books

‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter’ by Hazel Gaynor #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

lighthouse

Hive   Waterstones

1838: when a terrible storm blows up off the Northumberland coast, Grace Darling, the lighthouse-keeper’s daughter, knows there is little chance of survival for the passengers on the small ship battling the waves. But her actions set in motion an incredible feat of bravery that echoes down the century.
1938: when nineteen-year-old Matilda Emmerson sails across the Atlantic to New England, she faces an uncertain future. Staying with her reclusive relative, Harriet Flaherty, a lighthouse keeper on Rhode Island, Matilda discovers a discarded portrait that opens a window on to a secret that will change her life forever.

I remember learning about Grace Darling many years ago when I was at primary school, and for some reason he image of her rowing across the wild sea in the moonlight has stayed with me. I loved Hazel Gaynor’s ‘The Cottingley Secret’, another novel that mixes fiction with reality, and this novel further establishes her as one of my favourite authors.

This is a really gorgeous book, beautifully and sensitively written. It tells the story of Grace, living with her close-knit family in the lighthouse on Longstone, who helps her father in a dramatic and dangerous rescue one night, which leads to an unwanted celebrity. We also follow the story of Matilda, alone and scared, sent by her family across the sea in shame, to live with an aunt she doesn’t know – a lighthouse keeper. The two women’s stories are threaded together, the narrative moving from 1838 to 1938 effortlessly, with compelling and honest characters and a poignant, arresting storyline.

One of my bugbears with women portrayed in historical fiction is that they often act outside of what wold have been allowed without repercussions. Often they are ‘feisty’. Grace and Matilda are definitely ‘strong’ women, but their lives are controlled and defined by convention – the author portrays them as finding ways to live within that and be true to themselves rather than allowing them unrealistic happy endings.

I loved the portrayal of Grace especially. There’s a real warmth and respect that comes across very clearly, without Grace being perfect. The ramifications of her bravery and celebrity are shown honestly, and shed a whole new light on her story.

A really lovely book and definitely recommended.

5 stars

‘Lowborn’ by Kerry Hudson #BookReview #TuesdayBookBlog

Lowborn

Hive   Waterstones  Amazon.co.uk

I bought this book because I read some of Kerry Hudson’s articles in The Pool and in The Guardian. She’s a fabulous writer, and I recognised in her writing some aspects of my own childhood (that could be me and my sisters on the cover!).

Reading some of the more negative reviews of this book actually shines a light on how those who have no idea of what it’s like to be poor continuously misrepresent and misunderstand poverty. There are plenty of reviews putting the blame resoundingly on Ms Hudson’s mother and her mental health issues. These reviewers completely miss the point that mental health issues are exacerbated by poverty. How much harder is it to cope with anxiety, depression, addiction, etc. when your life is so enclosed? When you are frustrated at every turn? When there is no help because of cuts? And inevitably there is the review that cites the poor families with their plasma screen TVs and consoles – because god forbid poor people should have any pleasure in life at all.

There’s a whole lot more I could say about poverty and childhood and inequality, but this is supposed to be a book review.

While difficult to read at times, this book has an enormous amount of warmth. While parts of Ms. Hudson’s life were harrowing, there are moments of joy too, and it’s so interesting to read about her feelings as she confronts her past and revisits those places where she grew up and that helped form her.

These stories need to be told because society wishes to look in the other direction, because we do not want to think of the children a few streets away who have eaten rubbish food and not nearly enough of it, in a house where the heat isn’t on and they don’t own a single book, in threadbare clothes that are too small for them, being cared for by a parent who desperately requires help themselves.

Perhaps it’s easier, though, because if we did look at what was really happening, surely we wouldn’t be able to live with that?

Reading this though, and some of the reviews, and the comments on Twitter whenever anyone mentions poverty or foodbanks or people on benefits, I wonder if it’s less that people don’t want to acknowledge the reality of society in 2019, or that they really just don’t care. Books like this are so important, because people need to know – you can’t keep turning away from children like Kerry.

5 stars

 

 

‘The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz’ by Jeremy Dronfield #BookReview #TuesdayBookBlog

The boy

Hive    Waterstones

‘Everyone thinks, tomorrow it will be my turn. Daily, hourly, death is before our eyes . . .’

Gustav and Fritz Kleinmann are father and son in an ordinary Austrian Jewish family when the Nazis come for them. 

Sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1939 they survive three years of murderous brutality. 

Then Gustav is ordered to Auschwitz. 

Fritz, desperate not to lose his beloved father, insists he must go too. And though he is told it means certain death, he won’t back down. 

