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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Review: Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey

We all know the feeling of going into a room and forgetting why we've gone in there. Sometimes I ask someone a question and they answer, but I've forgotten the question I asked in the first place so the answer makes no sense. And I'm sure most of us have left the hob gas on without meaning to, or boiled the kettle only to remember it thirty minutes later so we boil it again.

Thankfully, for most of us, these experiences are sporadic. Not for Maud, however, our protagonist. At about eighty years old, she is living this, hour by hour. The only things that keep her anchored are the notes that she keeps in her pockets, but even some of them confuse her because they may be old and irrelevant. Except for one. Her friend Elizabeth is missing, and despite what anyone tells her she is convinced of that fact and will do anything to find out the truth, no matter how frustrated she makes her carers and daughter, Helen. The trouble is, any time she tries to do something to solve this mystery, she forgets what she's doing as she's doing it, or doesn't remember that she has done something already. This storyline runs parallel to another mystery, this one much older - that of her sister, Sukey, and her mysterious disappearance after the end of the Second World War.

Part mystery, part crime, part thriller, "Elizabeth is Missing" is a confident, dramatic, moving debut from Emma Healey. Wandering through life with Maud is a bit like trying to see everything through frosted glass - you can almost make it out but the uncertainty leaves you with nothing but frustration. It's a sad, haunting portrait of someone living with Dementia, and the worry and stubbornness this can bring, portrayed so well through Maud. Simultaneously scared of being a burden, and cross at being treated like an imbecile, the sheer energy is takes to make it through a day living with this condition is vividly shown. It is structured interestingly, with small details of the older Maud's life evoking old memories, which tell the story of her missing sister, Sukey. Sometimes the memories overlap, so Maud can be talking to an old character in her present.

Eventually the reader comes to know that the real question of the novel is not what happened to Elizabeth, but something altogether darker and more tragic. The ending of the novel gives a good sense of closure while leaving the reader in no doubt of what Maud still has to contend with as life goes on.

"Elizabeth is Missing" is the kind of story that can keep you reading on into the early hours of the morning, and it's astonishing to think that this is the author's first novel. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

I'd seen this on the shelves of Waterstones, and had even bought it for a friend, but it took a while before I picked it up myself. While searching for holiday reads, though, it seemed to be a good candidate.

Harold Fry lives with his wife in Kingsbridge, almost as South as one can get in England. A recent retiree, his days seem to consist of quiet, routine boredom - until, one day, he receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy. The letter tells him that Queenie has cancer, which he has no idea how to bear. He spends a long time trying to write a reply, but in the end words fail him and he writes a rather lame apology for her situation. He takes it to the postbox, but knows that once he posts it through, he has to return home. He walks a bit further to the next postbox, to the post office itself, to the post box beyond. It isn't until he has an unlikely conversation with a girl who works in a garage that his brainwave happens upon him, and it is with some glee that he decides to walk to Berwick-upon-Tweed - approximately five hundred miles from home. By doing this, he believes he can help save Queenie's life.

There are plenty of moments for Harold to doubt himself, particularly in the beginning when he is trying to explain to people what he is trying to do. To his surprise, however, most people are rather taken with the idea and offer encouragement and support. He wishes his wife, Maureen, could do the same. Their marriage has been one of coldness and silence for the past twenty years and he knows what she would say to such a quest like this, but he is desperate for her to understand.

It is very apparent that Harold is not walking to Queenie because he is in love with her. She really is just an old friend, but one whom he feels he has let down and this walk is some kind of atonement. During the walk we meet characters whom act almost as beacons for Harold, from the first woman to offer him water and a sandwich, to a doctor from Eastern Europe whom can only find work as a cleaner in England. The walk also becomes more than trying to save Queenie - Harold is trying to find himself, and figure out who he actually is. Through flashbacks and memories the pieces of Harold's character are filled in, which paint him rather tragically to some degree, but with the effect that you cannot help but cheer him on. Haunted by his mother's abandonment, his father's neglect and his own failings as a father, he is desperate to atone for all his perceived sins and come to some place of peace in one area he believes he can make amends in.

