Contemporary Fiction

The Adoption – Anne Berry

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Proofs on January 28th, 2013 by admin – 2 Comments

The Adoption

Published
28/02/2013

Publisher
Ebury Press

ISBN
9780091947057

Source – Amazon Vine

My Rating – 4.5 stars

The Adoption is Anne Berry’s third novel but this is my first encounter with this writer. Having devoured this compelling read, I am keen to acquire her earlier novels.

The story is told from the viewpoints of three very different women. The first, Bethan, a teenage girl living on a farm in Wales during WWII, falls pregnant with the child of a German POW and is forced to give up her baby girl, Lucilla. Her baby is adopted by Harriet, an older, conservative woman who is disappointed when Lucilla doesn’t fulfil her ideal image of the perfect daughter. We also hear from Lucilla, now married with her own family but it is obvious that the mystery surrounding her real parents leaves an aching hole in her life.

Usually, with multiple narrators, I find myself more drawn to one of the characters but here, each character’s story drew me in equally. Anne Berry is very adept at weaving all the strands of the story, building up the background in such a way that you see the motivation of each character, the birth mother, the adoptive mother and the adoptee.

The female characters are particularly well drawn and their strength contrasts sharply with the more slimy male characters especially Lucilla’s odious, obsequious cousin, Frank and that supposed pillar of society, her father Merfyn. Somehow Lucilla manages to bounce back and forge her own way in life, on the surface a strong, independent woman.

Anne Berry eschews oversentimentality in this beautifully written novel about identity, family ties, motherhood and relationships. Highly recommended.

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The Cleaner of Chartres – Salley Vickers

Posted in Contemporary Fiction on November 14th, 2012 by admin – 4 Comments

The Cleaner of Chartres

Published
01/11/2012

Publisher
Viking

Source
Amazon Vine

My Rating
5 stars

Redemption and self-discovery are recurrent themes in Salley Vickers’  writing and she tackles the same subjects here in The Cleaner of Chartres. The central hub of the story is the ancient cathedral of Chartres which attracts a wide range of visitors, each one seeking something different to fulfil their incomplete lives. Agnes Morel is the enigmatic young woman at the centre of events, quietly engrossed in her task of cleaning but having a lasting effect on those who come in contact with her.

As the novel unfolds we gradually put together the pieces of Agnes’ traumatic past, parts of which come back to haunt her. The supporting cast of locals are flawed, living, breathing individuals from the troubled, senile Abbe Bernard to the local gossiping widows Mmes Beck and Picot. Their stories intertwine with that of Agnes and we feel part of this small community.

This is a character-driven novel, exquisitely slow moving and beautifully written in a gentle, engaging style. It will probably also appeal to fans of the Chocolat series by Joanne Harris and the film Amelie.

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The Mystery of Mercy Close – Marian Keyes

Posted in Contemporary Fiction on October 24th, 2012 by admin – Be the first to comment

The Mystery of Mercy Close (Walsh Family #5)

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Michael Joseph (13 Sep 2012)
  • My Rating – 4 stars – really liked this one
  • Source - Amazon Vine

Firstly I am not Keyesaphile, Marianmaniac or whatever the No 1 fans/experts of Marian Keyes are called these days but I have read and enjoyed a few of her previous novels. Also I have followed Marian’s very candid online thoughts on her crippling depression and I think she has done so much to help destigmatize an illness which, in its many different forms, is extremely debilitating.

I followed a fellow reader’s advice and downloaded Mammy Walsh’s A-Z of the Walsh Family to refresh my memory of this madcap bunch and inadvertently irritate the life out of my family by bursting into laughter at unexpected and often inappropriate moments…do not bring your Kindle to mass…it was before things started, in case you’re wondering… Anyway, I felt more confident about Mercy Close now that I remembered who was who and got into the Walsh way…but don’t expect a bundle of laughs from the outset.

Helen Walsh is a complex character (like any female)and whilst she might come out with the odd one-liner and try to put a brave face on things because after all there is no thing such as depression according to the word of Mammy Walsh, she is a cauldron of emotions which threaten to engulf her at any moment. Ireland is in a state of chassis and the Celtic Tiger is more Tabby cat-like these days. Helen is feeling the effects of the recession and has to reluctantly return to the bosom of her family when she loses her flat, her livelihood and her self-esteem is at an all time low. You probably won’t like her very much but then chronic depression doesn’t exactly endear others to you!

