Archives for book review

#Book review ‘Elmet’ by @FJMoz #contemporary #womens

A powerful book about the nature of family in today’s society, Elmet by Fiona Mozley is also about our relationship with the earth, nature, and existence without the trappings of modern life. Except it is impossible to escape completely. The narrator, fourteen-year-old Daniel Oliver, is walking north in pursuit of an unnamed someone. As Daniel walks on, we see flashbacks to what happened before he set off on his journey. Danny’s life with his sister Cathy is split into two parts: living with Granny Morley beside the seaside where their father and mother are, separately, occasional visitors to the house; then later, living in a wood with Daddy, in a house hand-built, foraging off the land. At the beginning the descriptions of the rural landscape made me think this was a historical setting but Elmet is set today, making the circumstances of the family more disturbing. They live off the land and the money earned bare knuckle fighting by Daddy, John Smythe. They live on the margins; the children are home-schooled, and receive payment in kind [a carton of orange juice from the milkman, chops from the butcher] for favours done. Daniel and Cathy visit a neighbour’s house each morning
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Panic Room

Panic Room by Robert Goddard starts in the voice of someone unnamed, someone who feels safe in a beautiful, calm place, who wants to stay there forever but who knows that is unrealistic. It made me ask so many questions: who is the speaker, where is this safe place and why isn’t it forever? It’s a while before we learn the identity of the first speaker. We are next introduced to Don Challenor, an ordinary middle-aged bloke, an estate agent who has been sacked, who is given a temporary job by his ex- wife Fran. To prepare for sale a multi-million property, Wortalleth West in Cornwall, for a client of Fran’s. Don jumps in his vintage MG to drive west, not realising how his life will change. In the house he sets about his job, taking photos and measurements in order to prepare the sales brochure. Except the dimensions of one room don’t make sense. There is a mystery void. A steel door which cannot be opened. Is it a panic room? Why is it there? What’s in it? Is it dangerous? Could someone be inside, watching? Or are they trapped? Why not simply ask the owner of the house?
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

#Bookreview ‘Love is Blind’ by William Boyd #historical #romance

When a new novel by William Boyd features a male protagonist, my first thought ‘is it another Logan Mountstuart’ with a feeling of anticipation. But Love is Blind is not another version of Any Human Heart. It tells the story of Brodie Moncur, a young Scottish piano tuner who travels Europe as he seeks warmer climes and the love of his life. Boyd is on good form and I raced through Love is Blind, enveloped in Brodie’s end of 19thcentury/early 20thcentury story. Told almost exclusively from Brodie’s viewpoint, plus some of the letters he writes and receives, we see the world and the people he meets through his eyes so, as he falls in with thieves the sense of impending doom increases. He is a likeable, believeable character, son of a fire-and-brimstone alcoholic preacher, living in a time of great change as motor cars appear on the road and the signs of war increase but when consumption kills. The details of Brodie’s piano tuning are fascinating, these skills are the passport to his travels, getting him into and out of trouble, enabling him to earn money wherever he finds himself. When the story starts in 1894 Brodie is a piano tuner
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Ashes of London

1666 and a fire starts in London, soon to devastate the medieval City of London. Watching the flames, a young man notices a boy in a ragged shirt who is standing so close as to risk to his life. When he pulls the boy to safety, he finds it is not a boy but a young woman. She bites him and escapes, though he intends only to help. And so are introduced the two key characters in The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor. But this is not a novel about the Fire of London, rather a political mystery involving murder in the turbulent years following the execution of King Charles I, the English Civil War, the Commonwealth and subsequent Restoration of King Charles II. In the ruins of St Paul’s a body is found, differing from other mortalities for its thumbs tied together behind the man’s back. This is the sign of those who committed Regicide by signing the death warrant of Charles I. Though in hiding, these traitors are still active, lurking in the shadows. The account of London burning is written vividly, so vivid I could imagine myself there, smell the charred timber and smoke. We see
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Our Friends in Berlin

Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony Quinn tells a story of London in World War Two seldom told. It is a spy novel but not a thriller. It focuses on the individuals concerned and has a deceptive pace which means the threats, when they come, are more startling. Jack Hoste is not who he seems to be. He is not a tax inspector; he is not looking for a wife. He is a special agent who tracks down Nazi spies. And at night he is an ARP warden. The juxtaposition of Hoste’s life of secrets is set nicely against that of Amy Strallen who works at the Quartermaine Marriage Bureau. Ordinary life does go on in London during the Luftwaffe bombing and Amy must match clients together, a matter of instinct rather than calculation. In order to be matched with the right person, clients are asked to tell the truth about what they are seeking, truths which may have been disguised or hidden until now. Client requests include ‘a lady with capital preferred’ and ‘not American’. Then one day she meets a new client who seems oddly reluctant to explain what he is looking for. The client is Jack Hoste and
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Lost Letters of William Woolf

