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

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Inflicted - Ria Frances


Synopsis

In 1942, as Europe suffocates under the grip of Nazi terror, Anna Levinsky a young Jew, is incarcerated in the ghetto of Theresienstadt. Striving for survival in abominable conditions, during the unveiling of adulthood, Anna's improbable fate hinges on the mercy of others. In the early, wintry days of 2010, sixteen-year-old Theo Drew emerges from a family tragedy trailing a corrosive secret. When guilt threatens to overwhelm him, Theo flees to a deserted woods beside the sea, seeking oblivion. As Anna and Theo’s worlds inadvertently collide and a delicate friendship severs the barriers between age and experience, the truth and the past unravel, revealing the essence of human salvation.

~~~~~

Review

Inflicted is a memorable and impressive debut novel. I found the story incredibly moving at times, and the narrative is heartfelt and touching. It depicts friendship between an older lady, Anna Levinsky, and sixteen-year-old Theo Drew, a friendship across generations that is borne out of kindness, a need for understanding and compassion. Anna is kind towards Theo, offering him advice about bullies and about the tragic situation within his family. Theo, for his part, provides a listening ear for Anna to share her past, one she has scarcely ever spoken of to others, and listening to Anna's story, Theo is taken out of himself and temporarily able to distract himself from his own burdens.

`...listening to her story jolted him out of the cycle of self-pity that had controlled his feelings for so long.'

Through Anna's story, recounting her harrowing experiences during the Second World War, concentrating particularly on the years from 1942, when, as a young Jew, she was held in the concentration camp in the ghetto in Theresienstadt, we see evidence of the great spirit and strength she demonstrated when younger in order to survive, and through Theo's story we see the guilt he carries with him and the sadness that has torn through his family. As a girl and then a young woman, Anna endures terrible hardship, witnesses horrendous acts and is forced to grow up fast.

`I am now a different Anna to the one who left Prague and entered Theresienstadt; half adult, half child with the adult half forced to emerge and stand to attention.'

As Anna enters Theresienstadt in 1942, we see directly through her eyes the terrible reality of the place;

`...a grid of murky, run-down streets with blocks of non-descript buildings rising from its grimy depths. These edifices, naked in their neglect seemed to hang their shabby heads in shame, capitulating to their decay.'

Ria Frances does not pull any punches or hold back, the honesty in the storytelling was a real strength of the book for me, whether it is the actions and behaviour of Theo's mother, or the lengths that Theo himself goes to in order to harm himself and take his pain away, or the details of what Anna endured in the ghetto, these are people going through pain and anguish of loss, or self-loathing, or horrendous treatment, and their experiences are frankly depicted.

For me the author shows a real insight into what makes people tick, what hurts them and what makes them stronger, the connections people forge, and this comes through in the thoughts and words of her characters.

I don't want to give away anything about the storyline but I would say that although I felt Anna's story was the stronger of the two, and very vivid in terms of detail, evidently well researched, powerful and believable, I nevertheless also found Theo's gradual journey of self-discovery well portrayed.

This story is powerfully told, emotional and very moving, tragic yet brimming with kindness and certainly not without hope, and written with compassion and honesty. I'm very glad to have read it. 

Review copy via amazon vine

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

First Chapter, First Paragraph Tuesday Intros - How Green Was My Valley




Every Tuesday Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where we share the first paragraph or (a few) of a book we are reading or thinking about reading soon.




I'm reading How Green was my Valley by Richard Llewellyn.

These are the opening lines...


'I am going to pack my two shirts with my other socks and my best suit in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair when she did the house, and I am going from the Valley.'

~~~~~
What do you think, would you keep reading?


Synopsis

Growing up in a mining community in rural South Wales, Huw Morgan is taught many harsh lessons. Looking back, where difficult days are faced with courage and the valleys swell with the sound of Welsh voices, it becomes clear that there is nowhere so green as the landscape of his own memory.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Gronk: A Monster's Story Volume 1 - a comic by Katie Cook


Synopsis


Gronk is a monster... and not a very good one. 