I really enjoyed this manic tale, filled with equal amounts of joy and sadness just like “normal” life with its ups and downs. Yes, the “mystery” is quite simplistic but scratch beneath the surface and there are complex emotions at play. Marian Keyes is a very talented and insightful author who confidently treads that fine line between comedy and tragedy. Bravo!

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600 Hours of Edward – Craig Lancaster

Posted in American Fiction, Contemporary Fiction on August 8th, 2012 by admin – 9 Comments
600 Hours of Edward
Paperback, 334 pages
Expected publication: August 14th 2012 by Amazon Encore
 
Source – Amazon Vine
My Rating – 5 stars
I was initially attracted to this novel as Edward, the narrator, has Aspergers (like my son). Maybe I’m a sucker for punishment but I like to know how ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) is presented in fiction – sometimes authors hit the nail on the head e.g. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time which was equally enjoyed by my son and I, whilst others really miss the mark and one can’t help suspecting they’re using it in an effort to make their novel quirky, to give it a twist. Edward passed our stringent authenticity test and I think he will endear himself to many, many readers.

Aspergers does not define Edward but it’s part of who he is and it explains his love of facts and avoidance of ambiguity. Yes, he can be blunt, lacking diplomacy but it’s his OCD which dominates his life. He lives apart from his family and communicates with his father through a solicitor – he’d love to have a better relationship with his father but it takes two to tango. His days are structured around various “data collection” – recording his waking time, the daily weather statistics, compelled to watch old videos of the 50s/60s US police drama, Dragnet, at 10.00pm each evening without fail. He has a vast collection of letters of complaint, letters which he composes to various individuals who have slighted/offended him in some way but which remain unsent, on the advice of his therapist!

However, life is about to change for Edward who, at 39, has led a reclusive existence with very little human contact. His first experience of internet dating is an education. A new neighbour brings new opportunities for interaction. It’s not an easy transition but Edward starts to emerge from his cocoon and stamp his personality on the world.

600 Hours of Edward is an excellent debut novel with a narrator whose personality will immediately engage the reader. It made me laugh out loud at times and even sniffle a little but ultimately it left me feeling positive and optimistic.  I felt I got to know Edward and his hometown, Billings, Montana which exists in real life, including Edward’s local convenience store, Albertsons and his actual street!  If you enjoyed Heft by Liz Moore I think you will be equally enthralled by 600 Hours of Edward.

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Heft – Liz Moore

Posted in American Fiction, Contemporary Fiction on June 18th, 2012 by admin – 8 Comments

Heft

Published
03/05/2012

Publisher
Hutchinson

ISBN
9780091944209

Heft is Liz Moore’s debut novel and what a promising start to a writing career!   Told by two very different narrators, their stories meander with the reader desperately hoping that their narratives will eventually converge and reach a common goal.  In Brooklyn we have former academic, the reclusve Arthur Opp, weighing 550 pounds and confined to his home for ten years.  Not too far away, in Yonkers, 17 year old Kel Keller has similar difficulties fitting in with his peers, the odd one out in a school for rich kids.  Kel’s mother, Charlene, is the catalyst connecting their stories, hoping that Arthur (or the Arthur she remembers from long ago) can help Kel where she has failed.

Heft is a heartwarming tale which steers a clear path through an emotional minefield, never veering into over-sentimentality.  Arthur is quite matter-of-fact about his obesity and his candour is mirrored in the clear, unpretentious prose in which his tale unfolds.  There is sadness, life is never seen through rose coloured glasses yet the overall tone is one of quiet optimism, a hope that all will turn out well in the end.  Reading this novel made me think about what family means to different people, how friends and even acquaintances can make you feel much better about yourself than your blood relations.  It’s definitely a book which will provoke a wide variety of emotions and will appeal to a wide range of readers – definitely one to pass on.

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Peaches for Monsieur le Curé – Joanne Harris

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction on June 15th, 2012 by admin – 4 Comments

Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure: Chocolat 3

Published
24/05/2012

Publisher
Doubleday

My Rating – fabulous 5 stars!

Peaches for Monsieur le Curé is the perfect antidote for a typically British Summer (wet and dismal!) as you’re immediately swept to the sultry setting of Paris in August.  A voice from the past returns to haunt Vianne Rocher, now living on a houseboat with Roux and her children, Anouk and Rosette.  It is eight years since she left Lansquenet in the South West of France and she “seems” to be settled and happy but something is calling her back and, after all, “What harm could it do?”.

