Literary Fiction

At the Edge of the Orchard – Tracy Chevalier

Posted in American Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on March 3rd, 2016 by admin – Be the first to comment

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Publisher – Penguin Group – Viking

Publication Date – 15th March 2016

In her latest novel, Tracy Chevalier returns to Ohio, the setting of The Last Runaway, except this story is not about quilts but trees,  from the humble apple tree to the majestic sequoia.

The story begins in 1838, with Sadie and James Goodenough literally stuck in the mud in the Black Swamp, Ohio where they hope to stake their claim by growing an apple orchard.  It is a truly bleak, inhospitable environment with bitter winters and the summer swamp fever ruthlessly claiming so many lives year in year out.  James and Sadie are passionate pioneers but unfortunately their passions collide with devastating consequences – James with his devotion to his beloved sweet apples and Sadie with her lust for applejack, the strong liquor made from the inedible “spitter” apples.

As well as this desolate Ohioan setting, we experience the excitement and wonder of Gold Rush California when, Robert, the Goodenoughs’ youngest son heads West but don’t expect a sudden reversal of fortune for the Goodenough offspring!

This is a story about family, sacrifice, determination and the need to set down roots.  There aren’t a lot of laughs but then the pioneers didn’t have an easy time of it.   As in other Chevalier novels, there’s an impressive amount of research with the inclusion of real-life historical figures and wonderful attention to detail. The characters are flawed and not very likeable but all the more compelling as a result.

Yes, this is a grim tale but amid the doom and gloom there is the tiniest glimmer of hope – a sense that those sequoia seedlings might take root and begin anew.

My thanks to Penguin Viking and Net Galley for providing a digital copy of this novel for review purposes.

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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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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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After the Bombing – Claire Morrall

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on March 24th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

After the BombingI have read and enjoyed four of Claire Morrall’s previous novels so I think it’s fair to say I’m a fan!  I’ve read enough books (both diamonds and duds) to discover what I like and if I feel the urge for something understated yet thought-provoking, I know that Ms Morrall’s writing will tick all the boxes.

Morrall’s characters are rarely happy-go-lucky souls and young Music teacher, Alma Braithwaite, is no exception.  Having experienced severe personal loss during Hitler’s bombing of Exeter in May 1942, Alma has failed to move on, neither emotionally nor physically given that she now teaches at Goldwyn’s, the girls’ school she attended during the 40s and still lives in the old family home.  Alma is a creature of habit, relishing routine and her own company.  When Miss Cunningham-Smith dies in the Spring of 1963, a new headmistress arrives to sweep away the cobwebs and enforce her own regime.  Miss Yates is a force to contend with and her new-fangled ways are an immediate source of conflict with Alma who eulogized Miss Cunningham-Smith.

As the novel progresses, we discover what happened to Alma and her school-friends after the 1942 bombing when they were temporarily relocated to university halls under the supervision of a young Mathematics lecturer, Robert Gunner.  In the 1963 narrative, we gradually learn more about Miss Yates and her possible weaknesses whilst Robert Gunner returns into Alma’s life as the widowed parent of a student in her form class. It would seem that the psychological wounds of war are still open and smarting for our central characters whilst they are expected to keep calm and carry on.

The main characters are neither likeable nor particularly exciting but are all the more real as a result.   It was refreshing to see the effects of the war on those at home rather than those at the front especially those who experienced the full impact of Hitler’s bombs and how those left behind coped.  The nervy Robert Gunner seems powerless when faced by so many confident women, an attitude which does not seem to improve with age!

Like Morrall’s other novels, this is a slow burner peopled with characters who don’t quite fit in the “normal” world but a gentle read which will reward the patient reader.

After the Bombing is published by Sceptre – release date 27th March 2014, 384 pages.

Claire Morrall

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This Dark Road to Mercy – Wiley Cash

Posted in American Fiction, Literary Fiction, Southern Gothic on January 30th, 2014 by admin – 4 Comments

 

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (30 Jan 2014)
  • Source: NetGalley
  • My Rating: 4.5 stars

Having been very impressed by Wiley Cash’s debut novel A Land More Kind Than Home, I was really looking forward to This Dark Road to Mercy.  As in his first novel, he manages to pack a lot into a relatively short read at 240 pages.  Set in North Carolina, this is a compelling story about family ties as well as family breakdown alongside a convincing depiction of the innocence of childhood.

Narrated by a compact cast of characters, each with their own distinctive voice, this bleak tale of  loss and redemption grips the reader from the opening pages when we hear the  story of twelve year old Easter Quillby.  Easter is an unforgettable narrator who never sinks into self-pity even when disclosing the worst parts of her life so far with her six year old sister.  The two girls are not long in foster care before their wayward father, Wade,  arrives to disrupt their lives once more.  What follows is a well-paced, gripping narrative involving a particularly nasty hitman named Bobby Pruitt who is determined to settle an old score.

Wiley Cash is fast becoming one of my favourite authors as his two novels have more than satisfied my predilection for Southern Gothic.  His characterisation is spot on especially for Easter and Wade – Easter with her self-assurance, guts and determination and Wade, the washed up former minor league baseball player, who has made and, indeed, continues to make mistakes.  The bleak and stark nature of  the story with its unremitting tension is balanced with the remote possibility of redemption.

