A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Proofs on July 1st, 2014 by admin – Be the first to comment

A Man Called OveThere seems to have been a spate of Scandi-Lite in Swedish fiction recently, an antidote perhaps to the harshness of Scandi-Noir.  Elderly folk are running amok with 100 year old men escaping from nursing homes and little old ladies openly flouting all the rules.

In Fredrik Backman’s first novel, Ove is not that old at 59 but he certainly fulfils the grouchiness credentials for grumpy old man status.  Backman originally introduced Ove on his blog where readers encouraged him to create a novel about  this irascible Swede.  In 39 relatively short chapters we gain gradual insight into Ove’s life – what makes him tick and the events that have made him the grouchy man he is today.   It’s an easy read, quite matter of fact but it did pull on my heartstrings….occasionally….

I think Ove will appeal to a lot of readers.  He calls a spade a spade and says out loud the things most of us are too polite/repressed to voice.  He reminds me of my dad who shared Ove’s thriftiness and pragmatism although not  to the same extremes!  There is homespun wisdom, lots of lessons to be learned about tolerance, frequent references to Saabs, a community coming together.

Yes, sometimes it gets a bit too saccharine-sweet and strays into Mitch Albom territory but for the most part I enjoyed reading about Ove and his neighbours.  I see similarities with Harold Fry but Rachel Joyce’s novel is more nuanced and a more fluid narrative.

Destined to be a worldwide bestseller, the movie version of A Man Called Ove is currently being filmed in Sweden.  I anticipate an American version in the not too distant future.

A Man Called Ove is published by Sceptre on 3rd July 2014.

Fredrik Backman

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Poppy – Mary Hooper

Posted in Historical Fiction, Proofs, YA Fiction on May 8th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

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Blurb from Good Reads

1914. Poppy is fifteen, beautiful and clever, but society has already carved out her destiny. There’s no question of her attending the grammar school – it’s too expensive and unsuitable for a girl. Instead, Poppy will become a servant at the big house. And she’ll ‘keep out of trouble’. But Poppy’s life is about to be thrown dramatically off course. The first reason is love – with someone forbidden, who could never, ever marry a girl like her. The second reason is war. Nothing could have prepared her for that. As she experiences what people are capable of – the best of humanity and the very worst – Poppy will find an unexpected freedom and discover how to be truly her own person.

Mary Hooper is one of my favourite writers of YA Historical Fiction.  She has the knack of combining strong young female characters and realistic historical settings which give readers a strong sense of time and place, whatever their age!  Quite a few novels are being released this year to tie in with the centenary of the outbreak of WWI but Poppy would be my standout choice for any young female teens wishing to acquaint themselves with the role of their early 20th century counterparts.

In a relatively short novel, 288 pages, we are shown the dramatic changes war brings about in everyone’s lives, from upper to lower classes, amongst men and women, and particularly for  young women like Poppy who find themselves in a position to alter previously rigid, mapped out destinies.  Poppy is no longer restricted to a life of servitude as she can forge her own path in life, working as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse but she will be tested both emotionally and physically in her new career.

The author doesn’t hold back in describing the brutal effects of war, especially the horrendous injuries of Poppy’s patients, some of them young boys bedazzled by the glory of war.  We see the early days of plastic surgery as doctors strive to improve the lives of young Tommies stricken by horrific facial injuries.  Likewise we see the deep psychological stress placed on these young men – PTSD is unheard of and those who can’t face the horrors of the trenches are swiftly court-martialled and executed.

If I have one tiny quibble about this novel, it’s that it ends on such a cliff-hanger and cannot be read as a stand-alone novel.  Poppy’s adventures will resume in the sequel, Poppy in the  Field, to be published in May 2015.  If you’re looking for an introduction to the role of young women in WWI, a sensitive read which treads the middle path between sentimentality and gore, then Poppy is the ideal place to  start.  For slightly older readers interested in this period, I would highly recommend Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s extremely powerful war memoir.

Poppy by Mary Hooper is published on 8th May 2014 by Bloomsbury Childrens.

You can follow Mary Hooper on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

My thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury for providing a review copy.

 



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Last Bus to Coffeeville – J. Paul Henderson

Posted in Contemporary Fiction on April 20th, 2014 by admin – 1 Comment

Last Bus to Coffeeville

Published
23/04/2014

Publisher
No Exit Press

Source
www.realreaders.com

My Rating

Rating: ★★★★☆

Nancy Skidmore has a plan and she needs Doc Eugene Chaney to fulfil his side of the bargain if she is to achieve her goal – to be free of the relentless Alzheimers Disease which has plagued several generations of her family.  Doesn’t sound like a bundle of laughs, does it?  Somehow J. Paul Henderson manages to wrap the narrative of his debut novel with a cosy, heartwarming vibe which makes for an enjoyable and engaging read.  Fans of existentialism and angst should turn away now.