Readers who have shared the trials and tribulations of Vianne’s stormy life from Chocolat to The Lollipop Shoes will be equally enthralled by this latest instalment.   Our story takes place during the month of Ramadan, beginning with the sighting of the new moon and the return of Vianne to Lansquenet.  There are two narrators, Vianne and her arch-enemy, Reynaud, the village curate.  The passing years seem to have mellowed Vianne and she keeps a low profile in the village.  Once she was the threatening newcomer, the one who shook the foundations of this sleepy village but new tensions are emerging with the growth of a Muslim community.  What follows is a thrilling narrative with two communities thriving on their own fear and ignorance.  Reynaud is no longer the golden boy but will Vianne forgive and forget past grievances?

I loved Peaches for Monsieur le Curé and only wish that every book I read had  the same power to transport me elsewhere in the midst of characters so vivid I feel I know them.  Joanne Harris weaves a seductively spellbinding narrative exploring what makes any community tick – our fear of the unknown, how easily prejudices take root spreading unease and tension.   She’s not afraid to tackle  the controversial subject of the niqab, the face veil which was banned by the French government in 2011.  Indeed “Peaches” certainly provides a lot of food for thought!  If you enjoyed Chocolat and The Lollipop Shoes you will relish this latest story and we can all live in hope that we haven’t heard the last of Vianne and her family.

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I Hunt Killers – Barry Lyga

Posted in American Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Thriller, YA Fiction on May 7th, 2012 by admin – 5 Comments

I Hunt Killers

Published
12/04/2012

Publisher
Bantam Books (Transworld Publishers a division of the Random House Group)

My Rating – 4 Stars

Not for the faint-hearted, I Hunt Killers is a multi-layered, rollercoaster ride of a tale filled with characters who you would be well advised to cross the road to avoid.  I thought I’d left serial killers far behind me, in the dim and distant past, when I devoured anything written by Thomas Harris and Patricia Cornwell…before she went off the boil.  It came as a big surprise to me when I was so quickly sucked into the story of seventeen year old Jasper (Jazz) Kent and his “dear old dad” who just happens to be one of the  world’s most prolific serial killers.  Daddy is safely tucked up in high security prison but the sins of the father might very well be visited on the son  as Jazz faces a daily struggle wondering if he has inherited the “killer” gene. 

Jazz’s internal struggle is compounded by the discovery of a dead body in his small home-town.  Getting into the mind of a serial killer is a sure-fire way of tracking down another killer but much as Jazz wants to assist the local sheriff in his investigation, he is terrified that by doing so he will unleash his own demons and destroy any chance he has of a “normal” life.  It’s the classic nature versus nurture debate although the odds are stacked against Jazz on both sides given his inauspicious roots and his education in “How to be a Sociopath” thanks to Dear Old Dad again.

Yes, there is blood and gore but this is counterbalanced by comic moments coming from Jazz’s interactions with his goofy haemophiliac sidekick, Howie.  His remarkably understanding girlfriend Connie manages to keep him steady but there’s this constant underlying tension throughout the novel both within Jazz himself and within this quiet community – surely lightning couldn’t strike twice and they can have a break from that serial killer tag?

A gripping psychological thriller which will hook those at the older end of the YA range, I would hazard a guess that it will appeal mostly to 15+ boys.  Serial killers are not renowned for their pleasanteries so be prepared for upsetting scenes and be warned that there is extreme cruelty to animals.  If  you can get past all that…you are in for a treat and it looks like this is the first in a series with television rights sold to Warner Bros so Mr Lyga seems to have struck the right chord.

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The Tiny Wife – Andrew Kaufman

Posted in Contemporary Fiction on April 19th, 2012 by admin – 5 Comments

The Tiny Wife

ISBN: 978-0-00-742925-7
Size: 111x178mm
Format: Hardback
Imprint: The Friday Project
Division: HarperPress

My Rating – 4 stars

The Tiny Wife is a thing of beauty, 80 pages of carefully wrought words enhanced by sharp, silhouette illustrations.  Not a single word is wasted in this contemporary fable with echoes of Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm and even a little pinch of Italo Calvino.

Our story opens in contemporary Toronto where a thief carries out a bank robbery with a difference – he asks each customer for the object which is of most sentimental value  to them.  It transpires that they have also handed over part of their soul and each victim experiences rather unpleasant side-effects.  The narrator’s wife, Stacey, starts shrinking with the worry that she will disappear forever, one woman’s husband turns into a snowman, a lion tattoo on a woman’s ankle comes to life, another woman turns into candy.

Somehow, these characters who seem to have stepped straight out of a travelling sideshow or Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, retain a whimsical, magical air which lifts them out of the truly macabre.   Each reader will take something different from this box of delights, even a moral lesson not to take others for granted if you wish to be educated!  A quirky, idiosyncratic read for those who like a little touch of magic in their everyday lives.

