Friday, 29 April 2016

"Circling the Sun" Paula McLain

Circling the Sun
I read "The Paris Wife" a few years ago and it was one of those novels that quietly exceeded all my expectations, quickly becoming one of my favourite reads for that year and one I often recommend. I can still recall the main character of Hadley with ease and affection. I was keen to read the new McLain title; again it is also a fictionalised account of a real person, Beryl Markham, who grew up in Kenya becoming a pioneering horse race trainer and a record breaking pilot in the 1930s.

The book opens in Kenya, 1904, with Beryl's mother abandoning her and returning to England with her younger brother. The Kipsigis tribe that Beryl lives amongst, give her a cowie shell to ward off evil spirits. Even though she is "a white daughter of their white bwana - something unnatural has happened that need setting to rights....no African mother would ever have thought of abandoning a healthy child that is not maimed or weak...so they stamped out that start and gave me another." With this fresh new start bequeathed by the tribe, it seems Beryl becomes intrinsically linked with the Kipsigis people, learning how to throw spears, hunt warthogs and feel as if this is the place in which she truly belongs. A feeling which never leaves her.

The novel then continues to chart Beryl's childhood. She is a girl of strong character, refusing to be "straightened out" by the persevering, rule abiding housekeeper Mrs O, who tries to fulfil the role of wife and mother as well as managing the running the house. She is expelled from school but on her return to the Horse Farm run by her father, she finds it greatly changed by the outbreak of the First World War. The horses have been conscripted and race meetings suspended, the workforce depleted. I was fascinated by the historical detail and powerful image of the Kipsigis warriors going off to fight with their "spears held high, buffalo hide shields in the other..sent 100s of miles away, handed a rifle in place of a spear....come home with stories and enough gold to buy a wife." McLain's attention to detail and thorough research means the reader is effortlessly placed firmly within the historical context and location. Her description of Africa is evocative and convincing. It was easy to feel part of the landscape and visualise the setting.

Part Two takes us to 1919 and Beryl is now 16 years old. Despite her protestations, Beryl is persuaded to marry Jock, who is "alright" and "will make the farm work". Again, the reader is reminded of the historical context and restrictive role of women, perhaps emphasised within a colonial society. Beryl tries to "match" Jock and "be good at" the physical side of the relationship but she doesn't feel old enough or ready enough to really be a wife and she spends her wedding night feeling "lonely and numb as if some part of me had died".

Beryl is an interesting character. The novel feels very much a journey of emotional discovery as she strives to find her place in the world. She is a talented, bold, unintimidated woman who wishes for equality and to be given the same opportunities as men. In many respects she succeeds later on with her career but her late teenage years are spend trying to reconcile herself with the restrictive life of a female in a high profile marriage. Even her successes in training a winning horse are celebrated more fully by Jock, who stands to make more fame and financial gain then her. Jock changes too as the relationship continues to struggle and Beryl refuses to conform. He is worried about his name, his reputation, his family and is a proud, controlling man. Their marriage becomes a sad pretence.

The intriguing thing about Beryl is how connected she is to the Kipsigis tribe and the environment. She is quite spiritually connected to the land and to the rituals of the tribal people. As she struggles to make hard choice she loses herself within tribal songs and chants and throughout her whole life, whenever faced with a difficult decision or needs comfort, she always retreats to the African songs, stories and ways. One evening she steals away to watch a dance and to lose herself within the rhythms and movements. As she watches she reflects that "they know something I didn't and possibly never would......my heart seemed to leave my body as the verses and refrains gathered speed like a great wheel". Beryl's lifelong dilemma is how to offset her limited reprieves of freedom, love and career against the entrapment of the enduring conventions and expectations of propriety amongst society. It is no wonder that it is flying which really appeals to Beryl - to be able to move in a space where there are no barriers and nothing "to stop you from going on forever....it doesn't hold anything back or want to stop you."

McLain writes with vivid description and there are some beautiful phrases and imagery throughout the novel. I found Beryl an appealing, likeable character. Although fallible and not always reasonable, she had flair and individuality. There are some poignant moments within the story and ultimately Beryl completes her physical, spiritual and emotional journey and finds reconciliation. She makes bold decisions and often disastrous ones - either ill fated or selfishly- she makes some decisions which might not enamour her to the reader but it makes for a rich tapestry and fascinating tale. She is a woman of adventure and ambition who seeks to be unconventional. I enjoyed the story, the character and the setting. I did feel transported to another country and era and I thought the closing lines of the novel were very resonant.

McLain's novel has also made me consider reading "Out of Africa" and Markham's own book "West with the Night" to learn more about her life story and of Africa. I was interested to read in the Author's Notes that Beryl had met with Hemingway who admired her (there are rumours of an affair!) which must have intrigued McLain following her research and interest in Hemingway from "The Paris Wife".

I would recommend this book. It is an easy and interesting read and McLain's style is very accessible and enjoyable.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for an advanced copy of this book in return for a fair review.

For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or sign up to subscribe to receive future posts via email.

"The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir" Lesley Allen

The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir
Crime writer G J Minnet ("The Hidden Legacy") posted a picture of the cover of this book on his twitter feed in conversation with another author and then recommended it a few times. The power of Twitter is amazing - from just seeing this attractive cover pictured on my feed a dozen times and trusting in Minnet's judgement, I decided to read this novel. I am so glad I was successful in getting a copy! It has become one of my most favourite reads this year.

There are about three books this year for which I have been desperate to tell the world about but have dreaded writing a review, feeling decidedly inarticulate in comparison to the beautiful writing I've been wallowing in and a definite inability to fully express the effect the author's work has had on me. This is one of those books!

"The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir" is not an easy book to read at times. We first meet Biddy, aged 30, making a telephone call to a chat show running a phone in about bullying. The opening description is full of bird imagery - a theme which permeates the entire novel- and not only effectively captures Biddy's trepidation and emotion at this moment in the narrative, but is also used to illustrate her fragile yet unique and naively innocent personality as the book continues.

"Butterflies as big as bats flapped ferociously in her stomach, thrashing against her ribcage, soaring into her chest.....what if it all goes wrong? What if they catch you out?  ...She tried to ignore the cresecendo what ifs and focus on the dream instead...."

Biddy admits to the researcher, to whom she is first put in contact with, that she suffered psychological bullying for 7 years. When asked what the worst thing the girl did to Biddy was, she replied "I nearly died because of her."

So the stage is set, the reader hooked, the premise established. We then begin "Part One" which takes us back to the small seaside town of Ballybrock when Biddy was two months shy of her tenth birthday; to the moment when the bullying began and she discovered she was Biddy Weir the "Bloody Weirdo"- or simply B W for short. "From this day forward, her life was defined not by her religion, colour of her skin, her sex, the school she attended....but by her oddness.." Biddy is the only daughter of Howard, now retired, who was forced to marry Biddy's much younger mother following a "fumble" and discovering she was pregnant. Biddy's mother left them when Biddy was 6 months old and he has struggled to bring her up ever since. The conventional description of Biddy through her appearance ("curly, unruly red hair ") is helpful but what really captures the reader's imagination (and then their heart) is the description of her clothes and belongings. Her school uniform was either too big or too small. It's never quite right and her school bag is a string shopper with "broken handles packed together with sellotape." Everything is makeshift, broken, drab, brown, grey and old. Biddy is doomed. With a father who is much too old and clueless, her complete lack of self awareness or care for appearance and commodities and to really top it off - a fascination and love for bird poo! Yes, indeed, Biddy is an "individual".

But she is happy. Or has been. Until Alison Fleming arrives at the school. Alison is a "clever, accomplished and manipulative little bitch." What a brilliant line! So up front and so true! And I'm sure reminds us of the Alison Fleming's we've met in the past. Alison is as captivating a creation as Biddy. She will make your blood boil. I could hear her snarling over my shoulder as I read the book. I could see her lips curling unpleasantly at the corner as she glared derisively at the beautifully naive and utterly vulnerable Biddy.

It takes a little while to adapt to Allen's narrative style. She is a master of language and description but at first this is disguised through the simple, childlike manner of writing. However, this understated, innocent voice effectively reflects and mimics not only Biddy's character but I think also reduces some of the impact of the events of which we read. By keeping a more childlike perspective on events it helps to not overwhelm the reader or make it sensationalised or sentimental. It remains raw, real and authentic. It's been a while since I've become so entranced by characters that I feel my pulse rate increase as I read about them and find myself muttering responses under my breath as I see them acting out their role in the novel. I really lived and breathed this story.