So it is that father and son together board a train bound for the most hellish place on Earth . . .

This is the astonishing true story of horror, love and impossible survival. 

There are a huge amount of books being published at the moment based on the stories of those who suffered in concentration camps at the hands of the Nazis. And while I strongly believe that these stories must be told, must be kept alive, there are problems with what seems to be a bit of a ‘trend’.

I think it’s important to always remember that these terrible things happened to real people. These stories are not fiction; these things actually happened, and, as such those involved should be treated with respect, dignity and compassion. Their stories shouldn’t be used for their shock factor or as material for that rather horrible human trait that has people slowing down when they see an accident on the motorway. I do sometimes have the decidedly uncomfortable feeling that this is sometimes the case.

There is a very popular book out at the moment that is ‘based’ on a true story but has caused a great deal of pain to the relatives of the people involved. I’m not sure that anyone should be writing a story based on a real victim of the holocaust without the permission of their family. It leaves a rather nasty taste.

So I chose to read this book because it used the actual words and experiences of Gustav and Fritz and was written with the full permission of and in collaboration with the family.

And it is a book that should be read by everyone. It doesn’t hold back in detailing the cruelty of the regime, and neither should it. But this is, more than anything, a story of the extraordinary strength of human beings, their resilience, their ability to survive in the most dreadful of circumstances. We talk a lot about heroes these days, and it sometimes seems that not a lot is involved to become a hero, but in this book you’ll find multiple examples of people helping each other at great risk to themselves – real heroes.

It’s beautifully written too. There’s no sentimentality here, just crisp, clear, honest writing. The dialogue and excerpts from Gustav’s record of events means you become really involved in their story, and you never forget these were real people.

There’s a real rise in nasty politics at the moment, and the resurgence of the far right is particularly terrifying. Books like this serve as a reminder of how easy it is for things to turn ugly, and very quickly too. Gustav, Fritz and their family and friends didn’t realise how badly things were going until it was too late. It’s up to all of us to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

5 stars

‘Falling Short’ by Lex Coulton #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

falling short

Hive Waterstones

Frances Pilgrim’s father went missing when she was five, and ever since all sorts of things have been going astray: car keys, promotions, a series of underwhelming and unsuitable boyfriends … Now here she is, thirty-bloody-nine, teaching Shakespeare to rowdy sixth formers and still losing things. 

But she has a much more pressing problem. Her mother, whose odd behaviour Frances has long put down to eccentricity, is slowly yielding to Alzheimer’s, leaving Frances with some disturbing questions about her father’s disappearance, and the family history she’s always believed in. Frances could really do with someone to talk to. Ideally Jackson: fellow teacher, dedicated hedonist, erstwhile best friend. Only they haven’t spoken since that night last summer when things got complicated . . . 

As the new school year begins, and her mother’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic, Frances realises that she might just have a chance to find something for once. But will it be what she’s looking for?

Frances has to be one of my favourite female characters in a novel so far this year. She’s funny, intelligent, self-sufficient to an extent, but also flawed and vulnerable. Her past and her strained relationship with her mother make coping with her mother’s illness all the more difficult. She begins to realise that the stories she’s held on to all these years aren’t what they seem, and her history and sense of who she is begins to crumble.

Jackson, on the other hand, I found very hard to like. He seems selfish and lacks real self-awareness, and I couldn’t feel any sympathy for him at all. I also felt that his back story was a little glossed over and glamorised – he behaved appallingly but it felt as though the reader was supposed to feel sorry for him. This made it difficult to appreciate his story and to root for him at all.

So this was a mixed bag for me – I loved Frances and her story, but loathed Jackson.

The writing is strong though and the author is a skilful storyteller. There is an honesty in this novel that is refreshing.

And there’s a lovely dog!

But Jackson is too problematic for me to really recommend this novel.

three stars

 

 

‘The Good Daughter’ by Karin Slaughter #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

good daughter

Hive   Waterstones

One ran. One stayed. But who is…the good daughter?

Twenty-eight years ago, Charlotte and Samantha Quinn’s childhoods were destroyed by a terrifying attack on their family home. It left their mother dead. It left their father – a notorious defence attorney – devastated. And it left the family consumed by secrets from that shocking night.

Twenty-eight years later, Charlie has followed in her father’s footsteps to become a lawyer. But when violence comes to their home town again, the case triggers memories she’s desperately tried to suppress. Because the shocking truth about the crime which destroyed her family won’t stay buried for ever…

I’m a little wary of crime thrillers both in novels and films and TV because, while I’m not at all squeamish (one of my favourite film directors is Nicolas Winding Refn), there has to be a point to the violence and all too often it’s gratuitous, particularly when it’s violence and murder meted out to young women.

