Category Archives: Headline Review

The Sunrise – Victoria Hislop

You may remember that I had a moment we all dread last year when my computer broke and lots and lots of files were lost/wiped. Imagine my joy when I was looking through my emails and I found some reviews which I thought were gone for good. What was I looking for was to see if I had Victoria Hislop’s email address as having been to Cyprus, where she set her latest novel The Sunrise, I wanted to email her about it. As it turned out I don’t have her email but I did find my review of The Sunrise sat in an email I must have sent to myself from my old work – how could that happen? I have never blogged at work. Anyway as it seemed Aphrodite had popped this review, which I wrote at the end of 2014, back into my life (well, onto my computer) I thought I would share it with you now.

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Headline, hardback, 2014, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is the summer of 1972 and Savvas and Aphroditi Papacosta are living a life of luxury through the riches of tourism in the Cypriot city of Famagusta. Their hotel, The Sunrise, is one of the most popular destinations on the whole island with loyal staff and even more importantly loyal customers. The couple can have pretty much anything they want, and life seems perfect. Yes, you guessed it there is a ‘but’ coming. For behind the facade of partying, glamour and wealth that the tourists see, there are tensions between Green and Cyprus which initially seem to be taking place further afield, until a Greek coup starts and the island is torn in two as civil war starts with Famagusta becoming one of the central grounds.

As the holidaymakers reclined in the sun, sipped cocktails, swam or lost themselves in the latest thriller, Huseyin noticed that they were always orientated towards the sea. The sunbeds had to be laid in rows, pointing towards the rising sun. These foreigners did not want to look inland. Even Frau Bruchmeyer, who lived on the island now, saw only its beauty and the paradise created by the blue sky and sea.
Although during their short conversations she never forgot to ask after Huseyin’s mother, she seemed unaware of the knife edge on which the Cypriots were living.

Victoria Hislop does something very savvy with The Sunrise. Initially I was completely won over simply by the hotelier couples, though Aphroditi in particular who gets her hair done and wears a different gown each day and night and is Cyrus’ answer to Alexis Carrington. I was then bowled over by the tension that unravels and soon takes us from the high camp and glamour of the hotel and into the streets where we join two families, the Georgious and the Ozkans, who both have links to the hotel itself with members of the families working there.

As we follow these families we gain more of an insight into the history of Cyprus and where the tensions came from  as we discover they both tried to escape prejudice, ethnic violence and bubbling unrest elsewhere on the island. We then follow these two families, and the Papacosta’s, as they come to terms with the fact that they must pick sides, whether they like it or not, and how their decisions on staying or fleeing will affect them all as time goes on and the conflict gets worse. How far will these people go to survive and how do people change when they have no idea what the future holds?

Everything was quiet, but at the end of the street not far from home, he noticed something that shocked him even more than anything he had seen.
He put the sack down behind a gate and went up close. Ahead of him, there was a line of barbed wire. He was at the edge of the modern section of the city now, and as he peered in both directions down the moonlit street, he realised that the wire stretched as far as he could see. Famagusta had been fenced off. They were now living in a giant cage.

Naturally as things go on Hislop’s plots thicken, twist and take many a surprising turn whilst all the while giving us an insight to a period of history. It is this combination that makes The Sunrise  so enthralling to read. Sometimes if you know a novel is based on historical fact it can go one of two ways; either there is an element of the story falling flat for you because you know the outcome or there is added tension and atmosphere. As with her debut The Island (of which I am also a huge fan and read before my blogging days) Hislop’s latest novel is definitely in the latter category. Whether she describes the city at its most buzzing and opulent or at its most devastated you are completely there, the city fully created at either end of the spectrum.

Here characters are also marvellously crafted, you end up liking them whether you want to or not. Be they spoilt rich women, eccentric tourists, vagabonds, victims, profiteers you end up following their stories and narratives avidly whichever side of the conflict they are on. Hislop very carefully pitches her tone on neutral ground, so that regardless of who is wrong or right (bearing in mind that each official ‘side’, not necessarily the characters though, thinks they are right) we the reader get to see the situation from all sides. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do in any historical novel, set around conflict or not, especially without adding any hindsight to it. Hislop does it marvellously; her main focuses the story, the characters, the city and her readers with the facts firmly embedded in the fiction. The Sunrise is a perfect combination of an escapist, educational and enthralling read around a period in history you might not have a clue about. Highly recommended and a most timely reminder of how much I loved The Island and how I need to read all the Hislop’s I haven’t yet.