With echoes of Cormac McCarthy, especially No Country for Old Men, this novel sees Cash going from strength to strength.  More please!!

You can discover more about the author at his website here.

Wiley Cash

Photo by Tiffany B. Davis

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The Reader’s Return – Wolfsangel – Liza Perrat

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on November 27th, 2013 by admin – 4 Comments

Apologies for my extended absence.  I do have a note, I promise!  I haven’t been reading a lot recently as my eyesight hasn’t been great and it’s not just down to getting older but rather a nasty skin condition which gives me spots and blurred vision.  I must have been very bad in a previous life!  Thanks to a combination of eye drops and antibiotics it has improved slightly in so far as I can now read more than a couple of pages at night without my eyes feeling all itchy and tired.  I doubt I will come anywhere near my annual target for Good Reads but I’m just glad I can read anything….albeit much more slowly.

I have read a few children’s books but am trying to reduce online time and therefore ease eye strain so no reviews of them for the moment.   I must share what I’m putting in Luke and Eva’s Christmas Book Boxes this year.   Luke is definitely off-fiction at the moment but I have a couple thrown in which might tempt him…here’s hoping!

In the meantime, here’s Liza Perrat’s new novel set in Vichy France – a real page turner and the eyes were certainly not dry at the end!

 

 

Publisher – Triskele Books

Publication Date – 17th October 2013

My Rating – 4 stars

 

Back in September 2012 I thoroughly enjoyed reading Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat which was the first of the Auberge des Anges historical series set in late 18th century France.   Therefore I was very eager to get my hands on the second in the series, Wolfsangel which is set in occupied France during WWII.

As in the first novel in the series, you can expect strong female characters and extensive research which both serve to make this a gripping and engaging read.   The Wolfsangel title can have different interpretations, the more benign being a guardian angel watching over the Jewish Wolf family in the novel.   However, the other meaning has more menacing connotations as the English translation is “wolf’s hook”, a symbol of the Nazi regime.

Indeed this is a novel of duality, a tale of divided loyalties as the villagers of Lucie-sur-Vionne are torn between hatred of the Nazi invaders and their desire to survive.   It is difficult to take the moral high ground when your choice is between a one way ticket to the concentration camp or informing on your neighbours.

Our narrator is Celeste Roussel, an ambitious young woman, keen to join her brother in his work for the French Resistance.  When she falls in love with a German officer she finds herself torn between her own desire and loyalty to her fellow villagers.

Once I picked this up I found it nigh impossible to put down as I got so involved in Celeste’s story.  Loosely based on the tragic events which  took place in Oradour Sur Glane in 1944,  this novel doesn’t pull any punches and will remain with the reader for a long time.

Already looking forward to the next instalment in the series which is set in France in 1348 as the Black Plague sweeps across Europe.

 

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The Wall – Marlen Haushofer

Posted in Dystopian Fiction, Literary Fiction on September 10th, 2013 by admin – 4 Comments

The Wall_Cover

  • Paperback: 216 pages
  • Publisher: Quartet Books; New edition (6 Jun 2013)
  • Source : Publisher
  • My Rating : 4 stars

 

Originally published in German (Die Wand) in 1968,  The Wall is experiencing a renaissance of interest in recent times with a new reissue from Quartet Books and a film adaptation released in the UK in July 2013.

One morning an unassuming, middle-aged woman wakes up in the Austrian Alps to find out that she is the last person alive on earth.  She was visiting a cousin at a hunting lodge but now she is completely alone with an invisible wall separating her from the rest of the world where every living thing has ceased to breathe and is now frozen in time.  I  immediately thought of Stephen King’s Under the Dome but this is no apocalyptic scene complete with pandemonium – all is quiet and “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper”.

Some years later, our anonymous narrator decides to record her experiences on scraps of paper, perhaps as an act of self-confirmation to prove she still exists.  It’s not an exciting life by modern standards but her descriptions of daily life on the mountain provide an interesting interpretation of what it might be like to be totally isolated with no human contact.  Initially, it’s not so bad – rations are plentiful, Lynx the dog is a faithful companion, the unnamed cat, although scornful of open affection, provides some companionship.  A lost cow provides a much needed food source as well as another contact.  With the arrival of Winter, everything changes…

Deer have to be shot if there is to be meat on the table, potatoes and other vegetables must be planted on time, logs need cutting for fuel. Our lonesome woman fends for herself very well and doesn’t seem too bothered by loneliness – I wonder how comfortable any of us would be in a similar situation?

This is a slow-paced, contemplative read and I really enjoyed taking time out and sharing the narrator’s experiences as she gets closer to nature and sees the beauty in the detail of her surroundings.

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Bellman and Black – Diane Setterfield

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on September 3rd, 2013 by admin – 4 Comments

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Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: October 10th 2013 by Orion
Source – www.lovereading.co.uk
My Rating – 3 stars

Bellman and Black will probably be one of my most memorable reads this year but for all the wrong reasons unfortunately.  I loved Diane Setterfield’s debut, The Thirteenth Tale and have been anxiously awaiting her second novel for seven long, long years.

