Richard and Judy’s Summer Reads – The Eight chosen Gems

I have to say that every year I feel slightly indebted to Richard and Judy for their wonderful summer book club and the brilliant recommendations it throws up. It’s a great source for reading material, my bookshelves have been a little heavier each year since.

So the announcement of this years 8 chosen titles for the summer reads 2011 was greeted with excitement for this blogger, and here they are;

When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman - I feel like I see and hear about this book everywhere at the moment. So it’s arrival on the R&J Summer read list is yet another sign that perhaps I really should read this book. I have to admit that until now I hadn’t even read up on the book so it’s content was a little mysterious to me. Why haven’t I at least read up on it? Well my TBR list is getting higher than me so I’m trying to restrain myself from adding too much. This book is clearly going to become even more topical though so I think it’s time to give it a go.  It certainly promises to be a thrilling read.

 

The Death Instinct by the wonderful Jed Rubenfeld is also on the list. I read his novel The interpretation of murder, also recommended by R&J years ago and loved the masterful plot line; I found it both compelling and ingeniously original. If it’s anything like an interpretation of murder then surely I’m in for a treat?

 

The Confessions of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn. I think this might have to be my first read from the R&J  Summer Reads collection, I can’t tell you how much it sounds like my idea of book perfection. 12-year-old Katherine goes to live in the duchess of Norfolk’s home and sparks fly, drama ensuing. Being a huge fan of books set in the past with grand homes packed full of secrets is my idea of book heaven. Fingers crossed this lives up to my now very high expectations.

The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons – I haven’t read too much about this book yet but reading up on it on Richard and Judy’s site I’m certainly interested. It’s a war book and I’ve read, like I’m sure all avid readers have, many of those. So I hope it’s an original and unique plotline as the synopsis certainly promises to be.

 

The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller - Another author new to me, and another book set around the time of the war. Well two years on but still the theme will be there. Reading a very interesting description of this book I must confess to be being highly interested. I think this will have to be my second book choice from this years 8. The book includes suicide, war poets and secrets unravelled; sounds to me like the ingredients for some perfect summer reading.

The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly – The more I read about Richard and Judy’s selected summer reads the more I remember why I always love their recommendations so much. Another book promising secrets, mysteries and complex relationships. These are the elements of books I always devour so The Poison Tree looks like another book sure to enthrall.

The Summer Of The Bear by Bella Pollen – Is it just me or is the title of this book oddly intriguing? It is for me anyway, perhaps that’s because it doesn’t give very much away and sounds so very original? After a little investigative reading on this book I’m still very intrigued. Father Nicky Fleming passes away leaving behind a devastated family who must learn to survive without him. But with Nicky’s promise that he would always return, is he really gone for good? I got goose pimples just reading about it, lets hope the actual book has the same effect.

And lastly Every Last One by Anna Quindlen – I’ll be totally candid with you all and admit that off all the books on this years list this is probably the one I’m least excited about. That’s not to say that the plotline doesn’t intrigue. The book is a about a seemingly perfect family who appear to have it all, but then events occur and things fall apart and secrets promise to come out of the surface.  I’ll certainly be giving it ago but maybe not straight away…maybe I’ll totally kick myself for this later?

So there you go, that’s what Richard and Judy recommend and that’s my thoughts. So what about you? Have you read any of these titles? Do you intend too? Do any really grip you? What do you think of the Richard and Judy Summer reads? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Other Side of The Bridge by Mary Lawson

Perfectly evoked atmosphere is combined here with a story rich in the complicated tapestry of family love.

It suddenly dawned upon me the other day that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d picked up a book I fancied the look of and read it simply on that basis. It seems like these days my books choices are all premeditated, chosen for their current relevance. Therefore when I stumbled upon a copy of Mary Lawson’s The other Side of the Bridge and liked the look of it, yet knowing not a thing about it, I decided to go with my instinct and give it ago. Perhaps I need to do this more often because what a thrilling and enjoyable read it turned out to be.

The other side of the bridge is the perfectly told story of sibling rivalry set within the sleepy rural town of Struan, deep in the heart of Northern Canada. Spanning two generations the story tells a tragic tale of fragile family ties taut with deep-set resentments.

The story unfolds with two brothers Jake and Arthur having a blade throwing competition. The novel is instantly alight with a subtle tension. Jake is daring and charming but with a reckless, selfish streak. His older brother Arthur on the other hand is responsible, sensible and taciturn. Jake provokes and tests his brothers patience mocking him with his irresponsible behaviour. Straight away the reader views the precocious balance within their relationship as the reticent Arthur tries to dissuade his brother from this carless game.

The tension witnessed in this scene quietly grows as we realize that Jake, although often self-seeking and egotistical is the apple of his mother’s eye. Arthur on the other hand is everything their father is seeking in a child, reliable and level-headed ; the perfect heir to his farm.

The story is told in an intermittent fashion switching from past to present. When the story leaps forward we find that Jake is no longer living in Struan and his whereabouts are vague. Arthur is now running the farm after the death of his father and is married to the beautiful Laura; both struggling to keep the farm and their livelihood abreast in bleak and desolate times. Questions arise like where has Jake vanished too? How has the quiet Arthur managed to acquire such an attractive and sought after wife? And what is this mysterious accident that has pushed Arthur and Jake even further apart?

