The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

IMG_2419Della Dobbs is the dull and plain one in the family, her oldest sister has successfully married and the middle sister is an actress, her younger brother is the apple of her father’s eye. She isn’t pretty or talented and the only thing she really enjoys is racing and fixing her bicycle. Then her Great Auntie Betty comes home to Cleethorpe’s from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina full of tales of the Wright Brothers and their incredible flying machines. Della is fascinated and develops a burning ambition to fly. Betty is determined to help her.

Can she overcome the Edwardian attitudes to women and learn to fly? And if she does will she be any good at it?

I really wanted to love this book. Full disclosure I’m working on a similar book and so I have a genuine passion for the amazing women that just did not take no for an answer. And let’s be clear, aeroplanes were little more than balsa wood, canvas and wire so anybody flying them was incredible.

But I couldn’t love it, I wanted to connect with the characters but the writing, though not terrible, was not good enough. The characterisations were ok but not absorbing, the plot and storyline were ok, the research was well done and the descriptions of flight were good.  But in the end there were too many information dumps and I almost gave up on it because of that.

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.

Midnight Blue by Simone van der Vlugt

cover99665-mediumIt’s 1654 and twenty-five year old Catrijn has just lost her husband. His death was sudden and they’d not been married very long. She decides this is her chance to see something of the world and leaves her small village. She takes a job as housekeeper to the successful Van Nulandt merchant family.

Her new life is vibrant and exciting. This is the golden age of Amsterdam: commerce, science and art are flourishing and the ships leaving Amsterdam bring back exotic riches from the Far East. Catrijn supports her mistresses desire to paint and in so doing improves her own natural artistic talents. But then an unwelcome figure from her past threatens her new life and she flees to Delft.

There, her painting talent earns her a chance to try out as a pottery painter. An unheard of position for a woman…

This is a wonderful book. It is full of conflict and drama but balanced perfectly with the normalcy of real life. We see Catrijn’s hopes and fears and although her ambitions and talents are extraordinary, she herself is still very down to earth. In fact all of the characters are well drawn and believable.

Catrijn meets Rembrandt in Amsterdam and lives in Delft at the same time as Vermeer and Fabritious. Simone van de Vlugt brings these artists to life brilliantly without letting them take over the story. The artistic heart of the story is with the birth of Delft Blue, the Dutch pottery that rivalled that of the orient.

I definitely recommend this one, great story, interesting characters and I felt I’d learnt quite a bit by the end of 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 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.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

cover103567-mediumThis has to be one of the most charming books I’ve read in the last year! It is a love story, but it is one with a difference. It starts in the early 1900’s when so many unwanted babies are abondoned at the doors of orphanges. Marie and Joseph are two such babies.

The orphange is a harsh place, full of cold, hunger, hard work and beatings. Yet Marie and Joseph, now known as Rose and Perriot, grow in their innocence and bring joy to the orphanage with music and dance. There is something about both of them, an unexpected grace in a world full of ugliness that captures the hearts of everyone who sees them.

Their blossoming love is torn in half when Perriot is sent away to become a gentlemans companion and Rose is sent away to be a governess.

We follow their lives through the roaring twenties, Rose ends up as a gangsters moll, hiring chorus girls and circus acts whilst Perriot floats into drug addiction supported by his prostitute girlfriend. When they meet again their love has not withered and neither has their dream of creating their own unique circus.

But as I mentioned earlier this isn’t your average love story. And although it is wondrously charming it isn’t just light, fluffy, feel good fodder although it would be easy to underestimate it as such. So let me just tell you this book made the long list for the Bailey’s prize!

C7XvOISXQAEY49X.jpg-largeInstead this is a real oyster of a book, taking all the grit of the world and layering wit and wisdom down over and over again until it’s created a pearl to rival La Peregrina.

I quickly realised that this book is sharply feminist, the quote just here stopped me in my tracks and as you can see inspired me to make a meme of it, something I’m not frequently inspired quite enough to do (this book actually inspired me to make 3!)

But it isn’t just feminist, it also faces down poverty, inequality and child abuse too. Not bad for a book about a couple of orphans who fall in love and want to start their own circus! There is also a section of the book which has a parade of clown acts, each one a penumbral view of human truth that we so often close our eyes to.

O’Neill is a queen of imagery, I’ll never be able to looked at red carnations the same way after this sentence …

C7rOvlhWkAAakq4

There are many others just as strong too, and I have to admit that her descriptive powers, combined of course with the storyline, put me in mind of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. So if you liked that, I reckon you’ll like this too.

