Carnivalesque by Neil Jordan

img_2365Andy is just at that stage of teenage hood when you drift away from your parents when the carnival comes to his small Irish town.

Though Andy has never been quite like other boys, and he ends up visiting the carnival with his parents. But then he slips into the Hall of Mirrors without them. He is fascinated by the many selves staring back at him. Sometime later, one of those selves walks out rejoins his parents, he knows they will be leaving without him. Leaving him trapped inside the glass.

Mona, an aerial artist who seems unbound by the laws of gravity, snatches him out of the mirror and introduces him to timeless world of the carnival.

And now the two boys are in the world meaning an ancient power has been released…

This book is so far up my cul-de-sac it’s ridiculous… if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know I’m powerfully attracted to books with carnivals or circuses in! I blame it on being part of that Cirque Du Soliel generation!

But did it deliver? Well. in most categories that is a resounding yes. But in one it’s a tragic no.

The concept and the story itself are both excellent. How the hall of mirrors came to have its power is brilliant and beautifully executed. The characters are honest and the portrayal of the feelings they all had around the normal separation of child and parent was stunningly good. It added a strong element of literary fiction that elevated the entire book.

The language in the book is beautiful, I learnt words I don’t recall hearing before but in such a way as they added to the narrative instead of interrupting it. And a few of my favourite little-used words were in there too.

So what was wrong with it?

Just one thing, I was three quarters of the way through it and I felt like I was still in the first quarter. That’s not a bad thing but it was a worry, I suddenly thought to myself ‘how on earth is this going to get to wherever it’s going with so few pages left?’ Well it got there by slipping too far into telling not showing. The climax of the story was definitely an anti-climax given that the loser of a fight to the death was announced at the start of the fight.

I’m not sure if the author lost confidence or his editors/publishers urged him to cut it short but I’d just like to say Neil Jordan, if you read this please know that you had me in the palm of your hands, you could have spun it out further, I would have happily gone along on that ride!

Still worth 4 Bites … but I know this author is capable of more!

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.

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

image“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

Tokyo teenager Nao (pronounced now) has been having an awful time. She’s being bullied, her mum has recovered from a breakdown but is now always working and her father is suicidal.

She decides to end it all too. But before she does she wants to record the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. This turns into more of a diary, a diary that is washed up in a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the shore of an island off the coast of Canada. It is found by Ruth, a novelist struggling with her next novel who allows herself to be pulled into Nao’s past.

I listened to this on audiobook, it was read by the author and I was drawn in by her voice straight away. It begins with Nao introducing her diary and it’s impossible not to like Nao. She talks with such innocent enthusiasm yet manages to cover topics from Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ to the difference between school culture in Japan and America in pretty much one breath. Ruth is a more closed character, her life has it’s own troubles but she’s still engaging and I found myself warming to her too.

This book explores huge themes, the value of life and death and suicide, how to support or destroy people and the quantum power of readers.

It is one of my favourite books this year and when I finished it I added all the authors books to my wish list. In fact I even added the hard back version of this, although I loved listening to it I understand that the book has some illustrations etc that would make reading it a different experience to listening to it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

5 Bites and I’m ready for seconds!

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.

Midwinter by Fiona Melrose

MidwinterOne harsh winter night Vale finally argues with his father about the horrible death of his beloved mother years earlier in another land. His father Landyn blackens his eye before he even realises what he’s done setting off a catastrophic chain of events.

As winter keeps the skies dark over this pair of Suffolk farmers they struggle to keep going both financially and emotionally. Each of them running from pain – one into the solace of the land and his dog, the other into anger, stupid decisions and recriminations.

Full disclosure – I know the author of this book personally, she kindly did some dog training with my family and she led a writer’s workshop for a while that my child attended, so I was both very eager and very nervous to review this. As you know if you’ve been reading our reviews for a while we also write honest reviews even when we get free copies (like this time) and even when we know the author. Gulp!

But thankfully I need not worry about offending her with a bad review and having to leave the county she paints so beautifully. This is a heart-tearingly good novel.

