Archives for fiction

Book review: Offshore

This is a slim, powerful novel about a small community of people living on houseboats on the River Thames at Battersea Reach in 1960s London. Anchored on the southern shore, next to the warehouses, brewery and rubbish disposal centre, they long to be positioned on the prosperous Chelsea shore opposite. In Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald draws you into the world of Dreadnought, Grace, Maurice, Lord Jim and Rochester – those are the boats – and their occupants. They live in close, intimate proximity as the boats are tied to each other, only one is fastened to the wharf. Despite this, each person lives in an individual island of loneliness caused by marriage, poverty, sexuality, or just being different. Their lives are governed by tidal movement. ‘On every barge on the Reach a very faint ominous tap, no louder than the door of a cupboard shutting, would be followed by louder ones from every strake, timber and weatherboard, a fusillade of thunderous creaking, and even groans that seemed human. The crazy old vessels, riding high in the water without cargo, awaited their owner’s return.’ The people are inter-dependent but don’t know it until a crisis happens. The catalyst is Nenna, a young
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: In the Midst of Winter

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende is the story of three ordinary-looking people, people you would not glance at if you passed by them in the street, and their extra-ordinary lives. Each has faced loss and trauma, each feels isolated, lonely. Laced throughout this deceptive novel are themes of dislocation, grief, human trafficking and the courage to free oneself of these bonds. Set in modern-day Brooklyn and Guatemala, and 1970s Chile and Brazil, it is the story of people relocated thousands of miles away from family to new countries with strange languages and customs where against the odds they must begin a new life. Richard, Lucia and Evelyn are thrown together in Brooklyn, New York, during a momentous snowstorm. Evelyn, a young illegal immigrant from Guatemala, borrows her employer’s car and in the storm crashes into Richard. Richard is in his sixties, a loner, aesthete and reformed alcoholic, he lives his life according to routine. But when the car crash upsets his rigid ordered life, he is forced to halt his almost OCD existence and do unpredictable, often rash, things. When Evelyn turns up on his doorstep, hours after the crash, he is unable to understand her Spanish
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

From the first sentence I was entranced. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne starts with such an opening sentence, full of conflict, hypocrisy, resentment and hope, it made me want to gobble up the pages and not put the book down. I wasn’t disappointed. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is the life story of one man, Cyril Avery, but also of a country and its attitudes to sexuality. The story starts in Goleen, Ireland, in 1945; a country riven by loyalty to, and hatred of, the British, at the same time in thrall to its Catholic priests whose rules were hypocritical, illogical and cruel. Cyril narrates his story, starting with how his 16-year old mother was denounced in church by the family priest for being single and pregnant. She was thrown out of church and village by the priest and disowned by her family. On the train to Dublin she meets a teenager, Sean, also heading for the big city. Wanting to help someone so obviously alone, Sean offers to let Catherine stay at his digs until she finds lodging and a job. These first friends she make are some of the most important in her life, and re-appear at
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Blow Your House Down

The words that immediately come to mind after finishing Blow Your House Down by Pat Barker are negative: unflinching, bleak, dark and depressing. This is a dark story of the women preyed upon by a killer, women living on the edge, surviving by selling their bodies to men at a time when prostitutes are being murdered. But other words also came to mind as I dwelled on the book afterwards: friendship, community, solidarity, defiance, vulnerability, strength. Slim, I read it in one sitting on a rainy afternoon, this is a powerful, compelling read. It pulls you into the women’s stories, makes you feel at one with them. Blow Your House Down is set in a Northern Town in the 1980s. The timing and setting draw inevitable links with the Yorkshire Ripper who preyed on prostitutes and lone women in the north and was arrested and convicted in 1981. Frightened but driven by the need for rent money or to feed their children, the women continue to walk the streets as the face of one of their own, Kath, the killer’s latest victim, looks down at them from a giant poster. The detail of their ordinary lives is described, starting with
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Gustav Sonata

This novel is a remedy. If you have been reading too many fast-moving, cliff-hanging, emotionally-wringing new novels which don’t give you time to breathe, now sink into this. The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain is a sensitive portrayal of the friendship of two boys who meet at kindergarten and form a lifelong on-off friendship. Gustav and Anton are the products of their parents and upbringing, and the baggage they inherit. All of this is complicated by post-war Switzerland. The war seems, to them, irrelevant, but in fact it frames their whole lives. Gustav lives with his widowed mother Emilie in a small town in Switzerland. Money is tight and Emilie juggles jobs to manage. As a lonely toddler who misses a father he barely remembers, Gustav longs for more warmth from an emotionally-distant mother. She encourages him to ‘master himself’, his behaviour, his emotions, his ambitions. He accompanies her to her cleaning job at the local church, he helps by cleaning rubbish from beneath the grating; instead of throwing it away, he keeps it carefully in a tin. The only person with whom he shares these treasures is Anton, his first real friend. Visiting Anton’s home and meeting his parents,
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: ‘The Last Day’ by Claire Dyer #BlogTour

