If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads. Francois Mauriac
Not so much reviews as what I’ve enjoyed (or in a few cases not enjoyed and why). I have eclectic tastes but what marks a good book for me is being able to sink into the writing. I’ll put up with writing I can’t quite get on with if the story really reels me in, but I’ll read the slowest novel ever if I love those words. Many of these books have inspired me and influenced my own writing. I like to aim high!
After all, what are any of us ever after but the conviction of belonging.
Franklin quotes the above in the opening pages of the novel, and it sums up perfectly what this story is about.
Two women’s lives merge. Both grew up in the Forest of Dean, both left and both have returned for very personal reasons, seeking comfort and a new way forward. There the comparisons end, as Tess and Jo are in all other ways very different people. Tess has carried a heavy burden since childhood, a burden which has been exacerbated rather than eased by those who should care most for her, her family and especially her mother. Jo has grown up in a loving, supportive environment, encouraged to go far, and that’s what she’s done. But now Tess’s burden has ripped her from the one person who has given her unconditional love and a sense of belonging. And Jo’s self-assurance about belonging here, in the Forest, is slipping away, leaving her unrooted and unhappy.
Living in the Forest as I do, I love the way Franklin captures the soul of the place, the good and the shabby, the people and the trees. It’s not chocolate box, as Jo herself points out to a visiting university friend. It’s very real, however. Against this backdrop, Tess and Jo quickly become real too, their problems become the reader’s problems. There’s no obvious way through, and Franklin sows sufficient doubt to make you wonder how there can be a happy ending, or even if there is. This is Franklin’s second novel, and I’m looking forward to the third.
How to Belong, Sarah Franklin
‘Go,’ she says. ‘He waits for you.’
I bought this off the back of Miller’s Circe, which I adored, and while I didn’t love it quite as much, it certainly didn’t disappoint. The young Patroclus, sensitive and trying to do his best, is the awkward kid the big kids pick on, despite his father being the king. When Patroclus accidentally kills a tormentor, he is banished by his father, Menoitios, to live in the household of Achilles’ father, King Peleus. But not before Menoitios has taken the 9-year-old Patroclus to add him to the long list of suitors for the hand of the beautiful Helen of Sparta. Helen chooses Menelaus, but her father demands that all her suitors pledge themselves to come to her aid should the need ever arise. And we all know how that ended.
For reasons young Patroclus never fully understands, the young Achilles takes to him and demands that he be accepted as his own, personal advisor. The two become lovers, and inseparable.
Achilles is destined to be the greatest of the Greek warriors, and despite his sea-nymph mother’s attempts to keep him away from Troy, and Patroclus lack of fighting skills, that is where they end up for ten long years.
Miller tells the story of the soul deep love between Patroclus and Achilles with her usual beautiful imagery, bringing it to life through emotion and words – there’s nothing graphic here, merely sensitively written moving moment after moment. And a true tragedy, as Achilles’ arrogant behaviour finally loses him the one thing he holds dearest. The telling of the role of Briseis, whose family Achilles slays, and who falls in love with Patroclus, provides a sombre counterpoint, a ‘what if’ possibility, as well as being key to the whole sorry ending. A highly worthwhile read.
Winner of the Orange Prize 2012
The Song of Achilles Madeleine Miller
I was a human woman once … some thousand cycles past
Normally I shy away from best sellers as the marketing hype doesn’t always correlate to my own view of a good read. However, a different take on mermaids seemed a good bet and I wasn’t disappointed.
Laid back, easy-going David discovers he’s not singing simply for himself out there in his pirogue on the sunlit Caribbean seas. Someone who’s been in the ocean for a very, very long time is drawn to his voice, and to him. The feeling is mutual, but she’s a mermaid and he’s a human. Then the Americans come to the island, and in an epic battle they catch more than they bargained for. The macho dad is thrilled – after a lifetime of not quite getting where he always saw himself, this is his chance for fame and fortune. The poet son is uneasy but goes along with dad, who’s trying to toughen the young man up. Fame and fortune elude dad once more however, when David rescues the mermaid and manages to get her to his house where he installs her in a bathtub. His plan is simple – hide her until the Americans leave and then return her to the sea. Only, it turns out this can’t happen.