Another addition to the novel is the character of Ian. The local doctors son whose destiny and future seems to be predetermined for him by the statue of his fathers own career. Ian is idealistic and moral. He is attracted to the simplicity of the land he lives in and wishes to break away from the life his father has planned for him and find a place in the community with men life Arthur. Along the way Ian’s own expectations become embroiled within Arthur’s world and all of these individual threads connect together to create a story of great intrigue.

Jake eventually comes back to Struan the same charismatic but arrogant man. With him all of the apprehension of the novel that has been quietly brewing comes rushing to the surface. The tension and awkwardness between Jake and Arthur becomes all the more raw and compelling because of the lapsed time that has separated them.

All of this tension is set to the back drop of World War 2. Lawson deftly depicts an image of a quiet and dignified towns attempts to survive a war and the loss of it’s sons.

One of my favourite elements of this book was the way Lawson manages through beautiful prose and vivid imagination to take her readers to a corner of the world that I have rarely found portrayed in fiction. She does this is in such a way that makes it easy to lose one’s self within this world. Don’t you just love a book that has this effect on you?

The image Lawson creates of a peaceful and sparse town is matched perfectly with the similarly subtle narration of her story. Nothing is hurried or rushed, instead the tension and apprehension of the novel is allowed to slowly brew creating a finale taut with suspension.

At the heart of this book is a perfect portrayal of humanity; Lawson understands the inner workings of human relationships and she knows how to pack all of this emotion into her work. This is the first Mary Lawson novel I’ve read and I hadn’t even heard of her till I picked up this book. I can now safely say that I am a huge fan.

Have you read The Other Side of the Bridge or any other novels by Lawson? Next on my list is Crow Lake, perhaps you’ve read it and have some thoughts you would like to share? I’d love to hear all of your thoughts as always.

8/10

One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four…and Five

I’ve decided to join in the fun with Simon at Stuck in a book and his wonderful recent post where he listed The book he was currently reading, the last book he finished, the next book he wanted to read, the last book he bought, and the last book he was given. Simon asked other bloggers to join in too and post the books they were reading, had received and wanted to read. I’ve had great fun reading everyone else’s post and have decided to share with you mine.

1, The book I’m currently reading

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane was kindly loaned to me by the lovely Simon at Savidge Reads. It’s a book I’ve been desperate to get my hands on and is part of my May Mission of books that I hope to read this month. I’ve heard great things about this book so my hopes are high. I’ve just started reading it so it’s far to early to say but so far the book has me very intrigued and seems (fingers crossed) like the sort of thing I usually relish.

 

 

2, The last book I finished

The last book I finished was The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. This book was part of one of the book groups I take part in and I’m very much looking forward to sharing my thoughts with you regarding this one. As I said it’s part of a book group I’m currently in so I’ll wait for our catch up to discuss the book before I actually post anything on here. I really enjoyed the book though and am desperate to meet up with the other members of the book group to talk about it.

 

 

3, The next book I want to read

After recently acquiring a copy of One Day by David Nicholls at a steal of a price from my local charity shop it’s now top of my TBR list. The book was initially recommended to me by a friend with whom I share similar tastes. I’ve read and heard great things about this book so I’m really keen to start it. Plus I feel like lately I only read books by female writers so this should be a perfect way to get out of this habit. Lets hope it lives up to my high expectations.

 

 

4, The last book I bought

 Maybe a little ironically as I just moaned I don’t read enough books by male writers, the last book I bought was Solar by Ian Mcewan. Although it’s not so much my purchasing habits that’s being the problem and more the books I ‘ve being choosing to read lately. Anyway hopefully this will put an end to my recent rut. I’m a huge Ian Mcewan fan to say the least, Atonement being my all time favourite. I’ve being meaning to get round to reading this for a while and now that I finally have a copy I have no excuses.

 

 

5, The last book I was given

And finally the last book I was given was The Return by Victoria Hislop. I read her first novel ‘The Island’ years ago and although it wasn’t the usual thing I go for I did really enjoy it so I’m keen to see how I’ll feel about this book. It was my friend who loaned it to me and she actually read The Return first. She’s reading The Island very soon and I can’t wait to hear her thoughts on it. I can’t wait for us to both discuss The Island and The Return so I’d better get reading.

So that’s it, the books I’ve bought, being given, want to read, have just read and the last book I bought. Have you read any of these books? Are there only on here that you have any thoughts on? Perhaps you would like to tell me which books you recently bought, read, want to read etc… As always I’d love to hear your thoughts and if you’ve done your own list on your blog then please send me the link. Thanks again to Simon for the great idea.

Sleeping with Mozart by Anthea Church

Church takes the very notion of the classic romance story and flips it on it’s head with this fresh and original novel.

I was a little sceptical when Sleeping with Mozart first found it’s way in to my hands, initially I thought it was a classic chic late story, this not being my style I braced myself for something, I assumed wouldn’t suit my tastes, How nice it is then to be proved wrong.

