Category Archives: Hodder & Stoughton

A Room Swept White – Sophie Hannah

I have to say that I think this year above any other, well that I can think of, is the year where my taste buds for crime novels has been, erm, criminal. I can’t get enough! I have experimented with some new authors, and had some great successes, but the last few months (maybe because I was feeling a bit ropey) have seen me turn to my favourite series of crime novels and devour the next instalment. The first of these was ‘A Room Swept White’ which is the fifth in what, unofficially or officially I am not sure, have become the ‘Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer’ novels.

I did feel a slight trepidation before I started reading ‘A Room Swept White’. I have liked every book in Sophie Hannah’s ‘psychological suspense novels’ though the last one didn’t quite set me alight as I wanted. I had also done that very foolish thing of going and looking up some of the reviews by people, on a certain website, who had already read it which weren’t particularly favourable. I however thought this book, though I will admit not my favourite of the lot, was a really good thriller that had me guessing until the very end. I was left wondering if people had read a different book which had this cover on the front.

Fliss Benson is shocked when she learns that her boss has decided to give her his job when he decides to leave. What shocks her more is the fact that he has left her to carry on making the film he has been passionate for years. It’s the story of Helen Yardley, Sarah Jaggard and Rachel Hines, three women who were wrongly accused of killing their own children all with the same child protection zealot Dr Judith Duffy who was accusing them but is now herself facing an investigation for apparent misconduct. Not only is this a high profile film with a hard subject matter, its one that Fliss has been trying to avoid due to a secret lying in her very own past. This all gets much more complicated when someone kills Helen Yardley leaving a card with sixteen numbers on it, the very same numbers and in the same formation that someone has just sent to Fliss too.

I thought the premise of ‘A Room Swept White’ was incredibly strong, the whole sixteen numbers on a card had me very intrigued as did the idea of this evil Dr Judith Duffy. I was also looking forward to seeing what was doing on with the dynamics of the relationship between Zailer and Waterhouse. Weird then that I would say that these three things were not what kept me reading the book. In fact the sixteen digits only got the occasional mention and, without giving too much away, didn’t have that much relevance (for me at least) when everything was uncovered, nor really did Dr Judith Duffy. Zailer and Waterhouse were also in the book a lot less than they normally are, which I think makes this the most standalone in the series after ‘Little Face’ which is where it all starts. You would think then after all that I would be about to give the book a stinking review, no, not at all. Other things kept me reading instead.

One of the things that kept me reading was the main subject matter of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I wasn’t sure how I was going to react to this. I found it, whilst horrifying, quite fascinating to read. Not the deaths themselves, more how people are so quick to point the finger at the mothers, not the fathers so much it seemed, after a baby has died. There is the witch hunt element of it all too. I also liked the way Sophie Hannah weaved in different mediums of writing. There was the first person narrative of Fliss, the third person narrative of the police investigation, newspaper articles, interviews, and even snippets from a biography of one of the mothers (this made me think of the recent McCann book) it was a lot of information to take in but seemed to drive the story forward. Oh and there was the mystery element too which kept you reading on, especially after the very unexpected second murder which I will say no more about.

‘A Room Swept White’ could have been a let down for me if I was only reading the book because I had been hooked in by the blurb. However, as I was reading this as a fan of Sophie Hannah’s previous novels and because I like a good crime – it worked for me overall because even though it didn’t deliver where I was expecting, it delivered in lots of other ways. Oh, apart from the last chapter which left you wondering (which I liked) and then tied up a few (rather saccharine) loose ends that I could have done without, that’s a small quibble though. I would agree with some other reviews that it’s not quite the crime that you’ll be expecting by what you are sold but that’s the marketing departments fault not the authors. What Sophie Hannah again delivers is a smart modern psychological (and the baddie is bonkers in this one) crime that touches on a very current subject, I enjoyed it and its still one of my favourite series going. 7.5/10

This book was kindly sent to me at the request of the author.

Who else has been reading this series? Which has been your favourite so far? Has anyone read the latest one ‘Lasting Damage’ and, without giving anything away, what did you think? It was strange looking back at my previous reviews of some of this series… what happened to ‘Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners’ do you think I should bring that back again?

