Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

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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.

Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Bites

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

Miss Treadaway & The Field Of Stars by Miranda Emmerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Bites

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

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

The 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.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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Click here to order from Waterstones

A woman gives birth, then sets a fire to run away leaving her child behind. The child Effia grows into a great beauty and is given in marriage to a white man, a slave trader.

Her mother gives birth to another daughter, Esi. While Effia is living above the slave dungeons her unknown sister is beneath her, laying beneath other women and feeling their urine run down between her own legs before she is dragged away on a slave ship to America.

The story follows their descendents, showing us vignettes that highlight the most important moments of their lives – the moments things changed or coelesced into their true essence. We meet them picking cotton in Mississippi, at political meetings in Ghana, in the coal mines of Pensylvania or the missionary schools of Ghana through to the dive bars of Harlem and the universites of Ghana and America.

I really enjoyed this book, it takes the one fault I found with Roots and redresses it. We stay with each character long enough to care about them and get real insight into their lives but the book also keeps moving down the generations steadily. There’s roughly equal time spent with each character whether male or female. Often characters pop up again in their children or grandchildren’s stories which feels very natural and allows the reader to feel part of the story.

The descriptions are excellent also, I’ve never been to Ghana but I feel like I would recognise parts of it now if I was lucky enough to visit. For that matter I haven’t been to most of the U.S but I’ve seen it and read descriptions of it so often that I didn’t really notice those descriptions so much, they weren’t jarring though so they must have been good.

There are some very visceral scenes in this book, and some really uplifting ones. It does a good job of showing how slavery branded people on both sides of the trade. But at the same time it shows how strong the human spirit is.

4 Bites

 

 

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

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

imageWhen the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 it killed Amaterasu Takahashi’s daughter  Yuko and grandson Hideo. If she’d been on time to meet Yuko that day it would have killed her too.

For years she has blamed herself, but all that time she has also blamed someone else. A friend of her husband, a doctor who caused a horrible rift between her and Yuko.

Now she is a widow living in America, but then a  horribly burnt man claiming to be Hideo turns up on her doorstep and she is forced to revisit the past to discover if he really is who he says he is. If he is how is she to live with herself now and what is she to tell him about his mother?

This stunning book made was on the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction long list, I have to say I have no idea why it didn’t make the shortlist! Although I haven’t read every book on that list two that I did read that made the shortlist that were nowhere near as good as this!

I admit I’m a sucker for for poignant stories of parenthood, but this is so much more than that. It side-eyes Japan’s actions before and during the war without ever apologising or justifying the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It faces the horror of the bombing and the aftermath with eyes wide open and unblinking. I’ve honestly never read anything that approaches it quite so honestly, it doesn’t glorify it yet it doesn’t gloss over it either.

It also examines the myriad of relations between men and women and looks at what is forgiveable and who is redeemable. And of course there is the ghost of hope from the past and how to reopen old wounds in the hope that doing so will bring better healing. The writing is beautiful but functional, which suits the main character down to the ground. Definitely worth reading.

5 Bites

 

 

 

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

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

The Last Days of Leda Grey by Essie Fox

5 Bites

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

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

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Bites

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

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood

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

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

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

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

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

4 very satisfied Bites 😋

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

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

The Spire by William Golding

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

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

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

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

5 Bites

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

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roots by Alex Haley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall though, not to be missed!

4 Bites

 

 

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

The 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 Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn Benson

the-smoke-hunterCross Indiana Jones with Amelia Peabody and out come  Adam Bates and Eleanora Mallory. Fast-paced and exciting with romance and suspense in equal measure this debut novel is full of fun and wit.

It’s nearly the C20th and women young and old are clamouring for proper education, proper employment and most of all the right to vote. If Eleanora Mallory hadn’t been born a girl she’d have been out in the jungles excavating the ruins of an ancient civilisation, but a girl she is and the best job that a top quality university degree and a near perfect score in the civil service entrance exam can earn a young woman is the role of a low level archivist in the public Records Office. What is utterly maddening is that her supervising manager is a lazy, untidy, slapdash excuse for an historian, who is about to sack her because she got arrested for chaining herself to the gates of parliament. While waiting for him to arrive she knocks a stack of papers off his desk and discovers a psalter, hollowed out in the centre it houses a large stone medallion and beneath that a treasure map. Her frustrated spirit rebels and on a whim she decides to borrow the items and do her own investigation but it isn’t long before the absence of the psalter is discovered and Miss Mallory finds that she has stirred up quite a hornets nest. With the aid of an old school-friend she evades pursuit and finds herself on a steamer headed for British Honduras using an alias and dressed in borrowed clothes.

