#TuesdayBookBlog

‘Open Water’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson #BookReview #TuesdayBookBlog

Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists – he a photographer, she a dancer – trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence.

At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.

This is such an unusual book. On the surface, it is a simple story, of two young people who fall in  love. But it is so much more than that. Through the two protagonists, the author explores so much of life, and love, and society – it’s expectations, it’s cruelty, the freedoms it seems to offer that can be utterly superficial. It’s a story about being young, and hopeful, and about trying to make a life, a good life, in a world where those hopes are dashed.

I can’t fully understand the complex issues that this book raises – I have never had the experiences that are written about here, but this novel, as well as being utterly compelling and a joy to read for the beauty of the writing, goes a long way to show these experiences. It is written in second person – which does really take some getting used to – but it is so worth persevering, because the writing is so good. Not many authors could have done this so successfully, and it is a testament to the author’s talent that this is such a beautiful novel.

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‘It Never Rains but It Paws: A Road Trip Through Politics and a Pandemic’ by Jacqueline Lambert #RBRT #TuesdayBookBlog

I read ‘It Never Rains but It Paws’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team.

Five years after giving up work to travel full time, Dog-ma Jacqueline (Jackie) and Dogfather Mark race against time to leave the UK before Britain exits the EU. If Brexit happens, their four Cavapoos (Cavalier/Poodle cross) Kai, Rosie, Ruby, and Lani will lose their puppy passports, and the Lambert Family will be unable to travel together. But Brexit isn’t their only obstacle. A few months into their adventure, the pandemic suddenly shatters their plans, and leaves them trapped in the epicentre of Europe’s No. 1 coronavirus hotspot.

The fourth road trip Europe adventure in author Jacqueline Lambert’s “inspirational and hilarious” series of true travel memoirs invites you to join the couple as they discover even more amazing and little-known places, this time in France and Italy. However, this isn’t just a priceless escape travel story filled with humorous mishaps and mountain adventure. The coronavirus pandemic separates the family from their loved ones at home, and leaves Jackie stranded alone during a blizzard in a remote Italian village, with Mark thousands of miles away, back in the UK.

Between terrible weather, political mayhem, and a global pandemic, Jackie and Mark try to take lessons from each hardship. Yet, even with a positive attitude, a sense of adventure, and a caravan full of loved ones, you can’t stop all the obstacles life rolls your way. These “amusing and informative” travel stories are certainly proof that It Never Rains… But It Paws!

I chose to read this book because we are planning to buy a campervan in the next few years when we retire and travel with our four dogs – so this sounded like a very good way to find out what the reality of that dream might be.

And it didn’t disappoint. The book is full of the ups and downs of a life on the road, and doesn’t shy away from telling it like it is – there are problems and mishaps galore, and life isn’t always a comfortable idyll.

But despite the often terrible weather, the financial worries, the sometimes seemingly insurmountable problems caused by ridiculous politics, the genuine love that Jackie and Mark have for their life and their dogs shines through.

There are wonderful descriptions of glorious countryside, and some interesting history too, along with some very entertaining anecdotes. This is a very light-hearted and enjoyable read.

And it certainly hasn’t put me off my dream!

‘Mirrorland’ by Carole Johnstone #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

One twin ran. The other vanished. Neither escaped…

DON’T TRUST ANYONE
Cat’s twin sister El has disappeared. But there’s one thing Cat is sure of: her sister isn’t dead. She would have felt it. She would have known.

DON’T TRUST YOUR MEMORIES
To find her sister, Cat must return to their dark, crumbling childhood home and confront the horrors that wait there. Because it’s all coming back to Cat now: all the things she has buried, all the secrets she’s been running from.

DON’T TRUST THIS STORY…
The closer Cat comes to the truth, the closer to danger she is. Some things are better left in the past…

The most dangerous stories are the ones we tell ourselves…
No. 36 Westeryk Road: an imposing flat-stone house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. A place of curving shadows and crumbling grandeur. But it’s what lies under the house that is extraordinary – Mirrorland. A vivid make-believe world that twin sisters Cat and El created as children. A place of escape, but from what?

Now in her thirties, Cat has turned her back on her past. But when she receives news that one sunny morning, El left harbour in her sailboat and never came back, she is forced to return to Westeryk Road; to re-enter a forgotten world of lies, betrayal and danger.

Because El had a plan. She’s left behind a treasure hunt that will unearth long-buried secrets. And to discover the truth, Cat must first confront the reality of her childhood – a childhood that wasn’t nearly as idyllic as she remembers…

I’m going to use a cliche because it’s true – I couldn’t put this book down. Every page was a pleasure to read.

The narrative takes you from past to present, as Cat returns to her childhood home to try and make sense of her twin sister’s disappearance. But there are so many reasons she left and coming home brings all those things back to the surface. Switching like this can often be clunky and awkward, but here it works so well and the flashbacks, the details of the twins’ strange childhood, are beautifully done, so evocative and detailed.

As the past is slowly revealed, the tension really grows, and the reader is pulled along by the narrative, as almost every page seems to reveal another piece of the puzzle. It’s expertly done, absolutely gripping.

A very impressive debut. Very much looking forward to her next book.

‘The Chalet’ by Catherine Cooper #BookReview #TuesdayBookBlog

French Alps, 1998

Two young men ski into a blizzard… but only one returns.

20 years later

Four people connected to the missing man find themselves in that same resort. Each has a secret. Two may have blood on their hands. One is a killer-in-waiting.

Someone knows what really happened that day.

And somebody will pay.

This is a solid mystery/thriller from an author who can obviously write well.

The author clearly knows the Alps well, and the sense of place and time is excellent. It’s really easy to picture the chalet and the slopes. It’s a great idea for the setting for a novel of this type.

There is suspense, and there are twists and turns that work really well, and the writing itself is good.

However, while there is always a place for horrible characters in a novel, I just couldn’t like anyone in this story, even the one character that I was supposed to like and to root for. The back story felt rather contrived and cliched unfortunately, and there were too many coincidences to make the set up feasible.

So, all-in-all, a bit of a miss.

‘Dark Corners’ by Darren O’Sullivan #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

You thought you’d escaped your past

It’s been twenty years since Neve’s best friend Chloe went missing. Neve has never recovered and promised herself she’d never go back to that place.

But secrets can come back to haunt you

When Neve receives news that her first boyfriend Jamie has gone missing, she’s forced to return. Jamie has vanished without a trace in a disappearance that echoes the events of all those years ago. Somebody is watching and will stop at nothing until the truth about what took place that night is revealed …

Neve left the mining village where she grew up after her best friend Chloe disappeared. Now, after the breakup of her relationship, and struggling to run a business with her friend, she returns to help in the search for another friend, and her first love, Jamie.

The story switches between the present day, and the events of twenty-one years ago. This is done very well, and there is no confusion. The plot is quite complex and there are lots of twists and turns to keep mystery fans happy, and the atmosphere is quite spooky. The writing is very good in places, particularly in the evocative descriptions of the abandoned mine, the headframe watching over everything.

But I did find it hard to really connect to the characters, which made it difficult to really feel the tension. and there were quite a few errors in the text, including a lot of unintentional switches from past to present tense in the earlier chapters.

I also found the ending a bit of a disappointment.

So, not for me, unfortunately, but the book does have a lot of really great reviews, so the author is worth checking out if you’re a fan of the mystery genre.

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.