 

The premise is promising – it’s a Victorian tale of love and loss and it focuses on the very Victorian obsession with mourning.  It begins with an incident during William Bellman’s childhood when he kills a rook with his slingshot – a regrettable mishap which will have long-lasting consequences.  William is successful in business, running a mill and later on a mourning emporium but his personal life is dogged with grief and disappointment.

 

Plot-wise, very little happens and this isn’t usually a problem for me as I enjoy slow-paced novels.  However I waited and waited to be drawn in but never quite got there.  At 320 pages, it’s not overly long but it became a chore to pick it up and continue reading so it took me 10 days to read a book which I should have devoured in a day or so.  Not a good sign!  At times it read like the outline of a better book, a black and white sketch waiting for someone to colour it  in.  It also felt a bit like a novella which had been stretched, kicking and screaming,  into a novel.

 

 

On the positive side, it’s well written, you’ll learn something about rooks and it captures the Victorians’ morbid fascination with death but it left me cold.

 

 

My thanks to Lovereading for giving me an ARC to review.  You can read more reviews of Bellman and Black on their site here. 

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Ghost Moth – Michele Forbes

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, N Ireland, Proofs on August 3rd, 2013 by admin – 1 Comment

 

Ghost Moth

Publisher – W&N

 

Ghost Moth

Publisher – Bellevue Literary Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source
Amazon Vine

My Rating
4 stars – one to watch

 

Ghost Moth is the debut novel of Michele Forbes, an Irish actress who has already written several critically acclaimed short stories.

Overall, I  found this a very promising debut novel with flashes of brilliance and a poetic heart at its core.  It’s a deeply moving examination of the minutiae of everyday life parts of which echo the author’s own life experiences.  There are two narrative strands,  both set  in Belfast ; the first  in 1949 where a young woman, Katherine Fallon, finds her pleasant relationship with the sure and steady George Bedford is shaken when she meets the charismatic tailor, Thomas McKinley. In the 1969 story we know that she is married to George and has four children but is it a marriage of convenience?

I loved the 1969 story, with the unsettled nature of the Bedfords’ relationship mirroring the uncertainty of a city on the brink of civil war. George, in his role as a part-time fire fighter, sees the burgeoning violence first-hand.  Elsa, Katherine’s youngest daughter, faces increasing hostility from other local children as the Bedfordshire are Catholics in a predominantly Protestant neighbourhood. Forbes excels at portraying the ebb and flow of family life : a day trip to the seaside, a back garden fair to raise funds for the “black babies”, how to find your role within the family.  In the midst of  all this change Katherine seems stuck in the past, unable to move forward.

The 1949 Katherine is a totally different character, embarking on an affair despite being happily settled with George after a two year relationship. You know it will all end badly but it is difficult to feel sympathy for Katherine and nigh impossible to work out what motivates her to make these life choices besides  just drifting into them.

The Bedfords seem like an ordinary family but within their “ordinariness” you will find extraordinary ripples making you think of the nature of love – between mother and child, between husband and wife, between siblings.  Does love have to be showy and passionate to survive the passing years?  Forbes makes you see under the surface, to what really matters.

I really enjoyed this condidently written debut novel and found some sections extremely moving especially towards the end of the story.   Some parts, especially in the early stages,  seemed overwritten and this had a jarring effect on the flow of the novel but fortunately this was the exception rather than the rule.  I am looking forward to reading more from this very talented author.

PS Which cover do you prefer?  Am I alone in having an extreme dislike of the one on the right??

headshot

Michelle Forbes

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Indiscretion – Charles Dubow

Posted in American Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction on June 12th, 2013 by admin – 9 Comments

Indiscretion by Charles Dubow

 

Published
04/07/2013

Publisher
Blue Door

Source
www.lovereading.co.uk

My Rating
5 stars, I was gripped throughout!

 

When I saw this novel billed as The Great Gatsby meets The Secret History, I was immediately on the offensive;  surely the publisher is laying this innocent little debut out in the open for the vultures/critics to swoop and attack.   Fortunately I was proven wrong.  This is no timid, halting debut, this is a meaty, powerful read rightfully brimful of confidence and swagger with characters striding off the page and almost taking over your life.

Yes, it’s an age-old tale – long married couple positively aglow with happiness meet their match in the shape of a young, lithe maiden who adores the charismatic author husband.   As in The Great Gatsby, the story is related by a longstanding friend of the glittering couple.   At first I wondered if this would work as how could Walter possibly know all the subtleties of an emerging affair, the clandestine meetings but it works very well as Charles Dubow is in constant control of the characters and plot.  The result is an outstanding read, so compelling you will hesitate to put the book down.

It’s an easy read in terms of the language used but  the simplicity of idiom belies the complexity and emotional turmoil of     these characters.  Sometimes privileged characters irk me with their sense of entitlement but the Wilmslows are likeable, flawed folk and their story will engross you.  My favourite read so far this year and a very strong contender for my book of the year – highly recommended!

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