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If you would like to find out more about the book you can hear Victoria in conversation about it with myself on a previous episode of You Wrote The Book here. So those were my thoughts back in 2014 which were brought back to life when I arrived in Cyprus, especially once I discovered you can go on tour to Famagusta and see the ghost town pictured above. I was desperate to do it, alas we discovered that you actually don’t get to go into the city, just see it through a fence, so a four hour round trip seemed a little excessive to peer through the fences, maybe one day though? After reading the review I was quite cross I didn’t pack it in my bag to read while I was in Paphos. It has reminded me again I need to get back to more of Victoria Hislop’s books, have you read The Sunrise, The Island or any of her other novels, if so what did you think?

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Filed under Headline Review, Review, Victoria Hislop

The Silent Wife – A.S.A. Harrison

When you have a book that is such a hit as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was last year it is natural that publishers  and readers want to hunt out the ‘next Gone Girl’ as it were. The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison, who sadly passed away this April, has been heralded by many as being that book, the cover glimmering with wonderful quotes from Kate Atkinson, Tess Gerritsen, Sophie Hannah, S. J. Watson and S.J. Bolton, Hannah even saying it is even better than Gone Girl. Quite some praise there from some of my favourite authors. The question of course was before I started the book was could The Silent Wife live up to it?

Headline Books, 2013, paperback, thriller, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert seem like the perfect couple and have done for over twenty years. She the beautiful house proud psychotherapist and he the property developer, they are both high achievers. However every couple has secrets behind the facade and in the case of Jodi and Todd it is the fact that he goes and has many a dalliance, because he simply cannot be faithful, and Jodi accepts it and lives with it as he always comes back. Yet Todd has recently met someone who is different than the rest and things could go horribly wrong for Jodi as his common law wife, as we discover from page two things will go wrong ‘given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her.’

Unusually that makes The Silent Wife less of a whodunit and more a mixture of a whydunit and when-gonna-do-it which I don’t think I have come across in a novel before and so from the start gave it an edge. It is also quite a risky move as from the outset the reader knows what is coming… or do they? For one thing that Harrison does prove good at is switching things on you when you are least expecting it.

What Harrison also does which is risky is make both her lead characters rather unlikeable. Todd is just pretty repugnant. A man living on credit to the max, yet acting like he is rolling in money and splashing it about, who will pretty much shag anything but come back to the woman who makes him divine meals and then occasionally puts out too. Yep, a complete letch, a clever move though as I was desperate to see him slaughtered. Jodi herself is more of a mystery and an enigma. Initially we see a strong woman wronged. Yet as we get to know her she becomes slightly more intriguing, why does she get so obsessive about how our pasts and youth affect us for example? Also we get to see a darker side now and again, as if the aforementioned hint of her killer nature at the start wasn’t enough, we learn that while she may appear fine with Todd’s wandering pants there is an icy rage and eye for small but important revenge on occasion.

The next day opens with a series of misadventures. To begin with he gets to work at his usual early hour only to find that one of his keys – the one that opens the street door – is missing from his key ring. Stranding on the sidewalk with his mobile phone he curses when he fails to connect with the janitor. He doesn’t know how this could have happened; keys don’t detach on their own from a steel ring. He nonetheless walks the three blocks back to his Porsche to search the seats and floor and then calls Jodi, waking her up, to ask if she’ll have a look around at home.

It is the dislikeable nature of the protagonists and the breakdown and secrets behind a relationship plus the fact it’s a thriller that bring the comparisons to Gone Girl. Yet the comparisons do a disservice to The Silent Wife in many ways. Firstly because The Silent Wife is, no pun intended a much quieter book and all the more real for it. The breakdown of the relationship is one that we hear about all too often and is therefore something we completely believe in, and the way Harrison writes about it is spot on.

Secondly, deep down, there is a very dark subject going on linking to the characters pasts. The book looks into how our parent’s relationships affect ours with our partners both for the good and the bad as we try to learn from what we liked, and indeed, didn’t like about their partnership. It also looks at the things that we like to hide, even from ourselves, and that inevitably no matter how much something is hidden cracks will start in the foundations of that secret, deeply hidden as it may be, that will eventually reach the surface. This is explored in Jodi’s job as a psychotherapist, and that practice seemed to me another subject up for discussion, as well as with Jodi herself.