I admit to loving the premise of this book when I first heard about it. A Dead Letter Depot where researchers reunite lost letters with senders and recipients. The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen left me wishing for more. It promised to be a novel about letters and mystery and turned into one focussed on a struggling marriage, which was not what I expected. William’s marriage to Clare has gone stale and to avoid confronting what must change, he becomes obsessed by his work at the Dead Letter Depot and in particular the letters from someone called Winter addressed to ‘My Great Love’. In his vulnerable state, William begins to imagine that he may be that person and sets out to find her. Interspersed with this task we see William correctly fulfil his role, taking a lost fossil to the correct museum for example. I switched between liking the character of William with being frustrated at his unrealistic romanticism, and could understand Clare’s frustrations. Ditto, she seemed impatient and too inclined to throw stones in a glasshouse. Clearly they were not communicating, ironic in a book about writing letters, and neither completely held my sympathy. So what
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Nucleus

Summer 1939. Germany has invaded Czechoslovakia. Jews desperate to flee Nazi persecution queue outside embassies in Berlin in the hope of getting a visa, while sending their children on Kindertransport to Britain. In the UK, the IRA’s bombing campaign continues. Scientists in Europe and America are researching atomic fission, and also at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. It is a vulnerable, combustible time. This is the setting for Nucleus by Rory Clements, second in his trilogy of history professor and amateur spy, Tom Wilde. In the first book in the series, Corpus, Tom Wilde was more an amateur detective. In Nucleus, the stakes are higher, war is imminent, spies are everywhere and so are traitors. The problem is, they look like friends. Asked by none other than the US president Franklin D Roosevelt to be a ‘clear and unbiased voice’ for him on research at the Cavendish, Wilde is drawn into a world of American millionaires, a Hollywood actress, champagne, tennis parties and horseracing. And then one of the Cavendish physicists, a withdrawn, complicated genius due to move to the USA to work with Oppenheimer, is found drowned in the River Cam. Was he killed because he had unlocked the
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Jackie Baldwin

Today I’m delighted to welcome Scottish crime writer Jackie Baldwin. Her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. “The book that has never failed to delight and soothe me over the years is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I must have been in my early teens when I first read it and so embarking on a turbulent adolescence of my own alongside those of the March girls. At a girls school and with no brothers, the world of boys was something of a mystery to me too so I loved the character of Laurie and the subtle shifts and turns in his relationships with all the girls over the scope of the novels. “I have had many copies of the book over the years but this one [above] is my favourite as it contains all three books in the series. Part of its enduring appeal for me is the characters who are all just flawed enough to make them endearingly frail and human. My favourite character is Jo who is unruly and tempestuous and rails against the confines of poverty and the expectation that women should conform to the domestic role expected of them rather than pursue any
Read More

Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: Whistle in the Dark

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey begins with an ending; a sixteen-year old girl, lost in the Peak District, has been found and is in hospital with her parents. Healey tells the story of the aftermath as Jen, Lana’s mother, tries desperately to unravel the truth of what happened to her daughter. In the face of Lana’s reluctance to speak, Jen’s desperation evolves into obsession and the story circles into myth, obfuscation and misunderstanding. For the reader, there is a lot to unravel. Told entirely from Jen’s POV, by halfway through I was beginning to question Jen’s state of mind and whether she was an unreliable narrator. There is a lot of smoke and shadows in the telling of this story, interwoven with the crystals of Jen’s friend Grace, the fibs of Lana’s schoolfriend Bethany, the pragmatic questioning and Instagram comments by Jen’s mother Lily, and Jen’s fertile imagination. There were times when it felt a little like being whizzed around in a washing machine. But through it all shines Healey’s ability to draw pictures with words, “The heavy summer foliage that lined the motorway seemed to have taken on its own light, as if the sun had splintered
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Poor Caroline

I can’t help but think this novel would be helped by a better title. Poor Caroline is such a negative sounding title for this, the fourth novel by Yorkshire author Winifred Holtby. From the first page, it is clear this is a fond but sharp satire of the inter-war years showing how the expectations of people can on the surface appear aligned but in reality are self-serving. Caroline Denton-Smyth, honorary secretary of the Christian Cinema Company, works hard in the belief that her company is doing good. But the people on the board of directors each have their own reason for being involved with the company, reasons that are not admitted and which diverge hugely from Caroline’s intentions. One hopes to leverage connections with the chairman to gain entrance for his son to Eton. Another wishes to sell his new type of film. Caroline has so many ideas but little success. At the age of 72 she has no money and is dependent on loans from long-suffering relatives. But she is always hopeful. This is the story of Caroline, her fellow directors, and the Christian Cinema Company. Holtby tells the story of each person in turn so the full picture, and
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Skull Beneath the Skin

