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Thursday, 23 March 2017

Review: Heartbreak Hotel, Deborah Moggach

Despite me never reading the book The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, on which the film adaptation is based, I had a feeling I would love "Heartbreak Hotel", since it's written by the same author.

I was right.

Our hero is Buffy, a retired actor with a confusing collection of ex-wives, children and step-children which requires a detailed family tree of which to keep track. One day, he finds out he has been left a B&B by one of his dearest friends (whom he consequently had lost touch with for a while) near Wales. He takes the leap and moves away from London into the shabby B&B and starts out on a little adventure.

He quickly realises, though, that he needs to offer more than the standard service - particularly because the B&B itself has seen finer days. He has an idea to run "Courses for Divorces", different things that exes might recently find themselves unable to do as their ex used to do it - car maintenance, cooking etc.

Interspersed with Buffy's plans are an array of chapters about different people whom end up on these different courses. For most, it is a welcome week away; for others, it represents the start of a whole new life.

Moggach's book is written with warmth, humour, and the belief that while one doesn't necessarily need romantic relationships, they can be wonderful to the people that are in them. It's not just romance, however - friendships are made and rekindled, pasts reconciled, and new avenues explored. It really is a little gem of a book that will keep you smiling and laughing the whole way through.

Review: The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

South Carolina at the height of segregation, and racial tension is at its highest. Lily, a fourteen year old living on a peach farm with a harsh father and a black servant (her only friend), longs more than ever before for her mother - a mother she believes she killed.

One afternoon, Lily accompanies Rosaleen to register to vote. However, three white men stand in the way. Refusing to kowtow, Rosaleen gives them a piece of her mind but unfortunately gets more back than that.

Lily helps Rosaleen break free from the hospital in which she's being kept (after said men came to the prison to beat her to within an inch of her life). The only route Lily can think of going is a route marked out by a picture of a black Virgin Mary.

The road leads them to the home of three beekeeping sisters; August, June and May Boatwright. They offer sanctuary to Lily and Rosaleen, as well as (in August's case) warmth.

Rosaleen is entirely at ease straightaway, but Lily takes a little longer since she has lied about why she has come. Fearing she might be sent away, she keeps the truth inside but her suspicions are that August knows.

Free from her father's fearsome shadow, Lily is able to rebuild herself with the help of August, whom shows her the ways of beekeeping. By the time Lily realises she needs to tell the truth, however, terrible events occur that make her hold the truth tighter still.

 It's refreshing, though, to see a historical novel about black women whom are the mistresses of their own lives, rather than trying to display their own identity within the constraints of their white masters and mistresses. The women clash and bond and look after each other, and there's no question of August, June and May being beholden to any one else. They are well known and respected in the community and the honey business does not suffer with the knowledge that the creators are black. Relationships - familial, romantic, platonic - form the heart of this story with an undercurrent of racial issues being explored. It's a rich novel with substance and depth, with much of what we know about the time being questioned within the microcosm of the Boatwright family.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Review: Little Face, Sophie Hannah

Alice Fancourt steps out of the house for the first time without her baby. It's a momentous step but hopefully just a short one. However, when she returns from her errand - visiting a gym for which her mother-in-law has paid for membership - the unthinkable happens.

She goes upstairs to check on her baby but her baby is not there.

There is a baby there, but Alice swears it is not hers. Her husband, David, thinks she's mad or lying. Alice turns to the police, but they think she's bonkers, too. What is she going to have to do to prove herself?

Eventually, the story turns not just into a question of getting Florence, the baby, back, but more. Alice sees a darker, more sadistic side to her husband and feels the suffocating 'love' of her mother-in-law even more. It becomes a battle not just for a baby, for the truth, but for herself.

It's a fantastic thriller/mystery novel, and Sophie Hannah keeps you guessing at every turn. What really is going on in Alice's mind? Who should she trust? Who should we trust? For a story that is almost closed set - the settings don't range much between the house in which Alice and David live with their mother-in law, the gym, and Alice's workplace - it is hugely absorbing and fast paced.

Fans of Gillian Flynn and the unreliable narrator style of novels will hugely enjoy this.

Review: My Husband's Wife, Jane Corry

The Husband's Wife by Jane Corry is a tense, gradually building psychological thriller that has the question "what if?" at its core. What if Lily had not come home from work early that day? What if her boss had sent someone else to interview Joe Thomas, the prisoner Lily was sent to defend? The thousands of daily decisions that we make can make huge ripples with effects even years later, which this novel explores. 

Lily MacDonald is a solicitor whom her boss has chosen to meet with a man called Joe Thomas, serving life for murdering his girlfriend. While visiting him, Lily is warned by a prison officer to keep strict boundaries, lest she become conditioned by Joe. It's our first signpost that something huge is going to happen. 

Her husband, Ed, works as a graphic designer but has dreams of being an artist. Both Lily and Ed have secrets from each other, but Lily thinks hers is too horrific to be shared with anyone, whilst Ed's later comes out during a visit to his family. 