Far from being another classic chic lit story Anthea Church instead creates an honest and touching depiction of love and all of it’s attending complexities. She does this whilst creating a protagonist, Dorcas, who is charming, endearing and also at times entertainingly eccentric.Church takes a classic tale of heartbreak and gives it a refreshingly new lease of life. She adds the depth and insight very often missing from other books of it’s kind and she gives real heart to the story through her touching and sentimental take on love.

When Dorcas’s lover Jamie calls of their relationship, telling her she is too young for him and telling her that she needs to date other men, in order to see the bigger picture, Dorcas finds herself at a loss. Adamant that he is the only man for her whilst also painfully aware that he has strictly instructed her that they should cease contact, Dorcas, the extreme self examiner and self improver, must pick herself up and carry on.

Following Jamie’s instructions Dorcas sets out on a mission to try and meet and essentially date a variety of different men. This is carried out with great reluctance by Dorcas who only wishes to return to Jamie. So she embarks upon her journey enlisting the help of the hilarious Tanya Wright of Bright lights a self exclaimed dating guru. What ensues is a entertaining series of dates which will keep all readers amused as Church creates a series of men designed to test Dorcas’s patience. I’m sure most readers approaching this book will find themselves relating to any one of the dates that Dorcas finds herself on, and occasionally like me laughing along the way at the witty way in which Dorcas retells the reader of her disastrous encounters.

The story is also set to the backdrop of Dorcas’s life as an English teacher. Faced with an imminent school inspection,which packs an exciting twist towards the end of the story (I wont say any more in case I ruin the story), Church portrays an intriguing vision of life for Dorcas as a teacher. The children within her classroom help add a funny and light hearted dimension to the book with their larger than life personalities. They also rather interestingly provide a novel look into love from a teenagers perspective. And for Dorcas, who sees much potential and scope for confidentiality within her girls, this becomes for a therapeutic way to explore the love she herself has had with Jamie.

Even though Dorcas may be struggling to regain herself after losing Jamie she comes alive in the classroom and it’s in these snippets when the reader can really see what a complex and engaging character Dorcas is. Yes she may be hopelessly in love with Jamie but she is also strong and self preserving and throughout the book she trudges along bravely facing up to her break up. Off course this was an essential must in the story as the sometimes sentimental tone and pleading declarations of love in Dorcas’s narrative can often become rather heavy. It is therefore a skill on Church’s behalf that she has created in Dorcas a women who is respectable in her attempts to survive this break up.

The book is written in a diary style narrative of Dorcas reliving her day to day to life for her imaginary audience; Jamie. She also spends great chunks of the books remembering various experiences and conversations she has had with Jamie and she replays them in her head looking back on these moments. Through this particular style dialogue is sparse. It is compensated for by the long rambling musings of Dorcas,which off course could potentially isolate a reader who is not a part of this intense love affair, but Church writes and depicts their relationship in such a way that we feel deep empathy and understanding for this love.

 The story falls short of being the traditional chic lit that I expected and that I have heard other people describe it as. This is partly thanks to moments of raw and painful sadness that Dorcas describes within the book. I often found myself touched and moved by the depth of her feelings and her true sadness that the relationship had come to an end. Church writes in a believable and moving fashion and it’s easy to truly sympathise with Dorcas. These moments add a heaviness to the novel but also a more frank and honest betrayal of love. The story works because Church harmoniously balances humour and wit with strong, effective emotions.

On whole this novel is an original and sometimes philosophical look on love. It shows how deeply two peoples lives can become interwoven and how painful the separation of this bond can be.

Church steers clear of cliched characters and actually creates within Dorcas an individual protagonist. Dorcas is strong and ultimately brave enough to face the challenges of love but she is also refreshingly optimistic, trusting and forgiving in a world where women seem to have become hardened to love. I finished the book grateful for Dorcas and her open and optimistic approach to love.

For anyone looking for a love story with a new twist then this book is well worth a read. Have you read Sleeping with Mozart? If so what did you think?

6/10

Light hearted reading from Tom Sharpe

Desperate for some light-hearted but witty and hilariously funny reading…look no further.

Wilt in NowhereEvery now and then I get to a stage where I just need some light hearted, and if I’m lucky enough laugh out loud reading. And ever since discovering the joys of  Tom Sharpe and his wonderfully witty collection of Wilt books I have thankfully found my fail safe writer to turn to when in such a situation.

I recently found myself in this very same predicament and instinctively I scoured my book shelves for my sacred collection of Wilt books. It got me thinking though, do all avid readers find themselves coming to this stage every now and then? And if so which writers do you turn too?

I first discovered Tom Sharpe about 4 years ago when a friend of mine told me that I had to try his books, she was adamant  I would love his style of writing. We were perusing my favourite book shop, Barter Books, and she picked up a few of his novels. I have to admit that at first I was a little sceptical, if you’ve never seen one of the covers of his books then I’ve attached some to this post. All of the books have unusual caricatures of people in a variety of odd situations. Like the cover for ‘Wilt’ which depicts a rather crude image of a man stuffing an inflatable doll down a pot hole. My first reaction was what on earth? There not really the sort of covers my books tend to have but with a ‘it’s good to try new things’ attitude I decided to give them ago.

