#bookreview

‘The Bird in the Bamboo Cage’ by Hazel Gaynor #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

China, 1941. With Japan’s declaration of war on the Allies, Elspeth Kent’s future changes forever. When soldiers take control of the missionary school where she teaches, comfortable security is replaced by rationing, uncertainty and fear.

Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer has always felt safe at Chefoo School. Now the enemy, separated indefinitely from anxious parents, the children must turn to their teachers – to Miss Kent and her new Girl Guide patrol especially – for help. But worse is to come when the pupils and teachers are sent to a distant internment camp. Unimaginable hardship, impossible choices and danger lie ahead.

Inspired by true events, this is the unforgettable story of the life-changing bonds formed between a young girl and her teacher, in a remote corner of a terrible war.

I’ve read quite a few of Hazel Gaynor’s books and have loved every one of them. She has a really lovely way of writing about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, showing how those people find such strength of character in order to cope. The relationships between her characters are always a highlight too.

This novel is no exception. Elspeth and Nancy are authentic and likeable narrators, showing clearly their fear and bewilderment as their lives change so dramatically. What works particularly well is their belief that this can’t possibly be happening, that someone will come and hp them. It really made me, as a reader, think about what how I would react in those circumstances.

I did find, however, the storyline around the Girl Guides a little overdone. I can appreciate that it was something to hold onto, for the girls and their teachers, and something they used to give life in the camp a sense of normality, but it did take over the narrative in places.

Otherwise, another great novel by Hazel Gaynor, and definitely recommended.

‘Space Hopper’ by Helen Fisher #BookReview

If you could go back in time to find answers to the past, would you?
 
For Faye, the answer is yes. There is nothing she wouldn’t do to find out what really happened when she lost her mother as a child. She is happy with her life – she has a loving husband, two young daughters and supportive friends, even a job that she enjoys. But questions about the past keep haunting her, until one day she finally gets the chance she’s been waiting for.
 
But how far is she willing to go to find answers?
 
Space Hopper is an original and poignant story about mothers, memories and moments that shape life.

When she is just eight years old, Faye loses her mother. Taken in by kind neighbours, she forges a happy life, albeit one that has a sadness at its heart.

She has a good job, a lovely, supportive husband, two daughters, lots of friends, but nothing quite fills that hole.

When she finds an old space hopper box in the loft, it paves the way for her to return to her past, and to be with her mum, but as is usually the case with time travel, interfering with the past isn’t always a wise thing to do, and the consequences can be much more far reaching than you expect.

I did enjoy this. For a debut novel it’s very well-written, confident, well-paced, and absorbing in places, and the details of Faye’s past were so well done, really authentic.

That said, there were a few places where things dragged a little, and some of the time travel aspects didn’t really work for me. And I’m not sure I completely believed in the ending.

But certainly a good read, and I’d definitely read more by this author.

‘Pasta Mike’ by Andrew Cotto  #RBRT #TuesdayBookBlog

I read ‘Pasta Mike’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team.

Mike O’Shea and Andy Cotto knew each other their entire lives. Born days apart on the same block, baptized in the same water, the two friends were inseparable growing up and into adulthood.

After celebrating their 40th birthdays together, Mike falls ill and dies shortly after. The impact on Andy is enormous, and he spirals into a depression that threatens everything he holds dear.

Through memory and support, Andy is able to reconcile his grief and appreciate the power of male friendship and the beauty of life.

Pasta Mike is a testimony to the bonds men share and the vulnerabilities beneath the stoic surface.

Pasta Mike is loosely based on the author’s long-term friendship with his childhood friend, Mike, and mixes fact with fiction to give a truly authentic story of love, loss, grief and recovery. 

There are some gorgeous moments here, full of genuine feeling. The narrator’s sense of loss and bewilderment, the effect it has on those around him, his life and his addictions, go a long way towards showing the reader how grief can really have an impact, and shows too why we need to take those emotions seriously, be open about our feelings, and not be ashamed to grieve.

I enjoyed the wonderful descriptions of food – I’ve read previous books by this author and knowing that food would be involved here drew me to the book! 