Smartly written with a slightly saucy, slightly tongue in cheek approach to Victorian values, Eleanora and Adam are the perfect role models for a pair of ‘modern’ adventurers. He has to throw his pre-conceived ideas of chivalry out of the window and she has to learn to admit when she is wrong. Chasing across the jungle they are beset by dangers and fall neatly into yet more trouble. Swinging on vines, outwitting scorpions and trying to prevent themselves from being shot by the competition, it reads as clearly as if it were already a film.

Full of adventure and more exciting than Rider Haggard ever was sadly I suspect this will suffer from being considered the literary version of Indiana Jones. The plot is hardly unique but it is fun and the characters are spikey and spicy and the sparks between them are delightful echoes of the relationship between Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in the African Queen.

3 Bites – An entertaining and skillfully written yarn that kept me engrossed.

NB I received an advance copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Bookeaters always say what they think.

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.

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Bites

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

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

Star Sand by Roger Pulvers

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Bites.

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

 

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

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

cover79886-mediumIn 1693 René Sel and Charles Duquet, both penniless Frenchmen arrive in New France. They are to work for a feudal lord, for three years in exchange for land and are set to work cutting into the immense forest that surrounds them. A forest that seems endlessly self-renewing.  Duquet runs away almost at once whilst René stays and suffers extraordinary hardship. Eventually he is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman, she bears him children destined to be caught two cultures. Charles starts out in business, first as a fur trapper then setting his sights on extracting the lucrative timber all around him in order to marry well, become a gentleman and transcend his humble beginnings.

Proulx tells the stories of their descendants until 2013. She explores Europe, China, and New Zealand with the Duquets (anglicised to Duke) as they hunt for new markets for their timber and new trees and forests to exploit as the once presumed infinite resource disappears at a disarming rate.

She also explores the lands and lives of the Mi’kmaw and other tribes as the whiteman brutalises their lands and bullies them into a compliance that ends in cultural annihilation.

This is an ambitious and important work from an exceptionally talented writer.  Proulx can depict a character with a few simple strokes of her pen and summon up a forest or a wilderness to surround her readers with just a few sentences and she has put those talents to use to create what I fear will become a tombstone for our murdered forests.

There is only one thing wrong with this book, if you’ve read my reviews before you’ll probably have seen me harping on about books that need more editing on a number of occasions- this time the problem is the opposite. This book should have been longer. There are a LOT of characters but we often don’t get to spend enough time with them. As the book progresses it seems that we spend less and less time with them. In one way this is good as it does give the feeling that we are hurtling towards a terrifying tree-less future, but it did also mean that I cared less about the modern characters fighting this problem than I had about their ancestors that had created it.

Still, when you have a book as long as this and you want more of it rather than less that is a huge accolade to its author.

4 Bites

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

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

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

imageIt’s 1945, and Claire Randall and her husband Frank are on their second honeymoon in the Highlands of Scotland. Separated by war, during which time Claire served as a nurse and Frank worked in MI6, this is their opportunity to rediscover each other and truly start their married life. Frank, history professor and genealogist, is also using the trip to learn more about his heritage. His six- times-great-grandfather, Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall was a captain of dragoons, stationed in the Highlands around the time of the Jacobite Rebellions.

During the festival of Beltane (Celtic May Day), Claire goes alone to the standing stones of Craigh na Dun to study some unusual plants she saw growing there. Claire touches the great stone at the centre of the circle, causing the stone to scream. Disorientated, she staggers towards it and when she wakes, she discovers she has been transported back to 1743.

