Category Archives: Richard and Judy

A Year of Marvellous Ways – Sarah Winman

When I read a debut author whose writing I love there is always a mixture of feelings when their second book arrives. As a rule I am both ridiculously excited as their new work could be even better than its predecessor and also really nervous because it might not be. Tricky. It was with this mixed bag of emotions that I met A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman, whose debut novel When God Was a Rabbit I absolutely loved when I read and also had the pleasure of raving to everyone about at my first (short lived, weeps) literary salon in Manchester ‘Bookmarked’ and beyond. I finally read it on holiday, aptly in a desolate cove.

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Tinder Press, paperback, 2015, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Marvellous Ways is waiting for something, she doesn’t know what on earth it might be, she just knows she has to wait. Well, she was told to wait by one of the three loves of her life, albeit from beyond the grave in a dream. (This might all sound bonkers, it is, stay with me.) What she is waiting for turns out to be Francis Drake who, on a mission after the Second World War to pass a letter from a soldier to his father, ends up washed up on the shore of the cove where Marvellous spends much of her time. Drake it seems has given up on life and had it not been to keep a promise to a dying man might have ended it all, Marvellous realises her mission is to bring back to him a passion for life and a life yet to live whilst being close to the end of her own.

My initial summation actually makes the novel sound both a little too simple and also much more linear than it is to read. Whilst it has a beginning, middle and end (as all books do) it also has a fluidity and magical element to it that means it all flows and interlinks, if that makes sense? The first thirty pages tell of how Marvellous lives, waiting, by the sea in Cornwall in her late eighties and creates a wonderful image of an eccentric character who likes to swim naked every day, regardless of the weather, and potter around the hamlet nearby sharing her stories. We then switch to Drake at a pivotal moment in World War II and then follow him back to London where he tries to find Missy, the woman he believes is the love of his life.

She watched the tide of life below. People doing their very best, trying so hard to make it better. And she took to wondering, like so many often did, what it had all been for. The triumph of two years ago hadn’t gained access to wallets or purses or homes. People were poor and the city was crumbling.

What he finds is both a woman and a city changed forever and an incident that soon sees Drake fleeing London and into the cove and life of Marvellous. It is from this point that the novel, I think, really grabs the reader as we enter the world of Marvellous Ways again and get lost in both the stories that she tells Drake (how her mother was a mermaid, how she had had three great loves of her life; a lighthouse keeper and two brothers, how starfish came to be) and some of the lives of those who live nearby and become part of Drakes new life. I was soon swept up in what becomes a fascinating and beguiling narrative of one woman’s history and also the history of some of the lives that she has touched; be they a minor character or a major one, be they good or bad.

Rumour has two very distinct sounds. When it flies free the sound is similar to a ship’s hull scraping against a harbour wall. But when rumour is caught, the sound is of expiration: like a fearful sigh in the vacant dark whorls of long-abandoned shells. And marvellous pointed to the whelks.
She knew these sounds well because she’d had a rumour-catcher outside her caravan and it had caught many over the years, most having been carried on the breath of Mrs Hard. She’d launched rumours like royalty launched ships.

Without a doubt, for me, it is Sarah Winman’s creation of Marvellous Ways that gives life to the whole of the novel. What is unusual for me though is that I would have liked the book to be longer. This is unusual as regular visitors here will know that I can veer away from both lengthy novels and novels about the world wars. I would have, shock horror, liked to have had more of both Drake and Missy’s life during the war. Drake for the impact of the war and the propulsion to do what he does, which I think Winman would have written incredibly. Mainly for Missy though because the glimpse of the life that she led during the war (which I knew nothing about and won’t tell you because I really do want you to read this book) made me have a small jaw drop and I wanted to get more of an insight into how that slowly affected her rather than how much it had at the point we meet her. This all sounds very vague because I don’t want to ruin anything. It also sounds like a backhanded compliment which I don’t mean it to because I enjoyed the experience of A Year of Marvellous Ways as it was.

The reason for this is simply Sarah Winman’s writing. Throughout the novel you will be greeted on every page with sentences as simple and sharp as Hatred doesn’t need much watering or care. Just a nudge. She can also be quite whimsical and florid but never at the cost of being twee or unbelievable, just slightly magical. Speaking of which there are some truly gorgeous mini stories, legends and fables that interweave the stories of Drake and Marvellous which add to it immensely. One I particularly loved, and almost included as a quote in this review but didn’t because I want you to go and read it yourself, is that of how starfish came to be. It is just utterly gorgeous.

All these traits of her prose excel when combined to create characters and evoke places and atmospheres. She creates, erm, marvellous fully formed, and often flawed) characters. Marvellous is the standout of the lot unsurprisingly, her narrative just resonates and charms even when she is telling you some of the most unbelievable or cuckoo sounding stories, but that is what is so vivid and wonderful about her. It is hard to describe. It is not just characters that Winman is a wonder at, she excels in settings too. War torn London comes fully to life with all its shattered homes, hearts and hopes. Her writing of Cornwall, with its sense of the possibility of the impossible, comes off the page just as it does when you go and visit it now, all these years later there is still something quite ‘other’ about that part of the world.