I have to give this feast of a book 5 Bites, don’t miss this one!

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 Dark Circle by Linda Grant

dark-circleLenny and Miriam are British Jewish twins that grew up in the shadow of The Second World War. But now they’re at the end of their teens and a new decade is beginning. These East End kids have the world in front of them, even if they might need to live on the edge of the law to make a good life for themselve. But then Lenny goes to sign up and it’s discovered that he has tuberculosis. Miriam is examined and she has it too. The pair are sent away to a glamorous sanatorium in Kent at the expense of the brand new NHS.

Life inside the sanatorium is both fascinating and enervating as they make new friends and discover their pasts and personalities while simultaneously succumbing to the ‘cure’ and losing their own. But when Miriam seems in danger of dying a chain of events no one could have foreseen is set in motion.

Linda Grant’s characters are terrific. They’re not perfect but they are full of life. By the end of the first page I knew I wanted to follow them on their journey no matter where it lead. And for the majority of the book I was glad I had. It opened my eyes to the scourge that Tubercolosis was as recently as the 1950’s. It also showed be the birth of the NHS and reminded me just how amazing this national institution of ours is. Instead of dying slow and expensive deaths, Lenny and Miriam were given the chance at happy and successful lives.

The supporting characters were also diverse and well written, giving a microcosmical glimpse of the new worlds of televison, the politics of the day and the attitudes to sex and sexuality.

My only criticism of the book was the end. I know many people want to know what happened to the characters after a book ends but this book follows both of them right to the end of their lives. It really wasn’t necessary nor did it feel that the author had a message to deliver to us readers by sharing the rest of their lives. It’s not awful, just not necessary and takes some of the power out of the story.

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.

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

IMG_2403A woman is pregnant in eighteenth-century Paris, she stops work to give birth by her fish stall in slum market-place. There, amidst the dirt and the stench Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born without any odour of his own, But with a nose that can discern and define any scent at all.

Through sheer force of will he forces his way into an apprenticeship position with a prominent perfumer. He proves his nose can copy the greatest scents and in return he is taught the ancient arts of distillation, effleurage and mixing precious oils and herbs.

But Grenouille’s obsession leads him to experiment with capturing other scents too –  the odours of objects such as brass doorknobs and even of excrement. Then one day he catches a hint of the perfect scent. The scent that invokes love in all who come into contact with it. Grenouille has never been adored. He must capture the scent and create the ultimate perfume with it. No matter the cost…

This book is one of my all time favourites.

Everything about it is brilliant. The concept, the characterisations, the descriptions, the ending. In fact the ending is so good that when I first read it I was coming to the end of it as I arrived at my home train station. I got off the train but I straight away sat down on the platform bench to finish it. There was just no way I could wait the ten minute walk home to read the end of it.

This time I listened to the audio book version of it. I was a little worried beforehand – a bad narrator could have ruined it. But every single second was a joy. In fact being able to listen to it whilst walking or driving through the country with so many scents drifting around may even have improved it!

If you haven’t read this get a copy now. If you have – treat yourself and re-read it! You won’t regret it!

5 very tasty 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.

Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan

imageJonah Williams was born a slave. On his eighteenth birthday he gathers together a few stolen coins and a knife and flees the South Carolina plantation on which he was born.

With just the clothes on his back, not even a pair of shoes, he starts to run. He doesn’t even have a clear idea of where to head, he just knows to go north so he follows the North Star. During the day and running through the night. Somehow he eludes the men sent to capture him, but when he meets Angel in North Carolina she decides that he is her ticket to freedom and follows him without his permission.

This is one of the books I planned to review for Black History Month last October. But when I looked up the author I found he was white and decided to leave the review till later instead. There is a debate around appropriation and as part of thought process around making such a feature of Black History Month was to put deserving black authors into the spotlight it didn’t seem right to promote this book then.

But this is one of those books that has me in a quandry about the appropriation argument. On the one hand I agree that there is very real discrimination in the publishing industry and this needs to be addressed. However, slave stories are not the only stories black people have to tell and I’m equally  disheartened by the lack of chick-lit,business books, crime and sci-fi written by and featuring black people as I am worried about their stories being stolen to make profit for white writers. (To be truthful few writers make a good living off their writing so that point is moot in many cases.

There is also the fact that this story was in my opinion more respectful of those that escaped slavery than Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad which re-imagined the ‘underground railroad’ that helped many slaves escape, as an actual real train running underground. It was a well written and widely lauded book but for me the concept was deeply flawed, particularly as so many Americans are so gullible they’ll happily elect Trump.