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Filed under Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Sophie Hannah

Water For Elephants – Sara Gruen

I bought a copy of ‘Water For Elephants’ a few years ago after having heard lots of acclaim for it all over the place on its initial release and not really having taken its premise in. The idea of a book combining the circus (I don’t care for clowns) and the Great Depression (which I knew nothing about other than maybe it was… well… depressing) didn’t really seem to be my thing and so sadly it was left languishing on the TBR. So when it was chosen as the next book group choice I was filled with a mixture of ‘oh finally I get to give it a whirl’ and ‘oh dear this probably isn’t going to work for me is it’. Sometimes though great successes come from low expectations…

Sara Gruen can certainly describe something vividly if ‘Water For Elephants’ is anything to go by. I don’t think I have read a book that has captured me quite so much in the world it creates for quite some time. In this case, through the eyes of protagonist and narrator Jacob Jankowski after the death of his parents, loss of his inheritance due to the financial climate and with nowhere else to turn, we are thrown into the world of the 1930’s circus and ‘Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth’. Here he joins a world of underdogs, freaks, misfits and the beautiful ‘star of the show’ Marlena who is married to the tyrannical and rather unhinged animal trainer August. Gruen slowly sets up a love triangle which you have an inkling from the prologue could end in disaster.

It might sound rather like a typical love story and indeed could be if it weren’t for the setting, animals and most effective interspersed chapters where we find Jacob narrating from an old people’s home in his nineties. This added a certain something to the novel as we see how a man who lived a rather adventurous life, as we come to learn through his memories of the circus, and yet has now been pretty much dumped in a home where no one knows his past and no one really cares, with the exception of a rather delightful nurse called Rosemary. This to me actually made the whole novel all the better, and could have been a novel in of its own in many ways, as it added a rather bittersweet note to the book and gave you pause between the thrills and spills of his life in the 1930s.

Clearly Gruen had done a huge amount of research for this book, as explained by the authors note at the end, and the circus itself was incredibly vivid both in its glamorous ‘working’ glory and the rather dark and horrendous ‘behind the scenes’ aspects. Yet in some ways this occasionally was at the expense of some of the characters and some of the story. The plot is incredibly tight and keeps you turning the pages but then some strands suddenly end, or characters suddenly vanish with no real explanation and it slightly broke the spell Gruen so wonderfully weaved because I found myself thinking ‘oh so so-and-so has gone, maybe Gruen didn’t need them anymore’. Also despite Jacob being so wonderfully written characters like Marlena, August and Walter the Clown seemed more two dimensional. I came away having being thoroughly entertained but also left wanting to know why August was such a psychopath, why Marlena allowed herself to be in the position she was and how Walter ended up this bitter dwarf who then played clown. But then really I think the circus and Rosie the Elephant, who I loved, were maybe meant to be the secret stars of this book.

That said ‘Water For Elephants’ is a truly cracking read. I was occasionally frustrated I couldn’t simply sit and read it all in one go because the world Gruen created I really wanted to be a part of and stay in. It was a book I would simply take to read a few paragraphs of whilst boiling the kettle or walking down the stairs (dangerous) and was constantly in my hands whenever I had the chance.

Pages were quickly turned, I was often shocked at the way the people and animals were treated, two themes which Gruen explores, and I liked the fact that though the Great Depression was there in the pages it loomed darkly in the background not taking over the whole book yet letting its presence be very much known. Again this isn’t the most perfect book I have come across but its one I thoroughly enjoyed and one that I think will stick with me for the atmosphere Gruen created and the sense of having actually been right there with her characters and almost lived it all myself. 8.5/10

I bought this novel from a chairty shop a couple of years ago, it was originally bought in ‘Manali Bookshop, Anjuna, Goa’ apparently according to the sticker on the back, isn’t it lovely its travelled like that?

