Recently I ran an author panel with these three lovely ladies talking about the real events and real news stories that inspired the ideas and themes for their novels. Here's a round up of my mini reviews and a couple of book club questions for each of their books.
BLIND SIDE by JENNIE ENSOR
Blind Side by Jennie Ensor is set five months before the 7/7 attacks in London. The main character is Georgie, a few months away from turning 30, single and living in London. She has a fear of falling in love or growing to close to someone because of her past and is shocked when her oldest friend Julian reveals his true feelings for her. Pushing him away, she then falls for Nikolai, a Russian with a deeply traumatic past relating to his experiences from the war torn Chechnya. Despite her friends concern and disapproval - particularly from Julian whose behaviour rapidly becomes more obsessive and more concerning, Georgie finds that she is becoming very attracted to Nikolai and more compelled to help him or to try and understand his past.
As events escalate in London, this novel explores love, friendship, prejudice, guilt and betrayal in a tumultuous time. For Georgie this novel is a kind of coming of age journey as she begins to face up to the realities in the world around her and begins to see sides of people to which she was once more oblivious. With the dramatic and intense backdrop of the 7/7 attacks, Ensor is able to use this as an opportunity to explore how people behave towards each other, how actually, those we suspect, fear or conversely trust for a sound judgement and objectivity, are not always the ones we assume. Through her relationship with Nikolai, Georgie is exposed to some terrible truths and forced to make some decisions about what she believes and what she is going to fight for.
For me, I thought this novel was as much about characters, the relationships between them and the effect they have on each other as people as a novel about contemporary political and social issues. The novel is hugely grounded in modern day London and reflects the key issues and concerns affecting everyone but very specifically Londoners, with many social and cultural references. It conveys the atmosphere of the city following the terrorist attacks and uses them as a way of exploring questions about human nature and the human condition. But the universal themes of post traumatic stress, immigration, love, betrayal, people under pressure and motivation and consequence means this novel will appeal to anyone and have resonance for many, many years.
Despite it's themes and harrowing references to Nikolai's past, this is a very readable, accessible novel with fascinating characters. Ensor discusses and explores complex issues and evokes a menacing sense of threat as Georgie navigates her way through her confusion and period of awakening but ultimately I felt this was also a novel about understanding, hope and love. The characters of Nikolai and Georgie are powerfully evoked and stay with you once the book is finished.
BOOK CLUB QUESTIONS: BLIND SIDE
- What purpose does Julian play in the novel? How did your feelings for him change throughout the novel?
- How did you respond to the author's portrayal of asylum seekers and immigration? Was there anything that challenged your preconceptions or affected your opinions?
- How did you respond to Georgie and the decisions and actions she takes? Did you find her behaviour convincing and believable?
- "A well off career girl hooked up with an illegal immigrant - how could that ever have worked?" What do you think of this statement made by one of the characters? How does it capture some of the key themes in the novel? What do you think happens next to Georgie and Nikolai?
- What do you think might have been some of the challenges for this author when writing about 7/7 and terrorism?
GHOST VARIATIONS by JESSICA DUCHEN
This is a fascinating work of fiction that makes such an interesting story it is difficult to remember it's based on very real events! Set in London in 1933, this novel opens with a Ouija board game which reveals to the Hugarian violinist, Jelly d'Aranyi, a message from the composer Schumann asking her to find a missing violin concerto. This search for the concerto then takes us to Germany as it is discovered that the Nazi's are also intrigued by the power of this piece of music and how they might use it for future propaganda.
Duchen's novel has clearly been extensively researched and the historical setting, level of detail and over all convincing evocation of time, place and society is very impressive. It is a complex storyline, travelling across Europe and including many real figures from music and history. This novel will appeal to any musician or fans of historical fiction but there are also many universal themes explored through the emotional and physical journey of the main character. Duchen looks at the prejudices of the time, the role of women, mental health and the role of music in society. It is also a mystery story - it is about a quest to find the forgotten manuscript and the compulsion to perform it. There is intrigue, suspense and tension and there is threat, danger and excitement as Jelly delves deeper into the history of Schumann's piece and it's significance in a time of increasing social unrest.