This is a lyrical book, and mystical in its isolated small island setting. It’s also deeply emotional (but not at all sentimental) as the mermaid, Aycayia, slowly transforms into the young woman she once was, before she was cursed for her beauty and her singing by the women of her village and cast into the seas to become a mermaid. We watch as David, very much in love, wins her trust, and as Aycayia learns not only to trust, but to truly love for the first time in her long, long life.
But trouble is brewing, with people and with nature, and the combination of the two brings a climactic ending where we wonder just where this will go. Heart in mouth. Loved it.
Also loved the confident application of different styles within the book. We have David in his older age, writing the story down, and Aycayia remembering her past life, thinking on her new life and, later, on her time with David, in poetic form. There are time jumps and perspective jumps, which for me was like swimming downstream, watching river debris pass, get snagged, loosened, float away. A delight.
Costa 2020 Book of the Year
The Mermaid of Black Conch Monique Roffey
Remember me …
Maggie O’Farrell has taken a snippet of history and turned it into a richly descriptive and emotional tale of a young boy’s death, and how his mother, his father and his twin sister dealt with that death. That the boy’s father is a famous 16th century playwright –never named – lends a further piquancy to the tale.
Hamnet (or Hamlet as the name was also known in those times) wakes one morning to find his twin ill. He goes to seek help and is met with a blow from his grandfather and an otherwise missing household. His mother, Agnes, is tending her flowers and her bees in her old childhood home a mile away, while the others are on various errands. Having failed to fetch the physician, Hamnet returns to his sister and waits with her until their mother finds them. The sister is dying of the plague, and it seems that all of Agnes’s skills as a herbal healer are proving of no avail. Hamnet, ill himself, decides that death can be tricked into taking him, rather than his sister, and so it happens.
In between these bare bones of the story, we learn how Agnes and the boy’s father came to be together and how the marriage has evolved, including through months at a time of separation. When, a few years after Hamnet’s death, Agnes hears that her husband has written a play entitled Hamlet, without consulting or telling her, her furious sorrow takes her to London to confront him. And in that confrontation, she finds understanding.
There’s not much of a plot, there being no time slips, mysteries etc, but the characters make up for that in spades and more. Even the minor ones, even the kittens, are deeply drawn and alive to the reader. The writing is densely, gorgeously rich – so much so that towards the end I had to pace myself, feeling much as I would if I’d gorged myself on a box of dark, high quality chocolates and had to slow down to finish them off.
Well deserving of its Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.
Hamnet Maggie O’Farrell
Faith, hope and love…
Mother and daughter Marian and Susan grasp the chance for a new start in their lives by moving to the country to live with Marian’s best friend Viv, lonely since her adored daughter’s departure to university a couple of years earlier. Marian and Susan own pretty much only what’s on their back, and Susan is also recovering from years of bullying and a deep sense of her own lack of worth. In the Georgian house next door, live Luke and his young protégé Dominic. Luke appears to have it all – sophisticated, knowledgeable, running a good business in old books, and kind and considerate as well. But he has his own demons. As does Dominic, struggling with his sexuality and the subject of bullying himself.
This is a tale of many characters, with several carefully interwoven sub-plots impacting the key characters of Susan and Luke. DB Carter’s strength is very much how he brings his characters to life, warts and all. Susan grows as she allows her artistic side to flourish, and she begins to accept herself, but then that growth is threatened by horrific circumstances.
There are strong messages here, of being willing to embrace change and to take risks, to accept the choices of others where these do no one harm, and of forgiveness. A charmingly told tale, with some dark moments, but uplifting.