The small, unimposing town of  Coffeeville, Mississippi is Nancy’s final destination, the location of a wooden lodge owned by her family.  However her journey there is far from straightforward as it involves many diversions, both historical and geographical, as well as a large cast of varied and somewhat eccentric characters.  I can see how the meandering narrative might irritate some readers but I loved it : relaxing into it was like floating on a lazy river absorbing bits of trivia en route.  The style is reminiscent of Forest Gump and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe with that laid-back, warm and inviting southern voice.  Indeed I could see this transferring very easily to the big screen.

It’s by no means a perfect book with some sections of dialogue a bit on the clunky, heavy-handed side but it is a very promising debut.  Not bad at all for a former foundry worker from Bradford, West Yorkshire.  ;-)

 

 

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Mrs Hemingway – Naomi Wood

Posted in Literary Fiction on April 19th, 2014 by admin – Be the first to comment

21131232Ernest Hemingway was “a man of many wives”, four, to be precise. Over the 40 years between his first wedding and his untimely death in 1961 he also accumulated a fair number of mistresses, such was his irresistible magnetism to both men and women. In this work of fiction, we meet his four dutiful wives, each one thinking she would last forever….until the next one came along.

I love reading about characters like Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds with their bohemian lifestyles and devil-may-care attitudes. Naomi Wood opens another window onto this avant-garde world where Hemingway’s women compete with each other for his affections. They are intelligent, modern women but when it comes to Ernest/Nesto they seem to fall into a Svengali-like trance and just roll over.

The novel is divided into four sections with each one devoted to a different wife, Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary. The characters are well defined and realistic with their one major flaw being devotion to Ernest which allows them to overlook his personality defects. There is no villain of the piece – it would appear that Ernest is like a child in a sweet shop and unable to limit himself to one treat at a time.

The writing is beautiful, elegant and sparse. It’s very easy to visualise the different exotic settings as Ernest flits from the Antibes to Paris to Cuba to Key West. This is a gem of a story which I found very hard to put down – it will remain on the “keepers” shelf, a rare occurrence these days! Highly recommended.

Mrs Hemingway is published by Picador Books on 13th February 2014.

Hemingway’s Wives with Hadley top left

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Black Lake – Johanna Lane

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Proofs on April 14th, 2014 by admin – 4 Comments

Black Lake: A NovelDulough is the mysterious house at the heart of this debut novel from Johanna Lane.  The house is fictional but the setting reminds me of one of my favourite locations in Donegal, Dunlewey Lough at the foot of Mt Errigal overlooking the Poisoned Glen.  In Black Lake this already wild landscape is battered by the winds coming off the Atlantic.  There is a savage aspect to the environment, a primitive, ancient ambience dating back to the Ice Age.

The Campbells are relative newcomers, the first of their tribe arriving in the early 1850s.  Scottish landowner, Philip Campbell who built the house/castle, Dulough, in 1854, cruelly evicting any tenant families who stood in his way.  Now, the roles are reversed as John Campbell, the current owner, can’t afford the upkeep of the house and enters into a contract with the Irish government whereby the house is shown to visitors as  a tourist attraction and he and his family relocate to a cottage in the grounds.

There is  a simmering resentment between the Campbells (landed gentry) and the locals (peasants…not really!).  John’s young son, Philip, feels particularly affected by the downsizing and is loathe to abide by the new rules and regulations.  The mother, Dublin born Marianne, seems out of place in this desolate setting no matter what size of house she’s in.  The daughter Kate tends to go with the flow and tries to keep the peace.  You just know that something bad is lurking round the corner.

This is a solid debut from a talented writer.  It’s a gentle, slow-moving story dominated by the austere, sombre landscape.  You wonder how anyone can thrive in such harsh surroundings at the mercy of the elements…and the recession.  I found echoes of William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault in this ethereal tale of displaced gentry.

Looking forward to seeing how Johanna Lane’s writing evolves in the future.

My thanks to Little Brown and Company for providing a review copy.

Black Lake is published by Little Brown and Company on 20th May 2014.

Dunlewey Church

Dunlewey Lough

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North of Nowhere – Liz Kessler

Posted in Children's Books on April 11th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

My 10 year old daughter is a big fan of Liz Kessler’s previous  novels, including the fantasy series, Philippa Fisher and Emily Windsnap, so I was keen to read her latest novel and see what all the fuss was about.

Targeted at children aged nine and above, this is the second of three stand-alone novels all of which have a connection with time-travel.  Whilst being more grounded in the “real” world than the fantasy novels, there is still that subtle element of the supernatural suffusing the story.