There is a huge list of characters in this novel and many of them are complex individuals who existed in the real world. Duchen shows skill in creating characters that feel authentic and is also able to recreate not only relatable and believable characters but also reflect how their feelings, emotions and behaviour is influenced by the social and historical context in which they live. There are some very interesting observations about madness and delusion and the role of women. I thought the idea that Schumann believed the melody of this concerto was dictated to him in his sleep by spirits very interesting and a great premise for an ambitious but original story.
Duchen shows herself to be an accomplished writer as she manages all these characters, concepts and themes and weaves them together in an intriguing plot. Not only is the storyline flawless and tightly constructed, she also manages to ensure her presentation of the 1930s and Europe is flawless, and used as a compelling backdrop to an unknown but fascinating story.
BOOK CLUB QUESTIONS: GHOST VARIATIONS
- What did you think about the role of spirituality and the holdings of seances in the book?
- What do you think are the challenges about including 'real' people from history in a novel and how well did the author handle these challenges in Ghost Variations?
- Which characters did you relate to most and why?
- What did you think about the portrayal of women in this novel?
SEAS OF SNOW by KERENSA JENNINGS
Jenning's novel is something rather unique. It is a story of 5 year old Gracie who lives with her mum but then Uncle Joe comes to live with them. Uncle Joe is a sinister and disturbing character and it isn't long before he is abusing both the women. The only thing that saves Gracie from despair is her discovery of poetry.
What makes this book so interesting is that the author combines a storyline dealing with harrowing, emotional and difficult subject matter with that of poetry. Jennings' own writing is very lyrical and poetic and the influence of the poets she quotes in the story on her own work is clear. For Gracie poetry becomes a key - a secret key, that enables her to escape her terrible life and attempt to process what is happening to her. For the readers the inclusion of poetry also prevents the book becoming too oppressive and just as poetry allows Gracie to find ways to cope with her life, it also gives the reader a way of being able to cope with the themes explored. It's an interesting contrast and an interesting way of combining domestic noir and literary fiction.
Jennings shows herself to be an intelligent, thoughtful, clever and exceptionally talented writer through this novel and her use of language. It is very hard to categorise the genre of this novel or to prepare readers expectations but it is a story that is worth reading. It is haunting, poetic, psychologically intriguing and also full of domestic drama and complicated characters.
BOOK CLUB QUESTIONS: SEAS OF SNOW
- Jennings uses the metaphor of a black bird throughout the novel. How effective did you find this?
- How well do you think the author captured the voice of a 5 year old?
- Did you enjoy the inclusion of poetry in the novel?
- "Why were the dragons of real life so much more terrifying then the monsters of storybooks?" Discuss!!
- How did you respond to Billy?
GENERAL BOOK CLUB QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSING ALL THREE BOOKS:
- All three writers tackle complex issues and very involved themes and story lines. Some of the events referred to will be very real to readers. What problems might this pose to the writers and how did you respond to this as a reader?
- Each of the authors has clearly carried out extensive research in order to present such compelling narratives. How did you find reading about real events, real people and real problems? Did the references to such specific moments in time or place affect your reading at all?
- What key points do you think the authors want you to take away from their novels? What do you think they want to say to you through their stories?
- All three books include references to poetry, music and literature. What effect did this have on your reading and understanding of the characters, theme and ideas portrayed in the novels?
- "In Art alone we find salvation" (Ghost Variations) "All works of art are consequences of having been in danger, of having gone to the very end in an experience, to where man can go to further." (Seas of Snow) Discuss! Have these author's used their art to find salvation? What about their characters?
- In Ghost Variations (set in 1933), a character states "I'm living in some kind of nightmare, some dystopian film". What makes these novels so relevant to audiences today and in the future?
Blind Side, Ghost Variations and Seas of Snow are all available to buy now and area published by Unbound.
For more recommendations and reviews follow me on Twitter @KatherineSunde3 or via my website bibliomaniacuk.co.uk