The Cherries DB Carter
Wilful Grace Baxter, will not marry old Lord Silverton…
Grace Baxter has a terrible relationship with her rich parents, who have practically abandoned her to be raised by strict governesses. We can’t, however, feel sad for her, as she has the love of Uncle FarFar, a senior and highly respected personage in the Royal Navy, and the friendship of Billy, the son of the stablemaster. Besides, Grace doesn’t feel sorry for herself, at least not until she overhears that she’s be to wed to the gross, slobbery and totally unpleasant Lord Silverton. When Silverton shows just what he’s truly capable of, Grace takes matters into her own hands, and flees. Not just her home and London, but the country, and aboard a naval ship, disguised as a boy. Subsequently, Grace’s strong-minded and impetuous behaviour leads her in and out of all kinds of trouble, which implicates others too, with consequences I wasn’t expecting. Be aware, this story has lots of humour, but there are dark moments also, giving the story a rich emotional depth.
Emma Lombard’s debut novel, and the first in her White Sails’ series, moves at a fast pace and covers a lot of ground, or should I say a lot of ocean. Her research into life aboard a naval ship and into the exotic countries where Grace finds herself, is meticulous, and all the better for being used in a way which brings the reader on board (sorry) naturally, as if we are all as familiar with a foc’sle as the crew of Discerning. I love not having things explained to me.
There’s quite a cast of characters, and each of them is a real person, with backgrounds which we learn about as we go along, and with motivations and ambitions. This is particularly true of the handsome but imperfect Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam, whose ship Grace has joined. We get to see the Lieutenant in two very different guises – one as the ship’s senior officer having to deal with all the problems of an ailing Captain and an unwanted passenger, and the other as a man falling in love with an obstinate young woman. Poor Seamus!
While the book wraps up nicely, there are background strands which I hope/expect Lombard explores in the next books in the series.
Discerning Grace is a book for lovers of adventure and danger on the high seas, of complex, interesting characters, and romance which isn’t all flutters and butterflies. A little touch of Pirates of the Caribbean, perhaps?
Discerning Grace Emma Lombard
A superb history lesson with a hefty dose of schmaltz & unconvincing development of protagonist.*
Normally, if I don’t like a book I leave it be. But when it’s garnered 1000s of 5 star reviews and it’s by a best-selling author, I get a little angry.
Elsa knows she’s ugly and not worth loving. Her rich parents and pretty sisters confirm this every day, although Elsa tries hard to be a good daughter and sister. She is so downtrodden, she prefers to spend her days in her room reading romantic novels to escape the unkindness of life. But one day she buys some silky red material on a whim, sews herself a flapper dress and wanders into town. Here she bumps into Rafe, a total stranger, and lets him make love to her. When Elsa falls pregnant, daddy leaves her at Rafe’s family farm for them to deal with her as they wish.
This is what happens throughout the book. Elsa faces many desperate situations, and trudges along, dealing with them in a dour, practical manner. I began to understand why the family were glad to see the back of her. And when, at the end of the book, we are faced with a new, strong Elsa risking her life for a point of principle, it was all too sudden, and too late. As for the supporting cast, I found them mostly to be shallow caricatures, being either good to saintly, or perfectly evil. And none of them interesting.
The redeeming aspect of the book was learning more about this dreadful period of American history, and how terribly the dispossessed were treated. For the rest, I won’t be rushing to buy this author again.
(*When I feel like this about a book, I go to the 3 star reviews on Amazon, after writing my own thoughts down. This is the heading of one of them. Seems I should have read that before I bought the book.)
The Four Winds Kristin Hannah
I held my breath, hoping …
Young Hannah thought she was fine after all, having been rescued from the workhouse and now comfortable as a domestic servant in a houseful of kindly women, including the mistress. But when the mistress moves away and Hannah is contracted to a new family, the mysterious and not at all pleasant Chalkes, life takes a turn for the worse. The characters are well drawn and the author describes 18th c London in vivid detail. Clothes, household activities and – the key to the tale – moral standards especially those of the double-standard type, are brought very much to life. The contrast with the healthier life enjoyed even by the very poor in the countryside is starkly drawn. I held my breath hoping …
The real history which inspired the story is also fascinating.