Gronk tells the tale of a young monster who has turned her back on monsterdom (mostly because no one found her scary) and has become fascinated with humans. 

She moves in with her human friend Dale and her pets Kitty and Harli, a 160 lb. Newfoundland Dale wants to declare as a dependent to the IRS. 

Enjoy the first installment from this popular kids webcomic in a wonderful, full-color collection!



Review

Lovely, sweet and amusing, Gronk is an inventive comic and the art and words depict a great sense of humour and fun. Gronk is a lovely monster who isn't interested in scaring anyone; instead she enjoys company, friendship and adventure, and she finds all this when she meets Dale and accepts her kind invitation to move in with her and her pets Kitty the cat and Harli the dog. 

One of my favourite pages was the one where Gronk gets in the cardboard box with Kitty the cat, and her imagination conjures up some great scenes that are sketched out. I love Harli the dog. It's sixty pages, I enjoyed reading the whole book in one sitting - it collates the episodes shared via the original webcomic. The original wonderful black and white illustrations have been coloured for this book by Kevin Minor. 

Gronk features likeable characters, and includes references to Harry Potter and other popular culture. I'm sure children will love it, and adults too - I did.

The website for the original webcomic is here: Gronk Comic

Digital review copy via netgalley.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin & Samantha Norman - Blog Tour


Today it's great to be hosting the blog tour for Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman. My stop features an extract from the novel for you to sample below. 

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Published by Bantam Press on 12th February 2014 in Paperback, priced £7.99

Synopsis

Run, run, girl. In the name of God, run.

1141. A mercenary watches from the icy reeds as a little girl with red hair is attacked by his own men. He is powerless to stop them.

But a strange twist of fate brings them together again. Sheltering in a church, he finds the girl freezing cold, close to death, clutching a sliver of parchment. And now he is certain of what he must do.

He will bring her back to life. He will train her to fight. And he will protect her from the man who calls himself a monk, who lost a piece of parchment he will do anything to get back . . .

An epic account of the brutal winter when Stephen and Matilda tore England apart in their battle for its crown – when atrocities were inflicted on the innocent, but bravery found a home in an old solider and a young girl.

~~~~~

About the authors

Ariana Franklin was born in Devon and, like her father, became a journalist.
Having invaded Wales dressed in combat uniform with the Royal Marines for one of
their military exercises, accompanied the Queen on a royal visit, missed her own twenty first birthday party because she had to cover a murder, she married, almost inevitably,
another journalist. She then abandoned her career in national newspapers and settled
down in the country to bring up two daughters, study medieval history and write.

Ariana was the author of the acclaimed, award-winning Mistress of the Art of Death
series. She passed away in 2011, before she was able to deliver the manuscript for Winter Siege. Her daughter, Samantha, decided to complete the novel on her mother’s behalf.

Samantha Norman is a journalist and broadcaster who is mad about horses. She lives in west London with her two sons Harry and Charlie, and their dogs Becks and Spider.