Gerard grew in her esteem, became an anchor that kept her stable in unchartered waters and also, in a way, her muse. A nod, a word, a gesture from Gerard could be a marker and a prompt. His dependable squint and mellow vowels were co-conspirators in the enterprise of drawing her out. Even the room itself, the neutral colors, the uniform light, and the quietude, with only an occasional burst of voices from the hallway or a distant bump or thump of a door closing, but muffled, as if underwater, could turn the crank of her memory, take her back to the jurisdiction of her earliest years, bringing them once again to life.  

In those aspects the book is possibly better or equal to Gone Girl, as the narrators there both have ‘pasts’ yet sadly for me a few things really let The Silent Girl down. I loved the back story of Jodi, but the more I read it the more I thought ‘no, this woman wouldn’t settle for Todd no matter how wonderful he was’ and I couldn’t believe in them having got together and having been that happy for so long as he really is that vile. I was also sad that actually this back story didn’t get built up, it’s all very vague and mysterious (which I know is part of building the mystery) yet it seemed a little ‘tacked on’ which leads me to the major issue I had with the book. The ending.

Without giving away any spoilers I have to say that I felt cheated. I had been sold something from the start that wasn’t the case at all. Whilst I could see the merits of this, and sorry if you haven’t read the book but should you choose to you will understand, as a double/triple/quadruple twist (there may be a red herring there) I get really cross when an author at the end of a thriller throws in an element that no one in their wildest dreams would guess. It’s fine if clues have been dropped and you get it wrong, that is part of the fun, yet here I felt cheated – yes it was possible but I didn’t feel the author was playing fair, she didn’t want us to get it and that to me spoils/spoilt the fun.

I don’t normally compare books as closely as I have this with Gillian Flynn, but because of all the chatter I couldn’t not. I feel bad being negative about some of the aspects of The Silent Wife as up to about 50 pages from the end I thought it was a rather good portrayal of a relationship imploding and indeed a well written and overall well paced thriller. Alas the ending just didn’t work for me and I didn’t buy the mega twists and I just felt a bit cross – I am clearly in the minority as all the authors I mentioned above loved it and Nicole Kidman is making the movie, so what do I know?!? It saddens me that Harrison will not write anymore; as at its best moments there is something very different about The Silent Wife that makes me think whatever followed would have possibly been incredible.

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Filed under A.S.A Harrison, Headline Review, Review

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of those cult writers who I always think I would really, really like, I just have to read more of his books as so far the number of them that I have read is a little paltry. When it comes to authors of that stature, and being a relative ‘Neil-newbie’, it almost makes me feel fraudulent it write about his latest ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ – one of the most hyped/anticipated/buzzed about books of the year and one I read for the Not The Booker Prize. I am also rather nervous because whilst it is a book I really enjoyed reading, it is one that had a few niggles for me on occasional, let me explain (before all the Gaiman fans come and hunt me down for blasphemy)…

Headline Books, 2013, hardback, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ is a book about memory and imagination and how these develop or fade as we grow up. It is also a corking story about a young boy, who starts the novel as an old (and unnamed) man, and one particular summer in his childhood when he met Lettie Hempstock. As a young boy his life was quite mundane, he was a bit of a bookish loner, and his family were ‘getting by’. One day they take in a lodger, who runs over the kitten and then kills himself in his car – not a spoiler as this happens very near the start – and it is during this debacle that the young lad finds himself being looked after by Lettie and her mother and grandmother while the police sort everything out. It is at this point that something magical is introduced into his life (at one point quite literally) and it is also when the greatest darkness comes as a new lodger, Ursula Monkton, arrives to change everything for the worse, if she can.

You might roll your eyes at what I am about to write, or think ‘oh for goodness sake why tell us about this book’, but I have to admit all the fantastical elements of this book really didn’t gel so well for me. I really liked Ursula as a villain (though she did feel very similar to the Other Mother in ‘Coraline’ at times) yet I couldn’t conjure her as the tent/marquee/thing that we first meet. I liked the hunger birds very much but the whole worm thing (even though it was brilliantly squeamish) didn’t work for me either. I couldn’t quite get it to 100% form itself in my head. Most of all though I didn’t really get ‘the Ocean’ of the title, apart from just after the denouement when it was so needed – no spoilers – as I didn’t see the point to it overall yet it is the title feature. Also did anyone else understand why the suicide at the start leads to Ursula/the worm/tent appearing? I think I missed that, or maybe it just was there because it was there? So why do, after saying all that especially about the ocean, I then think people should read it? Well…

Firstly when Gaiman writes in the ‘real world’ the book is very emotive, reminiscent and nostalgic. The scene with the bath was actually quite upsetting, as was the whole scene with his dad and Ursula by the fireplace (for some reason that really, really unsettled me). Also the emotions of feeling adults don’t understand you, hating your siblings, feeling a disappointment to your parents was all fully evoked. There is also a certain horror to the book that the ‘younger you’ inside you will be really hit hard by. Interestingly these both involve the dad, one also involving the bath and the other involving Ursula and a wall and things that shouldn’t be seen. Both had a real impact with me and left me feeling quite uncomfortable and also incredibly moved and almost bruised, it is hard to explain.