This is, however, a novella, and, as such, I don’t feel that there was really enough room to explore all these interesting and important themes completely. I wish the author had made this into a full-length novel – there is so much here that would benefit from that, particularly memories of childhood, the narrator’s marriage, and the realities of depression

So a really great read, well-written, authentic and emotional – but, in my opinion at least, a novella that was crying out to be a full-length novel.

Inge’s War by Svenja O’Donnell #FridayReads #BookReview

What does it mean to be on the wrong side of history?

Svenja O’Donnell’s beautiful, aloof grandmother Inge never spoke about the past. All her family knew was that she had grown up in a city that no longer exists on any map: Königsberg in East Prussia, a footnote in history, a place that almost no one has heard of today. But when Svenja impulsively visits this windswept Baltic city, something unlocks in Inge and, finally, she begins to tell her story.

It begins in the secret jazz bars of Hitler’s Berlin. It is a story of passionate first love, betrayal, terror, flight, starvation and violence. As Svenja teases out the threads of her grandmother’s life, retracing her steps all over Europe, she realises that there is suffering here on a scale that she had never dreamt of. And finally, she uncovers a desperately tragic secret that her grandmother has been keeping for sixty years.

Inge’s War listens to the voices that are often missing from our historical narrative – those of women caught up on the wrong side of history. It is a book about memory and heritage that interrogates the legacy passed down by those who survive. It also poses the questions: who do we allow to tell their story? What do we mean by family? And what will we do in order to survive?

I recently watched The Final Account – over the course of more than a decade, the documentary film-maker Luke Holland collected interviews with surviving witnesses and participants of Hitler’s Third Reich. These were people who were there. Soldiers in the army, members of the SS, women who worked in the offices of the concentration camps. Those who lived nearby. It is a programme that was hard to watch. One man in particular was still proud of what he’d done. One woman, who worked in an office in a camp, said it was nothing to do with her. She said the treatment of the Jewish people horrified her. Then she laughed as she recalled hiding her boyfriend – a guard at the camp – when the allies came. There were those, of course, who were horribly ashamed, who took their share of the responsibility. 

A few years ago we visited Munich – a wonderful place, wonderful people, friendly, welcoming, beautiful. On our final day there we visited Dachau, and suddenly things weren’t so wonderful. What got to me most was that the camp was there for all to see. Everyone. No one could have not known. 

Of course we all hope that we would stand up to fascists. That we wouldn’t turn a blind eye, or worse, be involved. But documentaries like The Final Account, and the proof of places like Dachau niggle away – would we really be any different? Would we be brave enough to say no? 

Inge’s War, for me, is another story that poses this question. 

The writer’s grandmother, Inge, grew up in East Prussia, an area that was, in a lot of ways, removed from what was happening in the rest of Germany. On the whole, people just carried on with their lives, at least at first. Inge’s parents disapproved of Hitler, but they kept their heads down, not really believing that anything bad would happen. So removed were they, that they allowed Inge to move to Berlin in 1940, at the age of fifteen.

Here, Inge met Wolfgang, a young man who had avoided being called up. When he finally had to go to war, Inge discovered she was pregnant. He promised to stand by her, but his father forbade it, and feeling betrayed, Inge returned home.

The story then follows Inge and her parents, as the war does find them, and they too have to flee. What happens to Inge from them on makes for a dark tale, and the author comes to understand her stern, guarded, taciturn grandmother.

It’s unusual to read about German refugees, the terror they felt, caught between the Nazis and the Russians at the end of the war. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for them, for women like Inge, who were collateral damage in all of this. And when you read about atrocities like the Nemmesdorf massacre, the only thing you can feel is horror and disgust. But when you think about what happened to Jewish people, the Romani people, LGBT people, the disabled, and all the other groups targeted by the Nazis, it’s hard to feel as much sympathy for people fleeing who voted for Hitler, who may have watched their Jewish neighbours being taken away. Who turned a blind eye at the trains full of human beings. And the author recognises this, feels this conflict herself. But she asks the questions too of what would we, the readers, have done? Can we honestly say we would have intervened, spoken up, acted? 