~~~~~

Extract


Winter Siege
Chapter One

The Cambridgeshire Fens, February 1141

At first, news of the war going on outside passed into the fenland without impact. It oozed into that secret world as if filtered through the green miasma of willow and alder that the fenlanders called ‘carr’, which lined its interminable rivers and reed beds.
At Scutney, they learned about it from Old Sala when he came back from his usual boat trip to Cambridge market where he sold rushes for thatching. He told the tale in the village church after the celebration of Candlemas.
‘Now yere’s King Stephen—’ he began.
‘Who?’ somebody asked.
Sala sighed with the exasperation of a much-travelled
man for the village idiot. ‘I told you an’ told you, bor. Ain’t Henry on the throne now, it’s Stephen. Old Henry’s dead and gone these many a year.’
‘He never told me.’
‘Well, he wouldn’t, would he? Him bein’ a king and dead.’
As always, the little wooden church smelled of cooking from the rush tapers that had been dipped in fat. Scutney couldn’t afford beeswax candles; anyway, rushes gave out a prettier light.
‘Get on with it, will ’ee?’ Brother Arth struggled out of the rough woollen cope he wore to take the services and into the sheepskin cloak that was his working wear in winter. ‘I got ditchin’ and molin’ to see to.’
They all had, but the villagers stayed where they were – it was as well to be informed about what was going on in them uplands.
Sala stretched back his shoulders and addressed his audience again. ‘So this King Stephen’s started a-warring with his cousin, the Empress Matilda. Remember as I told you old King Henry, on his deathbed, wanted his daughter, this Matilda, to rule England? But the nobles, they don’t want no blasted female queenin’ it over un, so they’ve said no and gives the crown to Stephen, old Henry’s nephew.’
He looked sternly into the standing congregation. ‘Got that now, Bert, have you? Good. Well now, Matilda, she ain’t best pleased with bein’ passed over and seems she’s brought a army as is a-fighting Stephen’s army out there some’eres.’
‘That it?’ Nyles wanted to know.
‘Enough, innit?’ Sala was miffed that Nyles, the big man of the village because he owned more sheep than anybody else, hadn’t been more receptive to the news. ‘I been tellin’ you as there’s a war goin’ on out there.’
Nyles shrugged. ‘Allus is.’
‘Excitin’, though, Pa, ain’t it?’ asked eleven-year-old Em, looking up at him.
Nyles cuffed his daughter lightly about her red head for her forwardness in speaking in church. She was his favourite, but it didn’t do to let females get out of hand, especially not this one. ‘Well, good luck to ’em, I say. And now let’s get on with that ditchin’ and bloody molin’.’
But Old Sala, irritated by the interruption, raised his hand. ‘I’ll tell you summat else, Nyles. And you’ll want to listen this time. Want to be keeping a close eye on that one, you will,’ he said, pointing at Em. ‘Folk say as there’s a band o’ mercenaries riding round ’ere like the wild hunt and with ’em there’s a monk; likes red-heads, he does. Does terrible things when ’e finds ’em too.’
Nyles shook his head indulgently and turned towards the door. He knew Old Sala with his scaremongering and preposterous tales of abroad and yet he suddenly felt in- explicably chilly and, without realizing it, had reached out and drawn the child closer to him. Daft old bugger.
‘That it then, Sala?’ he asked. The old man looked deflated but nodded and with that the men, women and children of Scutney trooped out of its church to continue their own, unceasing war – against water.
The North Sea, that great enemy, was always threaten- ing to drown East Anglia in one of its rages, submerging fields and cattle, even lapping the just-above-sea-level islands that dotted the flattest land in England. In winter, the sluggish rivers and great drains had to be cleared of weed or they clogged and overflowed.
Oh, and the mole, as big an enemy as the sea, had to be killed to stop the little bugger from weakening the dykes with his bloody tunnels.
No, the people of Scutney didn’t have time from their watery business to bother about wars between the danged nobles. Anyway, they were safe because just over there – over there, bor, see them towers in the distance? – was Ely, greatest cathedral in England.
Every year, the villagers had to deliver four thousand glistening, squirming eels to Ely in return for being protected by St Etheldreda, whose bones lay in a jewelled tomb within the cathedral walls.
Powerful saint, Etheldreda, an Anglo-Saxon like themselves, and although Scutney people resented the number of eels they had to catch in order to feed her monks, they were grateful to her for keeping them safe from the outside world with its battles and carryings-on.
Oh yes, any bugger who came a-trampling and a-killing in this part of the fens ’d soon have his arse kicked out of it by good old St Ethel.
That’s if the bugger could find Scutney in the first place and didn’t drown in the meres or get led astray by spirits of the dead who took the shape of flickering Jack-o’- Lantern flames in the marshes by night.
Folk allus said that for an enemy force to attack Ely it’d take a traitor to show the secret causeways leading to it. And who’d be so dang-blasted stupid as to betray St Etheldreda? Get sent straight to Hell, he would.
Such was the attitude.
But a traitor was even now preparing his treachery, and the war was about to penetrate Scutney’s fenland for all that St Etheldreda in her 500-year-old grave could do about it.