I could ramble on and on about A Year of Marvellous Ways for much longer but I will save you from that. Suffice to say I really enjoyed it and loved getting enthralled and (sometimes a little literally) lost in the story of Drake, the story of Marvellous and the story of Drake and Marvellous. It somehow manages to be a story of nothing and a story of everything, most importantly though it is a (sorry in advance) marvellous story of stories and a particularly (sorry again) marvellous storyteller. I ended the book with quite the bottom lip wobble because I didn’t really want Winman’s fairytale to end.

Have you read A Year of Marvellous Ways, or indeed When God Was a Rabbit, and if so what did you think? Have you any second novels of debut authors you’ve loved left nervously on the shelf and if so which ones? I now need to get a wriggle on with both S J Watson (who was also at the first Bookmarked with Sarah) and Lucy Wood’s second books very soon, as they have been waiting on my shelves far too long.

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Filed under Review, Richard and Judy, Sarah Winman, Tinder Press

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

The Novel in the Viola – Natasha Solomons

There are some books that are just a real treat to read. I don’t mean in a throwaway sense or a guilty pleasure, I am talking about a book that is just a delight to read from start to finish and I have to say that Natasha Solomon’s second novel ‘The Novel in the Viola’ is one such book. I liked her very successful debut novel ‘Mr Rosenblum’s List’ (or ‘Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English’ as its known in some other countries) very much, but this latest offering is even more my cup of tea. In fact speaking of cups of tea it’s the perfect book to settle down with in an armchair, nice cup of tea and some biscuits and just settle back and enjoy, not that this is a ‘happy go lucky’ tale by any means.

‘The Novel in the Viola’ is really two tales that over lap. The first tale is of Elise Landau in the year 1938. Despite her prestigious background, her mother Anna is a famous opera singer and her father Julian a novelist, Elise must flee her home in Vienna to escape what her family fear is coming because the Landau’s are Jewish and World War II is just on the horizon. However unlike her married sister Margot and her parents Elise cannot secure a visa to America with them and so in order to remain safe she must go to work in as a parlour maid in the English country house Tyneford.  The second tale is that of Tyneford both as a village and an estate itself and how it too changed because of the war, if you love the history of ghost towns then you will love this. From here we follow both Tyneford and Elise in a changing world in a tale of love, loss and a side of the War we very rarely see.

Where I think that Natasha Solomons really excelled herself with this novel was with Elise. I don’t think I have come across such a character in quite sometime. She is a real dichotomy of everything; she is at once vulnerable and prickly, naïve and knowing, heart breaking and hilarious. Basically she lives and breathes and is a pleasure to spend time with, be it in the comfort of a decadent Vienna or in the stairways and servants quarters where everything is in reverse and Elise is an awkward stranger. It is through her eyes and with her sense of humour that what could be an incredibly sad book becomes more of a bittersweet one with its sprinkling of humour thrown in here and there.

“While at most parties I watched as the men swarmed Margot and Anna, tonight I had caught little Jan Tibor surreptitiously glancing at my bosom, and I felt every nit as sophisticated as the others. In the darkness of the hall I puffed out my chest and fluttered my eyelashes, imagining myself irresistible, a dark-haired Marlene Dietrich.
   ‘Darling, don’t do that,’ said Anna, appearing beside me. ‘The seams might pop.’”

It was also this role reversal of Elisa’s life and circumstances, which I believe are based on one of the author’s family members, which I found utterly fascinating and was an aspect of the war I hadn’t heard of nor thought of. It also made me think of ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ which I am hoping people will pick up on and being as they are so much in the public consciousness at the moment will also make more people run to the novel which they should. I also found the opening line “When I close my eyes I see Tyneford House.” reminiscent of my favourite book ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne Du Maurier. In fact as I went along there were shades, never in a way that ripped another novel off I hasten to add, of other books I loved which made this book both familiar and comforting too. How Solomon’s has managed to do all this I simply don’t know, but it’s a credit to her and I can’t wait for her next.

It would be easy, and I would really love to, to just tell you about every single wonderful character, event and twist (both the happy and the sad) that Solomons puts in the path of her reader during ‘The Novel in the Viola’. That though would be to spoil what is a true reading delight. Some books simply tick all a readers requirement boxes. I loved the story, the era, the characters (Elise in particular I could spend hours and hours with), the atmosphere, the elements of both sadness and humour – neither to excess and of course Solomons writing which encapsulated and captured them all. I even loved the love story, and I don’t normally fare so well on those. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

Who else has read ‘The Novel in the Viola’? I have a feeling that now it’s a Richard and Judy pick for their latest book club (though I don’t really like the new cover) this book is going to be pretty popular and well read, and rightly so. In fact it’s quite spooky as I had two of their other picks scheduled over the next week or so before it was announced. Back to today’s post though, have any of you read ‘Mr Rosenblum’s List’?  What was the latest book you read that was a complete reading treat, and I don’t mean guilty pleasure, from start to finish?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Natasha Solomons, Review, Richard and Judy, Sceptre Publishing

What Arrived Before I Departed

I dont know how interesting other people find these but I have always loved seeing what fellow book bloggers have either been sent or been out and bought of late. If you are one of those people who dont like those sorts of blogs then you might want to look away now…