Biddy has never been aware that she is different before. She has got to the age of 11 without ever crying. She's carefree. She looks to the sky and birds for meaning and company. She sketches. She's unaffected. As events progress, the depiction of the "halo of sunlight highlighting her wild copper curls....her pale eyes glistening like slivers of broken glass....looked like a miserable angel" is surely metaphorical of something more significant and special within Biddy. But this naivety and frankly, stunted emotional development, is what makes Alison's behaviour towards Biddy even more significant - threatening and dangerous; destructive and fundamentally damaging. All from a spoiled, indulged child with her own significant insecurities and a basic hatred for Biddy spurned merely out of the fact she will not "clamour to be part of Alison's gang of followers". She is an ugly character. Allen really exposes the real mechanics of a bully and the fears which push them to become bullies rather than risking a revelation of their own anxieties and rejection.

Allen's presentation of teachers is interesting. All but one are reluctant to probe in any depth into any nagging suspicion that something is amiss. They don't want to meddle, or open a can of worms. They don't really want to get involved with an oddball and her misfit of a father, especially if it means crossing a perfect student who has rather voluble, wealthy parents. Apart from Penny Jordan the PE Teacher. Penny is so affected by the "heavy mist of persecution" that clings to Biddy that she decides to take some control and help Biddy. It's a beautiful friendship. But, Allen hints that it cannot last and my heart was absolutely in my mouth throughout this whole section, the tension of waiting for Fleming - junior and senior- to destroy any happiness or healing was just so paramount. Oh, oh and oh. There was so much insight in these pages about care, compassion, love, jealously, hatred and downright sadness; I wept.

The novel continues, following a bit of an epiphany or more ethereal experience for Biddy on a school trip - exquisitely written, laden with metaphor and meaning. And then moves into "Part Two" where we meet Biddy as a woman in her mid 20s.

This section is as hauntingly tragic and as traumatic but then, with the introduction of the bright, warm, sensitive and intuitive friendship of Terri Drummond, becomes one of hope, resolution and rehabilitation. Biddy grows both emotionally and physically. "Part Two" is filled with warmth and optimism.

The final denouement is fantastic. I was air punching, high-fiving empty spaces, smiling and wriggling with satisfaction and glee. It is heartwarming, uplifting, with a clear message of healing and hope.

I am reluctant to say anything that isn't exceptionally effusive about this book (did you get that yet?!) but I guess, if forced to, I would say the ending was a little contrived and convenient. However, it was also immensely satisfying and added humour, lightness and resolution that the book needed to stop it from becoming a depressing and bleak tale of a damaged soul. It is in keeping with Biddy Weir's legacy.

I hope this has managed to convey how special this book is. It tackles a depressing topic but through it has created a character of stunning uniqueness. You will be enthralled. It is a captivating read and Allen's prose is impressive. This is her debut and I can't wait to read more of her writing - she is clearly talented and full of imagination and talent.

Finally, all I can say is read it. And may this book be dedicated to all Biddy Weirs. May all of them overcome their demons, survive and learn to live again.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and the publishers for a copy of this book in return for a fair review. I have truly enjoyed it.

For more recommendations and reviews follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or sign up to receive future posts via email.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

"Fates & Furies" Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies
I was intrigued to read this book as the reviews used words such as enchanting, exhilarating, electric, complex and addictive. It follows the story of Lotto and Mathilde, married at 23 years old after a fleeting romance which is largely based on a deep sexual attraction. We meet them on the day of their secret marriage where Lotto is completely enamoured with this girl he has "magicked into his life". It is very different from the ceremony Lotto had in mind when he'd imagined his wedding, coming from a wealthy and privileged background but it was what Mathilde wanted and she was "always right... he would know this soon enough." There is a hint that this dream like love will be tested over time - the thought that "marriage meant forever" briefly runs through his thoughts but they are both so consumed with their obsession and hunger for each other that they try to ignore that "between his skin and hers, there was the smallest of spaces....a third person, their marriage, had slid in."

It is an inciting opening. The reader is intrigued; caught up in the fairy tale coupling and hoping for a fairy tale life. This relationship always appears nothing short of perfect in front of their friends  - Lotto is a charming, attractive man heralded as a genius by all around him (to such an extent it almost gives him a sense of entitlement). Then there's quiet Mathilde, siren like with her beauty and equally worthy of a great future. But what is really going on beneath the surface? What feelings do the couple really carry for each other and what secrets bubble away beneath this surface of perfection?

The story continues to chart the marriage over the following 24 years, reflecting on its triumphs and tribulations; the continuous ebb and flow, give and take, undulating rise and fall of patience, disappointment, failure, success, hope and love that a marriage journeys through. Their friends are disparaging about the future of the relationship and take bets on its future but the couple continue to survive. One of their friends comments that "Mathilde is a conundrum wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in bacon. She's so calm and quiet. And Lotto is the loudest. Opposites. First marriage. Guess who'll be there with casseroles when it all comes apart."

The early days of their marriage reminded me of accounts about Hemingway and Hadley (I highly recommend the "The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain). A couple that "have so little....still so happy". A couple full of artistic potential and talent and constantly floating between one party after another. Lotto and Mathilde seems to spend the early years of their marriage constantly entertaining with "Yuppies in embryo.....hurricanes of entitlement....nothing at the centre." Groff writes beautifully about Lotto's back story and this helps understand his present behaviour. I enjoyed reading about his parents and how Lotto learns to "live in this world". His first sighting of Mathilde reads like something from a halcyon place and Mathilde something more celestial. His happiness is constantly referred to and repeated and it does seem that he is bewitched by her and unknowingly being played. There are subtle hints that Mathilde is not so enamoured with her husband and marriage. There are insinuations that she is more frustrated and fed up; but then the animalistic attraction and lustful desire consumes her when there are times of success and celebration. The reader begins to realise that one of them is more powerful and controlling than the other.

Groff writes that up before Lotto rose a "vision of himself as if attached to a hundred shining strings by his fingers, eyelids, toes, the muscles of his mouth. All the strings led to Mathilde pointer finger and she moved it with the subtlest of twitches and made him dance." I though this was one of the most brilliant sentences in the whole book. It captures the essence of the relationship and actually as the book continues the reader becomes more and more aware that she "choose" him, she saw his genius as soon as she met him and has looked to release it and nurture it throughout his periods of apathy, inertia, depression and inactivity. With artfulness and a pretence of effortless coincidence, she skilfully manipulates him and directs him towards his artistic development and success. This reveals a more complex, perhaps even slightly unsettling, side to Mathilde's apparently shy exterior. It also reminded me of the phrase "Behind every great man is a great woman". Unsung. Out of the limelight. An ability to weather any storm. A resilience and patience that is not mirrored by her partner.

I also liked the description of the marriage "picking itself up off the ground, stretched, looked at them with its hands on its hips..." following one of their brief periods where they are a little lost to each other.

The prose captures the artistic nature of the couple. It is dreamlike and poetic. The phrases run on into each other, building images fused with contrasting half finished sentences and half formed suggestions. Metaphors are piled on top of each other and the cadence of the descriptions depicts both the carefree, unpredictable, disordered life of the couple. The dialogue is revealing and pertinent. Like the couple, Groff's writing appears effortless and smooth, masking the "sacrifices and machinations" and work that goes on to create this illusion. This novel is as much about language, metaphor and words as it is characters and marriage. It is intense and mediative. It is a style which takes some getting used to and does require quite a lot of investment and engagement from the reader. I did find that I needed to persist with my reading a little;  at times I found the way the passages drifted along in a fluent and unbroken manner made the passing of time difficult to track and differentiate between the changes. However, Groff's purpose must be to show how time aimlessly meanders from year to year and the changes in people, friendships and relationships are so slight and tiny they often go unnoticed or without immediate impact.

I would recommend this book to people who admire authors who explore language and who enjoy reflecting on the power of metaphors and poetic imagery. It is a literary novel. At 390 pages long it's not a quick read and actually the weighty dense prose does make it feel a little longer. However, there is some beautiful writing to enjoy and marvel!

My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for an advanced copy of this book in return for an honest review.

For more recommendations and reviews, follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or subscribe to receive future posts via email.

Monday, 25 April 2016

"Love Anthony" Lisa Genova

Love Anthony

I have been saving this book to read on holiday as I absolutely loved "Still Alice". I had also convinced the Book Group I am part of to read this as our choice for April. Look out for a blog about our discussion - coming after our meeting!

The book opens with Olivia, recently separated from her husband and mother to Anthony, who was autistic and tragically died aged 8. She has returned to the holiday home they own in Nantucket that they stopped coming to once Anthony turned 3 as "pretty much everything stopped once Anthony turned three". Olivia is completely unable to move forward with any aspect of her life, so full of guilt and grief. She hasn't gone back to her job as an editor of Self Help books in five years as she has become so disillusioned with the genre. When Anthony received his diagnosis (aged 3) Olivia read everything, searching for someone to "transform their lives....somebody must have the key that would unlock her son." But now she says bitterly, "What do they know? What does it matter?" And this is really the fundamental question for which Olivia is searching answers. What does anything matter? What did Anthony's life matter? What was its reason and purpose? What is her reason and purpose now? As well as answers, she is also desperately seeking atonement and an acceptance of the past and the cards she has been dealt. She hopes to find some space to recover in Nantucket.