‘The Last Day’ book description Every ending starts with a beginning; every beginning, an end. Boyd and Vita have been separated for six years when Boyd asks if he can move back into the house they still own, bringing with him his twenty-seven-year-old girlfriend, Honey. Of course Vita agrees: enough water has travelled under enough bridges since her marriage to Boyd ended and she is totally over him; nothing can touch her now. Boyd and Honey move in and everyone is happy, or so it seems. However, all three are keeping secrets. The book is about love in all its shades and how we can never predict when the last day of one kind of love, or the first day of another, will change everything.  Love is complicated, modern families are complicated, and a line cannot be drawn before and after. Whenever there is a last day, there is a first day too. That’s the theme of The Last Day by Claire Dyer, a deftly managed part-study of grief and mourning, part-teaser about how past events always affect the present. Boyd and Vita were married, now separated; Boyd owns an estate agency, Vita paints portraits of pets. Both have new
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Day

Day, the title of this novel by AL Kennedy, does not refer to a period of twenty-four hours, but to Alfred Francis Day. Alfie. Rear gunner in a Lancaster in World War Two and now extra on the set of a war film. Past and present are mingled together as he starts to remember things he would rather forget. The passages in the bomber are electrifying, in their detail and understanding. The cold, the smell, the fear, how the professionalism of their training kicks in when the action starts. It is totally believable.. The timelines are mixed here as Alfred’s memories are inter-mingled: when Alfred was a member of the bomber crew; his time in a prisoner-of-war camp; and as a film extra in 1949. Where the novel is not so clear, for me, is the intermingling of these three timelines, though after fifty pages everything started to clarify. If you find this, persist and everything will fall into place. Through Alfred’s memories and his conversations with Ivor, his post-war employer at a bookshop, his bomber crew and the other film extras, we start to piece together the story of his life. It is particularly poignant when he falls in
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Autumn

Uplifting, enlightening, funny, clever, depressing, sad and heartwarming. The mischievous Autumn by Ali Smith is an ingenious novel, the first of the ‘Seasonal Quartet’ telling the story of the UK fragmented after the post-Brexit vote in 2016, when ugliness and prejudice rose to the surface setting brother against sister, friend against friend, dividing streets, neighbourhoods and towns, a binary split with each side convinced it is right and the other, wrong. Daniel Gluck is 101 years old and in a nursing home, we see from his wonderful lyrical dreams that he teeters on the edge of death. Smith builds her world around Mr Gluck and Elisabeth Demand who, with her mother Wendy, lived next door to Daniel when Elisabeth was a child. Their relationship starts in 1993. Elisabeth, aged eight, must interview a neighbour for a homework project. Her mother is not keen and tries to bribe her to invent a neighbour instead. The following day Elisabeth meets Mr Gluck and, despite her mother’s misgivings (single man, dodgy, must be gay, might be unsafe etc) they become firm friends. Now he is 101 and she tells a lie to the nursing home – yes, she is his grand-daughter – in
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

A slim novel, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the second novel by Jean Rhys, published in 1931. Semi-autobiographical, it tells the story of a young woman [if a woman in her mid-thirties can be called young] who faces up to the realities of life after a love affair ends. The title is not strictly true because Julia did not leave Mr Mackenzie, he left her. She moves to a cheap hotel room where the furnishings are faded and the only decoration is a poor painting which she assumes must have been left in lieu of debt by a previous tenant. Where Rhys excels is her description of the small details, drawing a picture of Julia’s surroundings and her moods. ‘She found pleasure in memories, as an old woman might have done. Her mind was a confusion of memory and imagination. It was always places that she thought of, not people. She would like thinking of the dark shadows of houses in a street white with sunshine; or of trees with slender black branches and young green leaves, like the trees of a London square in spring; or of a dark-purple sea, the sea of a chromo or of some tropical
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Shelter

This book is full of trees. The Forest of Dean to be exact. Shelter by Sarah Franklin is the story of two outsiders who find themselves in the forest during World War Two. As they struggle to survive, to learn about their surroundings, how to get by from day to day, each finds a way to live the rest of their lives. Early in 1944 in Coventry, Connie Granger’s life is changed in the course of one night. Escaping the bombing, city-girl Connie takes a job with the Women’s Timber Corps. Unable to follow her dreams, she resents the change of direction.  Sent to the Forest of Dean for her training, she turns out to be so good the manager keeps her on. Meanwhile, in the forest, a prisoner-of-war camp is built for Italian soldiers captured during fighting in Africa. Neither prisoner Seppe, nor Connie, know one tree from another but together they learn to fell trees and work timber. And they get to know each other. The themes of nature, change and new birth are strong throughout Shelter, symbolised not just by the trees but by the growth of Joe, Connie’s baby, and the increasingly fluency of Seppe’s English.
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Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Carol Cooper

