Books I like

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 Fractured: Dani Atkins

added April 2014, read April 2014

Wow, excellent book. Dani Atkins weaves an intriguing story which traces two different lives which Rachel may or may not have lived over the previous five years following an accident. The ending is superb and interweaves all the mysterious hints wonderfully competently. I love books that leave me thinking and working out the intricacies. I don’t want to include any “spoilers” so this review will not include details of the plot.

I’ve just read some of the other reviews and am amazed at the number of readers who simply didn’t “get it”! One at least totally misunderstood the ending.

I do agree with one reviewer about the problematic issue of the actual car accident where the vehicle seems to take forever to crash through the window of the restaurant, and the unrealistic trapping of Rachel behind the table, and yes, I would agree that this could/should have been edited down to a page or two only – but compared with the rest of the book this paled into insignificance. The rest was very powerful.
 Parallel universes, time shifts, whatever you want to call it – well recommended.


The Book Thief: Markus Zusak

added March 2014, read March 2014

I’ve just finished reading The Book Thief and I know already that it will be one that haunts me for a long time. It is brilliant, in its style, its structure and its message. I love unusual narratives, with creative startling language, and this one is crafted so beautifully that it makes the reader gasp. The last words from Death say it all (and I don’t think that I give anything away by quoting them): “I am haunted by humans”. It’s what pervades the whole novel.

It is set in 1939 in Nazi Germany, and it is, uniquely, I think, narrated by Death himself. The characters are clearly formed and the reader gets to know each one. The main protagonist is Liesel, the foster girl who comes to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann in their house in a poor area outside Munich. Hans (“Papa”) teaches her to read and write, and this forms the beauty of the story. She forms a firm friendship with Rudy, the boy next door, and together they eke out their meagre existence by stealing food and colour their survival with words. The family harbours in their basement, Max, a Jew for whom Hans has reason to be grateful, and he develops Liesel’s fascination with words. She begins to steal books and shares them with Max and with her neighbours in the shelter during the devastating bombing raids. Liesel and Rudy’s growing understanding of the world around them is shown carefully and delicately through the eyes of Death.

There is so much to this book that a brief review can barely suggest the experience of reading it. The beauty (and sometimes oddness)of the language had something of the poet Dylan Thomas about it. I have read many novels about this period of history and thought that there was nothing new to say, but this one is most unusual and captivating. It certainly left me with much to think about. I can’t wait to see the film; I do hope that it serves the book well.


Twelve Years a Slave: Solomon Northup (David Wilson)

added February 2014, read February 2014

A detailed and absorbing account of Solomon Northup’s life story, having been born a free man in Saratoga, New York, then kidnapped, drugged  and sold into slavery by unscrupulous traders. It is not a novel, but a true account and as such it lacks fluid structure and contains information and data which would not have been woven into a novel, especially in terms of the legal documents at the end of the story. However, it appears to be an account written by David Wilson in 1853 according to Solomon’s recollections, Solomon having only escaped in that same year. I have a couple of reservations, knowing this and being by nature cynical. The words are clearly not Solomon’s own, and at times are effuse and over-done, so how much of the content was exaggerated or fanciful? It would have been more interesting to have the story in Solomon’s own words: he was apparently, after all, a literate man, or so Wilson would have us believe. I am also puzzled about level of minute detail: did Solomon really recall all this, with many descriptions going back 12 years? And despite being in a very stressful situation? He was, after all, not allowed pen and paper to record anything. Or is much of it embellished by Wilson? There are several places in the narrative where I felt that it did not “ring true” to me and if, in fact, these were Wilson’s own additions, does this not detract from the authenticity and appeal? Were there really so many “kind” slave-owners and so much generosity in holidays and slave dances? It would be interesting to know. But yet the story is fascinating and an eye-opener into the shameful history of American slavery. It was also particularly interesting to me as I had read Tracey Chevalier’s The Last Runaway not long ago which deals with the same period of history, as a novel and which I  enjoyed (see review below). Enjoy is not the appropriate word for Twelve Years a Slave, harrowing as it is in many parts, but it is well worth a read.

We went to see the film of the book (Steve McQueen) yesterday and – well, what a powerful film! At the end there was not a sound in the auditorium, everyone was stunned to silence. Quite a recommendation in itself. It is certainly worthy of the accolades and awards it has so far won. Oscar quality – I hope!

The Storyteller: Jodi Picoult

added February 2014, read May 2013

Brilliant book. For me Jodi Picoult has had her ups and downs in the past few years; the last couple failed to impress me. But The Storyteller is amazing on many levels. So many moral issues for the reader to think about, and intriguing twists of narrative. I have to admit that I guessed the ultimate twist long before the end but it didn’t detract from the novel.