The research here is, of course, impeccable, and the writing so accomplished. Accessible without dumbing down, thoughtful, respectful, and, unsurprisingly given the author’s relationship to Inge, completely genuine and authentic. This is, without doubt, an important book. 

Whole-heartedly recommended (as is The Final Account).

‘Daughters of Night’ by Laura Shepherd-Robinson  #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

From the pleasure palaces and gin-shops of Covent Garden to the elegant townhouses of Mayfair, Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s Daughters of Night follows Caroline Corsham as she seeks justice for a murdered woman whom London society would rather forget . . .

London, 1782. Desperate for her politician husband to return home from France, Caroline ‘Caro’ Corsham is already in a state of anxiety when she finds a well-dressed woman mortally wounded in the bowers of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The Bow Street constables are swift to act, until they discover that the deceased woman was a highly paid prostitute, at which point they cease to care entirely. But Caro has motives of her own for wanting to see justice done, and so sets out to solve the crime herself. Enlisting the help of thieftaker Peregrine Child, their inquiry delves into the hidden corners of Georgian society, a world of artifice, deception and secret lives.  

But with many gentlemen refusing to speak about their dealings with the dead woman, and Caro’s own reputation under threat, finding the killer will be harder, and more treacherous, than she can know . . .

This combines all the twists and turns of a really clever murder mystery with meticulous research, and a fabulously written main character – mystery, history and a female lead that you really care about.

Lady Caroline Corsham (Caro) discovers her friend, who she believes to be an Italian countess, dying in a bower in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Caro is shocked to discover that ‘Lucia’ is actually Lucy Loveless, a high-class prostitute. When the police don’t seem to care about Lucy’s murder, Caro, determined to get to the truth and to secure justice for Lucy, begins an investigation herself. Along with theiftaker Peregrine Child, she begins an investigation that brings to light some very dangerous goings-on in Georgian society – some of which are rather close to home.

This is a very long book – almost six hundred pages in paperback format. It does manage to hold your interest for the most part – but I did feel it could have been cut back a little. There were times when I just wanted to get on with the story. That said, the historical detail has been meticulously researched and the narrative is full to the brim with little details that immerse the reader in late eighteenth century London. 

Clever, exciting, beautifully written, just a little bit too long – but that won’t stop me reading more by this author.

‘The Hemlock Cure’ by Joanne Burn #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

It is 1665 and the women of Eyam keep many secrets.

Isabel Frith, the village midwife, walks a dangerous line with her herbs and remedies. There are men in the village who speak of witchcraft, and Isabel has a past to hide. So she tells nobody her fears about Wulfric, the pious, reclusive apothecary.

Mae, Wulfric’s youngest daughter, dreads her father’s rage if he discovers what she keeps from him. Like her feelings for Rafe, Isabel’s ward, or that she studies from Wulfric’s forbidden books at night.

But others have secrets too. Secrets darker than any of them could have imagined.

When Mae makes a horrifying discovery, Isabel is the only person she can turn to. But helping Mae will place them both in unspeakable peril.

And meanwhile another danger is on its way from London. One that threatens to engulf them all . . .

Based on the real history of an English village during the Great Plague, The Hemlock Cure is an utterly beguiling tale of fear and ambition, betrayal, self-sacrifice and the unbreakable bond between two women.

For an historical novel, The Hemlock Cure feels very topical!

Based on the true story of the Derbyshire village of Eyam during the great plague, this is an absolutely stunning novel, beautifully-written, atmospheric, and impeccably researched. 

After the death of her mother and sister, Mae lives with her father Wulfric, the village apothecary.  With her natural ability for healing, she hopes to become his apprentice, building on all she has learned from him, and from her mother’s close friend, Isabel, the village midwife. But Wulfric despises Isabel, and his feverish religious beliefs make him a very dangerous man.

When the plague comes from London, and people begin to die, the village makes the brave decision to isolate to protect others. This is something that really happened, and the author uses this historical event to weave a narrative that gives a real sense of the way that ordinary people, particularly women, were (and to an extent still are) constrained by circumstances.

