books

‘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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Hilary Mantel – A Tribute

I was so upset to hear of the death of Hilary Mantel a few weeks ago. She was a writer I had admired for a very long time and one of the few authors whose works I could read more than once, each time finding something new to enjoy. I enjoyed her books not only as a reader but as a writer looking to improve my own craft. She was truly inspirational, intelligent, inventive, bringing characters, history, emotion, and the nuance of politics and power to life with a few strokes of her pen.

I was lucky enough to hear her speak a few years ago, at Austin Friars, Thomas Cromwell’s home in London. Afterwards I queued with my copy of ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ clutched in my hands, nervous and so excited to actually meet Mantel in person. She was kind and gracious, and this photo is something that makes me smile every time I look at it (apologies for the terrible quality!).

‘A Place of Greater Safety’ is my favourite of her books and one that I know Mantel kept in a drawer for a few years before it was published. Set during the French Revolution, the book is a page turning tour de force that is an absolutely astounding achievement. I devoured every page, tears streaming down my face at the end. I’ve read it three times, which for me is incredibly unusual – I never read books more than once!

Of course the ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy consists of three books that are absolute masterpieces. The opening lines of ‘Wolf Hall’ get me every time:

‘So now get up.’

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.

What a way to introduce us to Thomas Cromwell.

‘Bring up the Bodies’ manages to be emotional while being a clear-headed account of dreadful politics in which people were pawns and lives mattered only in how much they could add to another person’s power, wealth, or standing. Things haven’t changed that much! The final in the trilogy, ‘The Mirror and the Light’ took a long time to be written and it was a long, long wait to read. Reading it was a strange experience. I couldn’t wait to turn each page but that was bittersweet knowing that each page turned led to the end of the trilogy. There aren’t many authors that can say they have that effect on the reader.

If you’ve never read any Mantel, then I envy you. I heartily recommend that you read these wonderful novels. I’m about to read them for the fourth time. Of course, Mantel wrote other books. ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ is a fabulous collection of short stories. Then there’s ‘Beyond Black’, ‘Fludd’ and a host of other works that aren’t nearly so well-known but just as beautifully written and just as much pleasure to read.

It’s so sad that we will not get to share more of Mantel’s wonderful imagination or amazing skill as a writer. The way the publishing world is going, with its endless book deals for celebrities and politicians and actors, there is less and less room for new talent, and unknown talent, writers out there that have so much to tell and so much to give. Yes, there’s self-publishing, which is fast becoming the best route for those authors without connections, an illustrious film career, a cooking show, or a former royal husband, but it is practically impossible for authors to be able to make a living wage simply through their writing. So it seems very unlikely that we’ll ever get the chance to share the wonderful stories of another writer like Hilary Mantel.

“Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories.”
― Hilary Mantel ‘Wolf Hall’

‘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!

‘Last One at the Party’ by Bethany Clift #BookReview #FridayReads

December 2023. The human race has fought a deadly virus and lost. The only things left from the world before are burning cities and rotting corpses.

But in London, one woman is still alive.

Although she may be completely unprepared for her new existence, as someone who has spent her life trying to fit in, being alone is surprisingly liberating.

Determined to discover if she really is the last survivor on earth, she sets off on an extraordinary adventure, with only an abandoned golden retriever named Lucky for company.


Maybe she’ll find a better life or maybe she’ll die along the way. But whatever happens, the end of everything will be her new beginning.

This is such an interesting novel. It’s such a good idea to have the protagonist in a situation like this be someone relatively normal who has absolutely no survival skills at all – it makes the everything so relatable. Most people’s reaction, mine at least, to being the last person on Earth would be to get very drunk!

There’s a great deal of very dark humour here, as well as a good dose of what the reality would probably be like – I mean, what would happen to all those bodies if everyone died? The author doesn’t shy away from describing what that would be like. And the narrator’s unflinching honesty as she looks back on her life before the virus is done beautifully. I loved her and related to her and so wanted her to succeed. The addition of a faithful dog just made the novel even better.