Our narrator is thirteen year old Mia (Amelia).  Her plans for a chilled out Spring half-term, hanging out with her friends, are dashed when her Grandad goes missing and she and her Mum have to join her Gran in the sleepy fishing village of Porthaven – with no mobile phone signal, no satellite tv, no internet – a teen’s worst nightmare!   Fortunately Mia makes a new friend in Dee, a local girl, although their friendship is somewhat unconventional given that they communicate via letters and diary entries.

This is a cleverly constructed, gripping tale blending time travel, mystery, family relationships and friendships and introducing realistic, very relatable characters.  The conversations between Mia and her family and her  peers hit exactly the right note.  The setting is perfect for a mystery with its windswept coast and taciturn locals – I found it reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic haunts.

An intelligent, fast-paced adventure story which, I’m pleased to report, was enjoyed equally by my daughter and me.  We’re both looking forward to the next stand-alone novel, Has Anyone Seen Jessica Jenkins,which is due out on 14th August 2014 published by Orion Childrens.

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Only Time Will Tell – Jeffrey Archer

Posted in Historical Fiction on April 9th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

13518131I think I was about 15 when I read my first Jeffrey Archer, Kane and Abel.  In the 80s we didn’t have the wonderful range of YA titles we have now and I moved from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Jeffrey Archer.  Archer’s early novels were great fun with gripping storylines and larger than life characters so I was quite intrigued at the prospect of revisting his writing 35 years later.

Only Time Will Tell is the first of a pentology, The Clifton Chronicles so be prepared for a sweeping saga.  The first novel covers the first 20 years of the life of Harry Clifton, born in Bristol in 1919.  He’s always thought his father died as a war hero but things are not quite as they seem.  His early years are tough but thanks to a series of serendipitous events (more on that later…) he manages to secure a scholarship to St Bedes where most of the pupils come from an extremely privileged background.  We follow the sometimes dizzying swings and roundabouts of Harry’s early years, never quite knowing what’s coming next.

Jeffrey Archer is a master storyteller and I whizzed through this novel in a couple of sittings.  Is it great literature?  Will it change my life?  Is Harry destined to oust Heathcliffe from my affections?  Nope to all of the above but it was sheer mindless entertainment, extremely readable and filled with ridiculous plot twists and fortuitous events – ideal for your sick bed or sun lounger.  It reminded me of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance, another saga which I enjoyed immensely.  I’m not sure if the bookseriesphobe in me will allow me to follow more of Harry’s adventures but you know,  he’s quite addictive so a library reservation might be in order.

Pure escapism – switch your brain off and enjoy.

PS Book Four in the series is already out.  Published by www.panmacmillan.com

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Beautiful Day – Kate Anthony

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Proofs on April 7th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

Book Cover:  Beautiful DayAt first glance I thought this must be a light, fluffy book, probably more “hen” than “chick” lit and probably not to my taste…but I was so wrong as I read/devoured it in two sittings – would have been one sitting but children need fed etc!  It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel as it is so self-assured and engaging but Kate Anthony has expertly drawn on her experience as a residential social worker in this tale of domestic adjustments and new beginnings.

Our narrator is Rachel Bidewell, single mother of three, whose feckless husband Dom has absconded with the younger, childless Deborah.  Rachel has been out of the workplace for a long time but now she is starting a new job as a Residential Care Assistant at Clifton Avenue, a care home for adults with special needs.  She is assigned as a key worker for Philip, a new resident who is virtually non-verbal and lacking any social skills.  The novel examines Rachel’s struggles at both home and work as she strives to keep her head above water.  The divorce has shaken the foundations of her family and the details of childcare, finance, custody arrangements, schooling just wear her down.

Somehow, the author creates a realistic picture of a family in turmoil whilst maintaining a lightness and sense of humour.  It’s probably a case of “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry”.   Rachel is only human and loses her temper when stressed.  Who could blame her when Dom is buying his way into the children’s affections and the children don’t want to hurt either parent.   Alongside this portrayal of a changing family dynamics is the depiction of Philip who has to adjust to a much noisier, busier environment in the care home.  He is such a fragile soul, you really hope for the best for him.  Rob, the Deputy Manager of the home, seems to be on Rachel’s wavelength and she needs all the support she can get at the moment.

Certainly the themes here are challenging – the effects of divorce on parents and children, the relationship between carer and those you care for, identity and how we all need care.  I really enjoyed the insights into residential care and Rachel and her family’s struggles seem very similar to those being experienced by one of my friends at the moment.

A warm, down-to-earth story about ordinary folk coping with extraordinary experiences.  I will certainly look out for more of Kate Anthony’s writing based on this impressive debut.