The first the village knew of its fate was when soldiers sent by Hugh Bigod turned up to take its men away to build him a new castle.
‘Bigod?’ roared Nyles, struggling between two captors while his red-headed elder daughter batted at their legs with a frying pan. ‘We don’t owe him nothing. We’re Ely’s men.’
Hugh Bigod, newly Earl of Norfolk, owned a large pro- portion of East Anglia. The Scutney villagers had seen him in his fine clothes swanking it at Ely with their bishop during Christmas feasts and suchlike. Didn’t like him much. But then, they didn’t like anybody from Norfolk. Didn’t like the next village across the marshes, come to that.
Nor was he their overlord, as was being energetically pointed out to his soldiers. ‘Tha’s not law, bor. We ain’t none of his. What’s he want another castle for? He’ve got plenty.’
‘And now he do want another one,’ the soldiers’ sergeant  said, ‘in case Empress Matilda do attack un. There’s a war on, bor.’
‘Ain’t my war,’ Nyles told him, still struggling.
‘Is now,’ the sergeant said, ‘and if them nippers of yourn don’t cease bashing my legs, they’ll be its next bloody casualties.’
For Em had now been joined by her younger sister, Gyltha, wielding an iron spit.
‘Leave it,’ Nyles told his girls. But they wouldn’t, and their mother had to drag them off.
Holding them tightly, Aenfled watched her husband and every other able-bodied man being marched off along the roddon that led eventually to Cambridge.
‘Us’ll be back, girl,’ Nyles shouted at her over his shoulder, ‘but get they sheep folded, an’ don’t ’ee sell our hay for a penny under thruppence a stook, an’ look to that danged roof afore winter’s out, and . . .’ He had suddenly remembered Old Sala’s warning in the church. ‘Keep Em close...’ And then he was too far away to be heard.
The women of Scutney stood where they were, their men’s instructions becoming fainter and fainter until only an echo came sighing back to them and even that faded so that the air held merely the frightened bawling of their babies and the call of geese flying overhead.
They didn’t cry; fenwomen never wept.