The first of his books that I decided to try was in fact ‘Wilt’ (maybe I was subconsciously drawn to the peculiar book cover after all?), which like all of the Wilt books centres around the satirical but wonderfully grumpy character of Henry Wilt. Wilt is a man for whom life’s grievances have left him with a rather cynical outlook on life. Harassed by his physically overbearing and emotionally draining wife Eva, Wilt’s patience and attitude to life have been severely tampered with. Worsened still by his working life as a teacher in a polytechnic school teaching English to a group of apprentices and buthcers on day release who are obliged to attend his course. They attend begrudgingly and succesfully win in chipping away at his spirit with disparaging but wickedly entertaining comments.

Wilt might sound like a rather dull and miserable character but far from it, think more of an endearing but grumpy uncle who spends his time at all family events trying to get away from your bossy over powering aunt in the hopes of some peaceful respite. Times the hilarity of the situation by 100 and your getting cloe to the character of Wilt. For Henry Wilt and his attending catastrophes are told with so much humour and with such dry and witty prose that it is impossible not to be blown over by the marvellously comical way that Tom Shapre writes.

All of the Wilt stories centre around wildly outrageous events and plot lines that will have you literally crying with laughter. I often find myself reading a Wilt book and being shocked by just how far Sharpe takes the Wilt character and his crazy antics. For instance take Wilt on High which begins rather innocently with Wilts sadistic fantasies of escaping his domineering and demanding wife by conjuring up images of ridiculous murder scenarios. Now don’t get me wrong, the book isn’t as dark as I’m probably making out. And like all of Wilt’s grandiose plans there’s something pityingly amusing in Wilt’s desperate attempts for some semblance of control and order. These outlandish notions of murder are thought up really rather harmlessly when Wilt has suffered a few too many beers, and they are more a comfort for him as he braces himself for a lifetime spent severely under the thumb.

But like all of Wilt’s endeavours an unfortunate series of events always ensues and Wilt, as seems to be his misfortune in life, finds himself in seriously hot water. Somewhere from the drunken ramblings of Wilt’s frustrations comes the entrance of blow up doll, a pot hole and a suspected ‘murder scene’ at the local polytechnic school. And off course Wilt is smack bam the middle of the whole mess. Add into the mix a now missing wife and a antagonist policeman who has it in for Wilt and you will find yourself in a riotous novel.

All of the Wilt books follow on in the same vain and to date I’ve read Wilt in Nowhere, Wilt, The Wilt Alternative, and Wilt on High. Amongst all of those books are a series of entertaining and unbelievably hilarious stories that as a reader I could just never have predicted.

I still need to read Wilt in Triplicate and The Wilt Inheritance but I’m saving them for when I really need a good laugh out loud, light hearted bit of reading. I’m running low on supplies though so are there any books like this that can provide the same sort of sometimes necessary light relief reading? Any recommendations? Perhaps you too get to this partiuclar stage and have a writer that you always turn too? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

One of the most touching and heartbreaking stories I have ever read, Ishiguro pushes the boundaries of fiction and the effect is dazzling.

I must admit that as I sit down to review this book I’m a little wary. I loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ so much and the story touched me so deeply that I can’t help feeling slightly apprehensive about making sure this review does the book justice. Off course I’ll give it my best go and hopefully I will be able to convey to any readers thinking of reading this book just how affecting and touching it was.

I’m also cautious of giving away too much in this review as the story is so jam packed with thrilling twists and turns, compelling cliff hangers and intriguing mystery that to say too much would be to deny any readers new to this book the same experience of slowly unfolding and revealing the stories secrets. I’ll try and stick therefore to the basics of this plotline and hopefully retain the mystery of this novel. I must say though that I could never have predicted what would unfold in the story and for anyone intrigued by what they might have read or heard about this book then please do read it because the plot line is a true original.

The story opens up at Hailsham school and it follows the lives of a group of students growing up in this seemingly idyllic and privileged school under the care of their ‘guardians’. The story is set in the 1960’s however it is also set in Ishiguro’s image of an alternative England (I wont say too much about this in case I give away the crux of the story). At first their world seems in no way different to our own but subtly placed clues hint at something darker and give the novel an ominous atmosphere. Why don’t the children have full surnames? instead they are called Kathy H or Tommy B. And why is there such an emphasis on the children’s health? an idea reinforced through constant and rigorous medical checks.

Within the story innocent memories of childhood experiences are remembered through the eyes of Kathy H, the stories narrator. Kathy is now 31 years old and a carer; throughout the story she looks back on her life and the experiences she has had both at Hailsham and  in her life beyond the school. During this introspective process she begins to realise and summarise what her life has been about and what her place in this alternate England is.

Kathy often speaks in a confused voice using statements like I think this happened for this reason, or I imagine it was because of this; there is a lack of solid confidence to her musings. There is always a sense that the truth of Kathy’s world and her life is been kept from her and alongside Kathy we embark on a journey into her past learning the reality of her world and the purpose of her existence. Our confusion is matched by Kathy’s who is always poking at the truth trying to understand it and the world around her. An example of this is when Tommy, Kathy’s close friend in the novel, has a peculiar conversation with Miss Lucy, one of the guardian’s at the Hailsham school. Miss Lucy says something unusual about Tommy’s art work  and the art work of all the students which they religiously produce. Both Kathy and Tommy set about, with raised suspicions, trying to read into the peculiar exchange that Tommy has had with Miss Lucy. The children are compelled by a sensation that something their guardian has said to them pertains to some unknown truth relating to their lives. Kathy looks back on this encounter and tries to understand it’s significance and what it means.