This novel is far better than most, however, and there’s nothing gratuitous about it at all. It’s an intelligent, gripping, thoughtful and really well-written book, with some compelling characterisation.

Charlie and Sam – the sisters who survived – are fabulous. Both are strong in their own way, but both are far from perfect. And what they endure is written with sensitivity and compassion. Their parents are so well-written too. This may be a crime thriller but it’s very character driven, giving it far more substance than others in the genre.

The adult Sam and Charlie are very interesting and their actions and motivations feel real and believable. They were characters I couldn’t wait to get back to, and their story is a page-turner too.

But it all fell down for me at the end, unfortunately. I just couldn’t believe the motivation given for the perpetrator. But while the ending was a let-down, I really did enjoy this and will definitely read more of the author’s (many) novels.

4 stars

‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ by Holly Seddon #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

love will tear us apart

Waterstones  Amazon.co.uk

I really enjoyed ‘Don’t Close your Eyes’ by this author and I also love ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ by Joy Division so I had to read this!

This is a very different novel to ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’ in terms of story and ‘feel’, but the characterisation, attention to detail, storytelling skill and ability to capture a mood, a scene, a nuance of character, are all there.

Childhood friends Kate and Paul (two children from very different backgrounds) make a pact that they’ll marry each other when they’re thirty if they’re still single – and they do, the story moving back and forth between their tenth wedding anniversary and their childhood and teenage years.

They grow up in the eighties and I was transported back to my own teenage years by the references to music and TV and clothes shops. The detail is spot on and very well done.

The chapters focussing on the past were the highlight of the novel – and I thought these were very much stronger than the chapters dealing with their marriage. It felt as though the author really enjoyed writing the earlier years too, more so than the later years.

And I did feel as though the ending was a little flat.

That said, this is a really enjoyable book, and the author is a great writer. I didn’t enjoy this as much as ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’ but I’ll certainly read more by Holly Seddon.

4 stars

‘Snap’ by Belinda Bauer #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

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Waterlines   Amazon.co.uk

SNAP DECISIONS CAN BE DANGEROUS . . . 

On a stifling summer’s day, eleven-year-old Jack and his two sisters sit in their broken-down car, waiting for their mother to come back and rescue them. Jack’s in charge, she’d said. I won’t be long.

But she doesn’t come back. She never comes back. And life as the children know it is changed for ever.

Three years later, Jack is still in charge – of his sisters, of supporting them all, of making sure nobody knows they’re alone in the house, and – quite suddenly – of finding out the truth about what happened to his mother. . .

This novel has a fantastically gripping opening scene – a brilliant example of a real hook. Three children are left alone in their broken down car while their heavily pregnant mother goes off to get help. Jack, left in charge, immediately gets to you, and is a wonderfully drawn, fully realised character. You can really feel his growing fear and frustration as time ticks on.

Jump forward a few years and Catherine, heavily pregnant, alone in bed one night investigates a noise downstairs, and a series of creepy events lead the two strands of the story together.

This is where things began to fall apart for me. I didn’t believe that Catherine would keep what had happened to herself, for a start. And once the police got involved, their incompetence seemed to be more a way to keep the plot going for longer than genuine.

There were places where I was completely involved and couldn’t wait to read what happened next, and places where I was so frustrated with the plot. It’s disappointing to be so invested in characters and a story and then to feel let down like that.

So it was difficult to give a star rating – some of the writing was brilliant and the story galloped along. And some of the characters really got to you. This could have been so much more.

3.5 stars

‘Her Name Was Rose’ by Claire Allan #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

Rose

Waterstones     Amazon.co.uk

Her name was Rose. You watched her die. And her death has created a vacancy. 

When Emily lets a stranger step out in front of her, she never imagines that split second will change her life. But after Emily watches a car plough into the young mother – killing her instantly – she finds herself unable to move on.

And then she makes a decision she can never take back.

Because Rose had everything Emily had ever dreamed of. A beautiful, loving family, a great job and a stunning home. And now Rose’s husband misses his wife, and their son needs a mother. Why couldn’t Emily fill that space?

But as Emily is about to discover, no one’s life is perfect … and not everything is as it seems.

I really liked the premise of this novel and the opening was really gripping and raised my hopes for a great read. But, unfortunately, the book didn’t keep up its momentum and, while I appreciated the quality of the writing, there were a few things about the novel that I really didn’t enjoy.