Then there is also the element of the book that I loved the most; the fact it took me back to my childhood, and I thought that this was what Gaiman was setting out to do, give us as readers a serious case of nostalgia and the memory at the route as to why we love books. All the things that appealed to me most as Simon aged 31 were the things that would have appealed to me as Simon aged 11. I loved the Hempstock’s and could think of one of my Gran’s friends who I thought (and sometimes still do) was a real life good witch, and all those old ladies who had that wry smile and spoilt you who were probably only 50/60 but seemed about 110 years old. I also thought that Ursula Monkton, or anti-Poppins, was a fantastic character I would have loved to have had in many a books when I was a kid. That of course brings up the question is this book a book for adults, for children, both? Should it even matter?

Whilst I don’t think (and here I type almost wincing with fear) it is one of the very best books I have read all year, it was a true delight as it is one of those books that will remind you of your own imagination (which sounds silly but true) and how we must stretch it unquestioningly sometimes as we would when we were younger. This seemed the biggest message I got from the book, to look back at myself and how I felt at a time when anything and everything was possible and hold that memory now all these years later. It is a book that in looking at the narrators nostalgic memories makes you look at yours and I really, really liked it for that.

In ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ our narrator states ‘I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.’ I have found myself thinking about this a lot since I read the book as I wish that the older me could occasionally find the younger me and give myself over to the fantasy side a little more as maybe if I had, with the brilliance of Gaiman’s family drama in this novel and getting lost in the ‘beyond magical’ elements of the book, this would have been the perfect book for me. Which is of course the point of the book I think. One thing I do know for sure is that I must read more Gaiman. Should I head to ‘American Gods’ or ‘Neverwhere’ next? Or another of his titles entirely?

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Filed under Headline Review, Neil Gaiman, Not The Booker Prize, Review

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

I normally avoid books that are getting either a lot of hype in the book world in general or suddenly appearing in a flurry of rapturous reviews on book blogs. I am not sure quite why this is, but it is indeed the case. ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey has been one such book, rumblings about it started at the end of last year when proofs went out, then it got chosen for the Waterstones 11 and in the last few weeks I have seen it mentioned, with rave reviews, on several book blogs I visit. I have to admit had it not been for the fact that Gavin and I are interviewing Eowyn for The Readers tonight I would have left it a while, instead I am now going to add to the glowing reviews that you may well have already come across here, there and everywhere. This is a marvellous book.

Headline Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

I have always been a fan of fairytales for adults. Books which spell bind you as an older, wiser reader and yet in some way bring back the comfort, endless magical possibility and thrills of your early reading years. Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel ‘The Snow Child’ is a prime example of a writer getting the mix of these two elements just right. Ivey takes the reader on a rather magical journey in Alaska in 1920, cleverly though she actually gives the book a timeless feel, as apart from a few famous authors of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s which feature in the book this could actually have been set at any period in the remote snowy wilderness, more on that later, lets discuss the story first.

 Jack and Mabel are a married couple who since the still birth of their first and only child have been drifting apart in their own separate insular isolated worlds within the very real world of isolation that is the Alaskan wilderness. This was meant to be the place that made them, a place where they started a whole new life together. Now in their 50’s what was once paradise has become a snowy frozen wasteland and not just in terms of their surroundings but also their emotions. Neither feels that they have a bond with the other, all the unspoken things becoming chasms rather than cracks in their relationship. Mabel in particular, who wanted this so much, if not the most, seems to be dealing with all of this the worst.

‘They were going to be partners, she and Jack. This was going to be their new life together. Now he sat laughing with strangers when he hadn’t smiled at her in years.’

One night however things change, thanks to a random snowball fight which proved to be one of the most moving scenes I have read in years (you need to read it to believe it – I admit I welled up), and the couple decide to build a snowman, only soon they have created a snow girl, yet the next morning it has vanished, replaced by a trail of a child’s footsteps from where it stood leading into the forest. It is not long after this that Jack and Mabel start to see, initially always in the peripheral, glimpses of a young girl and a fox dashing through the fields and woods near their house, they even separately start to talk to her. Could they have magically somehow created a child of their own from snow?