The latest books to have been sent from lovely publishing people to Savidge Reads Towers are (for those of you who cant see the picture well, or dont like reading sideways);
The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite – Beatrice Colin
Home – Marilynne Robinson
The Invention of Everything Else – Samantha Hunt
A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True – Brigid Pasulka
The Earth Hums In B Flat – Mari Strachen (actually from a blogger not a publisher)
The Behaviour of Moths – Poppy Adams
Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie
Ask Alice – D.J Taylor
Devil In Disguise – Julian Clary
The Glass of Time – Michael Cox
Now some of you maybe thinking “he has already read Lilly Aphrodite” well yes I have and this was a suprise arrival from the lovely Caroline at John Murray who had sent a parcel only its was “To Simon’s Gran” c/o Savidge Reads not actually just another copy for me! This was a truly lovely thing to have done and I will let you know my Gran’s thoughts when she has read it. It has been mine (and Caroline’s) favourite read of the year so will be intrigued how Grans takes to it. I am slightly worried that through the amount of mentions that she gets in this blog Gran might suddenly become infamous herself. That would never do ha!
I am not going to give you the blurbs for all the books as I think that may over egg the pudding but it gives you a hint as to what is coming up in my reading in the rest of May. By the time I am home the rest of the Orange short lists should have arrived and this is one of my big reading plans for May before the winner is announced in June, I do have to say though that I think I might already have a definate idea of who will win just from a gut feeling having not read a word. Lets see if the reading changes my mind or proves that particular book is deserving of winning.
The other thing that has, oddly quite quietly, been announced is The Richard and Judy Summer Read which I am having a lengthly mental debate as to whether to do it as another challenge for the next few months or am I biting off more than I can chew… I am never as big a fan (bar The Island) of the summer books they choose but the list this year there is one I have already read (Mr Toppit) and several I would love to read (Guernica just sounds wonderful) I shall mull it all while I am away.
So of the new books which ones have you read (no plot spoilers please) or have you read others by any of the authors mentioned? Any Orange/Richard & Judy Summer Reads thoughts? What books do you have on the go?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Richard and Judy

The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway

Sorry for the fact that I didn’t blog yesterday but I had a weekend of being quite under the weather sadly, I am feeling a bit better today though. The good thing about being sick though of course is the fact that I spent a lot of the weekend in bed reading and finally got round to reading the final Richard and Judy book of this years selection The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is set during the siege of Sarajevo which took place in the 1990’s although with the level of atrocities I couldn’t actually believe that it had taken place so recently but then I suppose similar things are still happening now. The whole tale behind The Cellist of Sarajevo is a fictional work based on the true story of Vedran Smajlovic who actually played Adagio in G Minor for 22 days to mark the death of each of the 22 people killed in the street queuing for bread. Steven Galloway opens the book with the cellist going out and playing for the first time. However the book doesn’t actually focus on him, more three particular people who have the cellist and his music enter their lives in some of the hardest times in their lives.

The three lives that we join during some of those 22 days are Dragan a man in his mid sixties, Arrow a female sniper and Kenan a man in his forties struggling without life’s necessities. Each one of these characters has the cellist in their lives. Dragan for example, whose family had left Sarajevo whilst he has stayed behind to look after his apartment which sadly got bombed and now lives in his sisters house, can hear the cellist as he plays roulette with his life simply crossing the road to get to the bakers. Kenan does the same as he travels across the whole city with the possibility of being shot in order to collect fresh water as the resources are running low and he collects it for his family and neighbour (who is a wonderfully difficult disagreeable character). Arrow’s story is the one that I found the most interesting, that of a female sniper who gets the job to protect the cellist from snipers and in doing so protecting the people of the city and their hope.

Through these three lives we are given snapshots of what happened in Sarajevo and how people lived, well barely existed through it all. Galloway writes these characters and their situations with a grim reality but with wonderful lyrical prose. I know you can’t call the subject a wonderful one but you know what I mean I hope. I found seeing the world through these peoples lives opened my eyes to what happened in Sarajevo and how people coped. How they explained it to their children, how they avoided catching up with people as all they would swap would be depressing tales of woe and how strangers, who might not chose to see each other if they could help it, come together in these times of trial.

I was incredibly impressed with this novel and as a final read of the Richard and Judy Challenge I thought it was one of the selections highlights (and I am really chuffed that I read them all) and without the challenge I might not have read it and I would have been missing out on a gem of a book. Though this has been one of the most emotional and horrific books in parts, I actually had to put the book down every so often to breath and compose myself before reading on, it is one of the best books that I have read in ages and would urge everyone to give it a go.

Now what should I read next. I have a pile of six contenders at the moment I just cant decide upon. ‘Daphne’ by Justine Picardie, ‘The White Tiger’ by Arvind Adiga, ‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood, ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid and two Salman Rushdie. ‘The Enchantress of Florence arrived in the post from Dovegreyreader this morning and I have been meaning to read ‘Midnights Children’ for ages. Oh its a quandry… any advice?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Review, Richard and Judy, Steven Galloway

No Time For Goodbye – Linwood Barclay

I have had this book on my TBR pile for ages and ages and finally have gotten around to reading it as I needed some serious escapism. Escapist reading for me can be one of a few things, a comedy, a who-dunnit or indeed a gripping page turning thriller. Everyone has different escapist reading, I know on person who can find no finer escapist reading than Mills and Boon. So as it was also one of the books on mine and Novel Insights books to read (I still have to conquer The Blind Assassin yet to have caught up) I decided that this would be my next read.