In contrast, we are then introduced to Beth who receives a card in the post from an anonymous sender claiming to be sleeping with her husband. Both women set out on a journey for closure, release, happiness and love. They are also both in need of new beginnings and a need to redefine themselves for who they are, not who they were responsible or accountable to.

Beth and Olivia meet by chance and a gentle friendship begins to form, Beth seeks Olivia's advice on a manuscript she has been compelled to write, rekindling a passion for writing from long ago while she finds herself at a crossroads. Through Beth's fictional narrative of a child who experiences the world more unconventionally, Olivia begins a journey of self discovery showing us that sometimes we receive help in the most unexpected places and from the most unexpected people.

Olivia's situation is sad. She doesn't really want to move on. She doesn't know how to live without Anthony, he so dominated and defined every waking moment of the last 8 years. She reminisces about Anthony's life, each new day reminding her of a past day and a past sadness -like Anthony's birthday and how this was always a day of dread and desperation when they were "forced to stare at the severity of Anthony's autism straight in the eye, to be fully cognisant of how much progress he hadn't made." Olivia presents the role of a parent of a child with autism as a very challenging one; one of relentlessly trying situations, one where you are unable to form the most simple of bonds with your child and the heartbreak that Anthony is unable to speak means that any communication of love or response is so limited and so rare, it is truly painful to keep going daily in a world where you feel so alone and isolated. Looking through forgotten belongings that have been stored in the house, she comes across her old journals and begins to read them again. They reflect some of her anger and frustration that became part of her mothering and accounts for the subsequent guilt she feels now her short time with Anthony is over. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that Olivia needs to see Anthony as Anthony the boy with autism, not autistic Anthony. She needs to understand him, his perspectives and the way he saw the world; his love. It's interesting that this understanding comes from Beth who has no direct experience of autism at all. Perhaps this is exactly why she is able to offer Olivia the perspective she needs?

I was slightly skeptical about the part of the story which showed a psychic link between Beth and Anthony but the characters definitely share an affinity of some kind. They also mirror each other in the sense they are both frustrated and angry and feel they are not being heard. Through her writing, Beth not only finds a voice for Anthony so he can at last be heard, but also is able to find a new voice for herself and see answers through her words that offer her closure. Also, on rereading the prologue once I had finished the book, I wondered if it was Olivia and Anthony that Beth meets and therefore deep in her subconscious is a striking memory of the child. She is reading "The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time" and another book about a mother of a child with autism so actually, her choice of subject and her engagement with Anthony's voice, is not totally out of the blue. They are subtly involved and there are several hints and suggestions at Beth's interest in this subject. In fact, on rereading, the prologue seemed laden with deeper symbolism now that I had experienced the characters.

There is a really interesting contrast between the two women's reactions to Anthony and how they describe that experience. In her journal, Olivia writes:
"How can I help you if you don't tell me what you want? We say all these words but we don't talk about anything.......We're the parents of a permanently disabled child and our marriage is crippled. I don't feel abused by Anthony but abused by this life. What happened to my life? ....all about autism....living it, reading it, talking about it...sick of it. Scared this is all it will ever be.... David and I are self trained therapists working on the same patient ....trying to fix him but failing." 

And then Beth, while she sleeps, dreams of a boy who "hears and feels the world in a unique and unimaginable way". ..."Detached from people. Bewildered by emotions. Enthralled by repetition. An uncelebrated intelligence. Persistent. Silent. Honest. Brave. Misunderstood." She is fascinated by the "neurological alchemy not described in any book" and then her own process of writing takes on a daily routine where she begins to obsess about order and ritual before she can work. Both the women's responses to Anthony are so different that this reveals much about their own internal conflict and how they need to heal themselves. Olivia is isolated, closed, "guarded and weary". Beth is tactile and more openly loving and giving - but her life has been upended by her husband's infidelity. She is perhaps more attuned to people's emotions and needs - but then, unlike Olivia, she hasn't been living with autism for 8 years so this may be the reason she is enabled to offer this insight. There are several examples of where the women react differently - one with fear, one with happiness. Olivia needs Beth. Beth needs Anthony.

I loved the chapter Beth wrote about Anthony's incident with the "french stick". The grammar, structure, pace, repetition and language made it feel so authentic and so effective. It must be as close as one can get to gaining insight to how the mind of someone with autism works.

It is a sad book but ultimately one of hope and love. It is heartwarming. The various different threads, stories and voices all become intrinsically linked by the end and there is a sense of the women having completed difficult journeys successfully. The last 40 pages gain pace and show a deepening relationship between the women. It is emotional and leaves us asking big questions like what is our purpose in this life?

I think there will be a lot to discuss at Book Group regarding this book and I am really looking forward to the opportunity to talk about it some more. I hope the rest of the group have enjoyed it as much as me! I am definitely going to get hold of Genova's other books as I like the way she writes about complex, difficult issues with a sensitive and considered manner. I did not feel I was reading a book about "autism" but a book about motherhood, marriage, love and friendship. I guess that's one of Genova's main messages about Anthony. You need to look beyond the label and see the person first. We all need to look beyond our labels and enjoy the world around us for what it is.

If you haven't already discovered Lisa Genova, then I highly recommend you seek out her books! My review of "Still Alice" is also available on this site (23/01/16)

For more reviews and recommendations, follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or subscribe to receive future posts by email.

Young Adult debut "Jarred Dreams" by Camilla Chester


 Jarred Dreams
The book opens with the chilling description of the Dream Thief. A creature with sickly yellow skin; deep set, hooded black eyes, a large hooked nose, a pointed chin, enlarged ears, gnarled feet and a melted skull. A hideous creature who prowls the streets of Stanbridge every night to "free the people from the torment of their dreams", to make them forget, to rob them of their joy and hope, to drain the world of colour. "To rid the world of dreams is his cause and there is nobody who has the power to stop him." He focusses into the tune of the dream, it will "beckon him to where a child must be having a vivid dream" and he'll catch it "before it changes to something mundane....he can enter at the tip of something and feel the energy of the child switch to one of fear." He stores the dreams in jars deep in his cellar. He fills the world with grey nothingness and mediocrity.

Twelve year old Sade arrives in Stanbridge with her father as it is near to the hospital where her mother lies in a coma, "sleeping". They visit her daily. Sade is brave, courageous, unafraid of anything. Immediately she is struck by the eeriness of the place; of the expressionless people that live here and don't engage. Something strange is going on and she refuses to become part of it. She wants to find out why the people and children are so odd, so forgetful, so subdued, so colourless and change it before both herself and her father end up succumbing to the same fate. Can she prevent the Dream Thief from his destructive agenda before he takes everything away from her?

This is a really unusual book which is a real fuse of several different genres. It is part ghost story, part thriller and mystery story, part supernatural and part magical. It has hints of dystopian novels and at times reminded me of Voldemort and his Death Eaters, Philip Pullman's "Northern Lights" trilogy, Frances Hardinge's novels, and possibly something more ancient like "Paradise Lost".

Although the opening sounds quite frightening, it is more ethereal than that and the Dream Thief's chapters are shorter so they do not become overwhelming. His chapters are alternated with those following Sade's narrative which is modern, contemporary and suitably contrasting. The Dream Thief's passages are aptly dreamlike and bewitching; a malevolent voice and ghostly predator. He is a menacing presence but only as unsettling as many other "dark forces" existing in current Young Adult fiction and Chester writes his voice in a more lyrical and surreal style which ensures it doesn't become too dark. Alternating the two voices also gives Chester a real opportunity to show her ability to create different voices and construct a more complex story structure which will pull the reader in and sweep them up in the journey alongside Sade.

Sade could be likened to other contemporary strong female protagonists like Catniss from "The Hunger Games". She shows a resilience and determination from the outset. She wants to go home to her old life, "one with colour and smiles and noises......she will make it happen." She meets Seb who is also able to see that something very strange is occurring in their town and is willing to help her solve the mystery. During an art lesson, they learn more of the town's history from Maggie Farrant, their art teacher, and with her information they begin their quest to seek out the Dream Thief.

Sade is a character full of hope and goodness. She herself is struggling to come to terms with her own grief and unhappiness but she is constantly described with colour and brightness. The Dream Thief identifies her as the "golden girl of light" who "emits such brightness and flair" when she's awake that he can't imagine the "vibrancy of her dreams". She is a girl who seeks out adventure and challenge. The Dream Thief is determined to capture her dreams. She is a real threat to him. He talks about her moving as if she is gliding and repeatedly comments on her dazzling, blonde hair which "bounces around her like a golden light...like a halo." Sade almost becomes something much more metaphorical. It feels as if there is something more saviour like and celestial about her and therefore there is a great sense of anticipation.