I will leave the plot at that point for fear of spoilers. I will say that Eowyn Ivey plays a very clever game of making the reader wonder if this girl could be real or not early on as when she does start to speak back it is never in quotation marks it is just inserted in the narrative. Could this therefore be a figment of this couples imagination or their way of dealing with grief, after all the other locals (including the wonderful Esther) have never seen this young girl and they have lived there longer and therefore must know everything. Also, because we get the internal dialogues of Jack and Mabel as the reader while they themselves barely communicate with one another, we wonder all the more.

Another clever device in Eowyn Ivey’s tale was including the Russian fairytale ‘Snegurochka’ (which inspired Arthur Ransom’s ‘The Little Daughter of the Snow’, which inspired Eowyn to write this novel itself) in the book as a favourite tale of Mabel’s as a child. She couldn’t read the language, but she could certainly understand the illustrations of this tragic children’s bedtime story. That tale too is of a man and woman, unable to have children, creating a girl out of snow, but could this mean that Mabel already knows the fate her snow child’s before her life has truly begun? If of course she exists.

If I have made that sound complicated I apologise as it’s not at all, it is all woven together wonderfully and this leads me to Eowyn Ivey’s writing which is second to none, and what a storyteller too. When I started the book I was thinking ‘how on earth is this going to last over 400 pages’ but it whizzed by, no saggy dragged out middle and most importantly no endless descriptions of snow. Without ever over egging the snowy pudding and mentioning snow every other word the cold atmosphere is always present but never mentioned too much. In fact I have probably mentioned snow much more in every sentence of this review than Eowyn does in the book herself. That said when she does its beautiful, especially in the dreams that haunt Mabel. A possible sign of cabin fever closing in?

‘Snowflakes and naked babies tumbled through her nights. She dreamed she was in the midst of a snowstorm. Snow fell and gusted around her. She held out her hands and snowflakes landed on her open palms. As they touched her skin, they melted into tiny, naked newborns, each wet baby no bigger than a fingernail. Then wind swept them away, once again just snowflakes among a flurry of thousands.’

I think the best thing which Eowyn Ivey did for me on top of all the above (this sounds like a gushing review because it is, I can find no real fault with the book at all) was that I really cared about all her characters, especially Jack and Mabel. With so much time to think and so little distraction they often reflect on their lives leading to this point. We, as the reader, are then given their background through these reflections and can see how much they loved each other, how it has all changed since and of course how it changes after the snow child appears. I really cared about them and hoped beyond all hope that this fairytale might have a happy ending for all concerned. Does it? Well, you would have to read the book to find out.

I was enjoying ‘The Snow Child’ so much from the start that I did something I hardly ever do. Rather than read it in chunks when I could, I simply devoted almost a whole day to it. I could have saved it and made it last, but sometimes you have to think ‘stuff that’ and just get lost in it all. So I did and read the book in pretty much one go just gorging on it. Now that is the sign of a truly magical book, I was completely spellbound… apart from having to pop the heater on and making the occasional hot drink as the snow really does feel like it’s coming off the page. This is a highly, highly recommended read.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Eowyn Ivey, Headline Review, Review

When God Was A Rabbit – Sarah Winman

I normally do long intro’s into my book thoughts, but I am trying some new things with my blogging and so decided I wouldn’t meander introducing ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman and would just cut to the chase and say please give this book a whirl, its really rather good, and read on to find out why you should, there’s lots of reasons so be warned you might find yourself instantly buying the book by the end, which is a good thing…

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‘When God Was A Rabbit’
has been described as a love story between a brother and sister. Now if you are like me you might be worried that this is headed into incest territory, but fear not, it is nothing of the kind. I would describe this book as a coming of age meets family saga in which we follow the lives of Eleanor Maud (aka Elly) and her big brother Jo as they grow up with secrets they share, and discover the highs and lows of life both together and separately and the special bond they have between them. I would also says it’s a book of friendship and the people who come into our lives no matter for how long or short a time and make an impression. This might sound like a vague summing up of the book but one of the joys I found, and I did find this a really good read, whilst turning the pages was discovering who or what was around every corner.

