Monthly Archives January 2017

Book review: The Bear and the Nightingale

An entrancing, bewildering debut. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is heavily-influenced by Russian fairytales and steeped in winter. Snow, ice and frost are the everyday reality for the Vladimirovich family in medieval northern Russia where winter lasts many months of the year. It is a land of legend, folklore and fairytales where the people pay homage to the gods of the forest. This is the story of Vasya, a wild child who sees the gods of the forests and the spirits of the house. Then one day a priest arrives from the city to challenge the superstitions and traditions of the country folk. It is a story of winter/summer, girl/boy, countryside/city but most of all, old magic versus the church. Is Vasya a free spirit, or is she a witch? Is her behaviour refreshing and engaging, or wicked? She alone can talk to the horses which teach her to ride like a Steppe boy, exhilarating and dashing but inappropriate for a young girl. The only other person who can see the demons is Anna, Vasya’s stepmother, but whereas Vasya understands the demons, Anna fears them. She begs the priest, Father Konstantin, for prayers to banish them. But
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Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Tracey Sinclair

Today I’m delighted to welcome vampire novelist Tracey Sinclair. “First, a disclaimer: my usual comfort read is generally Terry Pratchett, whose novels I regularly turn to if I’m feeling low or just want a bit of a ‘palette cleanse’ between reads – I’m a big fan of the humanity, humour and decency in his books and they invariably boost my mood. But Rhoda Baxter beat me to that! So I’m going with another choice: Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos – a book I love so much I named one of my characters after the author. I studied it at university in the 90s (it’s one of the few books I’ve read in French and English, back when I was capable of reading more than a menu in French!). The edition I prefer is the Penguin Classic, translated by PWK Stone. I probably go back to it every couple of years, more if I’m prompted by seeing the film on TV. I usually give myself long enough to forget the intricacies of the plot (which is far more complicated and satisfying than the movie) so I can enjoy its richness again. It’s a book to read when I want to be amused and
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Categories: Book Love, On Writing and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: Little Deaths

This is another of those novels which is an uncomfortable read. What kept me reading? The characters. I wanted to know what really happened. But of course this is fiction and characters don’t always tell the truth, only their version of the truth. Little Deaths by Emma Flint is an accomplished debut, as I read I could tell she had got under the skin of her characters. There is an intriguing set-up, we first hear Ruth’s voice. She is in prison. We don’t know why, but she compares her life now with her life before. When she was a single mum with two small children. As I read, I felt a shiver down my back: where are her children now? Starting the story with Ruth in prison surely gives away the ending, doesn’t it? Not really. This is a nuanced tale of trial by jury in 1960s America [though until the Sixties were mentioned, it seemed to be set in a curiously non-time specific period] where prejudices about women could wrongly influence outcomes, where social pre-conceptions coloured witness statements, and hearsay evidence seemed admissible if the accused was disliked. It is a tale of presumed guilt, and it should make
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Photographer’s Wife

The smell & heat of Jerusalem rises off the page. Suzanne Joinson has travelled to, lived in and worked in a number of Middle East countries and this shows in her fiction. Here, she creates a Jerusalem so vivid you can feel it on your skin. This is the story of an eleven year old girl, Prue, as she grows up in 1920s Jerusalem with an absent mother and a father who lets her run wild, and the people she encounters. As a child she observes much, lurking in the shadows at her father’s parties. The political tensions swirl as the country recovers from the Great War and the next is anticipated. Prue’s father, a city architect, employs a British pilot to overfly the area and provide him with reconnaissance photographs. In Jerusalem, the pilot Willie finds Eleanora, the girl he loved and lost in Britain before the Great War. Now his body bears the burn scars of his war, while she lives in Jerusalem and is married to an Arab photographer. So there are political tensions and romantic tensions, both underpinned by the use of photography to reveal or conceal the truth. In the second strand of the story,
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Categories: Book Love.

