Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Bookish thoughts on Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Three Things About Elsie is filled with some lovely touches of humour, poignancy, and perceptive observations on life.

As well as this, it invites the reader into a mystery regarding a man from our main character Florence's past.

Florence is in her eighties and living in managed accommodation for the elderly. Elsie is her best friend - this is the first of the three things about her. As the book commences, Florence has fallen in her flat, and she is thinking about recent events in her life, telling us about Elsie, and about another friend in the flats, Jack, and also about a new arrival, a man who brings back past memories for Florence and causes her to embark on solving a mystery buried in her past, if she can just reach within her mind and find the answers. 

Joanna Cannon writes with warmth and in a compassionate, honest way in dealing with dementia and ageing, as well as portraying the bonds of friendship and companionship. 

There are many beautiful observations and expressions once again in Joanna Cannon's writing, as I found there were in the author’s debut novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, but this time, for me, there is a stronger and more compelling story to go with it.

I enjoyed the stories woven in about the side characters of Miss Ambrose and Handy Simon, both with their issues of self-doubt and self-discovery, though I felt I would have liked to know a little more about Jack, for him to have felt just a little more fleshed out as a character. 

The book cover is a lovely appealing design of Battenberg cake which was very tempting every time I looked at the pattern, and the jigsaw pieces emblematic of Florence trying to piece together the past and find that missing piece in her present.

As I said, there were some lovely expressions and thoughts on life, many sentences and passages I marked as I read and which caused me to pause and think, some of which I've shared below.


Some of my favourite pieces of writing from the book:

'She always wore cheerful clothes, it was just a shame her face never went along with it.'

'A small existence, disappeared. There was nothing left to say she'd even been there. Everything was exactly as it had been before. As if someone had put a bookmark in her life and slammed it shut.'

'We'd only been there ten minutes and my mind started to wander. It can't help itself. It very often goes for a walk without me, and before I've realised what's going on, it's miles away.'

'Elsie's father left for the war and returned as a telegram on the mantelpiece.'

'But sometimes life takes you along a path you only intended to glance down on your way to somewhere else, and when you look back, you realise the past wasn't the straight line you thought it might be. If you're lucky, you eventually move forward, but most of us cross from side to side, tripping up over our second thoughts as we walk through life.'

'It's strange, because you can put up with all manner of nonsense in your life, all sorts of sadness, and you manage to keep everything on board and march through it, then someone is kind to you and it's the kindness that makes you cry. It's the tiny act of goodness that opens a door somewhere and lets all the misery escape.'

'It didn't take them long to undo my life. I had spent eighty years building it, but within weeks, they made it small enough to fit into a manila envelope and take along to meetings.'

'...perhaps it's only in the silence that you're able to hear just how loud your own worrying is.'

'Nothing he had a go at seemed to fit. Life sometimes felt like trying on the entire contents of a shoe shop, but all of them pinched your toes.'

Friday, 23 February 2018

Back with some Best Books!

Long time, no post, I know. I wasn't sure if I was coming back to write here again. I'm still not sure if I'm back for any length of time, or regularly, so let's just see what happens. I've  still enjoyed reading many of the excellent book blogs I always followed before, though I have been terrible at commenting, for which I'm sorry. 

I thought an interesting post to return with might be my favourite reads of 2017 (in no particular order). 
Underneath the titles, I've posted the comments that I wrote on Goodreads at the time, if any - some I wrote a little, some I didn't write anything. No reflection on the book(s) at all, just whether I managed to write a comment/review at the time or not. 

Favourite reads of 2017

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

I loved this novel, I thought Colson Whitehead constructed and told his story very well indeed. I liked the longer and shorter parts of the narrative, and the different viewpoints, and I feel he has written a very important, compelling, honest and very readable novel about an absolutely awful part of humanity's past, which should never be forgotten. I felt I learned a lot in reading this novel, and it made me go off and research more about some of the historical events of the period in which this story is set, as well as find out about the underground railroad as it was something I didn't know about previously. 
I became thoroughly immersed in Cora's life and was reluctant to put the book down at times, as I had to know what would happen, despite my fears at what I might found out as I read on. I did find some of the things that happened upsetting, I was appalled by some of the horrendous behaviour and the way people were treated back then. 
I feel this is an important novel to read and I am very glad I have read it; as well as dealing with something which taints our past, it is a gripping, harrowing, well written and engaging story with some wonderful characters, Cora most of all, as well as Caesar, Sam, and others. It definitely deserves the praise it has received. I love the cover design too, very striking and fitting for the book.