The book is made of similar memories like this that Kathy goes over and it’s through this method of story telling that the sensation is created that something sinister is lurking behind the students lives. Ishiguro continually makes reference to the idea that the children are being told the truth but not properly been told it. This concept is captured perfectly in this episode with Miss Lucy and it is one that presides throughout.

It is also through Katy’s eyes that we begin to witness the powerful and strong bond between the novels central characters Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. A set of friends whose circumstances have tightly bound them together enclosing them all in an intense and endearing friendship. However as they begin to encounter adolescence and all of the woes that this brings with it, their once strong and solid friendship must face tumultuous changes as they all individually try and establish themselves in this world. Sometimes pushing each other away in order to establish individuality but also sometimes clinging on, desperately wanting to sustain the bonds that have always so tightly bound them. This friendship  is depicted beautifully with heartbreaking precision. The result is a shattering depiction of three friends growing up  both together and apart.  He also masterfully explores ideas of fate; depicting an image of characters urgently trying to change and alter their destiny’s; but are the destiny’s already determined?

What makes Ishiguro’s story so powerful is the way he creates an imaginative and shocking alternative image of England and blends it so artfully in with the rest of the story. This adds an edge to the story and an original new dimension. There is always the sense that something dark and disturbing is at play and like Katy we are curious to unravel the mysteries of the story. Don’t be surprised if this story becomes master of your curiosity. Ishiguro deftly combines two seemingly separate ideas within his novel, the relationship between Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, and this new England. He skilfully weaves them together so they work in unison which other; neither one detracting the other from the devastating affect that they have upon the reader. Perhaps that’s because Ishiguro manages to paint an image of this alternate England so subtly so that the reality of this image creeps upon the reader slowly and quietly, rather than being loud and abrasive. Thanks to this delicate depiction ‘Never Let Me Go’ allows the reader to fully immerse themselves in the lives of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth; providing the reader with a close and intimate look into the their complicated relationship.

Certainly when I finished this novel I felt that all of the subtle, underlying clues that had been creeping to the surface truly hit me with a strong impact. Ishiguro has crafted his prose in such a way that the true implications and force of the novel are slowly unravelled and because of this they are all the more shocking. This is a novel that will stick with you long after reading it and have you thinking and talking about it for some time to come.

The climax of Kathy’s story is also one of high impact; we tensely follow Kathy on her journey through life, and share with her the intense friendship with her, Ruth and Tommy; so as the novel reaches the end we too cannot help but feel a protectiveness over Kathy and her friends, a desperation to unveil how their relationship will conclude and were life will eventually take them. It was, for me, the beautifully described bond between the three central characters that moved me so much and in the final throws of the novel in particular I found myself deeply touched by the overall journey their friendship takes.

This was a fantastic book and definitely a book hugging moment. It’s the first book I’ve read by Kazuo Ishiguro, can anyone recommend any of his other work? Have you read this novel, are you a fan or did you not enjoy the story? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

10/10

Audrey Niffenegger – Her Fearful Symmetry

 

A bold and daring second offering from Niffeneger, but a close contender for her earlier work? Perhaps not for this reader.

 

Myfirst reaction to this novel was a little mixed, while I loved the plot line and exciting mystery that preceded much of the story, at times I found it hard to relate or sympathize with Niffenegger’s characters. Characters that are often extremely selfish and at times even unlikeable. Thankfully though Nifenegger’s winning plot line alongside the thrilling twists and turns that she throws into the mix save this novel and help to create a gripping read with an unusual and unique gothic twist.

The story centers around mirror twins Julia and Valentia, whose estranged aunt Elsphet passes away leaving the twins her home and a sizeable fortune of money. The twins, although having never met their aunt from London, are thrilled by the prospect of taking ownership of her home and gaining the independence that they have, living with their parents in America, thus far only dreamed of. What meets them in London though is a lot more than they or the reader could have possibly imagined. Over time they come to realize that their aunt Elspeth, who their mother has strangely tired to keep hidden from them, is a ghost now occupying her old flat, their new residence. Living in the flat with Aunt Elspeth’s ghost hovering in the shadows the twins begin to uncover mysteries and history that they had never anticipated. Alongside this journey they must also try and create lives for themselves and contend with the reality that one twin wants independence whilst the other wants to remain part of a set.

Woven within the story is also the character of Robert who was Elspeth’s lover and stayed with her through her illness until her death. Robert finds himself dragged into Elspeth’s past through the relationship he forges with the twins. Despite trying to move on Robert instead develops a close bond with Valentina but also struggles to come to terms with Elspeth’s death especially when he realises that she may have passed away but she is still very much able to communicate with him.