First Edition: Pride and Prejudice

I can’t remember the first time I read Pride and Prejudice. I read Emma at the age of 17 as part of my English Literature syllabus, my battered copy is dated August 1977 when I was 16. My copy of Pride and Prejudice [below] is dated January 1980 and was bought in my first year at university. The story Is this the most well-known story? Young woman meets young man, each dislikes the other on sight and are therefore destined to fall in love. But along the way, Jane Austen offers us a study of manners, a humorous portrait of a family of girls who have no fortune of their own and therefore must make a fortunate match. The first sentence is one of the most quoted: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ But this is so much more than a romance. The film For me, the best dramatic version of the book is the UK television series, broadcast in 1995 [below]. Featuring a young Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, it is famous for its ‘wet shirt’ scene. I prefer Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Lost Ancestor

When forensic genealogist Morton Farrier is asked by a dying client to find out what happened to his great aunt, who disappeared in 1911, Morton doesn’t expect to find his own life threatened. The Lost Ancestor by Nathan Dylan Goodwin is a moreish combination of mystery, history about the pre-Great War period, and family history research. If you like Downton Abbey, you will identify with the 1911 sections about Morton’s great aunt Mary Mercer. In an effort to escape her rough, unemployed father and unpleasant mother, Mary takes a job as third housemaid at Blackfriars, a great house at Winchelsea in East Sussex. Little does she realize the love and heartache she finds there will shape her life. A dreamer who imagines she is the lady of the house, Mary has a rude awakening on her first day at work. She had no idea what the job of a chambermaid entailed. But the presence of her cousin Edward makes life easier to bear. When her parents fall ill, Mary gives them all her wages and so loses her chances of escaping to a better life. Goodwin knows the Winchelsea and Rye area so well that I immediately felt I was
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Categories: Book Love.

Great Opening Paragraph 93… ‘Death in Summer’ #amwriting #FirstPara

“After the funeral the hiatus that tragedy brought takes a different form. The suddenness of the death has gone, irrelevant now. Thaddeus has stood and knelt in the church of St Nicholas, has heard his wife called good, the word he himself gave to a clergyman he has known all his life. People were present in the church who were strangers to him, who afterwards, in the house, introduced themselves as a few of Letitia’s friends from the time before he knew her. ‘And where is Letitia now?’ an undertaker a week ago inquired, confusing Thaddeus, who for a moment wondered if the man knew why he had been summoned. ‘It’s Letitia who has died,’ he said, and answered, when the man explained, that Letitia was in the mortuary, where she’d been taken.” ‘Death in Summer’ by William Trevor Amazon Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:- ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ by Carson McCullers  ‘Astonishing Splashes of Colour’ by Clare Morrall  ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ by Thomas Pynchon  And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet: DEATH IN SUMMER by William Trevor #books via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1Vz
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Categories: Book Love and On Writing.

Book review: The Roundabout Man

A clever and involved story by Clare Morrall about a man, his real mother, father and triplet sisters, and the seemingly identical fictional family created by his author mother in her popular series The Triplets and Quinn. It is a gentle story which reels you in. At the age of 60 Quinn is living in a caravan parked in the middle of a wooded roundabout. He enjoys the quiet and the solitude. He forages for items to reuse, and scavenges for leftover food at the nearby Primrose Valley service station. We learn he fled the family home, The Cedars, the setting for The Triplets and Quinn series, after spending his adult years there caring for his eccentric widowed mother and showing fans of her stories around the house. The real story of this family has been subsumed by his mother’s fiction, easy answers to inquisitive fans who spout fiction as if it is reality, and his unwillingness to face up to unpalatable truths. As real life and his mother’s fiction merge in Quinn’s head, it is a while before Quinn (and we) start to piece together the real story. Meanwhile real life intrudes at the roundabout and Quinn is forced
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: At the Edge of the Orchard

Tracy Chevalier is a ‘must buy’ author for me and At the Edge of the Orchard does not disappoint. It is a story about roots – of family and trees – about the pioneers who populated built America’s mid-west and west coast, battling swamp and mountains. Most importantly it is about apples. The scent of the fruit imbues every page. But this is not a romantic story. The Goodenough family live an at-times brutal life as they try to establish an apple orchard in Ohio’s Black Swamp in 1838. Love them or hate them, the apples affect the direction of their lives. The story started slowly for me as we hear the family’s daily life told by mother Sadie and father James. The two are so antagonistic that you wonder how they ever married. They battle the elements, each other and Sadie’s need for applejack, to put food in the mouths of their surviving children. In winter they wade through mud, in summer they battle swamp fever. Sadie is an almost completely unsympathetic character, hiding in a bottle while her husband hides with his apples. The children, if they survive, are adults before their time. The story really took off for me
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Categories: Book Love.