Their neighbours are an Italian woman, Francesca, and her daughter Carla. They have never had anything much to do with Lily and Ed until, one day, Carla is brought home early by a teaching assistant and Lily offers to watch her as Carla's mother is out. 

From there blossoms what we think will be a lovely friendship, but knowing the genre of this novel, we know it will turn sour. The question is when and what the effects will be.

Just a few simple decisions means the lives of the characters end up entangled is furiously complicated ways that have devastating effects for all of them. It's a hugely addictive read - fans of The Girl on the Train and The Husband's Secret will enjoy this. 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Review: Where My Heart Used To Beat - Sebastian Faulks

Time and space are frequently traversed in this masterful novel by Sebastian Faulks. The protagonist, Robert Hendricks, is a doctor with a past that, if he's not keen to hide he's certainly keen to forget. That is until he receives communication from a man called Alexander Pereira, whom wishes to meet Hendricks and discuss a subject of mutual interest.

The main themes brought out in the novel are those of memory and the seemingly inevitability of the brokenness of humanity that must be faced. According to Hendricks, anyway. The 20th Century, to him, is that of psychosis - a century in which the world truly saw the worst of the human race. And, to be fair, he isn't exactly wrong.

From the lesser known battlefields of Italy in the second world war, a desperate love story that is so fragile and beautiful because of its necessary transience, to the search for hope through curing the seemingly invincible battles of the mind, the threads of Robert's journey are brought together and examined. Individually and collectively, they are significant, Pereira encourages him.

What Hendricks seems to fear most is an empty and wasted life. He has seen more than humans should ever seen, done both physical and mental battle, and he feels it is pointless. However, through his visits to Pereira, he starts slowly to examine them in a different way. By the end of the novel, he has found if not some sort of peace, then acceptance.

The end of the novel is, I think, the most heartbreaking and moving part of the story. An undercurrent of the novel is Hendricks' relationship to his father, or lack thereof. He was only two when his father died and his mother was unwilling to speak of him. Pereira, after much agonising, draws back the veil and Hendricks finally gets some kind of closure, but still while confirming some of his fears of mankind. However, it's not all bad. What Hendricks gets from his father is that which he needs - the knowledge that he is loved and that love, despite everything else, can bring meaning and wholeness to things that can otherwise be seen as fruitless and empty.


Review: Spindle's End, Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley brings a new shape to an old tale, Sleeping Beauty, that packs a punch and laughs in the face of the damsel in distress type.

In the land where the tale is set, magic pervades everything. One humorous example is that residents have to ask good-willed fairies to come and de-magic their kettles at least once a week, for the fear that they will get something altogether different from the desired hot water.

Magic and non-magic people live together harmoniously - mostly. And this is where the conflict enters. On the princess' name-day, a day of tumultuous celebration after the many years of the queen trying and failing to conceive, Pernicia, (a wicked fairy), arrives, having taken exception to the fact that she wasn't invited. She lays the famous curse upon the child and leaves all to panic.

Katriona, a young fairy from Foggy Bottom in the north of the kingdom takes the baby away for safety. Only the King and Queen's closest fairy adviser knows, and promises to send a sign when the time is right. Katriona, who only came because she was chosen by lot, is utterly bewildered by the change in circumstances but does not shy away from the challenge.

After a few months' hard journeying, she arrives home with the baby - whom she decides to call Rosie, from the baby's given 21 names - and reveals all to her Aunt. Her Aunt, knowing the gravity of the situation, casts a glamour over the village so they just think Rosie is another niece of Aunt's.

All is well for the next twenty one years, for the most part. Rosie grows up strong, confident, assured and finds her place with the local blacksmith. Aunt and Katriona, however, are aware that the older Rosie gets, the more desperate Pernicia will be to find them.

The story really diverges from the original when Pernicia appears at a ball given for the princess' 21st birthday. When the guests are consumed by the magic sleep, only Rosie, Narl (the local smith and a closet fairy) and the animals are awake. They do battle with Pernicia and her horde of evil creatures, and the triumph of good over evil is brought to a satisfying close.

Written with spunk, confidence, and humour, Spindle's End is a great read for anyone with a love of fantasy and magic, but also a healthy dose of feminism/subversion of the damsel in distress. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Review: The Summer Book Tove Jansson

A grandmother and her granddaughter, Sophia, spend summer together on an island, whiling away the days and hours. Sophia's father is there, too, but never spends much time with them. 

Sophia and her grandmother spend most of the time exploring the island. Sophia seems to demand a lot from her grandmother, quite often shouting at her when she thinks her grandmother isn't telling things right. Her grandmother, in turn, remembers and regrets all the things that she used to do that she cannot do now.

The book itself is told in a set of sort-of vignettes - all the same characters and settings are in place, but each with a different focus. 

The pace is slow, languorous and dreamlike. The island is like a tiny idyll, an escape from the world and you could forget that a world outside of the island actually existed. Time doesn't seem to exist here; everything just happens in the present and there isn't any thought of the future until the very end when things have to be packed up for Autumn. 

It is a short read but very pleasant, a novel to be enjoyed at a steady pace.