My thanks to Real Readers for sending me this novel to review.

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Frog Music – Emma Donoghue

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on March 30th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

Frog Music

Published
27/03/2014

Publisher
Picador

Source
Amazon Vine

My Rating
3 stars

Frog Music is an unusual and, at times, discordant composition, hopping from one event to another, revealing the underbelly of San Francisco in 1876.

Based on a true unsolved crime, this is the story of  Blanche and Jenny, two women striving to scrape a living in a turbulent and violent city.  Blanche, former equestrienne with the Parisian Cirque d’Hiver, is now an exotic dancer living with her “maque” (pimp) Arthur and his close friend Ernest.  Jenny is a cross-dressing frog-catcher of no fixed abode who supplies the French and Chinese communities.   Somehow, Jenny and Blanche’s paths cross and it is Jenny who sews the seeds of doubt in Blanche’s mind re the wisdom of placing her son P’tit in a baby farm.  Blanche’s resultant struggle to embrace her maternal side causes havoc in her relationship with Arthur and cracks quickly appear in an already fragile liaison.

Whilst Emma Donoghue’s novels are eclectic in their subject matter and genre, what they do have in common is the author’s knack to capture the essence of true-life stories from any era and to make them vividly accessible to the modern reader.  In Frog Music, we see San Francisco in the midst of a sweltering heatwave and a smallpox epidemic – it’s a city on the edge, pushing itself to its very limits.  There is rising tension between the whites and the expanding Chinese community – tension which spills over onto already impoverished streets.  Even though this is the seedier side of the city,  I loved its vibrancy and lust for life despite the constant threat of death from the escalating epidemic.

Unfortunately I found the other characters less engaging than San Francisco and I felt that I was viewing them through the city’s famous fog.   I just couldn’t get a sense of who the main characters were and why they acted the way they did. Perhaps that was the idea, that they put up a facade, “the show must go on” etc, but it left me feeling cold and distanced.

It took me around 120 pages to get into the story, for the pace to pick up to a level which made me want to “pick up” the book again and continue reading.  Thereafter I was truly engaged but if it hadn’t been a review book  I wouldn’t have persisted after 50 pages.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book as the last two thirds of  the narrative highlight the author’s skill as a storyteller but I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed as I thoroughly enjoyed Slammerkin and The Sealed Letter and expected more of Frog Music.

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A Love Like Blood – Marcus Sedgwick

Posted in Historical Fiction, Proofs, Thriller on March 27th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

Marcus Sedgwick is already established as a gifted, award-winning author of YA novels but A Love Like Blood marks his first venture into the adult market.  So is it a tentative dipping of toes in the water or all-out submersion?  A bit of both, I would say,  as the narrative displays the same intelligence and curiosity of Sedgwick’s YA work whilst eschewing the typically teen Twilight approach  to vampire stories.

Our narrator Charles Jackson has been haunted by what he witnessed in 1944 shortly after the Liberation of Paris.  In a bunker in Saint-Germain he thinks he saw a man crouched over the body of a young woman, drinking her blood.  He tries to put the horrifying sight out of his mind but seven years later, during a return visit to Paris, he sees the same man and feels compelled to investigate further.  What ensues is a gripping, psychological thriller which spans 24 years as Charles hunts for and is hunted by the mysterious stranger.

Charles specialises in haematology, the study of blood, and this story also focuses on blood, Charles’ and indeed humanity’s obsession with blood.

I learned at medical school how the colour of  blood  changes with its state of oxygenation, from dark, almost purplish, through to the brightest lurid red, but whatever its precise colour, our earliest selves must have formed a deep relationship with it.  Relationship, that’s the only word I can use, and still, after all my time thinking about it, I cannot find an answer to the question of blood.

This is a story of love, of extremes, passion, revenge, obsession, questioning the very primitive essence of man.  It has that gothic vibe which imbues Sedgwick’s earlier books – think more modern Bram Stoker than cute teen vampires and less vampire than Freudian ponderings.  The pace has a steady ebb and flow much like the blood pulsing through our veins and the pressure increases steadily as Charles’ quest takes him across Europe.  At times it is unclear as to who is hunting who – is Charles the prey or the predator?  Some of the chase is reminiscent of The 39 Steps and that classic black and white film starring Robert Donat.  Charles is not your typical hero and his flaws make him all the more realistic.  At times I also felt touches of Carlos Ruiz Zafon in the European Gothic style.  Having said that, I think it’s fair to say that Sedgwick has his own distinctive, elegant style.

A Love Like Blood will introduce Marcus Sedgwick to a much wider readership but I hope he will also continue to feed the curious minds of children and Young Adults with his other material.

A Love Like Blood is published by Mulholland Books – release date – 27th March 2014.

 

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