to put the book down and google – I really didn’t want to put the book down for anything though reading it in bed late at night did make me a bit scared!

I’m not an expert in this genre but this was an addictive read – 4 Bites!

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

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

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Bites

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

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 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.

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

NevernightMia Covere is just ten when she watches her fathers execution.  For the next six years she is tutored in the arts of stealth, self-defence and murder but the day she takes her first life is the day she’s been waiting for.  Now she can become an apprentice in The Red Church, and, if she survives, earn the right to avenge all of those that killed her father.

But the apprenticeship at The Red Church is not her path alone and all those competing to complete it know they must face death many times over – even from each other’s hands. Luckily Mia has at least one friend, a not-quite cat made of shadow’s that drinks her fear.

This booked hooked me right from the start and I would totally recommend it to all lovers of fantasy. Jay Kristoff’s world-building skills are superb, I felt I knew where I was all the time I could so easily envisage all the settings.

This is the genre at it’s best, lots of action, menace and magic. It’s quite gory, there’s lot’s of death – it could probably give ‘Game of Thrones’ a run for it’s money! It has a strong female lead as well as a good gender balance throughout, the characters are interesting and well-developed too. The only thing I didn’t like about it was the fact I have to wait ages till the next book in the series comes out!

It’s not life-changing or overly thought-provoking but it will keep you thoroughly entertained!

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.

Negroland by Margo Jefferson

negrolandThis award-winning memoir published earlier in the year documents a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist’s early family life and later personal history. She shows how her inner conflicts were generated by the pressures she was placed under (and placed herself under) as a young talented black woman growing up in 50s and 60s Chicago within a wealthy family.

The book begins with an insightful analysis of the careers and written works of historical middle and upper class black figures, in order to anchor her book in that tradition. In the next part of the book she tells us about her family and their privileged social milieu, which she calls ‘Negroland’. She offers a clear-sighted analysis of the way her parent’s generation acted on their desire to assimilate in order to progress and win acceptance on merit regardless of the racism that was still widespread. They were part of a long line of African Americans throughout history who wanted to shrug off the low expectations that whites have always had of blacks.

She shows how conflicted her parents’ generation were, and how judgemental they were of themselves and their children, in order to maintain their foothold above less able or socially mobile blacks. She uses short passages to show us snapshots of her life, and analyses in detail the meaning to her of different interactions with peers of different ethnicities to help us understand the difficulties in real terms of going to a private school where she was one of a tiny minority of African Americans. She movingly demonstrates the personal cost in later life of growing up saddled with an almost crushing burden to fit into both black and white society.

Jefferson, her family and the other people in ‘Negroland’ were at the front line of a fight for equivalent ‘respectability’ to whites. They sometimes achieved it but paid the psychological price of eternal self-vigilance. They also bore the emotional scars of the subtly cruel forms of discrimination used by middle and upper class whites.

Jefferson shows throughout that race is not a ‘given’, especially when she talks about how light-skinned members of her family spent lonely portions of their life ‘passing’ as white – race is not in your blood, she argues, it is constructed in your own mind and the minds of others by daily awareness of unequal treatment and the reasons for it. Like many others, she felt liberated by the Black Power and feminist movements in the 1970s because they articulated a desire by a younger black generation to claim their right to be different. They finally became exhausted of living up to the impossible standards their parents felt they had to set them.

This book is written beautifully and quite experimentally (with footnotes, subheadings and lengthy pieces of text that are italicised). Jefferson often assumes the role of her own critic, commenting on her own writing throughout. I quite enjoyed this when I started to read the book, because it mirrors the painful self-consciousness she felt for years, but the device wears thin through overuse. She also writes with an almost relentless level of self-scrutiny and meta-self-scrutiny of her own and others’ motives. This turns her prose in on itself – in the end the analysis paralysis she writes herself into becomes tiring.

Despite these minor downsides, Negroland is an excellent book, which captures how historical moments in the evolution of black consciousness were experienced by individuals and their families, and it brings the struggles of blacks born in the twentieth century to centre stage in an original way. Jefferson writes like a details person, and being one myself, I appreciate how effective that approach can be.

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 Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

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

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

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

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

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

4 Bites

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

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

Vinegar Girl – The Taming of the Shrew Retold by Anne Tyler

cover90226-mediumKate Battista is stuck running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and flirtatious younger sister Bunny. Her forthright personality is always getting her in trouble at the nursery school she works at too. But at least she has the handsome Adam at school to distract her.

Her father has a pressing problem of his own – he’s on the verge of a scientific breakthrough that could help millions. But his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. So he decides to ask Kate to marry him and is baffled at her fury! The two men start a touchingly ridiculous campaign to win her round.

There’s been quite a trend for retelling classic stories over the last few years – The Austen project saw writers Val McDermid and Alexander McCall Smith re-writing Northanger Abbey and Emma respectively (amongst others). Now The Hogarth Press are retelling some of Shakespeare’s tales. Already retold this year is Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap in Time (based on A Winter’s Tale)  and a new version of The Merchant of Venice (Shylock is my Name by Howard Jacobson) The Tempest, retold by Margaret Atwood, should be forthcoming in September. Some of these have worked brilliantly – bringing a whole new side of the story to life, and some not so much.

This one starts really well, the setting makes sense and the characters are not only believable but different enough from other iterations of them to stop them feeling predictable.

Anne Tyler’s writing is sparky and I was half way through it before I knew it. I enjoyed the dynamics between the characters and watching their relationships develop. I have to say I was surprised by the ending, and it wasn’t completely to my liking but then authors don’t owe it to their readers to give them everything they want! I’d still recommend it – after all you might like the ending more than I did!

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 Ship by Antonia Honeywell

imageYoung Lalla is lucky. Although Oxford Street burned for three weeks under the new regime and British Museum’s artefacts are vanishing and being replaced by desperate homeless survivors, she has been sheltered from the harsh reality by her parents.

But with the regime getting harsher and food becoming more scarce her father has decided it is time to leave. The ship is not just a whispered dream, it’s real. But it can only carry five hundred people so only the worthy will be saved. To her surprise her father is the ships owner and the architect of the entire escape plan. He’s done it all to save her so her place is assured.  But before long she starts to question her place onboard, and the mission itself.

Antonia Honeywell has written a really interesting dystopian novel. Officially this falls into the Young Adult market but I think this is works just as well for the adult market.

It’s set in the quite near future and in a London that is recognisable and I think that adds to the credibility of plot. The main character is interesting and mostly likeable, but not perfect or omniscient, so it’s easy to stay on her side, even though you might sometimes want to shake her!

The purchase or the ship along with setting up stores for it and assembling the passengers isn’t focused on in the story, but that too is made believable by the telling of just a few details, the knowledge the reader is given of the surroundings chaos and by the character of Lalla’s father, if anyone can pull something like that off he is the man to do it!

This book doesn’t just tell a story though, it asks questions about how we live our lives, both in the world and personally. Questions that don’t have easy answers and the author doesn’t patronise us by providing her own.

4 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book b 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.