How Rose Tremain writes

Rose Tremain “The people who dismiss the idea of plot and character, who think you can dispense with them, I’d really suggest they find out how difficult it is. It just doesn’t happen. One of the seductive things of the novel is that you are borne along by it. What bears you along is the ‘what happens?’ Is the character going to be lost or saved? Happy or unhappy? All those human things we think about in our lives. If you’re not setting up jeopardy, if you’re not setting up conflict, love, humour you [will not] be borne along.” [in an interview with ‘The Times’, May 23, 2016] I agree wholeheartedly with Rose Tremain about the necessity of plot and character and have no love of experimental novels. A novel without plot and character is like a skeleton without a spine. A novel is, presumably, written to be read, to be enjoyed, to be re-read and recommended eagerly to friends. For this to happen the readers must care about your protagonist. If the reader doesn’t care, isn’t interested in the person – why he or she is as they are, what happens to them, why they take the decisions they
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Categories: On Writing.

Book review: Serious Sweet

I wasn’t sure if I just didn’t click with this angry experimental novel, if I missed its subtlety, or whether it just needed a serious edit. Serious Sweet by AL Kennedy is about one day in the lives of two troubled Londoners, Jon and Meg. The set-up is intriguing. First we are shown a family on a Tube train, the baby daughter is scarred, the family Arabic in appearance. Next we meet Jon, a civil servant. Pages are dedicated to his rescuing of a baby blackbird tangled in twine. At first, I was touched by the delicacy of his situation and the anxiety of the hovering mother blackbird. Then I became bored with Jon’s internal monologue. Thirdly, we go with Meg to an undefined gynaecological appointment. More internal monologue. The timeline is confusing. Everything supposedly takes place in the course of one day but there is so much remembering of past events by Jon and Meg, separated by short scenes of seeming unrelated people, at times I lost the will to read on. Why did I? Because it is AL Kennedy and I loved her edition of short stories, All the Rage, so I was prepared to stick with it.
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Categories: Book Love.

Author Interview: Caroline James

The inspiration for So You Think You’re A Celebrity…Chef? by Caroline James was food, food and the television chef Keith Floyd. But having the inspiration is all well and good, turning ideas and research into a novel is a different. Here Caroline James explains how her research became the book. “I’ve spent my working life in the hospitality industry and have visited many food festivals both at home and abroad. One event that always stood out is the Annual Gourmet Food Festival in Kinsale, Southern Ireland. The TV chef Keith Floyd was a great inspiration to me and I knew that having been invited to the four-day gathering he made his home in this pretty little town and spent many years there. A period that he describes in his autobiography as the happiest of his life. I wanted to find out why Floyd took Kinsale to his heart and I was so taken with the charm of this pretty fishing port that the idea for my novel, So You Think You’re A Celebrity…Chef? was born. Located only sixteen miles south of Cork, on the south-east coast of Ireland, Kinsale is a picturesque and historic town. Hailed as the Gourmet Capital of
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Categories: On Researching and On Writing.

Book review: Good Me Bad Me

Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land is a difficult book to review without giving anything away. It is compulsive, difficult reading, and though I raced through it I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it. Teenager Annie is living with a foster family whilst waiting to give evidence at her mother’s trial. Her mother is accused of being a serial killer of children, Annie turned her in to the police. As she waits for the trial, Annie [now called Milly] is coached by her foster father on how to handle being in court and giving evidence under cross-examination. For Milly, there is no escaping her horrible childhood. As Mike tells her, the only way out is through. But Milly isn’t telling Mike everything. Milly’s identity is secret, her name false, her reason for being fostered is fabricated. In this world of officially-approved lies, Milly must face her memories of what happened: what is real, and not-real. What did her mother really do? What did Milly do? At times of stress – and there are many as she fits into a foster family with an unwelcoming teenage daughter – Milly hears the voice of her mother in her head, encouraging her
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Categories: Book Love.