While I did sympathise to an extent with Emily, I also found her very frustrating and very self-absorbed. I didn’t feel her back story was developed fully enough for me to really care about her, and, in the end, I didn’t really like her.

And I found too that the eventual ‘reveal’ about Rose’s life was a bit too obvious, while the ending just wasn’t believable at all.

That said, the writing is sound, and the author certainly has talent. But it’s a shame that, despite there being a great deal of potential here for a really thrilling and nail-biting story, it really didn’t fulfil its promise.

three stars

‘An Empty Vessel’ by @JJMarsh1 #Fridayreads #BookReview #RBRT

#RBRT Review Team

I read ‘An Empty Vessel’ for Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team.

an-empty-vessel-3

Amazon.co.uk

Today’s the day Nancy Maidstone is going to hang.

In her time, she’s been a wartime evacuee, land-girl, slaughterhouse worker, supermarket assistant, Master Butcher and defendant accused of first degree murder. Now she’s a prisoner condemned to death. A first time for everything.
The case has made all the front pages. Speculation dominates every conversation from bar to barbershop to bakery. Why did she do it? How did she do it? Did she actually do it at all? Her physical appearance and demeanour in court has sparked the British public’s imagination, so everyone has an opinion on Nancy Maidstone.
The story of a life and a death, of a post-war world which never had it so good, of a society intent on a bright, shiny future, and of a woman with blood on her hands.
This is the story of Nancy Maidstone.

This is such a captivating novella. The author clearly and without sentimentality tells the story of poor Nancy, misunderstood and downtrodden, overlooked by almost everyone in her life. Unattractive and ungainly, Nancy’s options in life are limited, but she pulls herself up, and is successful at what she does. Now she finds herself in a cell, about to be executed for murder.

The book looks back, from Nancy’s point of view and those around her, to the events that have led up to this moment. And you’re kept guessing all the way through. I’m not going to give anything away, but this is a real page turner, and you’ll be desperate to get to the end to find out the truth while all the time not really wanting to leave Nancy, alone in her cell.

So well-written, this story captures your imagination. There is nothing overwrought here, or overdone, and that adds to the emotions you feel – the writing is honest, and your reactions are genuine.

The other characters are fully drawn and believable too with enough detail that you really feel you know them, without unnecessary information dragging the narrative down. It’s a lesson in restraint and shows the skill of a competent and talented writer.

I feel that Nancy could almost warrant a novel by herself, but as the heart of this novella, she is a compelling character, in a powerful narrative that is a pleasure to read.

5 stars

‘The Language of Kindness’ by Christie Watson #BookReview #FridayReads

kindness2

Waterstones.co.uk  Amazon.co.uk

Christie Watson was a nurse for twenty years. Taking us from birth to death and from A&E to the mortuary, The Language of Kindness is an astounding account of a profession defined by acts of care, compassion and kindness.

We watch Christie as she nurses a premature baby who has miraculously made it through the night, we stand by her side during her patient’s agonising heart-lung transplant, and we hold our breath as she washes the hair of a child fatally injured in a fire, attempting to remove the toxic smell of smoke before the grieving family arrive.

In our most extreme moments, when life is lived most intensely, Christie is with us. She is a guide, mentor and friend. And in these dark days of division and isolationism, she encourages us all to stretch out a hand.

The NHS is something that should be protected, but unfortunately we tend to take it and those that work in it for granted. With the slow, sneaking privatisation that’s going on at the moment, and the understaffing caused by Brexit, this is definitely a time when we should be celebrating the nurses, doctors and support staff that work so hard under some of the most stressful conditions.

This is a timely book then, well-written, packed full of really interesting historical detail and lots of real life experiences too. Some of these are hard to read, because you can feel the grief that Christie feels in these moments. And it’s lovely to read an account that actually shows what a nurse does – they don’t make the tea or put flowers in vases, you know! I admit I have a personal axe to grind. My sister has been nursing in the NHS for thirty-five years, my daughter’s first few days were spent in the neo-natal unit, one niece is a health visitor, another is a mental health nurse, and, with a son with mental health issues, I’m more than aware of how woefully underfunded and understaffed this area of the health service is. All of these wonderful women in my family are intelligent, well-trained, capable and professional, and they deserve the utmost respect. And the stories in this book show why.

Too often these types of books are sentimental and shmaltzy, and can almost feel voyeuristic – nosing in on a stranger’s grief and tragedy. This book isn’t like that at all. Christie shows great respect to the patients she has nursed and this is a fascinating book.

Emotional, but not sentimental, honest but not gratuitous, this book shows why we should value our NHS, and fight to keep it.

5 stars