I enjoyed Chester's use of colour and her contrasting imagery between grey and brightness which was also echoed in more subtle references to winter and summer, death and rebirth. This book embraces lots of interesting themes like art, self expression, dreams, memories, hope and grief. On a deeper level, older readers might pick up on ideas about renewal, redemption and restoration. There are some interesting suggestions about the role of the subconscious and the way our mind reveals things to us.

It is ambitious for a debut novel to tackle such concepts but Chester does so effectively and actually the novel has a very positive and uplifting finale. Sade's energy and her strong belief in the "colour" of life ensures her spirit cannot be beaten and this is the final message of the book. Where the adults have failed, Sade triumphs and everyone can once again not only dream but also live in a world which is a kaleidoscope of colour. I would suggest this book is suitable for ages 10 upwards.

My thanks to Camilla Chester who gave me a copy of her paperback in return for a fair review.

You can find out more about Camilla at www.camillachester.com and her second book is due out shortly. Interestingly it sounds like something completely different from "Jarred Dreams" and is called "EATS". It is about two boys who win a competition to cook with celebrity chefs where everything comes to a boil- but can they stir up trouble to serve the just desserts in time?

For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or subscribe to receive future blog posts via email.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Children's Books to Celebrate Shakespeare

9781781125038

I really enjoyed this read which would suit 7-10 year olds (although I read it aloud to my 4 year old and he seemed to enjoy most of it - it certainly led to lots of questions and conversations about Shakespeare and theatres!) It's a well produced book of only 121 pages with clear text and plenty of illustrations similar to titles such as "Mr Gum" so it should appeal to reluctant readers and also those who think they don't really fancy a book about Shakespeare! It is a very pleasing easy read about Toby Cuffe, an orphan who seeks a better life, dreaming of one day having his own house and family. In order to get this he knows he needs to earn some money so he joins the team of Moll Cut-Purse, Queen of the Pickpockets and Thieves, and learns how to become a a dipper, nipper and cut-purse! The play houses offer the pickpockets a (excuse the pun) wealth of opportunity as the crowds stand huddled together in front of the stage and are so entranced by the magic of the theatre become oblivious to the robbing around them. Unfortunately for Toby, he also becomes so entranced by the play - something he has never seen or experienced before - he ends up getting caught and then being left alone with Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare is desperately under pressure; unable to think of a story for his next script and deeply aware of the financial need for another hit. Toby then discloses that The Globe will be affected by the reopening of The Rose theatre nearby. And so begins Toby's next job - a spy, an aide to Shakespeare, and an answer to the theatre's financial worries! Using his new contacts in the underworld, Toby instigates an adventurous and entertaining rescue of both the theatre and Shakespeare's muse. The ending and the way that Toby, Shakespeare and the events of the story fuse together and through a collaboration become the inspiration for Shakespeare's next play was very clever. It will definitely inspire young readers to turn their hand at play writing themselves and think about how stories come to exist.
This is a short book but full of lots of great ideas and themes. It is not educative but does promote reading, the theatre and Shakespeare through a fun and lively tale. Toby is such a likeable character and Shakespeare is equally authentic yet fallible.
"Act 2" is a selection of "Funne Activities for Boyes and Girls" including pictures with a list of things to spot, an activity on costumes and links for websites. I liked the page about insults - I remember my English Teacher managing to successfully engage a table of slightly rowdy boys by showing them how to '"swear like Shakespeare!"
I would recommend this book!

Mr. William Shakespeare's Plays
Personally I can't get enough of Marcia Williams and I have her books on "Greek Myths", "Canterbury Tales" and several others. Although perfect for ages 5 upwards, I used to use these Shakespeare books (there are about three I think) as my starting point with GCSE and A Level students as well as KS3 as they give such a good summary of the main points of often complex plots, so they are a valuable and worthwhile investment for any child. These editions are beautifully illustrated, bursting with humour and use real quotes from the original text as well as modern day language. My children read them now and find them very accessible in a way that other retellings of Shakespeare probably wouldn't be for their age range. Williams also wrote more lengthy versions for readers of 8 upwards which can often be bought via websites like thebookpeople.co.uk for a very reasonable price. We also have them and my 9 year old has really enjoyed reading them, and my 7 year old is beginning to explore them although we are mainly reading them together while her vocabulary continues to develop.


Antony and Cleopatra (Tales from Shakespeare #1)


Chasing the Stars\
Malorie Blackman is a hugely talented young adult writer with an enormous back catalogue of brilliant titles. This book is due out in April and is inspired by Othello. Here is the synopsis.

What happens when love brings loss? When love brings lies? When love brings hate? Olivia and her twin brother Aidan are heading alone back to Earth following the virus that wiped out the rest of their crew, and their family, in its entirety. Nathan is part of a community heading in the opposite direction. 
But on their journey, Nathan’s ship is attacked and most of the community killed.Only a few survive. Their lives unexpectedly collided, Nathan and Olivia are instantly attracted to each other, deeply, head-over-heels – like nothing they have ever experienced. But not everyone is pleased. Surrounded by rumours, deception, even murder, is it possible to live out a happy ever after . . . ?


Shakespeare collection gift set
These are a gorgeous collection of the plays recommended for readers age 6 and upwards. Usbourne is a very trusted children's publisher and these will be a great introduction to the tales. Several different selections and versions are available so check their website for more information.
 


Again from Usbourne and published especially for the anniversary, here are some sticker books which should appeal to any young reader. "The World of Shakespeare" is aimed at ages 7 upwards and I am buying for my 9 year old. There is also a "Shakespeare Sticker Dressing Up" book in the Usbourne "Dressing Up" series, so plenty of opportunities to use these activity books as a way of celebrating the playwright!




Escape to Shakespeare's World: A Colouring Book Adventure
I have my eye on this and will probably treat myself when buying the sticker books for my children! I've had a look on Amazon and there is a great 5* review by "Starry Night" who has kindly posted photos of the pages - they look stunning and gorgeous!

I'm sure there are many many more novels using the stories from Shakespeare - as he was inspired by so many that preceded him! I hope this gives you a few suggestions about how to introduce the plays to your children and help celebrate 400 years of fantastic theatre!

For further recommendations follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or subscribe by email to receive future reviews and blog posts.

Mystery and Mayhem by Katherine Woodfine

Mystery & Mayhem: Twelve Deliciously Intriguing Mysteries
This is a brilliant collection of mystery stories which are a perfect introduction to the explosion of fresh new voices writing detective fiction for young adults. It is also a great introduction both to the genre of mystery stories and short stories as well as a tantalising read for current fans of all these writers.

I was very keen to read this collection as I have been totally captivated by the recent publications by Woodfine and Stevens; enchanted by their stunning book covers, charmed by their historical settings and their clever embodiment of combining of all the wining ingredients for intriguing mystery stories inherited from the greats like Christie and Conan Doyle to write something fresh and full of modern appeal.  I am also a huge fan of Helen Moss and Sally Nicholls so I really had to read this book!

Woodfine says in the introduction that these new mysteries are a "nod to the much loved mysteries of the past but also bring detective fiction bang up to date." This collection is diverse and includes a range of different voices and character; from those of boys and girls, from modern day to the Victorian era to the Georgian period, from realism to the more surreal. What makes them all particularly appealing is that all the writers are clearly big fans of mystery writers and have a deep knowledge of the genre and the voices of previous authors famed for this style of writing. They all seek to have some fun with the traditions of crime fiction and all understand what makes a perfect young adult read. These are not simple, dumb downed pastiches but something more sophisticated, which embrace the legacy of previous crime writers and reinvent the genre. They are all highly skilled and very talented writers and it is a real treat to find them all inside the same covers!

Another great thing about this collection is that they all encourage the reader to solve the crime before the end of the story. Any young sleuth will rise to such a challenge! What will be equally appealing to the reader is that all the young detectives featured are smarter than the adults around them - as Woodfine points out, they are all "smarter, more sharp eyed, more sharp witted and courageous." Adults are not presented in a derogatory way at all, there is always a certain level of respect between the characters which I think is important having been subjected to so much of the more derisive and slightly unpleasant behaviour often portrayed in American programmes where teenagers are always trying to get the upper hand. These young people aren't smug or arrogant, just intelligent lovers of puzzles and mystery!

I enjoyed "Mel Foster and the Hound of the Baskervilles" by Julia Golding. It was lively, witty, modern and engaging. The story was well constructed with appealing characters who were easy to identify with. The adults were a little patronising and mocked gently with comic humour for their simplistic deductions. Some of the stories had hidden references to other detectives and villains from other canonical titles - many of which I probably missed! It was a treat to read a short story by prize winning author Hardinge whose story is set around the Great Exhibition in Victorian Crystal Palace. I really enjoyed Harriet Whitehorn's "Murder of Monsieur Pierre" which is set in 1782 before the protagonist grows up and becomes the "Crime Solver Extraordinaire" and the "cleverest woman in London", preceding Piorot and Holmes. Sally Nicholl's story featuring male characters from an office post room was really entertaining. It was vivid, fast paced, full of authentic dialogue and wry observations about the luck fictional detectives usually have handed to them on a plate compared to the real investigative work that an "ordinary" crime lover must undertake. The book ends with the current queens of the new murder, mystery and mayhem genre: Woodfine and Stevens.  The icing on the cake - or should I say "bun break"?!