The Unseen World - Liz Moore

Marvellous, I loved it. Ada and David will stay with me for a long time, as well as Liston and ELIXIR. Intelligent, thoughtful and compelling read. Love this author.

How to Stop Time - Matt Haig

Pretty darn marvellous. So much feeling and insight into life, especially into how humans repeat mistakes again and again, and uplifting in terms of trying to live in the moment. A really good, and lovely, story. The audio book narrator does a brilliant job too.

Shelter - Jung Yun

A brilliant read, combines so much, beautifully done, and very well written.

The Tidal Zone - Sarah Moss

I loved this book, I thought it was beautifully written, with a compelling and very readable narrative with so much to say about the way we live our lives today; the delicate nature of our health, the weight, relevance and truth of our history, the influence of previous generations and their experiences. 
I found it especially well written and honest when discussing how we get through everyday modern life with its struggles and joys, and there were some delightful touches of humour in there too. 
I loved the interspersed parts about Coventry Cathedral as Adam conducted his research. (The cathedral, as well as some of the area around/near there, is a place that has a special resonance from the past for me, that's another story though, I won't go into it here.) 
I admired Adam for his role, and I think Sarah Moss really conveyed so well the love and devotion he had for his family, as well as the utter turmoil when they were threatened by the frightening health scares.
I also thought she was spot on with many of the current worries and issues troubling our world. I liked that Miriam was a feisty and positive girl who cared about a lot that isn't right with the world. I like the beautiful and striking cover painting too. I'm really excited about reading more novels by this author now, I like her writing style very much. 

The Museum of You - Carys Bray

What a lovely book.

The Son - Phillip Meyer

The Past - Tessa Hadley

What a lovely read, I enjoyed it from the off and then more and more as I read on, and I'm sad now to leave those characters behind, I feel like I'll miss them. 
So beautifully done, so perceptive in writing about people and so enjoyable to read. Just the book I needed right now. And a back catalogue of the author's for me to explore.

The Spinning Heart - Donal Ryan

Absolutely superb.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies - John Boyne

I have read many, though not yet all, of John Boyne's previous novels, both some of his adult and children's work, and I do enjoy his writing style very much, and the way he tells a story. So I went into this new book knowing I would probably like it, but still a little nervous, as it's his longest yet I believe, and as stated in the book, his most ambitious to date. I need not have worried - I thought it was amazing.
John Boyne has depicted Cyril Avery, throughout his life, prior to his birth, through to his death, and everything in between. He deals with some of the major happenings of the century, but these are not brought in in a heavy handed way, but dealt with very well, incorporated sometimes into the foreground, and sometimes into the background of the main story. There are so many characters to love, to admire, to dislike, to hope for, and Cyril is at the heart of it all. As discoveries were made, revelations, and chance meetings that the reader reacted to having the knowledge that Cyril didn't, it all made for a heartbreaking, moving and very involving reading experience. Cyril experiences much pain in coming to terms with his sexuality, in coping with love that is not reciprocated, in being adopted by such an unusual pair as Charles and Maude. I liked the structure of the novel, as we caught up with Cyril every seven years throughout his life, and I liked the first chapter detailing his mother's experiences immediately prior to Cyril's birth. There were so many characters I was sad to leave behind when I finished the book, some that I had mourned for, and some that had been wonderful company, in particular I loved Mrs Goggin, and Maude is fascinating.
A really major achievement by a superb author, this is a beautifully, honestly written, and compelling tale. I am so grateful to have read this book.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith

Absolutely wonderful.

The House by the Lake - John Harding

A fascinating read.

War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

Wow, what a book. 


And my favourite reads of 2016 because I didn't post then either!

Favourite reads of 2016

A God in Ruins - Kate Atkinson

I absolutely loved this book, superb. Moving, stunning, had me in tears. Highly recommended.

Under the Skin - Michel Faber

Fates and Furies - Lauren Groff

A compelling, powerful portrait of a marriage, of two lives. 

I was intrigued by this novel for a while, and I saw great reviews for it by people who loved it, and I also saw reviews where people were not so keen. I kept thinking shall I, shan't I, read it, and eventually I did give in to the temptation because it wouldn't go away. Well this time I was right to trust that little voice in me that said read this book. I thought it was brilliant. 