Linwood Barclay’s debut novel No Time For Goodbye is definitely escapist reading. It is also a very thrilling read with possibly one of the most unpredictable plotlines that I have come across (bar the immense Child 44) in some time. One day a fourteen year old girl wakes up to find her entire family have vanished. There are no traces of them anywhere they have simply disappeared. Come forward twenty five years and Cynthia is still none the wiser to what has happened, however when a TV show decide to pick up the story again things slowly but surely start to unfold and Cynthia may begin to wish that she remained in the dark.

I found this a real thriller, it’s a proper page turner and you are thrown some big red herrings and then random possible theories that turn up later to make much bigger plot twists. I have seen reviews of this that state ‘this is no literary masterpiece and doesn’t deserve the sales’ and I have to disagree with that. I am not a literary snob, I like what I like some of it isn’t literary and some of it is, it’s the same with books I don’t like. No Time For Goodbye is a book that I enjoyed thoroughly because the plot and pacing are fantastic. I quite liked the characters without being attached to them but most of all it did what I wanted and drew me in, took me on a thrilling mysterious adventure and most of all I escaped.

What I will say was a slight issue for me was that despite the blurb, I have issues with blurbs that don’t tell the truth (this one says a letter arrives that changes everything – that doesn’t happen), the book isn’t actually written from Cynthia’s point of view. The thrilling tale itself is told through her husband Terry’s eyes. I really wanted more insight into how she felt about it all rather than what she told him she felt throughout it all if that makes sense? He was a great narrator and got fully entrapped in the whole situation and scenario and I enjoyed reading it from his perspective I just think hers would have given the book an extra something.

I thought that the plotting was brilliant, the end of every chapter makes you want to read on. Yes, there are parts that go slightly beyond coincidence and what is and isn’t believable but that’s what makes a great thriller and also some things that happen to people in real life you couldn’t make up, I never myself stopped believing that the whole situation could have happened.

Other reviews I have seen say that the plot is over the top. Yes it is, that tends to happen in most thrillers and if you don’t like that then don’t you tend to stay away from these types of books? I mean I don’t believe in goblins so I have always avoided J.R Tolkien. In the same vain don’t we all like to have the realms of our beliefs pushed I don’t really believe in magic but I really enjoyed the Harry Potter books. Sorry I have gone off on a bit of a tangent.

Overall I found this a ‘thrilling’ thriller. I became completely engrossed in the whole story line and though I predicted some of the ending there were still lots of twists that left me reeling. I can understand why this book has sold so well, I think the fact it was a Richard and Judy Summer Read (which I can find hit and miss) probably helped, but even without that I think this book would have done well. It has a very original and unsettling storyline, and you simply cannot stop reading it… well I couldn’t anyway. 4/5

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Filed under Linwood Barclay, Orion Publishing, Review, Richard and Judy

December – Elizabeth H Winthrop

…And so onto the penultimate of the Richard and Judy Reads 2009. I knew very little about December or its author Elizabeth H Winthrop before this book was placed on the list and when the lovely people at Sceptre sent me a copy. I looked and saw that it has received slightly mediocre reviews on Amazon and in some ways I can see why and in others I can’t.

December tells the tale of a winter and in particular the lead up to Christmas Day for the Carter family. Husband and wife Wilson and Ruth are concerned with their daughter Isabelle who has not spoken for over nine months. There seems to be no reason as to why Isabelle has put herself under a self imposed silence that they can see. They have tried many different psychiatrists who have been unable to work out what is wrong and now Isabelle’s school are thinking of letting her go.

It is interesting for the reader to see this from all three parties’ sides. Winthrop looks into the minds of all three and how they each cope very differently with the situation and really gets into each of these peoples heads without melodrama which could have been quite easily done. The pressure put on the marriage and how it affects Wilson and Ruth is an interesting subject as they both have moments of denial, anger and unbound love about the whole situation. The voice I didn’t feel I quite got as much as I would have liked was Isabelle herself which was slightly frustrating as the story does in essence evolve around her.

I agree whole heartedly with two comments made by Farmlanebooks One was that it is a ‘gentle’ novel and that is an absolutely spot on word for this novel. This is a very delicately written novel that doesn’t pull out all the stops to dramatise or go over the top. The writing takes you a long without it ever being a page turner. That style leads me to another review that said it was in some ways very ‘like Anne Tyler’ and that is also spot on. In fact after reading Breathing Lessons and Anne’s writing about family issues earlier this year I was reminded of it again with this book. Winthrop looks at real life and writes about real people and situations and maybe that is why some people have found this a slightly underwhelming read.

I didn’t personally find it underwhelming, I actually quite enjoyed it without being blown away. In fact overall I would say it was an ‘enjoyable gentle’ read, even though really very little happens I still wanted to know more. For those who love a book with a punch and want to get lost in a great tale this is possibly not for you. Those of you who like books that looks into families and how they deal with things, observations of people and how they behave or just love Anne Tyler like I do then you will enjoy this I would imagine.