I liked that the girl protagonists are all very positive and affirming role models who defy the conventions to which they are confined or dictated to by the historical setting of their story. They all have spirit and humour, they follow their instincts and question everything around them. They show initiative and imagination. I liked that the stories covered a real range of settings, contexts and situations. I think they all give a real flavour of the author's style and will certainly encourage readers to seek out other novels once they've had a taster here. It is a rather special and unique collection of stories that would make a perfect gift for anyone over the age of 9 or 10. I will certainly be making sure every young detective I know gets a copy! A hugely enjoyable read!

My thanks to NetGalley for the advanced copy in return for a fair and honest review. For more recommendations please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or subscribe to my blog for email updates of future reviews.

Clare Mackintosh "I Let You Go"


I Let You Go

"Compelling, intriguing and thought-provoking this well written psychological thriller kept me guessing and turning the pages long after I should have gone to bed. An astonishing debut novel." 5 * rating on Goodreads from C L Taylor (author of "The Lie", "The Accident" and "The Missing") 

I read this last summer and it honestly was one of my most favourite reads of 2015. I picked it up as it was part of the Richard and Judy Summer Book Club reads and I always find they are a reliable source of satisfying reads - light enough to suit the time of year and read on holiday but with enough depth of character and plot to provoke engagement, offering more than perhaps a "chick lit" or slightly sensationalist novel would.

This book was no exception. I was interested in Jenna's story from the first chapter. After being involved in a terrible accident, she has fled to the remote Welsh countryside to try and escape the traumatic repercussions of this fateful evening. However, she remains haunted by fear and grief, constantly reminded how her life has changed irrevocably, frightened that any chance of future happiness will be thwarted if her past ever manages to catch up with her.

I was enjoying the book and would have classed it as a 3/5 rating until I got about half way through. And then everything changed. I was absolutely stunned. And I read the second half without barely a glance up from the pages. It had suddenly become a 5/5 read!

Sadly, I can't say much more than this without seriously giving anything away. All I can say is it is a fantastic book with really good characters. Mackintosh's writing oozes tension and is full of suspense. Atmosphere is created through her evocation of setting and location and through the actions and behaviour of the characters who are all convincing and well constructed.

A couple of days later I was in the queue for school waiting to drop the children off when I heard the person behind me complaining about having had no sleep the night before. Sympathetically her friend murmured in empathy about the curse of young children and broken nights. "Oh no," she replied. "It was totally my own fault. I started this book which was ok, then I got half way through and, well, I just couldn't put it down until I'd finished it - even when it was gone 1 o'clock in the morning!" "Excuse me," I said, turning round, "You weren't by any chance reading I Let...." "You Go!" she finished off. And then we lost all our children and nearly missed the registration bell as we were so caught up in our conversation about it! Judging by my other friends which subsequently read it and the reviews on Goodreads, we aren't the only people who found this! I highly recommend you read it - and then brace yourself for the second novel coming out in July!

I See You

This has been on my "want to read" list since the moment I saw it was due out! July the 28th feels ever such a long time to wait and I don't know whether receiving an exclusive extract from the first has made it easier or harder! All I can say is that I was absolutely gripped by Mackintosh's first novel "I Let You Go" and this second novel seems like it is going to be equally unputdownable!

The first chapter opens with a very ordinary woman travelling home from work on the tube. Details are captured well so the scene is clearly visualised and all of us will be able to picture ourselves on a crowded carriage, processing the events of the day and ticking off a mental check list of what else we need to do as we flick mindlessly through the newspaper. Only, for the narrator, a careless glance through the personal adverts at the back of the paper which include a few of the less respectable sort of women offering "services" causes a spine chilling reaction. There is a photo of a woman alongside a list of contact details. The woman in the photo is her........

Once again, Mackintosh has intrigued me with what will undoubtably by a thrilling page turner of a read. The narrative is so easy to engage with and the character so relatable that I'm already involved in her situation and if there was ore to read I would probably still be there ploughing on through the whole book in blissful ignorance of the rest of the world!

All I can say is ......Roll on July!

If you want to find out more about Clare Mackintosh and her books then please visit her site www.claremackintosh.com

For more recommendations follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 )bibliomaniacUK or sign up below to join the email subscription for future posts.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

"The Conscious Parent" by Shefali Tsabary

The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children

This book was recommended to me by a friend and I tracked it down through my local library. I always approach "self help" books with slight trepidation and caution. I have read a fair few over the last decade and some have offered helpful insight, some were relevant at a particular moment in time and some have just exasperated me! My feeling with these sorts of books is that you will never fully embrace the whole theory presented to you - especially as they have a tendency to over zealously present the more extreme versions of their theories which are often impossible to follow to the letter - but even if you take one or two core thoughts away and are able to apply to your family, then that is sometimes enough. Maybe even having made time to reflect on your parenting is as important as what you actually read. However, I also think that for all the reading in the world- most good parenting probably comes from trail & error, tips from peer groups, the way you were parented and generally a mix up of a huge range of influences and experiences! 

I found this review really hard to write. Parenting is a highly emotive subject and it’s hard not to feel vulnerable and defensive when you are forced to consider the way you interact with your children. I hope I have understood the messages in the book as they were intended and I hope my attempts to explain the key points are clear enough to follow. I was surprised by how much I struggled to write a coherent and valuable review and it really has taken me hours! I apologise to the author if I have misunderstood anything and to the reader if I’ve been unable to fully articulate my opinions!

So the premise of this book is very different from anything I had read before. The basic message of the manual is that we need to be more aware - more "conscious"- in our parenting. By being more mindful of our own behaviour and engaging more fully with our children as individuals, then we will in turn become better parents and raise happy, well adjusted children. Tsabary explains that when we parent we are subconsciously influenced by layers of emotional baggage from our own childhood. Situations with our children can often trigger "hot spots" within us and therefore sometimes our reactions are muddled with our own issues rather than acknowledging what has actually happened and the appropriate reaction that the child actually needs from us. There was also a huge emphasis on “being present” and thinking more about what “being present” and “fully engaged” actually means.

In principle I found this quite enlightening and it made sense. The concept that we often parent from a “triggered” state was interesting.

“To be triggered is to be resistance to whatever may be happening in our life. By reacting we are saying “I don’t want this situation; I don’t like the way things are.” The reason for this is that the ideal view of ourselves to which we are attached is being shaken, which is threatening to us. In this state …..we react. The manner in which this reaction manifests depends on our unique life scripts, roles and emotional inheritance.”

Our “triggered spot” is when we react to a situation with an emotion which is bound up with our immense layers of baggage and history - possibly fears and anxieties which we have inadvertently inherited from our parents- therefore our response is processing something from within us. Are they pushing you into a state of conflict which you are uncomfortable with? Are they evoking a sense of helplessness or disbelief in yourself from your past conditioning? Our reactions are also governed by how we feel about ourselves. If I am tired, I am impatient and will be quick to chide the children; if we are late I will shout even though it’s ultimately the fault of the traffic which was beyond anyone’s control! If I am tired, or running behind on my chores, I may resent having to do homework and try to rush and nag them when in fact I need to accept I’m behind, forget it for the time being and focus on helping them. And ultimately I need to slow down, refuel, be better to myself and just “be”! We all need time to “be still”, “be bored” and to take time to just absorb the “present moment”.

The whole concept of "being present" did strike a chord and really resonated with me. Our family life is absolutely rammed full of after school activities, clubs, sports, music lessons, play dates and we spend most of our time together hurtling from one place to the other, briefly refueling either at home in great haste or on the go. Am I then a "good" parent by providing my children with numerous opportunities to develop skills, talents and greatness? Or am I a functional cog in a machine that feeds, drives, cleans, irons, packs bags, washes clothes, tidies up, shops, organises and generally "provides"? Do I make time to sit and just "be" with the children? Do I really listen to them? Do I respond to their conversation with interest and engagement or do I just utter the next instruction and time check? 

But it is never too late. And it doesn’t take much. We all know that children don’t need gadgets, expensive gifts or the latest technology to feel loved and affirmed. We all know we give in to “screen time” too easily and life moves too quickly for all of us as we are constantly bombarded with “updates” and “notifications” from numerous social media websites. We all know it is probably harming all of us, threatening family life and certainly preventing us from actually “engaging” fully and “being present” in the moment. There was some very valid discussion about this – but I found the more I read of the book, some of the advice was rather too idealistic and overly “spiritual”. For example I couldn’t help but smile inwardly at the suggestion that for your child’s 18th Birthday you don’t buy them a fancy car but instead send them to a Third World country to earn the money to buy their own…..