Joyce employs description to great effect in this novel, and the reader feels transported to walking alongside Harold, drinking in the same scenery that he is. She paints the cities through which Harold passes as almost fatal distractions to Harold's walk, scary places that threaten his journey through otherwise simple and peaceful countryside. Each chapter is structured as a new piece in a patchwork quilt, both completing the map of Harold's walk and filling in information about himself. Her characterisation of primary and secondary characters is polished - there is no one in this novel who ought not to be there for the sake of the story.

Not only are we invited into Harold's story, but Maureen's, too, and discover the reasons for the breakdown in their marriage. She wishes she could be there but is held back by fear and the pattern of the past twenty years. She looks at who they once were and wonders whether they can ever be there again. The longer Harold is away, the more she is forced to look inwards, and decide whether to go along on this process that may eventually bring healing, or ignore what is happening and continue on as before.

Beginning at deceptively light and airy, this novel progresses towards the deep, profound, and even points of grieving. It is a gorgeous read that is both moving and entertaining, funny and tragic. Above all, it shows that it is never too late.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Review: The Mine, John A. Heldt

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.

Good looking, charming, and a Houdini of impossible situations, Joel Smith is just about to finish college when he makes a decision that literally alters the course of his life. While exploring an abandoned mine in Montana he comes across a portal that sends him back to 1941. His cellphone and money are useless, so with only his wits to guide him he sets off on a journey to Seattle and throws himself into a society that is gradually drifting towards war. After saving a man called Tom, who invites him home for dinner and a place to stay, he immerses himself in a solid friendship group and quickly becomes loved wherever he goes. However, as time goes on and his tracks are getting harder and harder to cover he has to make a choice. Will he stay, or will he try to go back to his own time? The decisions are difficult, especially when it comes to Grace - a beautiful, engaged woman when he first meets her, whom eventually breaks things off with her fiancĂ© to be with Joel.

This book was an extremely enjoyable read. Time travel plots can be tricky, but Heldt focusses on the story and society in which Joel finds himself rather than swamping the reader in how he got there. The cast is an extremely likeable and relatable group, and invites the reader into their easy intimacy. It is a picture of America in a golden time for young people, with one exception - the inevitable approach of war. Joel alone knows what is coming - including the devastating Pearl Harbour - but cannot do anything about it except be there. It's a bubbling undercurrent that provides an interesting and needed tension in an otherwise picture perfect life.

Heldt's sense of place is fantastic. His use of description - detailed without being laboured - results in authenticity and a complete picture of Joel's new, small world. From bars and diners to Mount Rainier and the beach, the reader is invited into a great tour of this little corner of America and makes them yearn for such a golden era again.

My favourite character, I would have to say, is Ginny, whom Joel quickly realises is his grandmother. Smart, independent, loyal and generous, she is probably the most well-fleshed out and complex character of the group. Perhaps this is because not only does Heldt have the young Ginny to play with but also Joel's memories of his grandmother.

With an intriguing plot, good pace and characterisation, and opportunities to ask the bigger questions, "The Mine" is a story that I would highly recommend.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Review: The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

A heavy mist has settled over England as Ishiguro introduces us to his newest novel. Axl and Beatrice are two of many who have enjoyed years of uneasy peace after wars swept the land. They set out to find their son whom they have not seen for many years. Though they know they are married they know little of their lives together, and wonder if the mist is the cause of all the trouble.

Their path to find their son quickly detours as they meet the warrior Wistan, a young boy named Edwin, and an old knight and nephew of King Arthur, Sir Gawain. They travel together through the mist and rain, not knowing immediately knowing whether they encounter friend or foe along the way.