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Filed under Anne Tyler, Elizabeth H. Winthrop, Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Richard and Judy

The Luminous Life of Lily Aphrodite – Beatrice Colin

I have to say just from the cover I wasn’t sure what I was going to make of this novel. It looked like it might be a bit ‘chick-lit’ not that there is anything wrong with that by the way, just that it isn’t really my general cup of tea. I was actually sent this book ages and ages ago buy the lovely people at John Murray and despite a phone call raving about it from one of their delightful team I was still suspicious. It went to the bottom of the TBR I am ashamed to admit. However it has been this weeks Richard and Judy choice and as I am doing the challenge I picked it up, dusted it off and tried it out. I absolutely loved it.

Lilly Nelly Aphrodite is born just before midnight on December the 31st 1899; however she doesn’t actually take her first breath until one minute past twelve taking her first breath in the first minute of the twentieth century. Instantly you know that Lilly isn’t going to be your typical child and as a baby with her extremely vocal lungs she proves her point further. Things don’t start well for Lilly as within months her mother, a cabaret singer, is killed under scandalous circumstances. We then follow Lilly as she goes through her childhood as an orphan to becoming a major German movie star.

Now if your like me that final line would have made you think ‘chick-lit’ however with the background being Berlin and the timescale of the novel being from the start of the 1900’s until the mid 1940’s what you as the reader witness is war torn Germany… twice. Lilly is a wonderful set of eyes through this period as she has no real political streak, her only actual desire is to survive and through this you are given an insight (very realistically) into what life might have been like through such a horrific period in history for the general/poor public of Berlin. That isn’t the only historical facts that Colin focuses on, there is also the heyday of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hollywood and its golden era. How she manages to make all this work is quite a feat but it does.

Lilly is a wonderful character. She rightly steals the show… well book as she is witty, manipulative, wily, funny, naughty, kind and incredibly strong. Though she goes through endless turmoil she doesn’t wallow in self pity, well only occasionally, and instead she fights resolutely and carries one. Naturally she is flawed and makes several mistakes along the way but all in all you can’t help to admire her and like her, maybe a little less towards the end, but I don’t want to give anything away.

If Lilly isn’t enough I have to praise the characters that come and go, and come back. Eva is a wonderful character though in the end completely dislikeable you want to read more and more about her, especially the more conniving and bitter she gets. Hanne however almost steals the whole story from Lilly; she is a wonderful character a fighter like Lilly only much harder and much darker with a real self destructive streak. In fact it’s the women all in all that shine and take the main roles in this novel. Though not in the forefront of the novel the men are all there and very complete characters, in fact sometimes Colin does a wonderful trick of having a character say one line and then following it with what happened to that one small character in the rest of his life in the next single sentence.

It was in fact this quality that made me think of great authors like Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Mary Elisabeth Braddon etc. In fact in many ways some of this novel reminded me of books like Moll Flanders or Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the fact that every character no matter how small has their part to play and their story to tell no matter how big or minor their role was in the general tale. The only other two authors I can think of that do that now are Sarah Waters and Jane Harris and if you like any of their work then you are sure to absolutely love this.

As you can tell overall this for me was an absolutely marvellous book. The setting richly painted like the make up on many of the wonderful characters faces. I simply cannot find a fault with this book and think its one that many, many people will be getting copies of for birthdays and one that I can’t wait to re-read and take it in all over again…Though with my TBR that may not be for some time.

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Filed under Beatrice Colin, Books of 2009, John Murray Publishers, Review, Richard and Judy

Netherland – Joseph O’Neill

This is the seventh of this years book group choices by Richard and Judy and I have to admit as I said previously a while back I wasn’t convinced I was going to like this. Sold as a tale of a man whose wife leaves him to go back to England after the tragedy of 9/11 and then decides building a cricket pitch is what New York really needs alongside the unusual Chuck I thought that it sounded quite different. Especially with the twist that Chuck is pulled out of a New York canal hands tied behind his back and having been dead for quite some time I thought there might be some added mystery.

What the book turns out to be is more a description of New York after 9/11 and looks at the people living there and how they cope. It also looks at what affect this has one the marriage of our narrator Hans van den Broek and his wife Rachel who cannot cope in the aftermath and such atrocities, this was for me the most interesting story in the book. It isn’t Hans who has the plan to make a cricket pitch it is in fact Chuck a character with darkness who doesn’t seem to be all he appears. A great unreliable character though, he sadly isn’t in the book as much as I would have liked as I found him quite entertaining. The rest of the story evolves around what happens in the years between Rachel leaving and Hans hearing that Chuck is dead.

I didn’t really gel with this book at all. I started of liking it however the marital strife of a life changed by chaos and horror in New York is done and dusted within fifty pages or so. Then what follows is a succession of characters and incidents that flow through Hans depressing years after of which all bar Chuck and cricket come and go with no real relevance or point. This seems like a very long winded essay of the writer’s thoughts on America and the cultural societies in New York after 9/11 which drifts off at tangents that I couldn’t follow. I just didn’t care what happened to them again bar Chuck, I wont say the ending but I was left confused and slightly non-plussed and all in all quite nonchalant.