Lauren Groff writes her story in two halves, first couple of hundred pages tell Lotto's side, under Fates, and the second half of similar length, Furies, gives Mathilde's story. They married at just 22 years old, and the way the novel shines a light on their marriage is superbly done.
I feel that in creating Lotto and Mathilde, in the way she portrays them, Lauren Groff demonstrates that she can brilliantly capture people in all their complexity, and show the intense joys and the immense sadnesses of life.

She has a beautiful writing style, this is intelligent literary fiction, plus she has written a compelling narrative that made this book a real page-turner too. I was drawn in early on and it was fascinating to discover what would happen over the course of their lives together, how their hopes and dreams and expectations would play out as they aged, and to see these lives from both perspectives too.

I'm not very well versed in the aspects of Greek drama that I believe may be in play here, but I understand that the comments in brackets littered in the novel are like a Greek chorus commenting on events/telling us the truth? Anyway, this aspect worked for me too.

Whilst I wouldn't say this was an absolutely perfect novel, I thought it was very good indeed for all the reasons mentioned above - the use of language, the storytelling, the compelling characters. Lotto and Mathilde weren't people I loved, perhaps at times I liked something about them but for the most part I didn't, but they were convincing, and felt real and flawed, and I was invested in their story, wanting to know more, wanting to know what would happen, what was hiding underneath the surface.

I hope this review goes some way to conveying why I really enjoyed this novel. It's the first novel I've read by Lauren Groff, though I've had The Monsters of Templeton sitting on my to be read pile for years, and still plan to read it. After reading Fates and Furies, I'm looking forward to it even more.

The Muse - Jessie Burton

Art, love, friendship, culture, feminism, independence, immigration, war, intrigue, mystery, so much and so well told, absolutely loved this story.

This Must Be the Place - Maggie O'Farrell

Once again, beautiful writing by this author, as with her previous novels, so too with this one - so enjoyable to read and so compelling too. We have a narrative that moves about in time and also we have different narrative voices; after a few sections, getting used to this structure, I loved how we got an intimate picture of several of the characters' lives, and how the story kept being related at different points in time of different characters' lives.

I found all of the different voices convincing and sometimes I was both keen to read the next part by someone else and yet also wanting to know what would happen next to the character I had just read about. If this makes the novel sound confusing, it's not, you soon grasp the various connections within your mind and become engrossed in these characters' lives. The storylines and lives are carefully and cleverly woven together; Maggie O’Farrell is a great storyteller and this is another super read by one of my favourite writers.

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

Loved it. So many reminders of the eighties too. Another successful step outside my reading 'comfort zone'.

My Name is Lucy Barton - Elizabeth Strout

Eligible - Curtis Sittenfeld

Lovely lovely read, I love the original classic and I love this modern day take on it, great fun. 

I don’t always rush to read new versions or modern takes of classic novels, especially when the original novel is one I loved, as is the case here with Pride and Prejudice. I worry that it will spoil my memory of the original, or just feel like it was unnecessary. However, I loved Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife, have her other novels waiting on my to be read pile, and had to admit to being intrigued by just how she would deliver her updated version of Jane Austen’s most famous novel, with the wonderful characters and story transported to modern day USA. (I believe this is now the fourth of Jane Austen’s novels to have been given a new take by a present day author.)

The story has all you might expect of a modern day tale, gossipy text messages, hi-tech companies, glossy magazines, reality tv shows, and more. I won’t put spoilers or further details here because it’s best to discover them as you read, but I liked her interpretation of pretty much all of them, from Fitzy and Chip to Mr Collins and Kathy de Bourgh. Curtis Sittenfeld brings through many of the characteristics and features that we know so well from Austen’s novel, Mrs Bennet’s anxieties and prejudices, Mr Bennet’s dry humour, Kitty and Lydia’s giggly silliness and flirtatiousness, Mary’s enigmatic isolation, Jane’s beauty and her kind spirit, Liz’s intelligence and thoughtfulness, now with a hip and independent edge to her. So, the characters and plots retain a lot from the original, but are brought cleverly up to date and/or their situations and difficulties made relevant for the present day, with some concerns still relevant in both, eternal human concerns of love, togetherness, loneliness, money, and families. And of course Mrs Bennet still just wants to see her five daughters married well!