On top of all of these complicated events there is Martin, a man with severe OCD who is unable to leave his home. Martin is living in the same building as Robert and the twins. Martin becomes a confidant for twin Julia’s frustrations, he also becomes an interesting and intriguing character to read about as he struggles to come to terms with his OCD.

Niffenegger displays a wonderful imagination and the ability to build and maintain suspense and interest within her novel. The dark, often gothic twists to her tale heighten the eerie and ominous mood that is needed in this story where characters lack empathetic depiction. Instead the unusual and dark atmosphere contained within the novel becomes the fuel that drives the reader in this thrilling tale and the key to ensuring that their interest is sustained.

What Her Fearful Symmetry does really well is to examine and explore the ideas of possession, love and the idea of letting go. Each of the central characters struggle in some way to let go of their fixations and become driven instead by the need to posses something despite the dangerous consequences forewarned. Whether it be Julia’s reluctance to let go of Valentina, the twin who cannot accept that her sister is independent and her own person. Or in Elspeth in whom these themes are also perfectly presented. Despite passing away her soul can not let go and she haunts her own flat and the twins. Elspeth displays her possessive love for Martin as she desperately tries to communicate with him on the other side. We see just how far her love but also her desperation to be alive and with him again will drive her. She appears to lose herself morally in her bid for life and love and these emotions reach a dramatic climax towards the end of the novel when Niffeneger displays just how far people consumed with a passion to consume will go.

Even Martin struggles with the idea of letting go in the form of his OCD and agoraphobia and inability to leave his home. Off course Martin’s story is less dark and twisted as the other, although no less touching, but I’ll touch upon this more later.

As I have said the relationship between Julia and Valentina channels this theme of possession and letting go perfectly. Valentina, smothered and over powered by the constricting and overprotective love of her sister desperately seeks independence and freedom. But in Niffeneger’s tale, where nothing is impossible and the unimaginable is brought to life, the results of such controlling behavior are magnified and displayed in a new and exciting way. It was these ideas and themes demonstrated within the novel that really set it apart from other stories of it’s kind and helped to seal this novel within my mind. Niffeneger takes ideas that other writers have perhaps meekly explored in comparison to the dark and eerie way that she explores them. She’s certainly put her stamp on this plot and the effect of what she creates is fascinating to read.

Yet as much as I did love the story, as I have said I also struggled with most of the characters in the story, who to me were at times unattractive in their actions and behavior. Both twins display uncomfortable levels of selfishness in either their bid to break away from one another or alternatively entrap the other. As I’ve said what Niffenger does here is to magnify these ideas which is perhaps why I sometimes found the characters so off putting. Nothing is done by half measures, least of all the extreme that her characters will go to in order to meet their ideals. Elspeth also made for me a deeply unlikeable character. Her selfishness in obtaining mortality and regaining her former love over shadowed her moral compass on a grand scale and left me viewing her as quite a hollow person. I desperately sought a level on which I could relate to her and maybe understand her further but Niffeneger doesn’t really seem to offer this insight, it’s more just accepted that this is the way she is. Or perhaps we are meant to relate to her extreme actions and sympathize with her desperation. I could not make the connection though with her character and it did sometimes hinder the overall the connection I had with the novel.

Strangely I also found the way that Julia was criticized in the novel sometimes irritating, off course she is the over bearing twin and does have a lot to answer for when it comes to the demise of Valentia. But her motives seem to be out of love for her sister, albeit an overbearing love, and this therefore allowed me to feel more compassion towards her. The other characters seemed to act out of motives that only benefited themselves.

The redeeming character of the novel for me though really was Martin, I found his story compelling, fascinating and beautifully depicted. He doesn’t exactly provide light relief, his story is still a sad one but it isn’t hard to warm to him and feel empathy to his plight. In the midst of all of the madness that takes place in the story, Martin, trapped in his own apartment out of agoraphobia, is actually an enjoyable character to visit.

Please don’t be put of though by what I have said about Niffeneger’s characterization, it didn’t put me off the book and I don’t think it will alienate many readers either. If anything I think the way Niffeneger has presented her characters is a bold move and commendable. To take a mostly unlikeable group of people, and without apologizing for it allowing them to act in selfish and sometimes unforgivable ways in order to really push home a theme is to be respected and revered. Niffeneger’s message is all the more poignant for her daring.

What we end up with here is a dark story that by the end leaves the reader reflecting the lengths that people will go to procure what they truly desire. The fact that she has done this with such a gothic back drop only heightens the atmosphere in the story and emphasizes the possibilities a fixation with possession can create. And because this story is fundamentally centered around the relationship of two sets of twins we can also see quite tragically the ramifications of jealousy and possession on such special relationships.

7/10

Linwood Barclay – No Time For Goodbye

Cryptic clues and electrifying tension make this a novel of great suspense and intrigue.

I don’t usually read crime fiction novels, there not really my thing. So I was a little sceptical when I picked this one up, certain I wouldn’t get anything from it.  In truth I picked it up because I was at a loose end reading wise (I’d finished a book at my parents and desperately wanted something new to read) but also the catchy synopsis seemed intriguing and worth a go. Perhaps because my expectations weren’t too high, as I said it isn’t my genre, I found myself pleasantly drawn into the story, curiosity driving me through from the very first page to the thrilling finale.