I had thought I might try and do something a tiny bit different with my thoughts on ‘Water For Elephants’, I was going to do a fair whack about what I thought and then I would do a smaller portion about at the group thought, however it seemed that my thoughts (as I wrote the actual main part of the post before I went) were pretty much along the same lines as everyone else’s both in the pro’s and con’s camp. We did all agree that we much preferred the old ‘unisex’ cover to the rather more ‘chick lit’ cover, these are important things after all.

I am finding it really interesting that so far in 2011 with this and with Brighton Rock’ it’s the books that are making me think about reading and writing that seem to be sticking with me the most so far over the ones I out and out love. I wonder if this is a trend that will continue.

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Filed under Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Sara Gruen

The Bookboy Reads #3

I am very sorry that I have not had time to do a blog of late, but I have been inordinately busy. In response to some of your comments on my last blog, I love the Harry Potter books and am a massive Harry Potter geek (has anybody had chance to see the latest film?). If you have, I‘d love to hear your comments about it, and hear if or how you think it differs from the book. Also, I am a very big fan of classics, and in a future blog, I will feature some of them. I am not the biggest fan of graphic novels (but if there is one of the Harry Potter series, I might just be persuaded!) Thank you, as well, to Kristen.M for her recommendations, and I will look them up in due course.

Now to my first book, it is called ‘The Valley of Secrets’ and is by Charmian Hussey. The main character is a boy called Stephen who was abandoned at birth and lives in a care home. He goes on a course for people who struggle with academic subjects, but who excel at biology, zoology and wildlife conservation. There, he receives a letter from a lawyer called Albert Postlethwaite telling him to come to his office at a time that is suitable, and so Stephen pays him a visit. He learns, to his astonishment, that he had a Great Uncle who has died and left him his entire estate in Cornwall. So Stephen travels to Cornwall and settles into his new house. Once there, he finds a diary, which turns out to have been his Great Uncle’s from when he took a trip to the Amazon in 1911. Stephen discovers something that will turn his world upside down, but will it be to his advantage or disadvantage?

I found this book a joy to read and I think that it’s appropriate for 9 year olds and above. If you have read ‘Journey to the River Sea’ by Eva Ibbotson, then you will find this book enjoyable.

My second choice is ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning’ by Lemony Snicket. This book is about three siblings called Klaus, Sunny and Violet Baudelaire. They live with their parents in a mansion until it is burnt by an evil villain. A banker by the name of Mr Poe is put in charge of their affairs and comes to inform the children that their parents are dead. They are then put in the care of Count Olaf, who claims to be their distant relation, though the children doubt that this is true. Whilst Count Olaf displays no clear cruelty, he is not a loving guardian and does not really care about them at all. The only thing Olaf is after is the children’s fortune, which was left to them by their parents. Olaf schemes, plots and tries all manner of things to get his hands on their fortune. However, the only snag is that Violet (the eldest Baudelaire) inherits the fortune when she is 18, by law. Will Count Olaf get the Baudelaire fortune, or will he and his despicable henchmen fall at the last hurdle?

I would recommend this book to people over the age of 8, but there is simply no book on this planet (in my opinion) that you could compare it to.

Next on the agenda is ‘The Mysterious Benedict Society’ by Trenton Lee Stewart. The main character in this book is a boy by the name of Reynie Muldoon, and he is exceptionally clever. He lives in an orphanage, but when he sees an advertisement in the paper that reads, “Are you a Gifted Child looking for special Opportunities,” he just can’t resist the chance to find out what it’s all about. He goes to the designated place and is put through a series of rigorous tests, and, finally, gets through to the final stages. He meets the person who put the advertisement in the paper, and, also, the other children who got through to the final stages of the test. Mr Benedict (the man who put the advertisement in the paper), brought the children together to form a society. This society would try and defeat a man who was threatening to invade people’s minds. Will they defeat this evil nemesis, or will he prevail?

Anybody who likes mystery, danger and slightly weird ideas will like this book, and I think it is best suited to people of above 10, as the plot is slightly complex.