For me, though I know many people have absolutely loved this book, I ended up feeling quite disappointed and I wasn’t that excited about the book anyway. I didn’t feel I knew enough about Hans to want to follow his story and could actually see why his wife left him, though technically she was leaving the city. I did give the book a fair chance and I did finish it when at some points I didn’t want to, so I gave it my all I just don’t think it was quite the book for me. I’d be interested to hear other peoples thoughts though.

In the additional P.S section that Harper Perennial do in their books, which I think is genius and give you much more insight, the author says this book was hard to sell to publishers and kept getting rejected over and over again. I could sadly see why. It annoyed me a little that a book like this has gained such publicity, been long listed for the Man Booker and now is on the Richard and Judy list whereas wonderful thought provoking beautifully written books like State of Happiness (which I am still thinking about all the time) by Stella Duffy don’t and they should. Onwards and upwards though, hopefully next weeks book The Luminous Life of Lily Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin will be much better!

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Filed under Harper Collins, Joseph O'Neill, Review, Richard and Judy

The 19th Wife – David Ebershoff

So I finally get round to reviewing the latest Richard and Judy Challenge read which has only come in almost 4 days late… whoops. The thing is The 19th Wife is huge and actually didn’t take me as long as I thought it would but at the same time wasn’t as quick to read as I had thought it might be. Has that confused you yet?

When I opened this novel I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I was thinking ‘wow a Mormon murder mystery how unusual’ and indeed it is an incredibly different novel. There are really two stories running through it. Firstly there is the tale of Jordan Scott a young man in his mid twenties who sees in the news that his mother has murdered his father. Jordan has seen neither of his parents for quite some time, in fact since his mother drove him into the desert and left him on the roadside ‘at God’s will’. Jordan’s parents are in fact part of the First of Latter Day Saints and his mother was one of many wives, in fact she was his 19th wife. Jordan decides that he will go back to his home town and try and help his mother meaning he has to look back at his past and face some of his demons.

The second story of the book is all about Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young the second Prophet of the Mormon Church, who in the late 1890’s leaves her village and sect and battles for freedom and an end to polygamy in the United States. Ann Eliza Young was in fact a real person, which I didn’t realise until I had read the authors notes at the end which everyone should do with this book, and to me this made her story all the more compelling. Ebershoff tells her tale both from his fictional reworking of her novel (which she actually did write) through Brigham Young’s diary, letters from her son and through Kelly Dee who is researching the life of Ann and the fact that the Mormon’s one time biggest enemy actually helped create the Mormon religion of now and made the break between them and the ‘Firsts’.

Now this sounds confusing and I am going to admit that in parts of the novel I was somewhat lost. Especially as thrown into Jordan’s narrative keep coming press cuttings and news reports from Ann Eliza’s tale and I thought they should have been in the other sections of the novel as they related to that. As an editor himself I am surprised that Ebershoff didn’t have them moved. I also thought in parts the book was a little too long and yet, I am going to sound very contrary, I wanted so much more of Ann’s tale as I found it fascinating. This is actually what was bizarre, at the start of the book I really wanted to read more of Jordan’s story and by the end I wasn’t so bothered about the Mormon murder and was much more interested in Ann.

I think this had to do with the character or Jordan and the way he spoke and the two people he became attached to. He kept speaking in slang, so for example instead of saying something was boring he would say ‘same old blog’ and while I understand he is meant to be a young man ‘of the now’ it annoyed me. When he then meets Tom I found their relationship far too convenient and also quite unrealistic. After going to the cinema once they seemed to be a married couple. Then one scene where they are on the true killers heels they spend several paragraphs checking if the dog’s have the right toys and blankets. I just found that all quite ridiculous. However what Jordan’s character was good for was his story of being gay and the effects that causes in the ‘Firsts’ sects interesting and heartbreaking especially when his mother leaves him. It also showed how in the 100+ years since polygamy was outlawed that it is still going on as it the rape and grooming of children in these sects which makes for quite difficult reading.

I think what Ebershoff has done over all is quite spectacular. I know I had a moan about some of the Jordan parts of the book but that part was still a very good murder mystery and really looked at how children are affected by polygamy. I think really this was two separate books in one which is quite some feat. What this book has done that no books have made me do for quite a while is research. I have been trawling the internet looking to find out more about Ann Eliza and Brigham Young, reading about all the incidents she depicts. I think her story really sang out of the book and in a way the book could have been solely about her and still have been great. I think in bringing in the second tale helped to show that in all this time nothing has hanged for the ‘Firsts’ and they are still a law unto themselves which is slightly shocking and worrying.

If your looking for a huge book that will really make you think about things and want an insight into the life of ‘Firsts’ not Mormons (as I have learnt thanks to Ebershoff there is quite a difference) then this is a fascinating, clever and extremely well written book. I really enjoyed it and have come away wanting to find out much more about a woman I didn’t even know existed, and thanks to the authors notes I now have a list of more books to find and read. As for another Ebershoff… would I read one? No question, I would and will be. I thought Ebershoff was a new author however this is his third, randomly I found a copy of his debut novel ‘The Danish Girl’ in one of my favourite charity shops for 50p. I will report back on it in due course.