Today I’m delighted to welcome romance novelist Carol Cooper. Her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr. “My ‘Porridge and Cream’ book is Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by American writer Jean Kerr. First published in 1957, it is now out of print but a few copies are still available. I first read it in the 1960s, when I was perhaps about twelve. While I don’t remember the exact circumstances, it was my mother’s paperback copy, costing a princely 35 cents. I do recall that my mother and I had recently arrived in the United States and were living in a studio apartment in Washington, DC, while she struggled to make ends meet. The book is a series of articles on Jean Kerr’s life as a playwright and parent, and each of the pieces made me roar with laughter at a time when real life wasn’t that funny. When I first read the book, I found it hugely entertaining on such subjects as diets, doctors, family, fashion, moving house, and the rest of everyday suburban life. It was only decades later that I could identify with Kerr’s situation as a writer working from home,
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Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: These Dividing Walls

A young man arrives in Paris seeking respite from his grief, surrounding himself in the solitude of an attic flat loaned from a friend. Alongside him, his neighbours are happy and unhappy, they are getting by, they are lying to loved ones, lying to themselves. These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper is a multi-layered story of microcosm and macrocosm, of an apartment block in Paris and its inhabitants, of city-wide anti-immigrant protests. A wave of racist violence enters the centre of Paris and the unfolding events are told through the lives of the residents at Number 37. Their lives converge and depart from each other, some are socially-minded, others watch from behind curtains. The young mother stretched so thin in the care of her three young children that she fears she will break. The banker who lost his job but is too ashamed to tell his wife. The homeless man who sleeps in a doorway on the street nearby. The silver-haired seller of art books who mourns her dead son. A young couple, new residents at Number 37, lock their door and turn off the television. The lives of all these people are affected by the xenophobic hatred which enters
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor is a thoughtful, intelligent telling of what happens to a village when a person goes missing. Told after the event, it brings a new angle of understanding to the post-event trauma of those on the outer circles of tragedy. A girl goes missing in a village surrounded by moors, caves and reservoirs. ‘The girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex.’ At no point do we hear the viewpoint of the girl, her parents, or the investigating police. Slowly the story unfolds as we are told the life of the village through the years after it happened by an omniscient narrator, disconnected from the action. I loved the way McGregor recounts the daily comings and goings of the village, the farmers, the vicar, the schoolchildren. The rhythm of life and nature is mesmeric, the message is ‘life goes on’. Love affairs start and end, babies are born as are lots of sheep, cows are milked, allotments tended. The village sits within the natural world of peaks, woods and rivers and, sometimes only in a single sentence, we are told of the hatching of butterflies, the unfurling of new leaves, the water running beneath the bridge.
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Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Renita D’Silva

Today I’m delighted to welcome Indian novelist Renita D’Silva. Her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is the classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. “The book I keep returning to time and again is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I love every character – Boo Radley, Jem, Atticus, and, especially, Scout: her innocence, her wonderful narrative voice through which she reveals more to the reader than she herself understands. I first read the condensed version as a teen. Being a voracious reader, I could never find enough to read in the village in India where I grew up. There was a small library – a couple of shelves of worn books with falling apart pages, woodlice ridden spines, crumbly to the touch and smelling yellow, of rot and stale lives. Having read each book multiple times, I was desperate for something different when I found this fat book wedged behind the shelves, forgotten and unloved. I dusted it off, thrilled to have something new to read. I was ecstatic when I discovered that it was a Readers Digest anthology of four condensed books; one of them, To Kill a Mockingbird. I read the first line (they left that
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Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

My Porridge & Cream read: Laura Wilkinson

Today I’m delighted to welcome contemporary novelist Laura Wilkinson. Her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is the classic The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. “It’s so long ago I cannot recall with any degree of accuracy when I first read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The crumbling copy, pictured with my newer edition, was always around; it was my grandmother’s, then my mother’s. I was fascinated by the colour plates scattered throughout and would stare at them long before I could read the words. My hunch is that I was eight or nine – certainly during a period when I devoured Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series! Whilst I forgot Blyton’s characters and plots almost instantly, Mary Lennox, Colin and Dickon have stayed close. An angry, lonely orphan is sent to live in a remote manor with a walled, prohibited, garden. The garden is the catalyst for her transformation, and in cahoots with a local boy she uncovers the secret not only of the garden but of the crying which wakes her every night. The story resonated then and still does. Each time I find something new to admire. I turn to it when I need to be reminded that
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Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: Quartet