Second to last is a personal favourite of mine, ‘The Hobbit’ by J.R.R Tolkien. Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit. Hobbit’s do not like adventure, and would rather stay in their warm houses smoking pipes and eating second breakfasts. So when a wizard called Gandalf turns up on his doorstep with a horde of dwarves, he is astounded and confused. They inform him that they are on the way to The Lonely Mountain to seek the treasure that is rightfully theirs, but is being guarded jealously by a dragon by the name of Smaug. They want Bilbo to join them as a burglar, as he is small, nimble and light. They force Bilbo to accept, and so begins a quest of much peril and danger. Who could have imagined that a mere Hobbit could become such a hero?

‘The Hobbit’ is a classic, and there is only one book I can think of that it compares to, and that book is, ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ by Alan Garner. I would recommend it to age groups of 11 and above.

Lastly, I am going to review ‘The Higher Institute of Villainous Education’ by Mark Walden. This book begins with Otto Malpense waking up with a blinding headache in a helicopter with an observant boy by the name of Wing Fanchu. Otto is not sure how he got there, but the last thing he remembers is a woman clad all in black kidnapping him, as he publicly humiliates the Prime Minister of Britain. Otto and Wing arrive at H.I.V.E, where their life being trained as villains begins. They are taught all kinds of things, stealth and evasion, criminal history and tactical education. But Otto and Wing’s primary aim is to escape from H.I.V.E, I mean, how hard can it be?

This book is the first in a fantastic series, and if you have read any of the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer, then you will like this book. I would recommend it to people of over 9.

Thank you very much for reading my blog (I hope you enjoyed it), and watch this space, as around New Year, I’ll be publishing my top reads ever which you might want to indulge in during 2011.

So long for now! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Bookboy Reads, Egmont Books, Harper Collins, Hodder & Stoughton

The Other Half Lives – Sophie Hannah

I have been in a real mood for crime fiction in the last few weeks, be it cosy or thrilling it seems to be the only thing (apart from submissions for a certain award) that is appealing to my reading tastes. Normally I tend to want this sort of fiction in the autumn and winter, I wonder why it’s changed this summer?  One of my favourite crime authors is Sophie Hannah and her fourth novel ‘The Other Half Lives’ is her longest, so what could be better to get lost in for several hours when I needed another crime fix?

Sophie Hannah has become known for writing crime fillers that make the impossible become possible, ‘The Other Half Lives’ is yet another novel that instantly you think ‘how can that be?’ and are slowly and grippingly explained ‘just like this’. Ruth Bassey’s boyfriend has confessed to her that he has killed a woman. Ruth is naturally shocked and devastated until Aidan tells her the woman’s name, Mary Trelease, hearing the name Ruth feels instant relief because she has met Marty Trelease, be it under rather fraught circumstances, recently and knows that she is alive and well. Yet Aidan is adamant that he killed a Mary Trelease living at the same address and with the same name, and will not hear otherwise. So Ruth visits the police, and one police member in particular, Charlie Zailer who with her fiancé Simon (who have been the police in the previous books) start to try and work out just what is going on. They are as puzzled as the person reading the book at this point.

As the book continues Ruth, Mary and Aidan’s pasts all begin to look more and more shaky and the more we read in the more they intertwine due to their involvement in the art industry. They even start to involve the very police who are investigating the whole ‘non crime’. This small point was a slight issue for me as I thought ‘why after checking that a crime hadn’t happened would you carry on investigating’ but Charlie and Simon both clearly have gut feelings about this all and as the book goes on you can see they were right.

I do read reviews once I have finished a book and I was surprised how this has been received. I have seen comments of ‘overly long’, ‘dislikeable/one dimensional characters’ and ‘too complex’. Yes, the book is long but because its as complex as it is you can see why. You can’t interweave a plot like this in a short space of time (I bet someone will give me an example of a 100 page book that does now – ha) and one thing that Sophie Hannah does in making this book long is to drawn you in deeper and deeper so the pay off at the end is greater. I will admit the fact we kept seeing it from so many people’s viewpoints could be a little confusing and occasionally repetitive but I am not sure it would work so well without them.