Using Mae’s sister Leah as the narrator works really well. She can see what is happening, but feels powerless, in the same position as the reader. I really cared about Mae and Isabel (and the lovely Johan, Isabel’s husband). 

This is wonderful story-telling, drawing you in, making you believe in the characters and the world in which they live, one of those rare books you can get lost in. 

Definitely recommended. 

‘Scabby Queen’ by Kirsten Innes #TuesdayBookBlog #Bookreview

Three days before her fifty-first birthday Clio Campbell – one-hit wonder, political activist, lifelong love and one-night-stand – kills herself in her friend Ruth’s spare bedroom. And, as practical as she is, Ruth doesn’t know what to do.

As the news spreads around Clio’s collaborators and comrades, lovers and enemies, the story of her glamorous, chaotic life spreads with it – from the Scottish Highlands to the Genoa G8 protests, from an anarchist squat in Brixton to Top of the Pops. Sifting through half a century of memories and unanswered questions, everyone who thought they know her is forced to ask: who was Clio Campbell?

There’s no question that this is an extremely well-written book, and that that the author is incredibly talented. 

In Clio, Innes has created such a complex character, difficult to like, hard to understand, and someone who makes you question your own motivations and reasons for your friendships and for allowing certain people into your life.

Throughout her life Clio attracts people who admire her, to the point of adulation, and who put up with her sometimes terrible behaviour. Clio uses people, but she is also used by them, and we learn, as the novel progresses, why she is like she is, and we learn too what motivates her.

What’s really clever about this book is that we never hear from Clio herself, we are never in her point of view, we only know her through what others think about her, their experiences of her. They bring their own baggage to their relationships with her. 

I did find it quite difficult to get into the novel, and found the changes in point of view and timeline quite hard to follow at first. But I soon got into it and, once I became familiar with the characters and the different plotlines, the book genuinely became hard to put down.

A highly recommended read.

‘Fault Lines’ by Tsveti Nacheva #TuesdayBookBlog #RBRT #BookReview

I read ‘Fault Lines’ for Rosie’s book review team.

When the unthinkable happens…

When her best friend disappears from a party at a haunted house attraction, Laurie Arbo fears the worst. Ashley would not just up and leave. As days turn into weeks, it becomes clear that she is not coming back. But without a body, proving that a crime has been committed—let alone unmasking the culprit—is a tall order.

The truth should come first.

All eyes are on Ashley’s boyfriend, who is being cagey. But Laurie’s own partner, Nate, is keeping secrets too. On that fateful night, his clothes were covered in blood, which he swears wasn’t Ashley’s. Refusing to accept the man she loves might be a murderer, Laurie decides to believe him. Yet, unable to put the past behind them, they drift apart.

But what if it’s ugly?

Seven years later, while working on a TV documentary about a local family drama, she reconnects with Nate, and the pieces start falling together. As Laurie draws closer to learning what happened that night, she realizes the truth might be the one thing she doesn’t want to uncover.

I really enjoyed this novel. The characters are very well-written, the writing flows well, and there’s enough intrigue and twists and turns to keep you turning the page. 

Laurie’s best friend vanishes after a Halloween party out in the backwoods of Canada. Laurie, having gone to bed drunk, can’t remember the night clearly, but what she does remember is that her boyfriend Nate’s clothes were covered in blood – surely he can’t have anything to do with Ashley’s disappearance?

They split up, but years later, Laurie’s work takes her back to her past, and she’s finally forced to confront the truth.

As the story unfolds, our ideas about the characters and their motivations unfold too, and they reveal things about themselves that add to the intrigue of the story. That said, I did feel that Erin was a bit of a missed opportunity – I was expecting more from her and her potential didn’t feel realised.

Laurie, though, is a great character; it’s very easy to believe in her and the way she behaves and to sympathise with her. Her confusion and her emotions are so well portrayed. 

The settings work very well too, and there’s a very creepy and threatening feel to the narrative.

One of the strengths of the novel for me was the smaller storyline around Ashley’s mum and her frustration and fear around her daughter’s disappearance. She’s another really well-written and fully realised character.