It falls completely into the ‘literary fiction’ genre so if action / adventure or scandi crime is your thing this won’t fit the bill, but with it’s bleakness and insight into the male psyche it might be something you want to try anyway. There is a feeling of tension that builds within the story so you won’t miss too much nail-nibbling!

The characterisations are haunting, these are men like men you know. And their problems are ones you will recognise, maybe you’ve even shared some of them.  As it’s told in 1st person from both the father’s and the son’s side it’s impossible not to care about them. Interestingly, when you are looking at each of them from the other’s perspective they still remain true in their mannerisms and language, so although they are at odds the narrative never is. That takes talent and attention to detail.

Personally I was charmed by the dialogue which was true to Suffolk in both language and speech patterns. It showed real respect for the characters and the place which is rare when the characters are farmers and less than rich. The settings are beautifully written too  with flashbacks to the family’s time in Zambia providing a colouful counterpoint to the muted tones of an English winter.

It’s not a long book, but it’s not rushed either. Perfect for a Sunday afternoon in front of a winters fire.

5 Bites

 

 

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

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

swing-timeTwo young girls attend Miss Isobel’s dance class in Kilburn in the 80’s. They are drawn to each other by their physical similarities being the only 2 brown girls in the class.

But the girls have their differences as well as their similarities, Tracey, is a talented dancer, lives with her white mother while fantasisng that her black father is a back-up dancer for Michael Jackson instead of in jail. Our narrator can sing but has flat feet and is overshadowed by her political black mother and ultra-supportive white father.  As their friendship grows it gets more and more complicated before they start to drift apart. Then Tracey does something that our narrator decides is unforgiveable. Their friendship is over, but she can’t ever quite forget Traey, not even when she lands a glamorous job or later when she is helping build a school in West Africa.

I loved the first half of this book. Smith’s portrait of the girl’s lives and friendship is exceptional. The narrator is very perceptive and seeing Tracey, and all the other character’s that populate her life, is a vibrant and vivid  experience.  London in the late 80’s and 90’s was my town and I can confirm that Smith sums up the city I loved so much and the people in it perfectly.

But the narrator has a blind-spot, it’s not an uncommon one, she can’t seem to see herself. She is perpetually shocked every time anyone suggests to her that life isn’t all about her. It’s forgivable when she’s younger but by the time she’s in her 30’s I started to find her exasperating. When I finally found out what Tracey’s ‘crime’ had been I lost all respect for her. I could understand how it might have upset her at the time, but to be holding a grudge for that long wasn’t something I could sympathise with. People do get stuck and fail to grow up, but this didn’t seem to me to be an adequate trauma for that.  Therefore by the end of the book, when the one last chance I gave the character to come to her senses failed to materialise, I finished it feeling short-changed.

I know it’s not the novelists job to give us neat resolutions all the time and this did provoke me so I can’t say it was bad, but there was just that spark of inauthenticity in the second half and for me it burned the book down.

3 Bites

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

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gradual by Christopher Priest

cover88297-mediumChristopher Priest is apparently one of the UK’s greatest writers – on the cover just there you can see that the Sunday Times considers him a ‘Novelist of Distinction’! I’d never heard of him before this book let alone read him. When I looked him up when I was about halfway through this I found he’d written over 15 books including one which was turned into the award winning film The Prestige. It just goes to show how easy it is to miss even best- selling authors!

Anyway this book is starts in a country called Glaund, a cold and controlled country locked in a permanent war. It follows the life of Alesandro Sussken, a composer whose older brother is sent off to fight, leaving his family bereft.

Alesandro is inspired by the Dream Archipelago, a string of islands that no one can map or explain.  He creates symphonies named for them, a somewhat subversive act as  all knowledge of the  islands is forbidden by the junta. Then he is invited on a cultural tour of them, an opportunity too good to miss but one that will not only change his perceptions of his country, but will lead to him losing years of his life too.

This book is written in first person, so Alesandro is telling us his story directly. It feels like he is telling it at a bit of a distance, not as if he’s overthe pain of his brother leaving and never coming back, more as if he’s perpetually distracting himself from it. Often this muffling of the main characters pain would make a book less exciting and harder for the reader to connect to, but in this case it reflects the dream-like quality of the mysterious islands.