It’s a lengthy novel at over 500 pages, but it carries you along and I got through a fair chunk every time I picked it up, so compelling was the need to keep reading and so witting the writing. Some chapters are very short, most are fairy short, and I loved the way it was done. To me it felt both like the classic tale and like a very current, relevant and entertaining contemporary novel, and I thought it was brilliant. 

If you are open to this story being retold do give this a go because it is a lot of fun to read, it skips along at a fine pace and I at least came to love the characters, or laugh at them, or cry with them (especially with Liz), just as much all over again. I hope this review gives some sense of what it’s like, there’s a lot more I’d love to write about but I think then I’d bring a lot of spoilers in. A really great read, such fun!

House of Silence - Linda Gillard

House of Silence is a really gripping read, the story and the setting are both high on atmosphere and mystery. It's a moving, intriguing read that kept me wanting to get back to reading it. I loved it. 

There are some brilliant characters, ones that will stick in my mind, especially Hattie, and the storytelling is layered and clever. There's romance, pain, loss, passion, denial, secrets, mystery - a cracking read.

Coffin Road - Peter May

Truly Madly Guilty - Liane Moriarty

Over the past couple of years I've read many of Liane Moriarty's novels, and have loved them all. So I was both very excited and also apprehensive about a new book from her - it will be brilliant won't it? I need not have worried because I thoroughly enjoyed Truly Madly Guilty, another cracker from this superb author. 

More than anything I just feel that she absolutely grasps people and what makes them tick, and she writes so intelligently about relationships, internal thought processes, feelings, and it's wonderful to read someone who 'gets' humans so well. 

Truly Madly Guilty is a compelling read, well-plotted and intriguing, but it is the deftness of touch with regard to her character portrayals, and the understanding of people, of emotions, of joy and desire and sadness and fear and love, that shines through most of all. I can't wait for her next one!

The Red Notebook - Antoine Laurain


Thanks very much for visiting and reading!

Monday, 20 July 2015

Six months of books 2015

I've taken part in this in previous years and it's great to see it back again. A chance to look back at the books we've read in the first 6 months of 2015, 6 books in each of 6 different categories.

Visit the home of this meme, The Book Jotter, here to find out more...

Six books I have enjoyed the most...
  1. The Golem and the Djinni - Helene Wecker
  2. The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton
  3. Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel
  4. Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty
  5. Hausfrau - Jill Alexander Essbaum
  6. The Last Anniversary - Liane Moriarty

Six authors new to me...
  1. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
  2. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café - Fannie Flagg
  3. How Green Was My Valley - Richard Llewellyn
  4. Sleepyhead - Mark Billingham
  5. Big Ray - Michael Kimball
  6. City of Thieves - David Benioff

Six books that took me on extraordinary journeys...
  1. Inflicted - Ria Frances
  2. The Leipzig Affair - Fiona Rintoul
  3. The Golem and the Djinni - Helene Wecker
  4. Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel
  5. Dissolution - CJ Sansom
  6. The Auschwitz Violin - Maria Àngles Anglada

Six books by favourite authors...
  1. The Secret Keeper - Kate Morton
  2. A History of Loneliness - John Boyne
  3. The Last Anniversary - Liane Moriarty
  4. Chess - Stefan Zweig
  5. Reasons to Stay Alive - Matt Haig
  6. The Fry Chronicles - Stephen Fry

Six graphic novels/comic book collections I enjoyed...
  1. Plumdog - Emma Chichester Clark
  2. Marbles - Ellen Forney
  3. This One Summer - Mariko & Jillian Tamaki
  4. The Complete Maus - Art Spiegelman
  5. Sex Criminals - Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
  6. Anya's Ghost - Vera Brosgol

Six bookshops I have visited...
  1. The new Foyles, London
  2. St. David's Bookshop, Pembrokeshire
  3. Heffers, Cambridge
  4. Aldeburgh Bookshop, Suffolk
  5. Any Amount of Books, London
  6. St Ives Bookseller, Cornwall

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Romantic Novelists' Association Conference 2015 - What Reviewers Want Panel

image from the RNA blog

A little while ago, I was kindly invited to join a panel of book industry folk at the Romantic Novelists' Association Conference for 2015 at Queen Mary University, London. I was delighted to be asked and though I knew I'd be anxious and nervous I also knew it would be a wonderful thing for me to try doing and I was so pleased to be given the opportunity that I seized the moment and accepted. The conference took place last week and I was getting ready to go along, sorting out what I needed etc the day before, same mixture of nerves and excitement. 