There are a few issues with tense, however, with lots of switches from past to present that don’t really work, and some of the dialogue feels rather formal. 

But overall this is a very well-written and enjoyable novel.

‘One Split Second’ by Caroline Bond #BookReview #FridayReads

One split second … the moment that changed their lives forever.

When a car carrying five friends home from a party crashes into a wall, the consequences are devastating – not just for the young people directly involved, but also for their families and the wider community.

No one escapes unscathed, but some are more deeply scarred than others. Those affected are left to question who was to blame for the accident, and what price they will pay.

This moving story of an accident and its aftermath explores our understanding of love and loyalty, grief and forgiveness.

As a parent of young adults, I completely understand the premise at the heart of this book. Although I know my children are sensible, I hate the thought of them driving, more because of other drivers out there.

So the idea here is a really good one, with a lot of potential, and the opening scene is intriguing and so well-written, so moving. It really makes you want to read on. 

There are some interesting characters here too, with some well thought-out back stories, and the relationships between them work very well.

But for me, all that potential just didn’t lead anywhere. There was nothing particularly unusual or surprising about what had happened, why it had happened, or the consequences. It all felt a little flat, unfortunately.

‘The Nanny State Made Me’ by Stuart Maconie #FridayReads #BookReview

It was the spirit of our finest hour, the backbone of our post-war greatness, and it promoted some of the boldest and most brilliant schemes this isle has ever produced: it was the Welfare State, and it made you and I. But now it’s under threat, and we need to save it.

In this timely and provocative book, Stuart Maconie tells Britain’s Welfare State story through his own history of growing up as a northern working class boy. What was so bad about properly funded hospitals, decent working conditions and affordable houses? And what was so wrong about student grants, free eye tests and council houses? And where did it all go so wrong? Stuart looks toward Britain’s future, making an emotional case for believing in more than profit and loss; and championing a just, fairer society.

Last week I reviewed Cash Carraway’s book about her struggle to build a life for herself and her daughter under the current social system in this country. It felt timely then to read this book straight after – a book that praises that once great system, when the much maligned ‘nanny’ state looked after the people of this country and helped those who needed help.

I am slightly younger than Maconie, but I very much recognised the world he described – albeit that I lived further south, first in London and then in an estate in a new town, built to cater for the London overspill. Like Maconie’s estate, the estate we lived in had been planned to put open spaces at its heart – terraces of houses not in rows but in squares around a green area, and we had a toilet downstairs! 

I had a free education,  free library, free care from the NHS, and when I when to university I had a grant – a grant that didn’t need to be paid back – ever.

Things weren’t perfect. There was snobbery. There was still need. But it was a damn sight better than now.

Maconie’s book then, is a love letter of sorts to those institutions that meant so much to those of us who were working class – the swimming pools, the parks, the libraries (especially the libraries), the completely free education. And it’s also a warning that we are letting it all slip away. That we are letting this false narrative of scroungers, of benefit cheats, of people swanning up to food banks in Range Rovers (yes, I have been told this I by someone I know – she firmly believes it) to allow us to turn our back on a system that, although not perfect, was genuinely a safety net, was genuinely a way out for many of us.

Maconie writes with wit, with warmth, with intelligence. The book isn’t perfect though. In a section about how the privately educated have taken over the music industry, with the majority of bands in this country formed of ex-public schoolboys, Maconie wonders where are the John Lennons, the Jarvis Cockers, the Johnny Marrs? In doing so he completely overlooks grime – a whole genre of working class and independent music.

I also found his defence of the BBC a little hard to swallow, and a little disappointing too.

That said, however, this is a really important book. The ‘nanny’ state is not a terrible, interfering, wasteful behemoth that needs continuous overhauling – it is a lifeline for many that definitely needs proper funding (might help if the rich paid their taxes). We need those Sure Start Centres, those public libraries, the school playing fields, the public swimming pools. And we most certainly need free university level education. I couldn’t have done without these things. I wish the generations after me had had the benefit of them too. 

A much-needed warning, well-written, very readable, and an important book, especially as we head into the uncertainty of 2022.