The Servant Maggie Richell-Davies
Depth of scene and character, beautiful imagery, make this highly appealing
Iris dreams of a better life than painting porcelain dolls. She wants to be a painter herself. Her twin sister Rose, sits beside her all day at the Doll Factory, sewing tiny clothes and eaten up with bitterness. Her face and body is ruined by smallpox, her so-close chance at a good marriage lost when she lost her looks. Silas, the taxidermist, has dreams too. Some are about the past and Flick, whom he loved. Most are about the future, and how he will raise himself to be as good as the gentlemen to whom he sells his stuffed doves and the ladies who buy his butterfly wing brooches.
What Iris and Silas have in common is Albie, a poverty-stricken street urchin with a good heart and a loving sister. And into all their lives comes Louis, the artist, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). Louis transforms Iris’ life, but Silas wants her too, and he will do all that’s needed to make that dream a reality.
I was all poised to give this five stars. I was loving Macneal’s rich writing, the depth of her characters, the detail of her research – London in the mid 19thc was not a pleasant place to be unless you had money, and the PRB was of course a real movement although Macneal’s Louis was not among their members. The plot brought surprises, some you didn’t want. But the ending was a disappointment. It felt rushed, as if Macneal couldn’t wait to get the book over with (as an author I empathise!) and left me with an unsastisfied gnawing, like the unfulfilled promise of a rich dessert.
The Doll Factory Elizabeth Macneal
‘…how little we know of other people’s lives, even our own parents. Perhaps especially our own parents.’
Cath Barton’s novella, published in Nov 2020, is a sensitive and beautifully written insight into the lives of Ted and Rene. They marry in the ‘frail optimism’ of the 1950s, she to take up the expected role of mother and housewife, he to continue with his career as a ceramics designer in the family firm. Over time, misunderstandings and the inability to talk to each other drive a wide wedge in their marriage. While to everybody else, including their own daughters, the couple appears perfectly devoted to each other, inside it’s a different matter.
I devoured this, both for its humanity and its writing.
In the Sweep of the Bay, Cath Barton
‘My name is Anna Winterbourne. I do not hold (much) with those who talk of the Stars governing our Fate’
Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love was first published in 1999. I didn’t remember reading it when I picked it from the book shelf looking for something before my new books arrived. No recollection either as I started it, but about half way in, a ticket to the Valley of the Queens tumbled from the pages and I recalled finally that I’d taken it with me when visiting Egypt in January 2001. A good choice, as Soueif’s deep knowledge of the country of her birth enriches these pages so that you feel you are truly there, especially the old Egypt. The story carries two timelines – the first in 1906 when Lady Anna Winterbourne, widowed, travels to Egypt to help her recovery from her husband’s death. There she falls in love with the country and with Sharif, a wealthy and fiercely nationalistic Egyptian landowner. In 1997, their descendants and those of Sharif’s sister, come together after decades of not knowing of each other’s existence. The story is told through modern and historic eyes, and what comes across strongly is the saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
There is a lot about Egyptian politics, both the British occupation and that towards the end of the 20th century. Fascinating to learn about. In between there is a beautiful old love story, and a more pragmatic modern one. Highly enjoyable.
The Map of Love , Ahdaf Soueif
Learned a lot about white magic, whether true or not, it was nicely portrayed
I enjoyed this book as a pleasant read, and certainly loved the 17th century Gideon, Bess and Ann story. I thought it became more melodramatic rather than dramatic as it moved on, and the WW1 story didn’t move me at all. Well, the horses did, of course. I’m a fan of magical realism and my own current work in progress has themes vaguely related to this book. I appreciated the way Brackston delved deep into wiccan lore and tradition – whether it’s correct or not, who cares, but certain aspects of the magical elements are beautifully portrayed, eg the wild animals (also a vague theme in my Guardians series where the young protagonist can understand the wild creatures and recruits them to her cause). What I would have liked is more subtlety and emotion around the later time tales and the ending rather than straight descriptions of people floating 10ft in the air and too obvious dialogue. Not sure I would buy more but if someone gave me another of hers I wouldn’t complain.