Come the evening before the day of the panel and I develop a really sore throat :( and the next morning it feels worse and I can sense a full on cold too. Sadly my plans to try and attend more of the day prior to the panel session that afternoon, and my hopes for staying to the dinner that evening, didn't seem manageable anymore, I was feeling worse, and probably only thanks to my husband aka my knight in shining armour whisking me to and from the venue for the panel event that I got there. Thankfully I did make it in time for the lovely main conference welcome by Eileen Ramsay and Jan Jones.

On to the panel itself, our session 'The Reviewers' Panel' was entitled 'What Reviewers Want - top reviewers discuss the growing importance of online reviews and give their tips for review success.' I thought the session was very interesting indeed, it was great to see so many people attending it and I really enjoyed both meeting the other panellists - Elaine Everest who runs the RNA Blog, Peter Crawshaw co-founder and director of the book website, Anna James (chair of the discussion) the book news editor of The Bookseller magazine and editor of We Love This Book and books editor for Elle UK, Charlie Place reviewer from The Worm Hole blog - and hearing what they had to say as well as having the chance to speak myself. I think sometimes when you don't feel so well physically it can take your mind off your nerves a bit and I think I worried slightly less and concentrated even more on the discussion because of this; anyway, I felt braver than I thought I might have. There were some excellent questions and they prompted some interesting discussion, about how we each choose what to review, good ways to go about approaching reviewers (and not so good ways), building up relationships between authors and reviewers, how where books are reviewed and talked about has changed, the role of bloggers, Amazon reviews, Search Engine Optimisation and information gathering, and more, including how blog posts and helping support authors isn't just about reviews, but also features, book extracts, author interviews and so on. Thank you to Anna for leading the panel discussion and the audience questions so well, involving us all and keeping the session flowing.

I'm so glad I was still able to take part and I wish I had felt better, been able to stay longer and had the courage to speak to a couple more writers - there were a few people I thought I recognised from online photos but I didn't pluck up the courage to speak to anyone in the brief time I was there. It was lovely to see Sheryl Browne up in the audience and thank you for saying hi to me Sheryl, I'm sorry I didn't get to meet you properly. 

Thank you to Jan Jones for the kind welcome and for ushering me over to meet Anna and Charlie when I arrived, and a big thank you to Jenny Barden for the very kind words and for such an interesting panel. Thanks to Karen Aldous who had some kind words for all the bloggers out there (echoed by Sheryl) and who came and introduced herself to us at the end of the session. 

It was a brilliant event and I'm very glad to have been part of it and I hope I can be part of something similar again one day. From a (budding) writer's point of view the whole event  and indeed the RNA itself looks like it offers both a lot of inspiration and support plus a lot of fun.

PS As I write this the rubbish lurgy seems to finally be on its way out, yay. I really hope I didn't pass it on to anyone else. 
PPS A nice thing was that my dog had her first trip to London and went for her walkies near where myself and my other half used to both live before we knew each other, bit of romance for you :)



Links to some of my reviews of RNA members' books...

(Let me know if I've missed any and I'll happily add them!) Also see my Reviews A-Z page for more links to reviews and author interviews. 

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton


On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office-leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella's world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist-an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes' gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand-and fear-the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.


It's a little while now since I read this book, but like several other books I've read this year but not yet written about here, I did want to share some reflections on it, so even if this isn't a very long post, I still wanted to try and put some thoughts together, so here we are. 

I really enjoyed reading The MiniaturistI found it a quite magical, wonderful read, I felt immersed in the world created in the novel and the characters were vividly drawn and memorable. It took me away from my troubles, transported me away overseas to Amsterdam and back in time to the seventeenth century, and I really enjoyed every sitting that I spent reading it, and experiencing the storytelling. This story captured my imagination, and I thought it was a really impressive work for a first novel. 

I loved the historical detail, the atmosphere, the locations, the society and people so vividly evoked, they came to life for me and I was there with them as I read, walking beside Nella, anxious about her husband Johannes, uncertain about his sister Marin, or looking out for the Miniaturist.

The story unfolded beautifully and had me wondering and guessing as I read on, needing to know what was being hidden, where danger lay, and who would be safe. 

And I must give a mention to that special cover design, it is so beautiful, incredibly appealing and a great complement to the story itself. This book is one to treasure and it is a novel I could see myself re-reading one day, I'm sure there are fresh details and nuances that I would notice on a second reading.