As for the characters, yes they are one dimensional initially and remain so for a while in the book, but they need to be. We only get to learn additional snippets of their lives before we are introduced to them now and again throughout the first half of the book because we aren’t supposed to trust any of them, making the book more compelling (or irritating if you like your crime novels spelt out and predictable, in which case I wouldn’t recommend reading Hannah). Also as you realise there maybe more than one psycho in this tale, if we knew them inside out from the first two chapters of the book there would really be no story to tell, we would know it all from the off set, and where’s the fun in that?

A book that will: be ideal for people who like their crime novels unpredictable  and complex from the start which have you working really hard and even getting a little frustrated as you try and work it out, or who have already read the rest of the Sophie Hannah books leading up to this one. 7/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:

Little Face by Sophie Hannah – the first and possibly the most chilling of Sophie Hannah’s series so far, can you imagine looking into your child’s cot after your first morning away from it and seeing the child there is not your child, yet everyone else says it is?
The Vows of Silence by Susan Hill – Susan Hill brings not only the victims and people involved vividly to life, she also pulls in the life of her detective in each case Simon Serrailler, which Hannah does with Charlie and Simon in this series.
When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson – If you like complex plots and coincidences then you HAVE to read the Kate Atkinson books featuring Jackson Brodie, this one for me is the best so far (I haven’t quite finished the new one though) but if you haven’t read them do start with ‘Case Histories’.

I am definitely looking forward to the fifth in Sophie Hannah’s series ‘A Room Swept White’ which I am yet to get my mitts on, and the sixth is out next year.  They are becoming firm favourites. You can find out more about her and the series tomorrow when she pops by for a coffee and a natter. Who out there has tried the Sophie Hannah series? Who has been meaning to? Which is your favourite crime series be it current or old?

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Filed under Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Sophie Hannah

One Day – David Nicholls

Don’t judge me for the next paragraph because it’s me laying my reading soul bare for you and ridicule would vex me, ha! There are some books I read that whilst not putting me into a life changing state, I find I have to give a hug because they sort of touch me in some way, or just make reading a pure unadulterated pleasure. ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls is one such book. It didn’t leave me in such awe I couldn’t breathe (though it did make me cry) but I when I finished it I wished I still had pages and pages to go. Maybe we should look at this in more detail?

The title of David Nicholls third novel ‘One Day’ is rather brilliant as in part it sort of sums up the plot in which we meet two people on the same day over twenty years, and it sums up the slightly nostalgic feel to the book of ‘oh, maybe one day…’ I am pretty sure we have all experienced that feeling at some point (if not several) in our lives; which of course is a master stroke because if you can empathise with a book naturally you are much more drawn into it, just as I was in this case. But let’s look at the plot a little more before I go off on a tangent about me.

As the book opens in on St Swithun’s Day (July 15th) in 1988 we meet Dexter and Emma who have just spent a drunken night together at the end of their university studies in Edinburgh. It’s that awkward morning after, and one Dexter is rather prone to, however in this instance for some reason they decide to keep in touch both with that feeling that this could be something special, but neither really having the guts to say so, or being made a fool off in case of getting rebuffed. Over the next twenty years we meet these two people wherever they might be and follow their lives which interlink and separate with a slight feeling of inevitability but nothing, as we learn, ever goes the way you think it might. I don’t want to say anymore as I wouldn’t want to spoil what a treat the reader has in store, I will say that Nicholls pulls the rug from under you several times so just when you think ‘aha, I see where this is going’ you’re proven wrong.

Really the book is about Dexter and Emma and their journeys from early twenties until their forties and the almost present day. The cast of additional characters that come in and out of their lives are well drawn and real but because of the nature of the book they never become big characters. Dexter becomes a celebrity bringing out ever more the arrogance that he has from the start whilst Emma dreams of being a writer whilst serving food from hell in a horrid restaurant chain. Again I won’t say how things progress for fear of plot spoiling. I mentioned Dexter is arrogant, yet he’s not a complete twit, in fact both our lead characters have flaws which would normally make you think ‘eurgh’ but with Nicholls writing makes them all the more real, we know people like them and in some instances we have even been people like them.