You don’t have to be a Greek legend expert to enjoy this brilliant book
A well-deserved international best-seller, I loved Madeleine Miller’s straightforward, no-nonsense Circe. An outsider from birth, neither powerful nor beautiful, Circe’s true power lies in something the gods fear – witchcraft. Exiled to her island, Circe is content, until the arrival of Odysseus.
While the tale is engaging, a ‘must read on into the night’, it’s the language which totally won me over.
‘Gods love novelty, as I have said. They are as curious as cats.’
And there we have the gods relegated to child status, not to be taken seriously. Except … one must.
And when Circe first discovers her ability with flowers and changes Glaucos into a god – ‘… his blue chest, strapped with god muscles, and … his hands, smooth as surf-rolled shells.’
Surf-rolled shells. Sigh.
I have yet to read Song of Achilles, probably about time I did.
Circe Madeleine Miller
Everyone from age seven upwards should read this
My granddaughter at age ten is a keen and productive writer. Her stories (and re-writes of mine) are highly imaginative and pacy, with characters who leap off the page and into all kinds of trouble. I was looking for books for her and came across Coraline, which was published after my own passed the age where they might have read this. An avid Neil Gaiman fan, it struck me as just the thing. I had to read it first before giving it to her (naturally) so we could talk about it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it although wondering what impact its nightmarish qualities might have on young children!
The scary passages are genuinely scary:
‘…it scuttled down the darkened hall fast, like a little patch of night.’
There’s heartbreak too when Coraline’s parents fail to appear. Coraline has been brave, making herself a meal, running a bath, putting herself to bed. But, at 3.12 am –
‘All alone, in the middle of the night, Coraline began to cry. There was no other sound in the empty flat.’
I genuinely worried about Coraline, more than she does herself, and feared for her parents.
The cat who helps out in the other place and was simply a cat in the normal (note I don’t say ‘real’) world is brilliant. Doubtless I’m late to the party but if you haven’t yet discovered Coraline, and whether or not you have the excuse of children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, godchildren etc, read it!
Coraline Neil Gaiman
Not sure this would turn me into a Matt Haig fan…
While I have nothing to complain of in terms of the writing, I was disappointed in this. A woman at death’s door – having attempted suicide because life is basically shit and she’s thrown away every opportunity to live a different life – is offered the chance to go back, do things differently and settle for a life in which she’s truly happy.
Guess what? All those regrets she’s been carrying around turn out to have been damn good decisions after all. So where is her true chance of happiness? I won’t give away the ending but you can probably guess.
The reappearance of her old librarian friend as her mentor (I guess) through her journeyings added little to the story – a convenient person for the MC to complain to as it turned out. And the appearance of another person living the same experience added nothing and was in my view a great romance opportunity lost (as in the classic Replay).
The MC seemed to me too self-obsessed. It wasn’t even that she’d had a terrible life to bring her to the suicide point but perhaps I’m being too harsh.
The Midnight Library Matt Haig
Beautifully written study of the human state in its many frailities and some strengths
A novel worthy of its best seller status. The narrator, Danny, never really knew the mother who left her two small children and her husband to work with the poor in faraway India. She’s something of a saint to the two women now entrusted with Danny and his sister Maeve’s upbringiug. Maeve, much older, misses and blames her mother and their once warm father grows distant from his children. But whatever contentment the household has is cracked by the arrival of Andrea, splintered further when Andrea marries the father and brings her two daughters to live in the house, and finally shattered when the father dies and everything – the house, his business, even Maeve’s car – is left to his new wife.
The house – the Dutch house of the title – is where Danny and Maeve have always found solidity and comfort, but it is Andrea’s desperate wish to live in and own the house itself for its glorious over the top nature, which destroys their comfort and might destroy their lives.
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
I loved this for so many reasons, chief among them being its total unashamedly ‘Australian-ness’
Frankly I’m surprised anyone who hasn’t lived in Australia understands what’s going on, there are so many unique references and they’re important to the book. But apparently this hasn’t stopped Bridge of Clay becoming a best seller. From sisters (The Sisters Grimm), I turned to brothers – five of them, living not so ordinary lives in a Sydney suburb behind a race track. The narrator, the oldest brother Matthew, tells the tales of his mother, father and the fourth brother with exquisite emotional detail. There are no heroes here, just people who hurt a lot and act accordingly, including selfishly. But resilience is at the core of this book and Clay’s bridge is a wonderful metaphor. Loved it. (But if you’re expecting a repeat of The Book Thief, forget it!)