I have to admit though that although the writing in this book is perfectly serviceable, it isn’t as good as Whitehead’s. The charachter development, scene setting and story are all better though so overall I would recommend this above Whitehead’s book for those interested in the lives of those slaves who ran to freedom and the trials they endured. For that aspect alone it is also a better read than Roots by Alex Haley, though I’d also recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi as another great read alongside this one.

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.

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

image“There was a new King, and his name was Pestilence. And he had created a new law – Thou shalt do anything to survive”

It’s 1348 and plague has reached the shores of England. Camelot, a scarred peddler of holy relics, usually travels alone. But when he meets Rodrigo and Joffrey, two musicians new to the road after the death of their master, he takes pity on them and agrees they can accompany him to the next town. There they meet a young painter Osmand and his pregnant wife Adela and Camelot bumps into the obnoxious Zophiel, a magician he’s met before who sells glimpses of an embalmed mer-baby. A storm forces them all to travel together and soon they are joined by Cygnus, who has a swan’s wing where one arm should be; Narigorm, a sinister rune-reading albino child with second sight, Pleasance a lonely midwife and a horse called Xanthus.

As they try to outrun the plague, they become aware that they all have secrets they want to keep concealed. But soon they realise that something else is chasing them too, something that won’t just kill them but could expose them too.

I listened to this as an audiobook and before I talk about anything else I have to sing the praises of the narrator. It’s read by a chap called David Thorpe who has narrated over 200 audiobooks and he is brilliant! Every character had a different voice and every single voice sounded like his natural voice. He had to deal with a range of accents and attitudes from a solicitous Italian to supercilious English. Since listening to this I’ve added a whole load of books narrated by this guy to my wish list.

Apart from that I really enjoyed this book, all manner of human fear and desires were explored, the characterisations were excellent and the story had plenty of tension.  It might not be ‘literary’ but it is bloody good! I know I’ll listen to it again, and since listening to this I’ve become a confirmed fan of Karen Maitland’s work, I leapt at the chance to read an advance copy of her new novel The Plague Charmer a little while ago, I also got a bargain copy of The Raven’s Head and I think I might have got BookEater Kelly hooked to if her review of The Gallow’s Curse is anything to go by!

But if I’m honest I’ll probably listen to them all as well – particularly if they’re voiced by David Thorpe!

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 Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

imageAlbert wasn’t only Einstein that was quite bright. His first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, was a brilliant physicist and a strong mathematician and her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century.

This book takes what is known about  her as it’s jumping off point. That she was considered unmarriageable because of her limp, that her father encouraged her to study, that in 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva was the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. That she met and fell in love with  charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein there, that he promised her a bohemian lifestyle with them as equals in love and science. How Albert’s star quickly eclipsed her own regardless of this promise.

It is a fictionalised account, but a well-imagined one particularly when it comes to describing the time and places they lived. I have to be honest, I wasn’t quite so keen on the characterisations, somehow I didn’t feel they were authentic, particularly Mileva’s. Her desperation for love is understandable and I know it makes lunatics out of us all. I went through an emotionally abusive marriage so I even understand how if the most confident of women in an age when sexual equality is at least in site can be flummoxed then it was even more likely before women even had the vote. But she becomes so nuts over Albert so quickly – and it really is all the book is about for far too long. I found myself missing the character I’d first been introduced to.

As their marriage and working partnership decays the Albert Einstein we meet is very different from the man I’d always imagined him to be too. And because this is a fictional account I had problems with this, partly because I didn’t know what was true and what was not. But after I did some of my own research into it I felt even more uncomfortable. The premise and Albert’s character within this book is entirely possible, but there isn’t an awful lot in the way of evidence, by the end it felt like a character assassination. As a feminist I felt doubly uncomfortable- I want to support Mileva but these aren’t her words and may not be her truth. If they’d even been a thorough afterword clarifying what was evidenced, what was extrapolated and what was imagined I would have closed the book with the sense of having learned something, as it was I felt I’d been hoodwinked into jury service.

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.

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

cover75683-mediumTracy Chevalier is well known for her historical novels, Girl with a Pearl Earring was a best seller and made into an incredibly well known movie too. So you might be expecting something similar, after all many authors churn out novel after novel that are reflections of their best known work.

Not this novelist. This is still historical fiction but set as far from the civilisation of the renaissance as you can imagine. It is more recent times, the mid eighteenth century, but Chevalier is exploring the lives of Americans struggling to eke their existence from the land.