Rescued from Frank’s less than chivalrous relative “Black Jack” by a clan of Highlanders, she is taken to Castle Leoch, where the chieftain Callum MacKenzie puts her to work as a healer, whilst trying to discover what a lone Englishwoman was doing in the Scottish countryside dressed only in her shift. Claire’s tale of a widow subjected to highway robbery while trying to get to France to see her family doesn’t wash, and Callum suspects her of being a spy.

And so, Claire must try to find a way home: to escape Castle Leoch and return to Craigh na Dun and therefore to the 20th Century and Frank. What she doesn’t count on is the growing feelings she has for Jamie Fraser, clansman to the MacKenzies, or the sadistic nature of Black Jack who also has questions about this unusual Englishwoman.

I have to admit that I got hooked on the TV version before I read this book (not something that happens very often), but this is one of the rare examples of a TV show that does its source material proud. If you are looking for perfect writing, it’s not for you. Fairly soon after Claire finds herself in 1743, she seems to have adjusted to it. There isn’t a lot of emotion in this part, certainly not much sense of panic or desperation. She mentions a need to get back to Frank a couple of times- it seems like lip service really. What really makes the book pop out is the characters. The relationship between Claire and Jamie develops wonderfully. Claire has just enough pig-headedness to stop her from being a complete Mary Jane, and Jamie is hot headed, brave and handsome. Black Jack has layers to his character which also keep him the correct side of stereotype.

This is a fun book. It’s not too serious. It’s long, but very easy to read. It’s twee in some places and predictable in others, but fun. I’ve already bought the next book in the series!

PS- You should totally watch the TV show!

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.

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet by H.P. Wood

image It’s 1904 and Kitty Hayward is stranded on Coney Island after her mother vanishes. She’s alone, hungry, penniless, and far away from her native England.

She meets a con artist who convinces her to work a job with him in return for a decent food. Then he introduces her to the unusual cast of characters at Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, a museum of oddities. But it seems that even the unusually talented inhabitants of Magruder’s may not be a match for the plague that is creeping across Coney Island.

I was so intrigued by the blurb and the cover of this book that I requested it a full six months ahead of it being released. Then I practised incredible will power by not reading it for a further five months! I know! Not bad for a certified book addict!

When I finally started it though I was disappointed – there were a lot a characters being introduced pretty much all at once and even though they all have very strong personalities it was a little muddling.

However, by the time I was about quarter of the way in my confusion had settled down and I’d got the hang of who was who. The story line started to bed in too and from that point on I started to fall in love with it. So top tip – start this book on a day when you can settle down to read for an hour or two straight and you’ll probably avoid that confusion.

As well as Kitty and the con-man, there are some great characters in this book including the first officially gender-fluid character I have ever read, a black quadriplegic curator, a wealthy son of a businessman,  an Uzbeki mad scientist, a sentient machine, a boy who feeds fleas and many others. But the characters are all well-loved by the author, their faults and foibles treated with as much respect as their strengths and sympathies.

The storyline, once it gets going properly, has enough peril to stand on it’s own so it doesn’t get subsumed by the characters.

It’s hard to think of books that are similar to it, but if I had to I’d suggest that if you like Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman or Ben Aaronovitch books but you also like The Winters Tale by Mark Helprin then you’ll love this!

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 Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

imageIn the Golden Age of Dutch Art, Sara de Vos was the first woman to be admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke’s in Holland.

Three hundred years later, it seems there is only one of her works left and that is in the private collection of Marty De Groot.

Ellie Shipley, a student of art history and a talented restorer, is approached to copy the painting. Ostensibly for insurance purposes but she senses there is more to it than that. She agrees, a decision that may destroy her when many years later she is curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters and both versions arrive.

The story is told from all three perspectives and as they weave together a beatiful portrait of humanity with all it’s passions and griefs emerges.

Sarah De Vos is based on a real dutch painter who was indeed the first woman admitted to the guild. But nothing is really known of her life and there are no surviving paintings so Dominic Smith has completely imagined a life for her. It is a good imagining, both in details of her settings as in her reactions to the things that life throws at her. The same is true of his other characters.

This book drew me in slowly, it is a very calm read. If you’re looking for a high-octane thriller then look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for a book that sinks into you slowly and stays with you then pick this one up. A perfect Sunday read.