Bridge of Clay Marcus Zusak
What do they remember? Will it be enough to save them and those they love?
I had this book on my TBR pile for some time and almost forgot about it until it popped up somewhere at the same time I needed to get in more reading material. So glad I added it to the order. Four eight-year-old sisters, all born on the same night, play in a white forest where they learn they have different, powerful skills -one can fly, one has a way with water, one with fire and the fourth with earth and rocks. But as they reach puberty they must leave the forest for a time and they forget … their power and their sisters.
Now, approaching their 18th birthdays, they must find each other and rediscover who they are – Sisters Grimm, born of one demanding father – if they are to have any hope of saving themselves and those they love.
Not completely a happy ending, but a satisfying one. I see there is a sequel coming out next year.
The Sisters Grimm Menna Van Praag
Winter, 1617. The sea around the remote Norwegian island of Vardø is thrown into a reckless storm. A young woman, Maren, watches as the men of the island, out fishing, perish in an instant. Vardø is now a place of women.
For a time at least, and the women find it tough but are managing. Then comes ambitious Absalom Cornet with his reforming zeal and iron morals. He has brought with him a young wife, Ursa, more used to civilised life as a merchant’s daughter in Bergen. Ursa needs a friend and she finds one in Maren, a woman of the island. Their friendship is fraught, two women from very different cultures, and it plays out to a dramatic end.
I was there on that bleak island with those women – Hargrave’s beautiful writing vividly brings their lives to light from the smallest domestic detail to their deepest emotions.
The Mercies reminded me strongly of my own The Shanty Keeper’s Wife with its theme of how women come to be blamed so easily for the sins of men.
The Mercies Kiran Millwood Hargrave
London, 1826 Frannie Langton is about to be tried for the murder of her master and mistress, Mr and Mrs Benham. But Frannie loved her mistress – how could she have murdered her?
Frannie Langton is born on a Jamaican plantation to a black slave and the master of the house, John Langton. As such she is neither slave nor free and has but one real friend in this world. When her father teaches her to read, Frannie discovers he is not acting from any alturistic motive. As a girl still she is sent to London to serve as the maidservant of Mrs Benham, whose husband is Langton’s ‘medical experiment’ partner. A deeply shocking and involving book, written with a sharp conciseness which allows us to get inside Frannie’s head and suffer with her. A must read for any lover of historical fiction and mystery.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton Sara Collins
A bee, a key and a sword – clues on the cover of a strange book which will lead Zachary Rawlins into a labyrinth of stories and to Mirabel and Dorian.
I loved The Night Circus so this was a natural for me when it came out not too long ago (there appears to be no date on my hardback, signed copy and I wonder if this means something??) This is a book to take your time over, to curl on the sofa with the dog at your feet and/or the cat on your lap and fall into this world alongside the curious Zachary. A kind of grownup and highly expanded Alice in Wonderland, with gorgeous writing and – is there a plot? – yes, I think so. One to read again to find all those things you missed the first time. Pure pleasure.
The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern
‘Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes …’
How can you not read a book with that opening line? It sets the tone of the world Naomi Novik builds so skilfully, a world where the Dragon – an ageless wizard – has protected Agnieszka’s village from the horrors of the Wood since time out of mind. He has a price however, and that’s for one girl from the village to serve him for ten years. Agnieszka is born in the right, or perhaps wrong, year to be a candidate but all expect him to take Agnieszka’s best friend, the prettier and brave Kasia. When he chooses her, Agnieszka embarks on a new life which is as demanding as it is – in the end – worth all her pain and despair.
A rollicking pace, alive characters and a story to keep your heart in your mouth, I loved Uprooted. And also Novik’s more recent Spinning Silver which makes you wonder what does go on in this author’s head.
Uprooted Naomi Novik