The story beings when teenager Cynthia Archer wakes one morning with a terrible hangover and little memory of the night before. She braces herself for the worst, a telling off from her parents for her underage drinking, but what she slowly comes to unveil is far worse. Seemingly over night, all of Cynthia’s family have vanished. Searching the rooms of her family home turns up nothing, even the police are rendered useless in this bizarre and uncanny case. Has Cynthia being abandoned by her loved ones? Have they willing fled in the night, and if so why didn’t they take her too? Or has something even more sinister occurred? Have her family being murdered? Is the killer still out there?

Twenty five years later and Cynthia is grown up with her own family, a husband and daughter. Yet the horror of her loss and it’s strange circumstances still haunt her. Then after many years she agrees to take part in a TV documentary about her unusual prompting things to get even more sinister. A mysterious letter arrives bringing with it a spine tingling sensation of suspense and thrill that drives the reader and fuels curiosity.

A lot of questions are thrown into the mix which makes for a compelling and urgent read. Barclay knows how to manipulate his fiction to hook his reader and ensure their unwavering attention is snagged. Anyone who is a fan of crime fiction is sure to enjoy his style and the plot line of this interesting story. Even those who aren’t inclined to this style of fiction, may, like me find themselves intrigued and pleasantly surprised by what Linwood Barclay has to offer.

I’ve always found with crime fiction novels that the story line can sometimes be a little predictable, a little too ‘we’ve been here before’ but with Barclay’s story I felt a far more original story had been told. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing groundbreaking here, but the story is less predictable than a lot of crime novels that open with gory murder scenes.  He really nails the art of mixing subtle suspense and intrigue whilst giving just enough glimpses of the truth so that the reader is compelled to read on. And although the actual story is far from everyday reality, perhaps the lack of violence surrounding the families disappearance in the beginning only adds to the creepiness of the story. For me it made the story easier to believe, which therefore made it all the more harrowing.

What would you do if you woke one day and your family had disappeared? How would you move on? Barclay asks us all of these questions, and as the past begins to resurface in the present he throws us questions about how one can totally let go of their past, how they can resist tugging at the mysterious facts to find the truth. As a reader we urge Cynthia to carry on digging up her past and to ignore the dangerous warning signs that Barclay throws in so that we too can solve this mystery.  

I note that this book also received praise from Richard and Judy for the summer reads, I’m pleased to see it receiving praise, in my opinion it’s worth it.

Have you read this book or anything else by Linwood Barclay? Perhaps you’re a big crime fiction fan and have an opinion on this review? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

6/10

Room – By Emma Donoghe

One of the most gripping and powerfully told stories I’ve read this year. I laughed, I cried, I fell in love with Donoghue’s writting.

I’m always a little wary when I read a book that has had as much talk and praise about it as Emma Donoghue’s Room does. A book long listed for the Orange prize this year and short listed for The Man Booker Prize last year. Would the book live up to my expectations? Would I feel that I’ve missed something that all other readers seemed to have found? I have to admit that Room did not meet my expectations…it exceeded them.

The story starts on Jacks 5th birthday, he lives in ‘Room’, which really is just a 11×11 room that he shares with his Ma. We very quickly realize that Jack has never left this room, he was born here and he has no knowledge of the outside world. For him the small, confining space is his only world. The only glimpse he has had that anyone else exists is through the television, but his Ma has told him that everything in the TV is not real. They are just pictures. Make believe. From the very first words of the book a haunting and ominous presence leaks from the pages. Although we don’t know straight away the details of Jacks strange circumstances we are presided with an unnerving sense of unease.

Jack and his mother are being held captive by scary ‘Old Nick’ who comes in the night when Jack is sleeping in Wardrobe. Sometimes though, Jack who the entire story is narrated through, stays awake. And in the compelling and artistic way that Donoghue writes, Jack describes through his childish voice how he hears Bed creaking when Old Nick comes. If this sounds creepy now the feeling is nothing compared to what the author manages to convey, whilst retaining the innocence of youth in Jacks story telling. What is so precious about Jack is how intuitively he knows something is amiss, he counts all of his teeth when Old Nick is there, an OCD trait, yet he doesn’t quite grasp what is going on. He allows the readers to unveil the shocking truth and we become more and more empathetic for this loveable young boy.

I touched on the narration of the story and how Jack manages to tell the haunting story whilst ensuring that a youthful and endearing quality remains. It’s this dual purpose gained from Jacks narration that ensured my appreciation for just how well Donoghue had handled such a sensitive and shaky subject matter. On the one hand there is something disturbing and frightening about the fact that this haunting story is told by a small boy; that he is witnessing the rape of his mother every night, that he thinks inanimate objects like a wardrobe are his friends. It adds a creepy sense that subtly hits home to us just how morally wrong and damaging this story of captivity is. On the other hand the innocence of Jack also prevents this story from becoming too heavy, which off course could very easily happen in a tale like this.