I do agree about “surrendering the need to do” and that we are often deluded into thinking that by “doing” we are engaging with the present when actually it is obsessing about yesterday and worrying about tomorrow. But it is hard to shelve the daily “to do list” and switch off your brain from the running commentary of everything you need to achieve by the end of the day. However, I think I can make some simple, more conscious choices, about how I speak to the children in order to validate and affirm them more. I can make more time for them in very small ways. I can listen better. I can look at them when they are talking to me. I can recognize when I am “triggered”, take a deep breath, step back and try to see the situation for what it really is. And I can definitely attempt to segregate my time for jobs, work and social media from that of my time with them.

I liked that Tsabary talked about how important it was to make sure you were fulfilled as a parent by something other than your children so that you are not piling on your own pressures and expectations upon them. Pressures that often stem from a need to be perfect, controlled, accepted and a feeling that you have to nurture brilliant, exceptional children. The children also need to see you fulfilled by other interests in order for them to form a sensible, balanced, grounded emotional intelligence and understanding of parenting. They don't have to be the only thing that makes you feel validated and important. Sadly, it is often hard to both find time to do this and to actually allow yourself to do this. But, then am I more “triggered” when I have spent all day cooking and cleaning only to be met with untouched plates and decimated bedrooms than if I had spent some of the day walking with a friend, half an hour reading a new book or a few hours completing a project for work which challenged me and reminded me of the wider world? 

There was a lot of good advice in this book. Yes, it is a book with a deep spiritual vision so at times this is a little bit much but it does make it a calm, gentle, soft read and there is plenty or reassurance for parents. The lists of phrases that show you how you could talk to your children in certain situations were helpful. There is also a leveling of what is acceptable, sensible and reasonable empowerment between the parent and child so it is not completely out of touch with modern parenting; it is relatively reasonable and realistic in what it expects from both parent and child. Yes, children definitely are the most precious gift in the world, and yes we are extremely grateful for them and all they give us. Although, to be honest, that's generally that’s how I feel about them when I check on them last thing at night -when they are lost in their dreams; quiet, clean, still and I have had time to forget the events of the day!

We went for a walk in the woods yesterday. It was extremely muddy. I tried to “just be”. I was firmly in the “present” and I was trying to “engage fully” and see "wonder in the ordinary and focus on the small things in life". It was fun. The children ran wildly, shouted loudly, climbed, threw sticks, laughed. They jumped in huge muddy puddles. They actively sought out the swampiest part of the pathway. 

Then one fell over –head first, one lost both his welly boots but kept walking knee deep in mud, one managed to splatter mud across their face while making mud balls to throw at his siblings. They were filthy. I was still hanging on to that moment…..clutching at it….

Until they started crying because they were cold, heavy with clods of stinking mud and hungry. One refused to walk back to the car. Two hours later with three baths, one washing machine load, one soaking bucket full of jeans, a bin liner full of socks that simply were not fit to be saved, a car boot full of boots that are still awaiting desperate attention, car seats smeared in dried mud and most of the forest floor and three over tired, exhausted, fractious children, I was a fully triggered, totally reactive, overbearing and shouting. A parent who would only be calmed by the “moment” everyone was asleep and there was a large glass of wine in my hand.

Well, as the book says in its opening lines, “To parent perfectly is a mirage. There is no ideal parent and no idea child.”

Let me know what you think of this book or parenting manuals by leaving a comment below!

For more recommendations, reviews and bookish chat follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or subscribe to receive future posts by email using the box below.

Monday, 18 April 2016

"The Museum of You" Carys Bray

The Museum of You
As were many other readers, I was completely entranced by Bray's debut novel "A Song for Issy Bradley" which was one of "Richard & Judy's Book Club Summer Reads 2015" and I rated it 4/5 stars, so I was really excited to get an advanced copy of her latest publication "The Museum of You" which is due out in June. I am absolutely in love with the front cover which I think really captures the beautiful story and character of the protagonist Clover.

The book is about 12 year old Clover, (who likes her name as it has the word "love" in it!) who is being raised by her father, Darren, since her mother died when she was 6 weeks old. Her father is struggling to move on even after all this time and there is a whole bedroom full of her belongings and "stuff" that he is unable to pack up and put away. After talking to a curator on a school museum trip who tells her that the best part of her job is handling the objects in exhibitions as "you get a feeling about them as you hold them....you're looking after other people's stories" Clover comes up with the idea of making an exhibit out of her mother's belongings as a surprise for her father. She can select, label and show the things and then they can be stored and finally put away. I thought this was a lovely and poignant concept for a story and spoke volumes about the deeply caring, loving and interesting character of Clover who also wants to learn more about her own "story" as well as hear more about her mother's life and personality.

Clover is such an endearing character. She is so positive and full of energy. She is gentle, thoughtful and inquisitive.  The book begins at the start of the summer holidays and there is a lovely atmosphere capturing both the relaxing heat and sense of freedom as well as some sense of anticipation and adventure. Bray's writing is highly evocative and full of wonderful lyrical imagery such as "summer coils around her like a cot.....flickering moth-like feeling of happiness ..... waiting for the sand of the six weeks to pass through the hourglass of summer". Clover loves museums and the conversation with the curator was, for me, one of the best passages about curiosity, vocation and the importance of museums that I've ever read.

Darren works as a bus driver and this summer is the first summer that Clover has been given a key of her own and will be left unsupervised while her father works his long shifts. The house is chaotic, filled with numerous piles of eclectic collections of things littering every available space- things that might be useful in the future or hold some vague recollection of the past. The description of the inside was very visual with lots of precise, entertaining detail, effectively revealing the character and lifestyle of Darren and Clover as much as their housekeeping skills. They are such appealing and genuine characters it is impossible not to fall in love with them right from the beginning of the story.

There are lots of references to happiness in the opening pages which alerts the reader that there might be something more hidden to discover; the reader wonders at the reason for Darren's overwhelming concern with protecting Clover and his continuous need to record "happy moments" in case they are "needed later." They end each day listing the three happiest things about the day and "Clover will laugh and it will be another moment he can call on should he need to." Clover begins to notice how he takes the "temperature of her mood and attempts to chart it. He'll stop once she smiles....he inspects her expression like a worried dentist." Darren is a highly conscientious parent. He is trying so hard to be both mother and father to Clover and his attempts to preempt issues or keep up with the modern world of girls are charming and winsome. You cannot help but feel affection for his desperately attentive manner and care for his precious daughter.

"He studied her like a seismologist, on the lookout for waves, trying to map her interior in order to forecast the magnitude and timing of any future quakes.....often mistaking impulse for instinct." 

Clover sets about her task of setting up her museum with great focus and concentration. She has make copious notes about how to set up an exhibition and is aware that it should have a very clear purpose - which should contain aspects of  "education, information, discussion, illustration and lots of other "ion" words so there is lots of purpose". She will collect objects from the second bedroom and catalogue them. She will be the designer, curator and keeper. It will be a "temporary exhibition....afterwards the objects will be stored elsewhere." Bray has created a wonderful character. Clover's exhibition will not only help her father to move on but also allow her to learn more about the woman she never knew as currently she feels she is "incomplete and a part written recipe, how can she imagine what she will be if she only knows half of her ingredients." As a 12 year old girl on the cusp of womanhood this is such an important moment in time for Clover and to a certain extent the novel is her emotional "coming of age" journey. In my opinion, Bray and Clover are so similar - both see stories and inspiration in everything around them. Both seek to know and explore "real" things about people, not the obvious. I loved Bray's description of Clover trying to extract more information from the neighbour about her mother:

"She would like to put Mrs Mackerel in a juicer and squeeze the story of her mother out all at once but Mrs Mackerel trickles her comments to sometimes say mean things on purpose." 

Clover's exhibition will be the "Untold Story of Becky Brookfield." Through her belongings this "compelling exhibition will give a unique insight into Becky Brookfield (add some unique insights below) Explore a room where she slept. Touch some of her personal items. Other highlights include (think of some other highlights)." Bray convincing captures the voice of a young girl and her pursuit to create a "real" museum. I enjoyed the mixture of "borrowed", "adult" words saved from her research and trips with her child like interpretation and comical efforts to recreate authentic placards. There is a very gentle, subtle humour in the recording of the way Clover adapts various techniques she's seen in practice in other museums which perhaps prevents the novel from becoming too overly emotional or unnecessarily sentimental. Bray's characterisation is so consistent and well managed; so well developed and honed, it shows immense skill, control and impressive craftsmanship.

There is also a lightness added from the comical character of Mrs Mackerel, the elderly neighbour who USES CAPITALS A LOT and offers a different perspective on the family. She is actually very caring but also a blunt voice of full of advice and observations about Darren, his parenting and Becky.