A classic closed room whodunit, The Skull Beneath the Skin is the second of only two Cordelia Gray private detective mysteries by PD James. I wonder why she didn’t write more? Gray’s fledgling detective agency is relying on finding missing cats when Sir George Ralston arrives unannounced to request Gray ensure the safety of his actress wife, Clarissa Lisle, at her next performance. Lisle has been receiving threatening letters and worries about freezing on stage. Sir George seems unconvinced of Clarissa’s danger. ‘The job I’m offering is a mixture of functions. You’d be part bodyguard, part private secretary, part investigator and part – well, nursemaid.’ Which sounds unpromising but the job pays well. So Cordelia leaves for Courcy Island, location of an amateur private performance of The Duchess of Malfi in which Lisle will play the starring role. As with all James’ novels, there is a delicious laying of pragmatic fact about those in attendance mixed with literary references and poetry. Of course, Clarissa Lisle is murdered. The police arrive and Cordelia finds herself one of the suspects. There is the usual ragbag of potential murderers. The cuckolded husband; the dying former lover; the pampered stepson; the unsuccessful sister; the silent and
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

Book Review: Days Without End

There is not a word out of place in this harrowing and beautiful tale of love, war, duty and sacrifice. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry deservedly had award success in 2016/2017. I already knew Barry could write about war, having read and loved A Long Long Way set in the Great War. What is different about Days Without End is the relationship between Thomas McNulty and John Cole. Barry tells the epic story of the Indian and Civil wars in America, combined with a heart-stopping tale of love. The story is the first person narrative of Thomas, an Irish émigré fleeing the Irish famine. He arrives in a young America with so many disparate groups, contrasted and never seeming to connect: men, women; officers, foot soldiers; gay, straight; white, black; American, Irish immigrant; army, native Indian; north, south. Barry does not shy from telling the reality of the American wars, the brutality, the atrocities of army against Indians and vice versa; but also the comradeship and solidity of men fighting alongside each other. There is betrayal on both sides, brutality on both sides, and soldiers hating and turning on each other. At the core of this though is the story
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Fiona Morgan

Today I’m delighted to welcome thriller novelist Fiona Morgan. Her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is The Client by John Grisham. “The book I have picked for Porridge and Cream is The Client by John Grisham.  I first read this book in 1995 whilst studying my higher English.  I had tried other books, but none were catching me, so much so I can’t even remember what ones I tried.  My aunt recommended John Grisham, so I bought The Client and loved it, from then on I was hooked. “When I feel I haven’t had a book grab me in a while, or if I’m in a reading slump, I turn to this book, which is normally about once a year or more if I need it.  One thing that draws me back to the book is the emotions in the book and how they have changed as I grew.  What I take from the book and how I relate to the characters has changed over the years, it is a brand new book every time I read it. When I first read it I identified with Mark, the main character, but as now that I have my own family I identify with
Read More

Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: The Last of the Greenwoods

Clare Morrall is so good at writing about people on the margins. In The Last of the Greenwoods, Johnny and Nick Greenwood are estranged brothers who live separately in two abandoned, adjacent railway carriages; with shared kitchen and bathroom. They are adept at avoiding each other. Nick lives in Aphrodite on the right, Johnny in Demeter on the left. Aphrodite has horizontal blinds at the windows, open at a slant so someone inside can look out but no-one outside can see in. Demeter’s windows are unknowable with permanently drawn curtains. The carriages sit amidst trees and shrubs, hidden from the main road in Bromsgrove, West Midlands. They have been the brother’s world since they were boys. Until one day, into the lives of these emotionally separated but geographically close brothers comes a letter which reignites haunted memories. “The floor is vibrating under his feet, there’s a sensation of motion, as if the train has started to move. What’s happening? Is he slipping backwards, losing his place in the present and tumbling back to the past? How can this be?” The letter is from their older sister, Debs; the sister who was murdered when the boys were children. As the brothers
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Simon Fairfax

Today I’m delighted to welcome spy novelist Simon Fairfax. His ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is Heller with a Gun by Louis L’Amour. “The book is called Heller with a Gun by Louis L’Amour. His books number 192 and 46 were made into films. “I first read it when I was about fifteen. I have always loved westerns, but this is probably the best western I have ever read. I bought it because I like the author’s style and stories. He is above all a great storyteller. I bought it in the winter and thoroughly enjoyed it. It has a great sense of ‘place’ with writing truly evocative of a cold, frozen climate. I read it every winter and never tire of it. It would in reality be strange to read it in the summer. “The lead is a great character and typifies a dying breed, with strong values, pitting himself against the wilderness and evil. Living by a code of honour that will one day fade as he inevitably will. The writing style is perfect and you can imagine exactly all the circumstances and places that the book takes you to. Everything he writes about exists and he inspired me to adopt the same
Read More

Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: Separated from the Sea

About love, loss, partings and freedom. About yearning for a connection with another person but sometimes recognising it is better to walk away. Separated from the Sea by Amanda Huggins is a collection of poignant stories that cannot fail to touch you. Some of the stories spoke to me personally because of the Yorkshire settings, but locations range from Japan to America and Europe. Huggins has mastered the form; just enough detail, just enough emotion to pull you in and a well-disguised twist at the end. I have chosen three stories to focus on. In ‘Whatever Speed She Dared’ a woman drives on an empty motorway across the Pennines in the dark of night. She is tempted by what lies ahead, a new future. But an encounter with a skittish rabbit gives her pause for thought. In ‘Sea Glass’ two children walk on the beach. Alife tells Cathy that pieces of blue sea glass are the souls of fishermen lost at sea. Another two pieces, he says, are the eyes of ships’ cats swept overboard. ‘If you match a pair of eyes, and sleep with them under your pillow, then the cat’ll find his way back to land.’ A melancholic longing
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

Book review: White Chrysanthemum

It’s not often that I find myself using the words ‘delightful’ and ‘harrowing’ in the same book review, but here they are. White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht is the harrowing story of two Korean sisters separated during World War Two; one snatched to become a ‘comfort woman’ for Japanese soldiers, the other saved by her older sister’s actions. It is difficult to read of the violence, the arrogance, the misuse of power and the humiliation of this piece of war history – still being publicised and discussed – but this is leavened by the magical water sequences. Sixteen-year old Hana is a haenyeo, a female diver of the sea, she is taught by her mother, in the family tradition, to dive deep, hold her breath and withstand the cold. When she is abused, she retreats to her memories. She is a tough cookie. One day, she and her mother are diving, their father is away fishing, and her younger sister Emiko sits on the beach, guarding the buckets that contain their day’s catch from interested seagulls; then Japanese soldiers arrive. Desperate to stop them taking her sister to a life of captivity, Hana races out of the water and
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Cursed Wife

London 1590. The Cursed Wife by Pamela Hartshorne starts with two un-named women in a room; one alive, one dead. And then follows the story of two women who meet as children, Cat and Mary, mistress and maid. Page by twisting page the story of Cat and Mary unfolds as, you can’t help but wonder, which one dies and which lives. Mistress Mary Thorne sometimes forgets she is cursed. It is 1590 and she steps out into the rain to buy herbs for an ill maid, little knowing her life will be changed. Two stories are told in parallel; from 1562 when the two girls first meet, and 1590 when their paths cross again in London. There is a tug of power between the two as fortunes rise and fall; Cat is envious of what Mary has, while Mary feels guilt at every small slight she has made in her life. In 1562, Mary is a gentleman’s daughter; orphaned by sickness, she is put into a cart to be taken to the house of a distant cousin where she has been offered shelter. Her solace is Peg, the small wooden doll given to her by her father. When a mob
Read More

Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Julie Christine Johnson

Today I’m delighted to welcome novelist Julie Christine Johnson. Her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. “Several years ago I created an annual tradition for myself: in December, as the light fades earlier each day and I retreat from the expectations and demands of modern commercial holidays, longing only for the renewal of Solstice, I soothe my tired and cold spirit with a reread of a work by one of my most treasured authors, Jane Austen. Her six completed novels — Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion — form a canon of comfort and delight on my bookshelves. Among all these timeless treasures, it is that charming and soulful comedy of manners, Pride and Prejudice, I most anticipate. Truthfully, I rotate it in every couple of years. Each time I read the opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” my entire being relaxes into a smile of familiarity and joy. Pride and Prejudice is the story of intelligent, independent Elizabeth Bennet, the eldest daughter of five in a family of modest
Read More

Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: Odds Against

Odds Against by Bruce Harris is not an ordinary collection of short stories. All have been shortlisted for prizes. All feature characters fighting ‘against the odds’. The theme is personal: all money raised by sales of the book is to be donated to the UK’s Huntington Disease Association. For Harris, whose partner suffers from the disease, the battle against the odds is personal. The stories are divided into three sections so, rather than review each story, I have chosen one from each. The first third of stories feature women. In ‘Devil’s Evening’, Iana from Moldova is trapped beneath a bed. Asleep on the mattress is her captor, a bulky, boozy man who uses and abuses her. Desperate to flee, she remembers her mother and grandmother and hears their words of advice. ‘Then it was Mama again, telling her to use the opportunity, not squander it in meaningless gesture.’ A tale of modern-day slavery and what it means to escape. In the section titled ‘Men’, ‘One Man’s Paradise’ tells the story of the captain of a patrol boat off the Italian island of Lampedusa, destination of refugees. As they approach a boat of refugees, a boat with dead and alive aboard,
Read More

Categories: Book Love.