It’s also about time, and as we follow the family we too see the world events unfold around them from the late 1960’s until more recent years and covers things from family secrets, loves and loses and such subjects as John Lennon and Diana’s death to 9/11. So it’s really about two people through time. It sounds so simple yet it is a book that has been meticulously crafted, not so that we see the authors hard work, but in the sense that the people we follow seem to step off the page. In fact I kept thinking of David Nicholls ‘One Day’ and the nostalgic feeling and so real you feel like you’re their best mate lead characters. Only these are of course siblings, not on-off lovers.

Sarah Winman is without question a very exciting new writer that I think we all need to keep our eyes on. Her prose is rhythmic and I found the first hundred pages simply unputdownable (cliche alert, sorry) as we meet Elly and her family and the cacophony of characters in her life. Seriously, the characters are marvellous. I did wonder if Winman, being from an acting background, has simply created a list of the sort of characters she has wanted to play. Winman’s swift way of summing them up in a is genius. No matter how little time a character is called into this world they are fully fleshed out be it in a single sentence or paragraph. There was one scene between Aunt Nancy and one of her movie obsessed girlfriends, who has renamed herself Katherine Hepburn and is hardly in the book at all, which had me in hysterics and showed the full genius of Winman’s ability to characterize in a minimal way.

“’Sorry I’m late!’ shouted Nancy one day, as she rushed into a café to meet her.
‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ said K.H.
‘That’s alright then,’ said Nancy sitting down.
Then looking round, with a raised voice, K.H. said, ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.’
Nancy noticed the people in the café staring at them.
‘Fancy a sandwich?’ she said quietly.
‘If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.’
‘I’ll take that as a yes then,’ said Nancy picking up a menu.”

In fact the level of humour in ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ was something I wasn’t expecting and is a tool Winman uses well particularly if things are getting quite dark, which the book does do quite a lot. In fact it was a rabbit named ‘god’ who stole the show  in terms of bittersweet humour in the first half of the book as Elly uses his ability to ‘talk’, which only she can hear, to deal with horrid moments, so when she has heard some bad news she will go and pet god who will then say something like ‘ouch you little, s**t’ (this has me laughing as I type) and again shows how Winman effortlessly gets into the head of or protagonist Elly, especially in her formative years and in times where she doesn’t quite know what to do with herself or how to copewith life’s twists and in many ways escapes.

I did find it interesting that the opening line is ‘I divide my life into two parts’ because to me this is a book of two halves and is also where it becomes telling that this is a debut novel. Debut novels tend to have a real thrust and drive to them, as this book does (though its technically Winman’s second, the first didn’t get published) for the first half which bowled me over. They can also want to say a lot, sometimes too much. Whilst Winman doesn’t do this I did find that when a friend of Elly and Joe’s was kidnapped in Dubai (in the middle of the book) and plastered all over the news, I started wondering just how much could happen to one family even in the most random or distant of ways. This happened again when John Lennon gets shot… on Elly’s birthday, and this occasionally seemed a touch too much. Then again sometimes that is life isn’t it? It by no means ruined the book at all, it just took a tiny bit of the magic off. I should comment Winman on the ending too as it was a risk, and one the reader sees coming, possibly as in my case with some trepidation, but which I thought actually paid off when in some cases it could have gone the other way. I will say no more on that though.

My only other slight criticism would be that ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ pushes its point home too hard on occasion especially in its gay sensibility. I think the fact that every other character in the book happened to be gay was brilliant and I could see what Sarah Winman was doing, but that isn’t the way it is in real life is it? It’s meant to be one in ten people, not one in every two. I also wasn’t sure how I felt, in terms of stereotyping, about some characters for example Arthur, who comes into the book about half ay through, is a wonderful character lovely older gay man on the whole but did then fall into a cliché by screaming or saying to our narrator ‘popularity, my dear, is as overrated as a large member’. Whilst yes it did make me laugh, that fact it’s said to a girl of twelve seemed a bit wrong, it reflects that rather archaic view that old gay men can be rather pervy and inappropriate and one we should be stamping out. Maybe I am being too critical there?