That this is a debut is really impressive.

Compelling, funny, sad, honest and skillfully crafted.

Highly recommended.

‘When I Ran Away’ by Ilona Bannister #BookReview

This morning Gigi left her husband and children.

Now she’s watching Real Housewives and drinking wine in a crummy hotel room, trying to work out how she got here.

When the Twin Towers collapsed, Gigi Stanislawski fled her office building and escaped lower Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry. Among the crying, ash-covered and shoeless passengers, Gigi, unbelievably, found someone she recognised – the guy with pink socks and a British accent – from the coffee shop across from her office. Together she and Harry Harrison make their way to her parents’ house where they watch the television replay the planes crashing for hours, and she waits for the phone call from her younger brother that never comes. And after Harry has shared the worst day of her life, it’s time for him to leave.

Ten years later, Gigi, now a single mother consumed with bills and unfulfilled ambitions, bumps into Harry again and this time they fall deeply in love. When they move to London it feels like a chance for the happy ending she never dared to imagine. But it also highlights the differences in their class and cultures, which was something they laughed about until it wasn’t funny anymore; until the traumatic birth of their baby leaves Gigi raw and desperately missing her best friends and her old life in New York.

As Gigi grieves for her brother and rages at the unspoken pain of motherhood, she realises she must somehow find a way back – not to the woman she was but to the woman she wants to be.

An unforgettable novel about love – for our partners, our children, our mothers, and ourselves – pushed to its outer limits.

This is a very well-written, smart, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreakingly sad novel with a very likeable and relatable main character.  

My children are adults now but I remember clearly that being at home alone with babies could often be lonely and boring and was absolutely exhausting. It’s still taboo to say so, even more so now, I feel, with these ‘influencer’ mums who are always immaculate (and so are their homes). So honesty like this is always refreshing. I would have loved to have read this when my children were little.

The characterisation is fabulous, and very well-observed. There are some wonderful observations of middle-class life here, and how it feels to not really fit in. There’s an understanding too of how past events continue to have ramifications on our emotions, our choices, our lives, however long ago they happened.

Recommended.

‘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.

‘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.

‘A Room Made of Leaves’ by Kate Grenville #TuesdayBookBlog #Bookreview

It is 1788. When twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth marries the arrogant and hot-headed soldier John Macarthur, she soon realises she has made a terrible mistake. Forced to travel with him to New South Wales, she arrives to find Sydney Town a brutal, dusty, hungry place of makeshift shelters, failing crops, scheming and rumours. All her life she has learned to fold herself up small. Now, in the vast landscapes of an unknown continent, Elizabeth has to discover a strength she never imagined, and passions she could never express.

Inspired by the real life of a remarkable woman, this is an extraordinarily rich, beautifully wrought novel of resilience, courage and the mystery of human desire.

There’s no question that this is a beautifully written novel from a very talented author. Some of the description is absolutely wonderful and there’s such a clear sense of time and place.

The opening chapters, describing Elizabeth’s childhood, worked the best for me, and the Elizabeth in these chapters felt very real and fully drawn.

Once the narrative moves to Australia, the novel didn’t work quite so well for me. I did feel that Elizabeth was a little too good to be true and that the portrayal of her husband was a bit superficial. I would have liked a bit more detail about the dynamics of their relationship, and also some more detail about the daily hardships of life in the new settlement. This aspect, in particular, was very glossed over. It must have been absolutely brutal, but it doesn’t really feel that way.

I think too, that, while there certainly is acknowledgement of the cruelty to the indigenous people of the area, this could have been more fully detailed. And is it really believable that Elizabeth would have been so enlightened, that she would have recognized that the immigrants from England were stealing land and food and lives from others?

That said, the book did leave me wanting to know more about the real Elizabth Macarthur, and it was, on the whole, a book that I’m glad to have read.

‘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.