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Filed under David Ebershoff, Review, Richard and Judy, Transworld Publishing

When Will There Be Good News? – Kate Atkinson

I know its Booking Through Thursday day today but as I wrote about it before here (and I don’t mean that in a off way) I thought I would pop a link to it and mention it before discussing the latest Richard and Judy choice that is the superb and frankly brilliant When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson.

Firstly if you haven’t read ‘Case Histories’ and ‘One Good Turn’ then frankly shame on you. Kate Atkinson has created something wonderful in fusing crime and mystery with literature without it being pigeonholed into either. She also has a fantastic plotting ability which deals with some very complex coincidences in fact coincidence has been the theme throughout these three Jackson Brodie novels however I think with ‘When Will There Be Good News’ she has surpassed the previous two, though they are both must reads. This book safely furthered Atkinson as one of my all time favourite authors. Now for me to describe it to without giving anything away from this book and the ones that came before it. I have to say that this is the darkest of the series and yet has an incredible humour to it too.

Jackson Brodie is a former detective and private investigator he carries a lot of baggage but is an absolutely brilliant and complex character though actually he isn’t in this book as much as in the later so if you become a fan you’ll want to read the others. Plug, plug, plug. Brodie is investigating something personal as we meet him, that ends in him getting lost in the Yorkshire moors and then on a train the wrong way which ends in a crash. Detective Louise Monroe has history with Brodie and is currently looking into a case of a man. In Scotland Louise Monroe is dealing with a missing homicidal manic, her new marriage and a convict fresh out of jail. Reggie is a sixteen year old nanny who has reported her employer Dr Hunter missing when no one else cares? How do their paths cross, how do they intertwine with the 30 year old case of Joanna Mason.

The start of the book centres on Joanna Mason and the horrific (and for the reader incredibly chilling I actually got frightened along with those involved) murder of her family on a walk in the countryside, she was the only survivor. It was shocking upsetting and also you wondered how it could affect the characters of the rest of the book. How does this link with all the characters above? You will have to read the book to find out… Speaking of characters though I must mention Reggie who I think is an amazing character, its very rare you find such a gem in a novel (though I mentioned Marianne Engel from The Gargoyle last week) and Reggie is a character I could read at least a dozen books about and I really hope that she is brought back at some point.

This has to be Kate Atkinson’s masterpiece to date (I never managed to finish Behind The Scenes at the Museum and must try to one day) and with each in the series she gets better and better, you begin to wonder how she can top this with the next one – she is actually giving the characters a rest for a while.

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Filed under Kate Atkinson, Review, Richard and Judy, Transworld Publishing

The Gargoyle – Andrew Davidson

So this was the third of the Richard & Judy choices and after the first two brilliant reads plus knowing that some of them to come are fantastic I was slightly worried that this one could be a complete dud. From the blurb of the novel I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy this. “A young man is fighting for his life. Into his room walks a bewitching woman who believes she can save him. Their journey will have you believing in the impossible.” It sounded like it might be a bit of a clichéd romance novel. The book looks stunning by the way, you can see the cover in the picture what you cant see is the black edges of the pages which Canongate also did with ‘The End of Mr Y’ which I sadly didn’t get on with.

This book isn’t a cliché in the slightest. At the start of the novel we meet our ‘unnamed’ hero, and what an unlikely hero he is a drug taking, vain porn star. I didn’t want to like him but you simply cannot help yourself with all he goes through. The book starts instantly with action as we find him driving drunk and drugged when he suddenly sees a set of arrows flying through the sky. Unsure whether he is hallucinating from the drugs or seeing the real thing he swerves to avoid it crashing the car which soon sets alight.

In hospital he has no one (as you will learn through his back story) so when Marianne Engel turns up at his bedside telling him she knows him he doesn’t know what’s going on, he wonders if it’s the effects of morphine. When she returns and announces that she has known him since the year 1300 simply adds to his thoughts that she is in fact crazy. Plus the issue that she is also in the psychiatric ward occasionally as a patient doesn’t help. However being alone with no other visitors and so he decides to humour her and listen to the story of her life over 700 years and the story of how they might have met, if he decides to believe her that is.

I loved the character of Marianne Engel, I think that she is one of the most unusual and wonderful heroine I have read in a long time. I did sit in wonderment at where Davidson had created such an amazing woman from and where did he get the idea of a job as a gargoyle sculptor from? I think I will be hard pushed to find such an original character again this year and we are only in February. The history with the two of them if fascinating and takes you on a real adventure and adds an extra something to the novel. It added something different and some of the stories you heard Marianne tell our burn victim, dark fairy tales and fables.

Davidson’s writing is vivid, direct and punchy. It is literary without being flowery or over done, he doesn’t need to describe everything and at the same time he still does. That will make sense more when you read it, which of course you will do. There were only two things that put me off a little bit with this book and this is me being objective and not just raving about the book. Occasionally the unnamed narrator talks directly to the reader and will say things like ‘I am only telling you this because…’ and it slightly bothered me as it was inconsistent as it only happened every so often and also a lot of the book was narrated by Marianne. There was also the reference to the snake in his spine which I understood as a metaphor but didn’t feel needed to be in there.