About two thirds of the way through the book, Darren discovers the evolving museum and the novel focusses on his back story, Clover's birth and his relationship with Becky, including the events leading up to her death. It is full of poignancy and so many intelligent observations about people, relationships, motherhood and love that I found myself continuously rereading sentences, phrases and paragraphs, making copious notes of the quotes that I found particularly compelling and bewitching. The beauty of Darren is that he appears to be a very straight forward and ordinary person but actually his insight is acute and intelligent. His comments are sometimes short asides like when reflecting on his grief he says almost flippantly that "people aren't speed bumps, you don't get over them", to more detailed, often quite profound, observations. I found his comment about friendship really resonant:

"One of the surprising things about adulthood is how few people accompany you there and what a relief it is to occasionally talk to someone who knew the child you and the teenage you , someone who had seen all your versions, every update and stuck with you through all of it. That's really something."

I'd like to write that message on a postcard to a couple of special people in my life with whom that comment fits!

He is also bothered by some new parents who he meets on a job. I really enjoyed his glimpse into their irritatingly saccharine life and repellent behaviour. I felt Darren's loneliness and frustration as the woman speaks to him thoughtlessly and narcissistically about parenting which included making her sound like "Jesus, nailing herself to a cross of tiredness." His subsequent subtly undermining action left him (and me) pleased that "he had brushed against her perfect world and smudged it". Bray's ability to capture these secondary characters so deftly and with just a few snatches of dialogue and action is a real sign of her talent. There are several other characters who also are created with real authenticity and conviction. Again, appearing as quite superficial but actually full of depth, understanding and love.

The book also contains a lot of dialogue which I found was always very authentic and real. You could really feel, know and see the characters through their exchanges and Bray also revealed the relationships between the characters through her use of speech. The relationship between Clover and Darren is particularly absorbing and special. They are very close and care deeply about each other. They have a gentle and heartwarming friendship and share in simple pleasures together with lots of running jokes and shared moments of humour. They illustrate a very secure, happy and well nurtured family. They complete a journey independently and together throughout the novel that only brings them closer and to a even more shared understanding. Clover's simple idea about arranging the second bedroom into a catalogue of museum exhibits proves to have quite a profound effect on both of them and their future. It is an inventive and imaginative concept which then allows Bray to explore themes of parenthood, love and grief.

I loved this book. I will be rereading it. I will be recommending it to all my friends and I will be buying multiple copies when it is published. Bray has a true gift for description and capturing characters. She has a refreshing voice which is highly imaginative and creates brilliant characters who really come alive from the page and stay with you for a long time afterwards. Clover's emotions of confusion, grief and love are portrayed sensitively and thoughtfully. Darren is actually a complex character; haunted by ghosts, needing to let go of what could have been to confront what is, and face his desperate need to hold on to the past. As another reviewer wrote, the winning appeal of this novel is that:

The writing is so simple - very readable on the surface, immensely rich and complex underneath. This is a story about love in all its many colours, and tragically, beautifully real – and there’s a proper joyous, hopeful, happy ending too. 

If you enjoy books by Sarah Winman, Claire Fuller and Caroline Wallace, you will love this book. It is even better than her debut "A Song for Issy Bradley". 5/5 stars from me!

Why not leave a comment letting me know what you think about this book, "A Song for Issy Bradley" or the cover of "The Museum of You"?

For more recommendations, reviews and bookish chat, follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or sign up to subscribe to receive future posts via email.
 

Friday, 15 April 2016

"The Girl in the Photograph" Kate Riordan

The Girl in the Photograph
After reading "The Shadow Hour" and completely falling in love with Riordan's writing style and epic narrative story, I decided to look her up and was really pleased to find out she had published a few other titles. I hastily ordered "The Girl in the Photograph" ready to save for my holiday as a real treat!

"The Girl in the Photograph" starts in 1933 with Alice who finds herself pregnant following an affair with a married man who will never leave his wife despite his empty promises. Her horrified and shamed parents pack her off to the remote Fiercombe Manor, under the false pretence of being recently widowed, in order to prevent any further disgrace falling upon her. The arrangement is that she will have the baby adopted as soon as it is born. In the meantime she is under the dutiful care of Mrs Jelphs, the housekeeper. We are then taken back in time to 1898 where we pick up the sad tale of Elizabeth Stanton, wife to Edward Stanton the previous owner of the Manor. As Elizabeth's tragic tale is revealed, it appears to mirror Alice's situation more and more; the stories then weave in and out of each other as each woman comes to terms with pregnancy, love, their pasts and now their futures as mothers.

The dual narrative structure worked really well and alternating between the two voices is an effective plot device. It keeps the story moving and also creates tension and intrigue. It also gives the reader time to draw parallels between the two women as well as having time to process some of the more emotional episodes from Elizabeth's life without it becoming overwhelming. As with "The Shadow Hour", the historical detail is excellent and the settings for both time periods is well established with authenticity and conviction. It is easy to visualise the house and its surroundings.

Alice is immediately struck by Fiercombe Manor. It is welcoming but at the same time there is something mysterious about it. Hints that there is something deeper hidden within the property are conveyed through the more magical descriptions such as "out above me a whirl of dust motes glittered, the sun's alchemy turning each into a speck of gold." Her curiosity about the house's history is further awakened by the discovery of the ruins of another home also on the grounds- Stanton House, and she remembers Mrs Jelphs words that is it "tainted", then "it seems to leach out across my mind, rusty, like old blood". Alice is determined to find out what happened here.

Elizabeth's story is unravelled through her diary which Alice finds, as well as her own narrative and bits of conversation gleamed from Mrs Jelphs and local villager Mr Morton. Mrs Jelphs certainly knows more than she is letting on and sometimes reacts oddly to Alice as if her pregnancy is somehow threatened or at risk. Alice is unsure if she is imagining things and although a little suspicious of her overactive imagination and emotional state, the house seems to be full of echoes and messages for her. Alice is intrigued and excited by the house. She feels as if 'a mystery had presented itself to be solved."

Both women have been poorly treated by the men in their lives. Elizabeth's marriage to Edward is a desperately sad one: "He derived some perverse pleasure from standing away or looking impassively on as she tried to make amends. Once she had learnt to match his coldness with her own it was disquieting how quickly her ardour for him had ebbed away."  She is under immense pressure to have a son and now pregnant again she is terrified of another miscarriage and what might happen is she "failed" Edward again. There is also some mystery surrounding the period of time following her first daughter's birth that involved Doctors and illness, but Elizabeth seems unable to recall anything from this time, apart from the odd half memory. To a degree, Elizabeth is unreliable in her narration of events and observations such as "Edward looked at her as if she were a danger, not just to herself but to her daughter" indicate there may be something more sinister going on making the reader eager to find out just what she has blocked out from the last few years. But, even bearing this in mind, ultimately it is still hard to feel much sympathy for Edward who frequently appears to bully her and show little empathy for her pain and grief. Riordan has chosen an interesting time in which to set this part of the story as it not only allows her to explore the role of women in marriage and motherhood but also the attitude of the medical (male) profession to childbirth, pregnancy and mental health. I found this fascinating and tragic.

With both women being pregnant, Riordan is able to intensify the eerie atmosphere that runs throughout the novel. The unborn babies remind us of their presence with their haunting, ghost like "shifting and roiling", and their "flutters". These references to their movements are a shadowy reminder of their existence, their power to determine the future of these two women and as a constant reminder of the sad circumstances under which they will come into the world. It also allows Riordan to work with characters who are undergoing physical and emotional changes; a heightened awareness of their senses and perhaps more susceptible to suggestions and allusions. Both women as consumed with anxiety and fear for their babies. Alice is torn between what she wants and what it is the right thing to do and Elizabeth lives in terror of not having a boy or losing another child preterm. Both women are mentally and emotionally fragile. The reader is captivated by both story lines and although it is clear nothing can be done for Elizabeth, I willed Alice to survive her confinement and complete her psychological journey as she tries to confront and accept her past and take some control of her future. Alice's enlightenment and her subsequent maturity made this feel like a "coming of age" novel even though she is a little older at 22 years.

There is a lot of trauma, grief and pain in the novel but there is also friendship, hope and love. The final revelations are cunningly kept until the very last pages keeping the reader in complete suspense for as long as possible. This is not a ghost story or a thriller but it is still hugely atmospheric, unsettling, haunting, memorable and affecting. The reader feels compassion for both protagonists and invests in their stories.

This is an absorbing saga in which to lose yourself and become completely immersed in the fabulous setting of Fiercombe Manor which is depicted with such poetical imagery and description. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it while on holiday -visiting stately homes and rambling country estates seemed the perfect environment in which to relish this book! "The Girl in the Photograph" reminded me of "Rebecca", "The Woman in Black", "The Woman in White", "The Secret Garden" and "Jane Eyre". If you enjoy Katherine Webb, Kate Morton and Kate Mosse you will love this novel.