Those criticisms might seem a little harsh, or make me sound a little like the Grinch of books trying to see flaws; I just want to give it a full rounded review and in doing so had to point out some of it’s pitfalls too. You see initially after reading it I was a little conflicted about it, however with time for the dust to settle I realised I really, really liked it. There’s a warmth in this novel which is quite unlike any other I have read and it lingers. So as I was saying all in all I really, really, really enjoyed ‘When God Was A Rabbit’. It’s a book you gulp down for the first half and then watch unfold more delicately in the second. It’s one that deserves to be read, so I hope you will. It’s a book you won’t forget and, if you are like me, will grow and grow on you after it finishes. 9/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

I am actually rather surprised this didn’t make ‘The Orange Longlist’ this year but it was one of the Waterstones 11 and has been picked up by Richard and Judy latest book club (and might just have been submitted for another award – I think I can share that with you, oops maybe not) so I am sure it will be getting much more attention and it deserves it. It is definitely one to read if you loved ‘One Day’ by David Mitchell, as I mentioned, and also if you like the bittersweet. Which debut novel have you read recently which has rather bowled you over? Has anyone else read ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ and what did you think?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Headline Review, Review, Richard and Judy, Sarah Winman

Hell’s Belles – Paul Magrs

I ummed and ahhhed about if I should post about the fourth in Paul Magrs Brenda & Effie series ‘Hell’s Belles’ because as some of you will know Paul has become a firm friend (and a fabulous coffee and charity shopping partner for days out) alongside a fellow founding member of The Green Carnation Prize. However, I hope that you would all know that regardless of knowing an author I would be truthful about how I felt about any book that I read of theirs, slightly more dangerous now I am open to the idea of negative reviews. There, that feels better. I was actually a fan of the Brenda and Effie series way before I knew Paul and in fact it was a feature on the two ladies in question and him I did for the magazine I work for that led us to contacting each other, I seem to remember us both laughing a lot during the phone interview. It was interesting then that when I took ‘Hell’s Belles’ with me to the hospital recently that I got a bit nervous. What if I didn’t like it?

The seaside town of Whitby is welcoming some mysterious new arrivals both unknown and infamous as ‘Hell’s Belles’ opens. First there is Penny, arriving for a receptionist job a job at the Miramar hotel as a newly found all year round Goth and quite possibly escaping something. Second is the cult horror b-movie actress Karla Sorensen, arriving to remake the movie ‘Get Thee Inside Me, Satan’ which caused shock back in the 1960’s when various members of the crew and the viewing public for its limited cinema run seemed to become cursed. After the arrival of these two women, and a miraculously appearing DVD copy of ‘Get Thee Inside Me, Satan’ in the Save The Kiddies charity shop, things start to get a little stranger in Whitby and soon the unlikely and rather odd duo Brenda and Effie must investigate and see if they can save Whitby from the supernatural, including a bit of time travelling as they go, once more.

Meanwhile as the main plot unfolds we also have several other minor ones that interweave it, and might explain a few things, such as Brenda’s other best friend Roberts new mysterious fella, Brenda’s rather monsterous husband, lots of past secrets (like how Karla and Brenda have met before) and a few surprising love affairs kicking off. There is a lot going on in this book, the longest of the series so far, yet it never feels over done or trying too hard, nor does it get complicated and have you at your wits end.

Not that you need to read the rest of the series to enjoy this one, in fact actually I think this book is probably the most standalone in the series after the first ‘Never The Bride’. There’s no massive recap at the start, things from the past are nicely woven in as we go along. Not that this will bore readers who have read and loved the series so far either as Magrs tells them  through Effie’s or Robert’s reminiscing (Brenda doesn’t appear until page fifty which interestingly I really noticed, this book comes alive when both women are at the helm) this worked rather nicely showing the different dynamics between the characters and their friendships rather quickly all through newcomer Penny’s eyes and the gossip she hears as she becomes accustomed to the new bizarre haven she has found herself in.

I can’t give anything further away about the book but it had a lot more twists and turns as the tale develops, stories that had been bubbling away in the past books (along with characters like Mrs Claus of the Christmas Hotel) seemed to come much to the for yet without stealing the limelight. In fact I actually couldn’t believe how much I was starting to like Mrs Claus who up until now I had rather enjoyed loathing. It’s the way that Mr Magrs writes characters. In fact be they goodies or baddies, new faces or old friends, they all make you want to read more. Its the characters in both dramatic points and random very normal moments that add to the books charm. You might be ‘agog’ when evil things happen, yet its scenes like Brenda and Effie watching, erm, titillating old horror b-movies over cheesecake, Brenda rather excitedly and Effie rather snappily shocked, or Effie falling out with the local charity shop women, are become the scenes that stay with you for quite some time.