The men still hadn’t come back by the beginning of Lent. It was a hard winter, that one. Birds dropped out of the air, killed by the cold. The rivers froze and dead fish could be seen enclosed in their ice. The old died in their huts; the sheep in their pens.
In the turbaries, spades dulled themselves on peat that had become as hard as iron, so that fuel became scarce and it was necessary for tired, overworked women and their families to venture further and further away from the village in order to retrieve the peat bricks that had been stacked a year before to provide fire for shepherds during the lambing season.
On St Valentine’s Day, it was the turn of Aenfled and her children to trundle a barrow into the marsh to fetch fuel. They’d left nothing behind in the woolly line and the thickness of their wrappings made them look like disparately sized grey statues perambulating through a grey landscape. Their breath soaked into the scarves round their mouths and turned to ice, but a veil of mist in the air promised that the weather might, just might, be on the turn. The children all carried bows and arrows in case a duck or goose flew within range.
Tucked into Em’s belt was a little carved wooden key that Durwyn, Brother Arth’s son, had shyly and secretly shoved into her hand that morning.
Gyltha wouldn’t leave the subject alone. ‘Wants to unlock your heart, he do. You got to wed un now.’
‘Sod that,’ Em said. ‘I ain’t never getting married and certainly not to a saphead like Durwyn. Anyways, I ain’t old enough an’ he ain’t rich enough.’
‘You kept his old key, though.’
‘Tha’ll be on the fire tonight,’ Em promised her. ‘Keep us warm.’
They stopped; they’d felt the drumming of hoofbeats through their boots. Horsemen were cantering along the causeway behind them.
‘Get into they bloody reeds,’ hissed Aenfled. She pushed her barrow over the causeway’s edge and tumbled her children after it.
Horses were rare in the fenland, and those travelling at speed suggested their riders were up to no good. Maybe these were friendly, maybe not, but lately there’d been nasty rumours of villages sacked by demons, women raped – sometimes even murdered – and grain stores burned. Aenfled was taking no chances.
There was just time to squirm through the reeds to where the thick, bare fronds of a willow gave them some cover.
Her hand clasped firmly over the mouth of her younger daughter, not yet old enough to be silenced with a look, Aenfled prayed: Sweet Mary, let un go past, go past.
Go past, go past, urged Em, make un go past. Through the lattice of reeds above her head, she saw flicks of earth being thrown up as the leading horses went by. She bowed her head in gratitude. Thank ’ee, St Ethel, thank ’ee, I’ll never be wicked no more.
But one of the middle riders pulled up. ‘Swear as I saw something dive into that bloody ditch.’
‘Deer?’ One of the leaders stopped abruptly and turned his horse back. As he approached the wind picked up, lifting his robes and revealing the animal’s flanks, which were lathered white with sweat and dripping blood from a set of vicious-looking spurs.
Keeping still as still, Em smelled the stink of the men above her: sweat, dirt, horses, blood and a strange, pungent odour that was foreign to her.
‘Could ’a’ been.’
‘Flush the bastard out then. What are you waiting for?’ Spears began thudding into the ditch. One of the men

dismounted and started scrambling down, hallooing as he went.
Em knew they were done for. Then her mouth set itself into the thin, determined line that her sorely tried mother would have recognized and dreaded. No we ain’t. Not if I lead ’em away. She pushed her sister’s head more firmly into the ground and leaped for the bank. A willow twig twitched the cap from her head as she went, releasing the flame-red curls it hid beneath but, although she paused briefly, she didn’t stop for it. Now she was running.
Aenfled kept Gyltha clutched to her, her moans and prayers covered by the whoops of the men. She heard the one who’d come into the ditch climb back out of it and join the hunt. She heard hoofbeats start up again. She heard male laughter growing fainter as the riders chased their prey further and further into the marsh. She heard the far-away screams as they caught Em, and knew her daughter was fighting. She heard the horses ride off with her.
Birds of the marsh that had flown up in alarm settled back into their reed beds and resumed their silence. In the ditch Aenfled stopped praying.
Except for her daughter’s soul, she never prayed again.

~~~~~

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros - Whatever You Love




Every Tuesday Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where we share the first paragraph or (a few) of a book we are reading or thinking about reading soon.



I'm reading Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty.

These are the opening lines...


'Muscle has memory; the body knows things the mind will not admit. Two police officers were at my door - uniformed, arranged - yet even as the door swung open upon them, which was surely the moment that I knew, even then, my conscious self was seeking other explanations, turning round and round, like a rat in a cage. Muscle memory - not the same thing as instinct of course, but related: pianists know about this, and tap dancers, and anyone who has ever given birth. Even those who have done nothing more than tie their shoelaces know it. The body is quicker than the mind. The body can be trusted.'

~~~~~
What do you think, would you keep reading?


Synopsis

Two police officers knock on Laura's door and her life changes forever. They tell her that her nine-year old daughter Betty has been hit by a car and killed. When justice is slow to arrive, Laura decides to take her own revenge and begins to track down the man responsible.

Monday, 9 February 2015

It's Monday! What are you reading?




It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is a weekly meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. 

This week I finished reading - Inflicted by Ria Frances - a very moving read, two people, one old, one young, both troubled, finding friendship and kindness. Hope to review it soon. 



I also finished reading Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie - I enjoyed it a lot and will carry on reading the Poirot series.



This week I am currently reading -

Disclaimer by Renee Knight - About a quarter of the way through and the story and tension are building up nicely at the moment.