Tom and Sadie Goodenough have moved to tthe Black Swamp with their children and if they can manage to get 50 trees to bear fruit the land is theirs permanently. But they’ve only got three years left to do it and last year they lost nine trees and two of their children to swamp fever. Sadie is a vivacious flirt turned bitter and drunk, Tom a quiet, determined man who loves his apples more than his children. Their fights are getting meaner until one day something happens to rent the family apart.

The first part of the story is told first from the perspectives of Sadie and Tom. Then in letters from their son Robert, trying to make his fortune panning for gold, before we hear from his perspective directly as he settles into a new role as a tree collector. The settings, though of deep poverty, are richly described and enveloping as the novel examines what family means, the ties that bind and those that don’t.

It is compelling, the characters surprise you with their depths and determination and it is also a fascinating portrait of 18c America, from the backwaters to the prairies to cities like San Fransico. Amongst the characters are the forebears of the modern day redneck and businessman alike, I felt I had a little better understanding of why America voted Trump in, but also that if most of them had read this book they would have known that the nostalgia trip was not all it’s cracked up to be.

If you enjoyed Barkskins by Annie Proulx or A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale you’ll love this.

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.

Mr Eternity by Aaron Thier

img_2360Two young documentary makers have heard there is an old sailor in Key West who says he is 560 years old. They go to meet him with minds prised open against the cynicism 2016 is steeped in. If they do make a documentary about him, it won’t be mocking – it will be hopeful.

The old sailor, who tells people his name is Daniel Defoe, seems to be in the prime of his life. But if so it’s been a very long prime. Because then we’re introduced to him as the antagonist in a vengeful woman’s tale. He is in South America in 1560 when the Spaniards have destroyed the Aztec and Inca civilizations. Then we meet him again in 1795, a friend of John Green, a man passing for white in the plantations of Bermuda.

But the story of Daniel Defoe doesn’t end there. We meet him again in 2500 in the future Democratic Federation of Mississippi States. A time when the cities of the Atlantic coast are underwater, the union has fallen apart, and cars, plastics, and air conditioning are relegated to history. Then he is an advisor to the King of St. Louis.

Although many things change through the centuries, other things remain constant, and it seems like being on the edge of ruin is one.

This review is probably one of the hardest I’ve written. Not because the book is awful or impossible to figure out when you’re reading it (though I was a little confused at first! Just because it’s somehow really hard to explain. It is a great concept and it’s well executed but I wasn’t quite sure what the message was – was it that the world is always on the edge of extinction so there’s no point worrying about climate change etc. Or was it exactly the opposite? That it really is about tme we stepped back from the edge?

Part of it’s charm is that although Daniel Defoe is always an important character, he’s not the main character in any of the stories. But this is also part of the books failing, we never really know what Daniel thinks.

It is worth reading – but you’ll have to keep your mind open and make it up for yourself!

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 Existence Of Pity by Jeannie Zokan

img_2362Sixteen-year-old Josie Wales is the daughter of Baptist missionaries growing up in Columbia in 1976. Although mostly isolated from the turbulence brewing in the outside world, nothing can protect her from the turbulent times ahead within her own family.

Josie finds herself drawn to the Catholicism of her adopted country, she starts to confide her secrets in their maid instead of in her parents. Just normal secrets, like her new boyfriend but she is to discover that her parents’ have secrets of their own, ones that have the power to destroy their life.

This is one of those deceptive books. It poses a whole bunch of serious moral questions but does so in a voice so young and fresh that a sweet summer breeze seems to be floating around them, whispering to you to relax and take it easy, making it a deceptively easy read.

Not to say there is no action, or conflict, far from it. Josie is battling her entire family in different ways, and she is battling the unnoticed arrogance of the missinary culture. Add to that the danger her brother is determined to court, bringing the violence of Columbia’s mafia to their very door. It is quite startling how the author manges to keep the summery atmosphere going throughout, all to often writers would be tempted to use dark, depressing similes for such events that would have shredded the important physical context of the story.

This book would be a good read for Young Adults and Adults alike. For me with my interest in religions and their affects on the world I found it had a lot to say but yet it never preached. It does have an autobiographical ring to it and I would be interested to see how the author will write other books, this is a strong debut and could be the start of solid career, but I’m a little worried it may be the one book she has in her. I hope not.

4 Bites

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

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

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

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Click to order from Waterstones

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Bites

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

Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Bites

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

Miss Treadaway & The Field Of Stars by Miranda Emmerson

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Click here to order from Waterstones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Bites

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

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

The 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 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.