It’s the slight gossipy and often campy nature of ‘Hell’s Belles’ along with being reunited with Brenda and Effie and all the other wonderful characters that makes it so readable. I love how it’s cosy, spooky, funny and thrilling all at once. I also really liked the fact that just when you think you might know all the skeletons in the cupboards of Brenda’s B&B and Effie’s antique shop another one comes and takes you by surprise, again illuminating just how unusual these two wonderful women are, and often in the most funny and enjoyable of ways. It shows that this series has endless possibilities and I am excited about the next one, though I will be savouring reading it as I have nearly caught up with them all now. 8.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publishers, you can see my other Brenda and Effie thoughts here.

So who else has had an adventure with Brenda and Effie and what did you think? Which other spooky series would you recommend I pop in my reading path at some point? Do you know of any other books set in Whitby (apart from ‘Dracula’ or ‘The Whitby Witches’ both I have read), as I am off there later in the year for something a bit special and would like a Whitby based tale to take along?

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Filed under Brenda & Effie, Headline Review, Paul Magrs, Review

Truth or Fiction – Jennifer Johnston

I don’t know about all of you but I do think Sundays should be quite a restful day, maybe lots of reading in bed and pottering around? So instead of doing my book thoughts in order of what I have read, which I tend to do but might go out the window as at the moment I am reading some proofs for later in the year as well as dipping into Deborah Devonshire’s memoirs, I would discuss ‘Truth or Fiction’ by Jennifer Johnston as it could be an ideal Sunday read being initially quite gentle and easily read in a long morning in bed. And yes, I did say it’s initially a gentle read.

‘Truth or Fiction’ is really a novel that looks into just what the difference is between people’s own truths and their own fictions. Caroline Wallace is a journalist in her forties who thinks she is fairly happy in her living with her partner Herbert, an author, living in Notting Hill. That is until Herbert proposes, a scene which actually made me laugh out loud, and it brings all the things that have been bubbling under the surface of Catherine’s mind to the fore. Around the same time her editor decides to send her to Dublin to meet and interview the rather reclusive ageing author Desmond Fitzmaurice whose works seem to have been forgotten and are deserving of resurgence.

You might think ‘oh this is obvious Catherine is going to fall for Desmond and that’ll be that’ which I might possibly have thought was coming only having read Jennifer Johnston before (thanks to Kimbofo who is a Johnston connoisseur and chose ‘The Illusionist’ for the NTTVBG last year) and knowing that she is far to clever for that, and indeed far too deceptive too as you have the feeling something darker is set to come. As we read on Catherine gets more and more entangled in Desmond’s life from his current wife, ex-wife and the one that got away, to his relationships with his children and to something in his past he did and cannot quite get over.

This is where I come into some slight conflict with the book however. Whilst I liked the way Desmond was quite quirky, the fact there was more to him than met the eye and the fact that Johnston used him to look at the feelings behind old age and the modern family with divorces and estranged children. I didn’t ever feel like I got to grips with the depths of the other characters, his first wife Pamela being a slight stereotype of the woman who needed to be free, and the same with the current wife Anna being the woman who became more and more embittered as she aged. Catherine herself was another character that I never quite formed fully in my mind, but maybe that was all me?

I thought the first three quarters of the book were rather brilliant in that observational writing style where little happens but much is said and passed on to the reader, a style I am quite a fan of and always impressed by any author that can do it so well and Johnston certainly can. Yet suddenly it seemed Johnston went from a fifth gear into first and so much happened within a few pages, which of course I won’t give away, that I was thrown before suddenly it was the final page and that was that. I don’t believe an author has to tie everything up nicely; in fact I really like authors who leave the reader to do some work themselves, here however I felt a few strands had simply been dumped and it bothered me a little especially as I was left wondering what in the last 152 pages had been fiction and had been truth. Maybe though that is the idea? 7/10

It sounds a little bit like I am moaning about this book reading it back and honestly I am not. Though I came away wanting a longer book and wanting to understand more of the peripheral characters (so that I could make sense of the big character of Desmond at the forefront of it all) I did come away still wanting to read much more Johnston. I really like her prose; Johnston’s writing has an honesty, humour and darkness to it which works for me. The fact Johnston trusts you to, and possibly thinks you should, work at the novel is a quality I admire and I will definitely be picking up another of her books in due course.  

I wonder if my surprised enjoyment of ‘The Illusionist’ and its becoming such a hit with me created a certain level of expectation in this one to some degree. Have you ever had that experience where you have read and loved an author’s book and then read another one, liked it a lot, but expected more? Has anyone got any suggestions of where to turn for another Jennifer Johnston novel?

I got this book from the library where they seem to do a good line in Jennifer Johnston, I shall have to get another!

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Filed under Headline Review, Jennifer Johnston, Review