The childishness of Jack is heartbreaking. The way he depicts his life in such an affectionate way, for example he tells us about ‘meltedy spoon’ and ‘egg snake’ that he and Ma made from broken egg shells. He describes them with fondness and refers to them as his friends. That Jack has had so little in the way of material possessions in his life, and yet he talks about his toys like friends and with so much joy deepens the story with unmistakable sadness. Room touches nerves and taps into emotions in a way that other writers have aspired to affect their readers but haven’t quite managed. And that this is written in such a childish manner and yet still packs such a blow just blew me away. Something you may think would come easily in a story about kidnapping, but I have read various novels and semi autobiographical books on this subject matter and honestly, sometimes I felt quite desensitized by the factual way the stories were told.

As the story wears on Jacks Ma begins to explain to him that there is more to the world than just him, her, and room. There is a whole world out there and all of the police cars, children, animals, hospitals, beaches he has seen on TV are actually real. She tells him that they shouldn’t be in this room but they are trapped by old Nick. What really tugged at my heartstrings was Jack’s reluctance to join the real world and his denial that they are a part of it. He desperately wants to cling onto the notion that only him and Ma exist and here the depiction of a mother and child relationship is magnificently displayed.

I don’t think anyone could read this story and not be touched by the frail lives of Ma and Jack and the fierce bonds that there circumstances create. The relationship between them is in one sense like an everyday mother and child relationshi yet it is magnified in this story of the captivity.

Room is a unique novel, it’s a story that has been touched upon before but not in this way and it’s this that made it for me such a spectacular and unforgettable novel. I’d highly recommend it too anyone wanting something a little different but also something moving that will get you thinking.

As I said earlier Room is up for the Orange prize for fiction. There will be a post up soon about all of the nominations, which I must confess I haven’t read yet. I wonder if they will be quite as powerful as Room?

Have you read Room? Did you feel as blown away by the story? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

10/10

Discussion – E Readers Vs Books

Do modern E Readers have a place in the decades old tradition of books?

I was recently lucky enough to be given a brand new E Reader as a gift. I’m clearly a very spoilt lady indeed as these things aren’t that cheap so I hear, and there quite sought after. I feel bad for saying then that my first thought when unwrapping the gift was a sense of betrayal to all of the books that I’ve read and loved and all of the books just waiting to opened and enjoyed. Surely a reading experience isn’t complete without the initial first handling of your chosen book? When you pick it up, weigh it in your hands, run your fingers along the spine and get your first taste for that book. They say don’t judge a book by it’s cover, maybe that should be don’t judge a book by it’s feel?

It’s true that the cold, hard metal of an E Reader case is a far cry from the soft, worn feeling one can experience from a second hand or passed down book. The feeling that someone else has held it and manipulated it to suit their touch. The feeling can transport you to someone else’s experience and the mind wanders thinking, who held this book before me? Where has it been? There’s something strangely impersonal then about the E Reader.

Books have been around for years and years and years! they’ve out seen countless generations, lived through historical events. Imagine a book shelf in world war one for example, when all of the chaos and destruction of such a tragedy destroys lives and buildings. And yet there are rare books that surpass these times and wait still now for a new owner to claim them. Can we really let metallic, hard technology replace the real paper and ink books? I had always thought no, and if someone had told me that I would read a story from one of these devices I would have laughed off the idea as preposterous. I must sound really old saying all of this, I’m actually only 25. But I’m a firm believer in books and I couldn’t bear the thought that their traditional form that has survived and thrived for years should suffer from the blow of technology!

That said the E Reader was a gift, a very generous gift that I felt compelled to at least give a go. I’ve just finished my first ever book on it, The Distant Hours by Kate Morton, in all honestly I chose this rather purposefully because the copy I was given was in hard back form. Therefore I felt the heavy, large form of the novel could be justifiably read on my electronic book, for ease of reading…I told myself.

Now I must confess that I ‘opened’ up the story rather reluctantly at first. Yet I must also admit that the experience, once I got used to the unusual feel, wasn’t so far removed from reading a normal novel. in fact the E Reader, with it’s compact size, held a slight a benefit over the usual form of a book, which can be heavy and laborious to carry around on long journeys. The device comes with many useful features, like the bookmark option where you can ‘fold down a page’ or a page finder where you can move along to the desired page. Off course it’s not as simple or natural as flicking the books pages until you see the folded down page or number that your looking for. In reality the electronic book can be a bit fiddly and I note a little smugly; some things just cannot be replaced.

This was my experience anyway. For me a book doesn’t start with this first word or finish with the last. It starts when you get yourself comfortable, peel back the first page and inhale the century old smell of paper and pages that have been thumbed and caressed from years of use and love. And, off course for me it ends when you finish the last page, and hopefully breath a sigh of content and hug your new book close to your chest.

Many may disagree and say that this new form of technology is a break through and something to be revered? Others may side more on the air of tradition and shone this device.

Me? Well nothing will ever replace books. The joy, the experience of reading a real book; its not replaceable. All of the technology in the world cant eradicate thousands of years of tradition. Will I use my new E Reader though? The answer is yes, sometimes. When I have a hardback that’s too heavy, or maybe when if I’m travelling or on holiday? There’s benefits to the device. I don’t want to cut my nose of to spite my face and all that. But will I favour this form to a normal novel? Never.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences regarding this discussion so please feel free to leave a comment.