This was an interesting read, it plays with time and travel in an unusual way, what made this really special though was the music, I’m no musician but like most people I recognise its expressive power. This book pays homage to that.

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 Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

cover78254-mediumIt was love at first sight – I saw a whole display of this book in Waterstones window and I knew I had to have it! Of course that first glimpse was all about me not the book … I was waiting to go on holiday to France by train and here was a book about reading on a train in France!

Guylain Vignolles lies to his mother about his life. She thinks he works in publishing but in fact he works at a book pulping factory, a hell for a man that loves reading. Every morning on the train he indulges his main pleasure in life . . . he reads aloud from pages he saved the previous day from the jaws of the monstrous pulping machine.

Then, as getting off the train one day he finds a USB stick with the diary of a lonely young woman, Julie. He falls in love with her words and so begins a new quest for him, to find her.

I saved this book to read on the train on the way back from the south of France – then I almost suffered a disaster when my iPad wouldn’t charge! Luckily it was a short read and I finished it just minutes before my iPad died! The credit for that goes to the author though, not for the length of the book but the vibrancy that kept me reading even though I’d had next to no sleep and I was in a rocking carriage!

Guylain seems a man who is barely living, yet he is a man of exquisite taste in people. His two best friends are two of the most intriguing people I’ve ever met in the pages of a book, and they define him absolutely. Then Julie’s diary begins and her way of thinking and use of language is quite beguiling.

This is a lovely read whether you are on holiday or on your weekday commute. It surprised me, I thought I’d enjoy it as an easy, uplifting  holiday read but the characters make it more than that.

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.

Shelter by Jung Yun

imageKyung Cho, a second generation Korean immigrant and his American wife Gillian live far beyond their means. Their lifestyle, and Kyung’s career is semi-supported by Kyung’s parents, Jin and Mae. But though they’ve given Kyung a privileged upbringing they never gave him love.

His father would beat his mother and she would beat Kyung.

Now he can hardly bear to see his parents, and resents the help they have given him. But when a shocking act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own he feels obliged to take them in. Suddenly he is forced to confront his past and his present.

This is a real nail-biter of a book, it may sound like a family drama or domestic noir but it goes further than that. There’s a real crime to be recovered from and solved, as well as an in-depth examination of the tensions of  being a second generation immigrant and clashing with your families culture and religion yet not quite fitting in with your own countries culture either.

I felt sorry for Kyung, but I also felt sorry for his wife Gillian and I could understand his parents. All of them mess up and make mistakes which hurt each other. This book looks at crime and punishment in all it’s forms and asks when rehabilitation is possible and what it takes to be forgiven both by society and those we hold dear.

4 Bites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Bites

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

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

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher

5199g2QmCJL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_It is 1889 and the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole, home to the mentally ill, has a new patient. A passionate artist with copper-red  hair but only half an ear.

The warden of the hospital has rules for his wife to keep her safe from the patients. She must never stray from their little white cottage next door into the grounds without him by her side. But tales of this man’s odd mixture of insanity and self-awareness are too intriguing for Jeanne Trabuc to resist. Especially when she has nothing else to occupy her, her children are grown and her only friend gone.

She climbs over the hospital wall, watches him while he paints in the heat of the day, and starts a relationship that will change her life.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is the perfect holiday read. It winds it way gently through the inner workings of Jeanne Trabuc’s life in Provence while letting you feel the heat on her skin, hear the buzz of the bees and taste the sweet honey that only such a verdant blanket of land can produce.

It lulls you to doze but gives you the wisest dreams. I was drawn back to this hypnotic read every spare second I had. To be completely frank this has very little action, if you like high octane thrillers or chilling ghost stories this probably wouldn’t do it for you. But if you want to really get to know what makes a character tick, and you want to feel like you are living in the country in the summer, then this is perfect!

It’s real message is how love and life can change over time, and Susan Fletcher writes this exquisitely.  5 Bites

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

 

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

The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Nam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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