The writing is understated but beautiful, it hit just the write balance between educating the reader without patronising them. By the end of it I felt like I was knowleadgable about Dutch Art (I’m not, in fact I barely know the first thing about it!) To give you an example this quote will give you an idea “her life suddenly seems interesting and full, as if a glaze has suddenly shocked a muted underlayer into color.”

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 Dig by John Preston

Grab this from Amazon here or pop into your local independent book shop for a copy!
Grab this from Amazon here or pop into your local independent book shop for a copy!
It’s 1939 and Elizabeth Pretty owes a debt to her now dead husband. When they’d moved to Tranmer House they’d both been fascinated by the mounds in their grounds and dreamt of excavating them.
But the summer heat is overshadowed by the cold threat of war so if she’s going to do it she has to do it now. Riding camels past the pyramids doesn’t qualify her for the work so she approaches the local museum. They recommend Basil Brown, an expert on local soil and an amateur archeologist.
He starts excavating straight away, but he warns her that the dip in the top of the mound probably means that if this is a grave it was probably robbed in the 16th Century.
Several weeks later nothing of significance has been found and the International Situation has become increasingly precarious. The museum want Mr Brown back. In the few days they have left they find something extraordinary- a rivet. This could be a ship burial. In fact it could be the biggest ever found, if they can unearth it before Germany draws the whole world into war.

On the surface of it, a novel about real archeological dig seems like it would be really dry. Particularly this dig, for this reader. I grew up in Suffolk with a father fascinated by ancient history, I can’t remember a time I didn’t know about Sutton Hoo, it’s in my DNA.

Yet John Preston manages to create an atmosphere of intrigue and urgency from the first page. He does exactly what every good writer of historical fiction should do, he writes it from the perspective of the characters living it, remembering that they don’t know what will happen. A lesser writer would have relied on just the threat of war bu Oreston goes further. Although at first he tells the tale from Mrs Edith Pretty’s perspective and the war weighs heavy, he then looks at it from Basil Brown’s perspective and introduces the fear that the dig could be taken off him by the beaurocrats at the local museum. As its importance becomes clearer, the danger increases as it seem likely The British Museum itself will want to oversee everything.

Preston writes from the perspective of three characters in total, and they are all very different people. Yet he manages to inhabit each of them and express them in a way that is utterly believable. Their descriptions of other characters and the dialogue throughout the book flesh out the other characters beautifully. His descriptions of the landscape are perfect, capturing both the beauty and the sense that there are secrets hiding in plain sight wherever you look.

There were a couple of little niggles that probably would only affect me and my fellow locals – his description of the Suffolk accent is just bizarre, and at one point he has Basil Brown walking along Woodbridge High Street. Where? He must mean The Thoroughfare as we don’t have a High Street!

But I forgive him these niggles, this book deserves 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 Robe by Lloyd C Douglas

Desperate to read this but no Village fete's coming up? You can always click the picture to go to amazon...
Desperate to read this but no Village fete’s coming up? You can always click the picture to go to amazon…
A couple of months ago my village had a fête, I love these but the part I love most is the second hand book stall. On this occasion I left with around 20 books.

Amongst this wonderful haul was a book called The Robe. It was a hardback edition with no sleeve and no blurb so I had no idea at all what it was about…

It begins in Rome and the first paragraph draws you in and starts a strand of sympathy that weaves you into the story. We are introduced to the Tribune Marcellus whose footsteps carry us through the rest of the tale. Crucially it also introduces us to his family and the moral code he has been bought up with.

Sent away from Rome to Palestine, the cynical Marcellus has to assist at the crucification of Jesus. Later he wins Christs robe in a drunken dice game and becomes fascinated by the object and it’s former owner. He sets out to learn more about him and his teachings and starts to question his own beliefs and those of the culture around him.

This book has an interesting perspective on the beginnings of Christianity. I’m not Christian and this isn’t preachy but it was a wonderful read and it restored my faith in faith.

It shows that people has the same cares 2000 years ago as we do today, but for me one of the most impressive feats of this book is how the author deals with depression and despair, conditions we sometimes seem are the exclusive provenance of recent generations.

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.