The Buried Giant is a sweeping, lyrical, dreamy story that inextricably weaves love, pain, mystery and fantasy together. As a reader it feels like you're being swept along with the characters, with no clue of where you might be taken. What becomes clear is that no one is who they seem and you quickly learn to second guess yourself as you come upon new characters. As Axl and Beatrice get closer to discovering the cause of the mist and hope to get rid of it, old memories stir but still linger out of sight.  Motives remain unclear and the main characters' peace with each other remains as uneasy as the peace that hangs over the entire land. Briton and Saxon coexist, but who knows for how long?

Axl and Beatrice are a couple whom you fear for and hope for. Despite their age they seem as innocent as children, yet the bond which ties them could not have been forged but for being many years together. Wistan, though deep, is straightforward in his purpose and quickly takes Edwin, a brave but troubled young boy, under his wing. Sir Gawain is the mystery. He preaches and pouts honour and valour and his service to his uncle, King Arthur, but his arc is complex and his character not so easy to define.

What began as a simple journey for Axl and Beatrice to visit their son develops into a quest of self-discovery. You will be moved at their love and devotion to each other. You root for Wistan and Edwin, and wonder at Sir Gawain. Ishiguro masterfully ties delicate threads of half-remembered lives into an almost fantastical tale from a time buried in myth and legend. It's nothing like the books or films you read or watch about Medieval England. The rawness and reality of the story quickly puts aside all romantic notions of that time.

Despite its bleakness the story evokes hope. Despite its pace, it is gripping. The mysteries will keep you glued to the pages and the characters will keep you watching and waiting for their victory.

A highly recommended read.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Review: The Sunrise, Victoria Hislop

This is Victoria Hislop's fourth novel and by this point it is very clear that she is a mistress of both substance and style.

Set in Famagusta, Cyprus, in 1972, the story opens with a rich, detailed and immersing description of Famagusta that is so picture-perfect it almost made me go to check out cheap flights for Cyprus (I held off). "Here was a glimpse of Paradise," Hislop writes, and I could certainly see it. The first few pages lay extensive groundwork that give the reader a secure sense of place, the better to understand the interweaving stories that follow. 

We are soon introduced to Savvas and Aphroditi Papacosta, a couple with a dream of building the most fabulous hotel in Famagusta (support by Aphroditi's father). Their vision is realised, in expensive, luxurious detail, and soon The Sunrise hotel becomes the place where anyone who is anyone wants to be. It seems set to be a perfect life for Savvas and Aphroditi, but for a few things. Aphroditi's mother is still heartbroken over the death of Aphroditi's brother, Dimitris, in the fighting between Greek and Turkish Cypriots eight years previously. This information being sown early on gives a nice undercurrent of bubbling tension - Savvas Papacosta works extremely hard to create a perfect image for his guests but there are some things even out of his control (not to say he doesn't try to fix that). 

We're soon introduced to a range of diverse and complex characters: Markos Georgious - Savvas' right-hand man - and the Georgious family; the Ozkans; and Frau Bruchnmeyer, whom came to Cyprus on holiday and never went back to Germany. At first their lives cross over but a little. However, as time goes on, and relationships and dynamics became complex - and even fraught - the cast of seemingly separate characters are drawn inexorably more and more into each other's lives, with little say so from them. 

This is none so evident as when the Turkish invade Cyprus and capture Famagusta. The bright, sprawling, jewelled of Cyprus becomes a ghost town, with but a few within - the Ozkans and the Georgious - whose lives become a fight for survival. The juxtaposition of their lives within The Sunrise, which becomes their refuge, and the narrative of life at the hotel before the invasion is startling. It is a refuge in both capacities, but for very different purposes.

Hislop gives us blue skies, golden beaches, love, heartache, thrill, fear, and more. Richly layered, this is a story one could read several times over and draw out something new each time. The main reason I will pick up anything by this author, even without knowing anything about the story, is that I can guarantee I will be entertained, moved, and be inspired to learn more about the bit of history she was woven within her narrative. Hislop's talent for writing compelling stories based on lesser known historical events is immense. If I could have read it in one sitting, I would have. A hugely enjoyable and moving read.