It’s about Sage, a Jewish girl who hides away from the world, and at first we don’t know why: this forms the first part of the mystery. She works alone in her bakery, the creator of the most beautiful delicious breads. Sage becomes friends with Josef Webber, an elderly gentleman who is well respected within the community, and who had taught German at the local school.  But Josef reveals to Sage the dreadful secret that he was a member of the SS in the war and worked in the concentration camps. He confesses his terrible crimes and asks Sage to forgive him and to help him to die. However, Sage is in turmoil.  Can anyone like Josef who has committed such appalling crimes against Jews and against humanity itself, ever atone for what he has done? Should Sage, as a Jew, knowing vaguely about her grandmother’s (Minka’s) past in the holocaust, a survivor of such horrors, help him to atonement, to forgiveness?

The book is written in parallel POVs: Sage,  Josef Webber,  Minka and Leo, who enters Sage’s isolated life, and in this way we learn the truth and also become aware of the many different layers and depths of this brilliant book. I was left almost speechless after reading it. A must for your bookshelf or kindle.

The Last Runaway: Tracey Chevalier

added February 2014, read summer 2013

I love Tracy Chevalier’s writing and this book, about a Quaker girl,   interested me in particular because I was brought up as a Quaker myself, although I came out of the faith many years ago. The novel is set in Ohio (America) in the mid nineteenth century and concerns the protagonist’s part in the Underground Railroad, a system of support and protection for runaway slaves from the south to the north and east. It raised many moral issues and depicted the times well. However, I did find Honor Bright somewhat irritating as a character; her motivations at a number of points in the story were unexplained, especially when it came to relationships, with her family, her new husband and his family and her passions of the heart. Other Quaker characters such as her mother-in-law, Judith, the Quakers of the Faithwell meeting, and so on, disturbed me in their severity, coldness and ability to be hastily judgemental. There were a number of paradoxes: Quaker insistence on strict moral virtue, yet Honor loses her virginity in a field with a virtual stranger and the new rigidly severe family is fine with this; Honor lusts after the gypsy slave-catcher and rejects her husband, yet stays with him. The paradox of the supposedly “deep” Quaker ways, yet they are more concerned with Honor’s acceptance of outward religious practices rather than their moral values. The paradox of the Quaker ways of peace, equality and fairness, yet their reluctance to act in support the slaves, and their seeming willingness to leave the difficult involvements to others – it all seemed morally hypocritical and, I’m afraid, resonated with me in my own experience of the religion. I know that Tracy Chevalier sympathises with the Quaker faith and attends Meeting, but I wondered about the depiction she creates here. It didn’t seem very sympathetic at all. It therefore left me feeling uncomfortable about my background and with much to think about.

Life after Life: Kate Atkinson

read 2013

What a stunning achievement this novel is! Sometimes you read a book and  wish so much that you had had the same idea! It was so very clever. I was totally engrossed in the notion of many layers of a life trying over and over to get it right (the multi-universe/parallel universe/quilted universe concept).

A baby, Ursula, is born on 11th November 1910 in a terrible snowstorm. The umbilical cord is caught around her neck and the doctor is unable to arrive in time so save her. Cut to 11th November 1910 again. This time Ursula survives.  But still she is caught up in events that are unacceptable. Ursula’s death and rebirthing recurs until finally the course of history is set right. What an engaging and thought-provoking concept. How wonderful it would be to believe in this. Turn back the clock and try again. Yes, I can relate to that in my own life – probably most of us could. The evocations of periods of history are well-researched, rich and appear authentic. I felt that some parts were perhaps a little overdone, like the blitz narratives and maybe the novel could have benefitted from some culling of these episodes, but the rest was so engaging that I still gave it 5 stars. Highly recommended.

The Cuckoo’s Calling:  Robert Gilbraith/aka JK Rowling

read 2013

I read this just having heard that it was actually authored by JK Rowling but with apprehension, having read her awful previous adult novel A Casual Vacancy, which I hated (pretentious, full of gratuitous swearing and unsympathetic characters I couldn’t identify with at all). I do like detective novels and thought I would give it a try.

JK Rowling’s new character is Cormoran Strike, a private investigator who has lost his leg in Afghanistan and is eking out a meagre existence, hardly even scraping a living as a detective. He has only one difficult client on his books, he has just broken up with his long-time girlfriend and he is, very unprofessionally, sleeping in his office, having no other home to go to. His creditors are literally knocking on his door, and he is hiding from both them and his last client.

Then unexpectedly John Bristow walks through the office door with an amazing job for Strike. Lula Landry, a supermodel and John’s sister, “the Cuckoo”, had been reported in the media as having fallen to her death from her apartment balcony a few months earlier. Apparently a suicide, John tells Strike that he doesn’t believe the verdict. and asks Strike to take on the case to find out the truth.

By chance he acquires a secretary, Robin, sent by mistake from the agency. She has a stuffy, uninspiring and unexciting fiancé who pressurises her to resign from this assignment (she doesn’t get paid most of the time), but she is fascinated by the detective work and somehow stays on.

The characters of Cormoran and Robin are appealing and different from the norm and  there is an intriguing tension between them. This is an unusual detective story and I do hope that Rowling writes more about Cormoran  Strike and his assistant. I note that the headings say ” Cormoran Strike #1″ so I expect another book in the series soon.

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