For further recommendations, reviews and bookish chat follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or sign up to subscribe to this blog. Please feel free to leave a comment about this post if you'd like to! I'd love to hear from you!

"The Girl in the Ice" Robert Bryndza

The Girl In The Ice (DCI Erika Foster, #1)

Her eyes are wide open. Her lips parted as if to speak. Her dead body frozen in the ice…She is not the only one. 

When a young boy discovers the body of a woman beneath a thick sheet of ice in a South London park, Detective Erika Foster is called in to lead the murder investigation.


This is the first book in the DCI Erika Foster series. It is set in Dulwich, South London. The sense of location is well captured and the precise detail ensures that the reader is firmly placed in this very real setting. I thought part of the book's appeal was the vividness of the locations and the authentic descriptions.

The chapters are short and there is a lot of action. The opening is great - the discovery of the body and the impact this has on the man that discovers it are very well told with great dramatic tension. From this point on the plot is fluent and well delivered. Suspense keeps building, pulling in lots of different threads and complications.

DCI Erika Foster is a strong, brave character. She shares some of the traits of the stars of the popular Scandinavian TV programmes "The Bridge" and "The Killing" but this mixture of being slightly awkward, slightly socially unaware but very focussed, clever and committed creates an appealing  and intriguing character. The added dimension of her personal battle and her need to prove her reputation following the disastrous consequences of the last case she was involved in create a further level of interest and depth.

Bryndza shows excellent knowledge of police procedure in his writing and has clearly researched his novel well. This makes the writing very authentic and ensures that the story remains believable and convincing. If you like Rachel Abbott, Karin Slaughter and Karen Rose then I would recommend this book for you.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Children's Fiction: "Return to the Secret Garden" by Holly Webb

Return To The Secret Garden
It's 1939 and a group of children have been evacuated to Misselthwaite Hall. Emmie is far from happy to have been separated from her cat and sent to a huge old mansion. But soon she starts discovering the secrets of the house - a boy crying at night, a diary written by a girl named Mary and a garden. A very secret garden...

This is as magical as the original story by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Webb has placed her sequel in 1939 which is really effective as it presents a believable way to bring children back to Misselthwaite Hall with the same sense of abandonment, a search for family and a need to belong that Mary had in "The Secret Garden". It is also effective as the whole concept of being taken away from the city and deposited in the middle of the countryside in a big rambling old house is very appealing to children and perhaps echoes the same idea used by Rowling and Blyton with boarding schools.

Orphaned Emmie, the main protagonist, has the same traits as Hodgson Burnett's Mary, making her a little awkward and hard to like or warm to because of her stubborn attitude and slight unkindness, but again, in keeping with the original characterisation, this is deliberate and initially children will still respond to Emmie as they will relate to the way she is judged and poorly treated by her teachers. Emmie's character softens very quickly as the novel continues and there is a lot of empathy and sympathy created for her when her more lonely and vulnerable side is revealed once the children arrive at the Hall and she explores the grounds.

Emmie is desperate to find something for herself - a place for herself, a place to belong and in which to be happy. She stumbles across an old diary written by Mary and the similarities between them are subtly revealed. On her discovery of the Robin, who seems to want to communicate so much more to Mary than just his pretty song, Mary writes sadly "I don't think I ever had a friend and I should like one." Emmie's relationship with her kitten Lucy exactly mirrors this. Webb has successfully modernised Mary's voice so her diaries are very accessible and read as fluently as a contemporary character.

Emmie is able to find the hidden key and then discovers the secret garden. She is so disappointed to find that it is no longer secret but decides that "It wasn't a secret garden anymore - but it could still be her garden full of secrets." Once again, the garden will show its healing power and work its magic!

I thought the way Webb weaves her story in and amongst Hodgson Burnett's story was really clever and interesting. She captures the same tension and suspense of the howling wind, the crying at night, the discovery of a secret place and the connections it has with the family's past. The references and cross overs were sensitive and totally in keeping with the original. Emmie's character is well constructed; her emotions are well represented and we follow her journey from being lonely, frustrated and angry to healing others around her and finally becoming part of something very special. Webb's writing shows respect and real affection for "The Secret Garden" and a very deep understanding of its themes and ideas. It is an authentic sequel and one of which France Hodgson Burnett would definitely approve! Webb shows that the themes in Hodgson Burnett's novel are still very relevant to a modern audience and still as heartwarming and affirming. I really enjoyed it and can't wait to share it with my daughter. For me, it is as captivating, memorable and as special as "The Secret Garden".

Webb also recommends "The Painted Garden" by Noel Streatfeild.

The Painted Garden

Life is tough for the Winter family in London, with little money and Dad out of work. Luckily Aunt Cora comes to the rescue with an invitation to live in California. From that moment on, talented Rachel and Tim dream of stardom in America. The family couldn't be more surprised when a movie producer picks plain peevish Jane for the lead part of Mary in The Secret Garden. No one's ever noticed Jane before. Could this be the chance of a lifetime?

Monday, 11 April 2016

Children's Books to Celebrate the 200th Birthday of Charlotte Bronte

It is Charlotte Bronte's 200th Birthday on the 16th April this year. Here are some editions of her most famous novel, "Jane Eyre" to introduce the story to younger readers for the first time and a few other fiction books which have been inspired by Bronte's work.

Jane EyreJane-Eyre-Real-Reads-By-Charlotte-Bronte-Gill-Tavener-Vanessa-Lubach

Jane Eyre (Usborne Classics): Charlotte Bronte, Glen BirdOxford Reading Tree Treetops Classics: Level 17: Jane Eyre

There are several versions of retellings of "Jane Eyre", appropriate for various different ages and abilities. Here are a few I found, produced by trusted publishers such as Usbourne and Oxford Reading Tree.



Little Miss Bronte: Jane Eyre - BabyLit (Board book)
This board book is stunning and I am very sad that I no longer have anyone little enough with which to share this! I have some of the Austen versions of this series and they are beautifully illustrated and produced! A little treat for the tiny tiny bibliomaniac!

The Brontes - Children of the Moors: A Picture Book (Hardback)
This book has been especially published to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte and looks gorgeous. It is a mix of story telling, illustration and comic strip to introduce young readers to the lives of the Bronte sisters, their influences and inspirations as well as the story lines of their most famous novels. Mick Manning was born and bred in Haworth so is very well placed as the author to really enthuse his audience about this fascinating family of writers.

Jane Airhead


























There are few re-imaginings of "Jane Eyre" for children and young adults but this is one. The reviews suggest this will suit readers aged 11-14 and it sounds like an entertaining and humorous read, inspired by some of the aspects of the famous classic.

Hetty Feather
This is not a retelling of "Jane Eyre" but has some similarities. It is set in 1876 and Hetty Feather is abandoned by her mother at a Foundling Hospital. She spends some time with a foster family but the majority of the story is set in the Hospital itself where life is very difficult. It would be a great historical story for young readers and would pave the way for an understanding and context for some of the aspects of Jane's challenging childhood. The BBC series certainly reminded me of aspects of Lowood Charity School. Wilson can always be depended on for an entertaining, thought provoking read full of strong female characters (which surely Jane Eyre is!) and her books are always a real hit.

Dangerous Lies
This is not based on "Jane Eyre" but Young Adult author Becca Fitzpatrick is heavily inspired by Anne Bronte and the characters from "Wuthering Heights". They have been a huge influence over her own writing and Fitzpatrick novels are full of tension and vivid characters which reflect this passion in the Bronte's work - perhaps this is the kind of novel they would produce if they were around today?!

The Lie Tree
Award wining author Hardinge is also heavily inspired by the Bronte's work. She explains that "Jane Eyre" is a great female role model and without characters like her we would be without many of our modern day heroines. Hardinge's protagonist in "The Lie Tree" is a 14 year old girl who dares to dream of being a scientist and is a strong character. Novels such as "Jane Eyre" also introduced Hardinge to the gothic novel and "The Lie Tree" is an example of a gothic murder mystery set in Victorian times.

The Secret Garden & A Little Princess
A classic but echoes of "Jane Eyre" in the sense that Mary is orphaned and sent away to a family who she doesn't know and seem to care little for her. There are also mysterious noises in the dead of night and characters hidden away from sight in a house full of secrets and sadness.

Little Women (Little Women, #1)
Again, this is not really a strong link to "Jane Eyre" but is about a family of sisters - one of whom is a writer and it is about their passions, loves and developing understanding of the world around them so it could be said to mirror some of the Bronte's real life. It is a good, stock read for any teenagers beginning to discover the classics and extend their range of reading material.

I hope that inspires some sharing of Charlotte Bronte's great novels and the intriguing story of the family of sisters (and their one brother) who lived on the windswept moors, spending their childhood writing stories of imaginative worlds and fantastical places.

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