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Gold – Chris Cleave

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Literary Prizes, Proofs on April 5th, 2012 by admin – 4 Comments

Published
07/06/2012

Publisher
Sceptre

My Rating – 5 gold stars!

I am not particularly interested in sport, neither as participant nor spectator so if I hadn’t been swept away by Chris Cleave’s previous writing, it is doubtful that I’d have picked up a novel with 3 Olympic cyclists as key characters.  Anyone who passes over Gold for this reason is passing up on the chance of a whirlwind of a reading experience so don’t let those miserable memories of despotic PE teachers put you off and give your brain a gentle work out in the process.

So, let’s set the (Olympic..) record straight, this is not a novel about sporting superhumans, even though they are pretty impressive…we dig deep and discover what makes real people tick when faced with adversary, when illness of a loved one brings you to your knees and you’re powerless to do anything but hope that your child is one of the 9 in 10 who survive.

Gold focuses on the experiences of five main characters – 8 year old Sophie who is fighting leukaemia, her parents Jack and Kate, Olympic cyclists preparing for the London games alongside their friend/rival Zoe and trainer Tom.  All of the adults are nearing the end of their current careers and have one last shot at Olympic Gold whilst Sophie has the hardest fight of all, the battle to stay alive whilst undergoing aggressive treatment which lowers your defences even further.  She uses her imagination and love of Star Wars to harness the Jedi force – anything which encourages a fighting spirit and a positive attitude is going to aid her in the ultimate battle – to stay alive.

From the opening pages, I was fully engaged and committed to this story.  Cleave doesn’t pull on our heartstrings by thrusting sugary-sweet, put upon characters on the reader, they’re all flawed, fully fleshed and make the same mistakes as the rest of us mere mortals.  Sophie’s story is presented in gritty technicolour – there’s no soft focus when she experiences the side effects of chemo or as her last hair falls out.  Kate and Zoe have diametrically opposed public personas when it comes to the media – Kate is the people’s princess,  Zoe, the wicked witch with a touch of glam.  I loved how we are drip-fed snippets of their back stories to explain how they are what they are in the present day.  Tom the trainer has made these cyclists his focus and his family for so many years but now he has to acknowledge the ravages of time and take another path, one which will put less stress on his dodgy knees. Jack seems to be slightly at a loss, a bit piggy in the middle at times.

I was most pleasantly surprised by Gold – my only criticism is to do with the marketing of the novel rather than the novel itself.  The whole device in the blurb about how this is where we normally tell you what the book is about  but we’re not going to tell you because you don’t really need to know.  For goodness sake, tell them what it’s about and stop the superior self-importance. 

Gold is probably the closest I’m going to get to the Olympics but, more importantly, if we all had an ounce of the fighting spirit displayed by young cancer patients like Sophie, we’d all be winners.  Thank you Mr Cleave for a story well told.

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Signs of Life – Anna Raverat

Posted in Contemporary Fiction on February 24th, 2012 by admin – 4 Comments

Signs of Life

Published
12/04/2012

Publisher
Picador

Signs of Life by Anna Raverat is one of Waterstones’ 11 for 2012, their list of highly recommended debut novels.  Last year’s picks included The Tiger’s Wife (Orange Prizewinner) and Pigeon English (Man Booker shortlist) so does this bode well for Ms Raverat’s first novel?

Well, I loved Signs of Life and I think it must be acknowledged that it is an extremely brave debut novel given that its narrator, Rachel, is extremely unlikeable.  It’s not that she’s been involved in war crimes or cruelty  to animals, quite the opposite as she “appears” to be a bit of a flake, self-obsessed, drifting along and letting others carry the can while she continues sitting at her desk navel-gazing.  Not sounding awfully exciting so far…

What I did find fascinating though was the way in which Rachel gradually releases her history to us, strand by strand and what a tangled web she weaves.  Ten years ago she had an affair with disastrous consequences and we won’t get to the crux of the whole “affair” until she has sorted through all the other events in a stream of consciousness style, flitting from past to present, from mundane to deathly serious.

She controls what the reader knows whilst claiming to have been used as a pawn and throughout the novel I found her quite unnerving on a par with Barbara from Notes on a Scandal, another obnoxious yet fascinating character.  She wants to be honest but she frequently alludes to the fact that honesty and truth are impossible to achieve.

If you are enthralled by unlikeable, unreliable narrators and you don’t mind being manipulated and dangled on a string, then you will be captivated by this tense, edgy novel – an excellent debut.

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