The mixture of romance and horror with history weaved in reminded me in some ways of Chuck Palahniuk, I have only read Haunted by him but have always wanted to give him another go. This book isn’t for the faint hearted and that is a slight warning. The description of being burnt is incredibly vivid and could possibly put of some readers, I advise you to read on even if it isn’t comfortable and can be quite graphic and not just in terms of the burns. As the story goes on we learn a lot about the characters. I couldn’t quite imagine Richard and Judy reading this over their cocoa in bed of an evening. I think this is a sign that they are taking more risks with some books and the more their book group goes on the better I think they get and will get in the future. I really enjoyed this book and possibly wouldn’t have read it without it being part of my Richard and Judy challenge.

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Filed under Andrew Davidson, Books of 2009, Canongate Publishing, Review, Richard and Judy

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale

So I am on time for the second of the Richard & Judy Books of 2009, and it is the superb The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. Nothing to do with the fact that I had in fact read this book last year and it was in fact in my Savidge Dozen, ok it’s sort of cheating but not really. I mean be fair, with the amount of books arriving at the moment I need to keep ahead. So here is the review from when I read it back in November…

The subtitle of the book refers to the fact that this is not your normal gothic Victorian murder mystery; it’s a real murder mystery. In fact ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’ somewhat gripped the nation back in 1860 and saw the dawn of the detective in the form of Jack Whicher. This murder mystery in a country house where one of the occupants definitely did it sparked imaginations of the greats and inspired novels by Dickens, Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins over the years. The case took place during the night in Summer 1860, the next morning the body of a young boy was found having died in tragic circumstances, the police couldn’t work out who had done it and so Scotland Yard were called. The case became huge news and in the small town of Road there was uproar and unwanted attention with the whole world guessing ‘whodunit’.

Now I am not a massive fan of non fiction, I love diaries and letters but with most non fiction I tend to wander and read it alongside my fiction, the fiction taking priority. Not when this book was around it wasn’t. Summerscale makes all the facts and theories turn into a wonderful and spellbinding read that could put to shame some crime fiction around at the moment. The research she has done is incredible down to the trains caught on what dates, the timetables from the time to match the possible escape of the killer. Clothes worn, movements of every member of the household and makes it come to life effortlessly. You really could have been a member of the public at the time following the case, making your own assumptions and falling for the red herrings along the way.

The book does also deal with the time significantly after the murder and looks at the future of all those involved including the murderer themselves. What is also fascinating with this book is that Summerscale shows how the best writers of that era and just after used various parts of this story and its characters to create some of the masterpieces still being read today such as the ‘Moonstone’ so it’s a fascinating look at the history of crime fiction and the ‘sensationalist’ novels that became so popular following, and of course left me with a list as long as my arm of books to read in the future.

This book is nothing short of pure brilliance, and will appeal to so many people for so many reasons. If you love books then you can learn about the history and add another twenty to your TBR. If you love crime then read the murder that helped establish the genre. If you love a good yarn this ones brilliant and its true. If you like non-fiction then the research and facts you’ll read and learn without even knowing is unbelievable. Yes you might have guessed that this book is one of my very favourites of the whole year, simply a must read.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Kate Summerscale, Review, Richard and Judy

The Brutal Art – Jesse Kellerman

I didn’t realise that the first week of Richard and Judy had come around so fast so this review is a little on the late side as should have put it up on Wednesday, but hadn’t actually read the book yet at that point. I started it late last night and by lunch time today it had been completely and utterly devoured. This book has actually only further confirmed in my mind that this is the strongest year with Richard and Judy’s book choices.

After a rocky childhood and turbulent teenage years and twenties Ethan Muller has slowly but surely become on of the most popular art dealers on the scene. When he gets a call from his fathers right hand man telling him there is a collection of art her really needs to see his instant reaction, after his bitter relations with his father, make him hesitant. When he sees the collection however he realises he could have found the discovery of a lifetime, only when he accepts the works do the police want to talk to him and the mystery of the vanishing artist who created them draws him into a mystery set to change his life forever.

Jesse Kellerman is not an author I had heard of before. The son of authors Faye and John Kellerman he comes from a fine heritage (I haven’t read their works am only going on what others have said) but I think this book will definitely make his name as an author stand out alone. I didn’t think I would be interested in the art world and thought this might be a poor version of a mix of The Da Vinci Code of The Interpretation of Murder. It isn’t it’s a stand out thriller that had me swiftly turning through the pages and I thought I had it all sussed and suddenly a massive twist was thrown in I don’t think anyone could predict coming.

My favourite parts of the book however weren’t set in the present. They were set in the from 1847 until now telling us the secret family history of the Muller’s and helped make the conclusion incredibly clever. Kellerman delivers all this in a direct yet colourful prose whilst making it easy to follow the complicated history that all ties up in the end. I was worried that Ethan’s ‘poor little unloved rich kid character’ might grate on me but I didn’t. His love interests are incredibly clichéd, it was the character of the artist as you got to learn about it I found fascinating.

I have to say I was incredibly pleasantly surprised with this book. I wasn’t expecting to be drawn in on such an adventure. Don’t listen to the comparisons to The Interpretation of Murder (which I enjoyed) as they are quite separate books and I think this one should stand alone as just a great gripping thriller. A must read!

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Filed under Books of 2009, Jesse Kellerman, Little Brown Publishing, Rebecca Miller, Richard and Judy