Here's the synopsis:
Finding a mysterious novel at her bedside plunges documentary filmmaker Catherine Ravenscroft into a living nightmare. Though ostensibly fiction, The Perfect Stranger recreates in vivid, unmistakable detail the terrible day she became hostage to a dark secret, a secret that only one other person knew—and that person is dead.
Now that the past is catching up with her, Catherine’s world is falling apart. Her only hope is to confront what really happened on that awful day . . . even if the shocking truth might destroy her.






Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty - This is one that has been on my tbr ages and it's an interesting read so far, very sad subject matter, about a third of the way through this one. 

Here's the synopsis:
Two police officers knock on Laura's door and her life changes forever. They tell her that her nine-year old daughter Betty has been hit by a car and killed. When justice is slow to arrive, Laura decides to take her own revenge and begins to track down the man responsible.




Next up to read - 

Disgrace by Jussi Adler-Olsen
and
The Leipzig Affair by Fiona Rintoul


Here's the synopsis:
The year is 1985. East Germany is in the grip of communism. Magda, a brilliant but disillusioned young linguist, is desperate to flee to the West. When a black market deal brings her into contact with Robert, a young Scot studying at Leipzig University, she sees a way to realise her escape plans. But as Robert falls in love with her, he stumbles into a complex world of shifting half-truths – one that will undo them both.
Many years later, long after the Berlin Wall has been torn down, Robert returns to Leipzig in search of answers. Can he track down the elusive Magda? And will the past give up its secrets?

~~~~~

What are you reading? 

I hope you have a great week of wonderful reading, and thank you for visiting.

Friday, 6 February 2015

A review from pre-blog days - Footsteps - Katharine McMahon

I'm sharing a book review I wrote before I started my book blog and which originally appeared elsewhere. My 'before the blog' review posts are inspired by Karen at My Reading Corner and Janet at fromfirstpagetolast.


(originally read and reviewed in 2009, I was given my copy of this novel by a colleague)

Synopsis
The women in Helena Mayrick's family have always led secretive and tragic lives, and when Helena's comfortable marriage is devastated by her husband's violent death, it seems that she, too, is locked into the cycle.

Helena is invited to research a book on her grandfather, H. Donaldson, the celebrated Edwardian photographer. At first she is reluctant to immerse herself in family history, particularly as Donaldson's relationship with her grandmother, Ruth, is shrouded in mystery and turmoil.

But gradually, as the story of enigmatic Ruth and the elusive, passionate Donaldson unfolds, Helena finds that the past, like the present, was shaped by cruel dilemmas and the demands of love...

~~~~~

I was given this novel by a colleague as a recommendation, and I'm so glad I was! It is the most enchanting, beautiful novel I've read for awhile. Wonderfully written, it tells the story of Helena Mayrick close to the present day, trying to overcome tragedy and embarking reluctantly at first on writing a book about her relation Donaldson, who was a famous photographer, and of her Grandmother Ruth Styles in the early part of the twentieth century, with a chapter alternately set in the present and then the past throughout the book.


Ruth Styles is the lynchpin to the whole novel and the most intriguing and devastating character, to whom all else somehow relates. She grows up by the sea in Suffolk, in a small village, and it is this place which shapes much of the lives of those involved. Young Ruth is intelligent, bright, and sparky, and has a profound and lasting effect on many around her, most noteably on Donaldson, the photographer who comes to Westwich and so begins his lifelong fascination with Ruth. As a reader, I was intensely curious and compelled to read on and find out what would happen to her, and so much does!

There is a marvelous sense of place within the novel, and it is clear the bearing the proximity of the sea has on several of the characters. The book is about the repercussions of the past; about love, forbidden love, lost love, unfulfilled love; it is about the draw of a particular landscape and how it can free or restrict a person, and it is about choices and fulfillment of potential, especially for women, which is a key theme of this author. Highly recommended.