I didn’t think hopping from year to year would work. I didn’t think I would bond with our leading duo or be able to follow the stories from the previous year. Once again I was wrong on both counts as Nicholls manages to convincingly, without it ever feeling forced, drop small hints as to what has happened since – even when Dexter and Emma don’t speak for several years but meet mutual friends – so really you feel you live the whole story with them. In fact it’s like those friends you catch up with year to year but it’s like you only saw them last week and by the end these two fictional characters do weirdly feel like your mates.

I am well aware that this book won’t be for everyone but anyone who is looking at it and thinking ‘chick-lit by a man with no literary merit’ (and I have heard that said) would be wrong. The prose is incredibly readable without being throw-away. I laughed and cried whilst reading this book in one sitting, it was rather like spending a day on an emotional rollercoaster I have to say and yet once I had put it down I really just wanted to start all over again and I don’t say that too often. It’s not a modern masterpiece but I hope it becomes a contemporary classic.

A book that will: leave you an emotional wreck, make you want to hug it and also start all over again all at once possibly. 9/10

Have you read this and if so what did you think? I know it has had some real Marmite reviews of both loving and loathing but I was so pleasantly surprised! Has anyone read anything else by David Nicholls, I am hoping they are all this brilliant? I have had to put my thinking cap on for some perfect prose partners for this, any suggestions from any of you?

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Filed under Books of 2010, David Nicholls, Hodder & Stoughton, Review

The Point of Rescue – Sophie Hannah

I have been meaning to read the next in the Sophie Hannah for ages. ‘So why haven’t you?’ I hear you cry. Well when there is a series that I really love, or indeed an author, I find that though I want to race through the entire series/works I am aware that there are only a limited number of books left and I don’t want to run out.  Well I was out shopping a few weeks ago and saw that the latest Sophie Hannah was in the windows and so I knew I had more in store and so could get on with reading the third of her crime series ‘The Point of Rescue’.

Imagine you had a week’s escape from your life, a week where you escaped the world. You weren’t married with children but free with the world at your feet. Imagine you met someone who was in pretty much the same position and you had an affair that you both agreed no one else would ever know about. Now imagine you’re watching the news and that name from the past appears on the screen as their partner and child are dead under shocking circumstances, only the person you had met name appears on the screen but they aren’t the person you had the affair with.

That is the situation that Sophie Hannah puts us in through the eyes of Sally, a happily married woman who had a week of escaping her life and a short affair with Mark Bretherick only it isn’t the Mark Bretherick that she met despite the names of his wife and daughter being exactly the same. What’s even more ominous is how alike Sally is to the recently deceased Geraldine Bretherick. What ensues is a chilling, puzzling, gripping and as ever brilliant thriller that follows on from ‘Little Face’ and ‘Hurting Distance’ that looks at how parents cope with having children, or not in some cases.

I will say no more on the plot because I wouldn’t want to give away the smallest hint of what goes on as working it all out, or furiously trying to is all part of the fun of reading a book like this. I will say it leaves you once again in wonder at how an author can make the impossible both possible and plausible and once again with this Sophie Hannah is flawless.

I am sure any of you who have read the first two will be wondering what is going on with the two protagonist cops that have been part and parcel of these books, and really make it a series even though these books do stand alone quite happily. Well Charlie is still unsure how Simon feels about her and the two skirt around each other just as much as in previous books but there is a surprising twist in this book with their relationship even though the book is less about them and much more about Sally and the Brethericks and rightly so because it makes for utterly compelling reading. 7/10

I do love how Sophie Hannah creates an impossible situation and then breaks it down leaving enough titbits to make you think you are really clever and have the cause and culprit nailed down before then pulling the rug from under your feet completely. I only wonder where she can go next with these? I am looking forward to finding out, though with only two more ahead of me I shall have to continue pacing myself. If you haven’t read Sophie Hannah I find giving her a try most advisable.