Quartet is the first, slim, novel by Wide Sargasso Sea author Jean Rhys. Published in 1928 it is its very different from its famous older sister which was not published until 1968. Semi-autobiographical, Quartet tells the story of Marya, marooned without money in Paris after her chancer husband Stephan is jailed for theft. It is a novel about loneliness and vulnerability and where that can lead. Marya is taken under the wing of the English couple, the Heidlers. They are spoken of as a unit, he is referred to as HJ, his wife is Lois. It is Lois who persuades Marya to move into the spare bedroom at their studio. HJ, she tells Marya, likes to ‘help people.’ But as days pass, Marya is drawn into their emotional and sexual influence. Not an accurate judge of character, Marya is let down but seems incapable of getting away. Visits to her husband in prison are fleeting and unsatisfactory, husband and wife face their own dilemmas and deal with them alone. This is a melancholy story told beautifully. Marya is intelligent but weak, recognising she is trapped but unable, or unwilling, to extricate herself. ‘You see, I’m afraid the trouble with me
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Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Kate Frost

Today I’m delighted to welcome women’s novelist Kate Frost. Her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is the classic Chocolat by Joanne Harris. “To be honest, I have more than one ‘Porridge and Cream’ book, and they’re all quite different, but the book I’d happily pick up when feeling ill or run down is Joanne Harris’ Chocolat – a delicious and delightful character-driven novel centred around single mother and chocolatier Vianne Rocher and her young daughter, Anouk. I first read it over a summer, not long after it had been published, so around 2000 or 2001. I’d recently moved in with my boyfriend (now husband) and we’d been to Greece together to meet his parents and the whole of his extended Greek family, so a book set in a French village that immersed its characters in local life with the focus being on food and delicious chocolate creations resonated with me and my first experiences of a Greek family and their abundance of delicious food. I’ve only read Chocolat two or three times (like I said it’s one of a number of favourites), but it is the perfect book to get pulled into when I’m feeling down. The most recent time I read
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Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: We Are Water

We Are Water by American author Wally Lamb is the examination of a family riven by differences, tragedy and horrors, how they first avoid then finally admit the truths and shame, in order to face the future. It is a story about looking forwards, not back. I loved the storyline set-up in the Prologue, elderly artist and curator Gualtiero Agnello recalls the discovery of a self-taught artist, Josephus Jones, a poor black man in the Sixties with a raw untapped gift. But then as the story develops, Jones is not centre stage. The focus is on Annie Oh, another untutored artist discovered by Agnello, who lived in the same house where Jones lived in a shed out back and where he died in a well. Murder or accident, it is never proven. Via the Oh family, Lamb explores the imbalance of family life, its events and consequences. When she is small. Annie loses her mother in a flood which devastates the town of Three Rivers in Connecticut. This flood is based on a real-life event though the town is fictional. Growing up, Annie is subjected to abuse which remains unspecified for a long time. The reader comes to realise she
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Categories: Book Love.

My Porridge & Cream read: Helen J Christmas

Today I’m delighted to welcome thriller novelist Helen J Christmas. Her ‘Porridge & Cream’ read is Camellia by Leslie Pearse. “I started this book in 1998 during a very wet Glastonbury Festival; I remember curling up in my sleeping bag, feeling utterly miserable as the rain splashed around the campsite. Yet from the very first page I was quickly absorbed in the story. Set in my home county of Sussex, the saga begins with a young girl who is orphaned at 15, when her mother is discovered drowned. Camellia is an unhappy, neglected child, yet her security is ripped away when she stumbles across a secret hoard of letters among her mother’s belongings. After realising her entire childhood has been based on lies, she takes off to London to start a new life. Beautifully written with powerful story lines, Camellia is as much a ‘coming of age’ story as a romantic drama. At the start of the book, she is an overweight teenager but blossoms into a glamorous young woman. Caught up in the sizzling 60s of London, her life turns into a roller coaster. She is abandoned by a controlling drug dealer boyfriend, but discovers a loyal friend who becomes
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Categories: Book Love and Porridge & Cream.

Book review: Chosen Child

This is a thriller which starts at a stroll and ends like a train. In Chosen Child, by Linda Huber, the lives of two married women crash together. The story starts starts with a childless couple who are part-way through the adoption procedure. Ella is desperate for a child, any child. Her husband Rick wants a baby boy. The first crack appears at an adoption party – where approved adoptive parents mingle with available children and their carers – when Ella makes an instant connection with a feisty six-year-old girl. Meanwhile Amanda’s pregnancy test shows the blue line but she doesn’t know if the father is her husband or her lover. I worked out the connection between the two women pretty quickly, but there is so much more to the story. The lies get more complicated, decisions are made then regretted, time cannot be turned back. And all the while six-year-old Soraya starts to wonder if Ella and Rick really are her forever family. This is a thoughtful thriller about adoption, promises and the reasons for having children. This is Linda Huber’s fourth novel, now I want to read the others. Read more about Linda Huber’s books here. If you
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Categories: Book Love.