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:
Little Face – Sophie Hannah (because its the beginning)
When Will There Be Good News? – Kate Atkinson

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Filed under Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Sophie Hannah

Mr Rosenblum’s List – Natasha Solomons

I had been meaning to read ‘Mr Rosenblum’s List’ by Natasha Solomons ever since it arrived here at Savidge Reads HQ before Christmas last year, and then made it one of my books to look out for in 2010. Then I decided to wait a while, partly to let myself calm down a little from it and also because it wasn’t coming out until the start of April and if I read it early you might not remember it if it was any good. One of the new little mottos for the new Savidge Reads is that even if I read a new book before its out you wont hear of it until after its out, make sense? Now however it seems that I am a little late to Mr Rosenblum’s party and quite a few lucky blighters have gotten there first, ha…

I know you should never judge a book by its cover but the hardback of Natasha Solomons debut is utterly delightful and it’s a good place to start because so is the book. However ‘Mr Rosenblum’s List’ isn’t quite the ‘utterly charming and very funny’ read that Paul Torday quotes on the cover, it’s actually that and more. Amongst the humour and charm lie some big questions and rather dark, thought provoking undertones running the whole way through the book.

Jack Rosenblum has come, along with his rather reluctant wife Sadie, to live in England in the hope of becoming a truly English Gentleman. Disembarking in Harwich in 1937 he and Sadie have come from Germany where the movement against Jews has already started although the war isn’t due to start for another two years. On arrival they are told that assimilation is the key and that they must do everything they can to become almost invisible and follow the ‘Helpful Information’ leaflet to the latter. Jack has been obsessed with England and the English since first hearing the forecast on the radio and believes that he knows exactly what you must do to become a true Gent and fit in, you must buy marmalade from Fortnum and Masons, no hand gestures must be made to show too much emotion and German simply must not be spoken.

Despite his obsession and his efforts and even starting the most successful carpet firm in the East End he still manages to get arrested and shortly imprisoned for not quite fitting in enough and that’s how he ends up briefly in the countryside which he falls in love with, and comes up with a plan involving that most British of sports… golf (if like me you aren’t a fan of golf don’t let it put you off), only he isn’t bargaining on the countryside being harder to fit in with than London.

I did enjoy Jack’s story a lot however it was actually the story of his wife Sadie that really struck a chord with me and I only wish she had been in it and explored a teeny tiny bit more. She doesn’t love England like her husband, in fact for half the book I wondered if she loved her husband at all and vice versa, and is rather baffled by it all she misses her life before no matter how hard it was. Through her runs a tale of loss and sadness (that happens to spread throughout the village when anyone smells her Baumtorte – it is in fact baking that eventually settles Sadie somewhat into village life with the other women). She is often bemused by her husband and wonders why Jack finds it so desirable to fit in and tries so hard (whilst Jack cannot understand why Sadie won’t try and, for example, get a blue rinse like all the other women) and more importantly seems to forget who he is, his culture and where he comes from. It was that particular strand of the story, to me at least, that was very much the heart of this book and what it was all about and I found that both poignant and emotive.

“Lavendar blinked, forced a tight smile and then relaxed. This was the first time Mrs Rose-in-Bloom had casually mentioned her German past. But, Lavendar supposed, it wasn’t sordid like Mrs Hinton’s younger sister whose ‘past’ had been a long haired sailor from Kentucky. Mrs Rose-in-Bloom’s past wasn’t her fault, and perhaps it was better that she spoke of it from time to time.”

I think it was Sadie’s story and Jack’s humorous try hard nature that set this book well apart from the normal stereotypical tale of strangers moving into and English village and being deemed ‘the outsiders’. It also interested me that I went from not liking Sadie to wanting the whole book to be about her, thats a rare thing with me. I do need to mention  one wonderful character though who also makes the book a  delight and that is Curtis Butterworth and his secret cider recipe. He steals the show on several occasions and is someone I would love to have as a neighbour if I ever end up in a village in the middle of the countryside. All in all this is a delightful debut, I am looking forward to more of Natasha’s work in the future and am hoping she isn’t afraid to delve that little bit deeper into the darker undertones out there because she writes humour and delight just as well as she does sorrow and hardship in the glimpses we see. 8/10

***

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:
Notwithstanding – Louis De Bernieres
Henrietta’s War – Joyce Dennys

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Filed under Hodder & Stoughton, Natasha Solomons, Review, Sceptre Publishing