Literary Fiction

The Memory of Lost Senses – Judith Kinghorn

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on April 29th, 2013 by admin – 2 Comments

The Memory of Lost Senses

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Headline Review (23 May 2013)
  • Source: Amazon Vine
  • My Rating: 4 stars

Having enjoyed Judith Kinghorn’s debut novel The Last Summer I eagerly  anticipated her second novel The Memory of Lost Senses published by Headline on 23rd May.  Whilst it is quite different, structurally, from her first novel, it retains that intensity, that evocative heart which characterised her first novel.

It’s a novel about first love, sacrifice, intrigue and in particular the role of memory in shaping and refashioning our lives.  The mysterious Countess at the centre of our story seems to have undergone a variety of metamorphises in the course of her eventful life – the exoticism of an expatriate lifestyle in Paris and Rome seems at odds with her final resting place, a sleepy Hampshire village.  Does anyone know the real woman?  Her closest friend, the novelist Sylvia,  feels snubbed when young Cecily Chadwick is drawn into the Countess’ confidence but  the long hot summer of 1911 takes its toll on the elderly lady’s memory or does she just want to forget the murkier scenes of her past?

The narrative takes a while to get going but do persevere and you are in for a treat.  The author has a wonderful sense of place – from the small-town feel of Rome in the mid 19th century to the intensity of village life in rural Hampshire in 1911 where everyone knows everyone else’s business.  Countess Cora is a fascinating creature with so many anecdotes to tell that it is difficult to tell the difference between truth and fiction.  Sylvia seems so lacklustre in comparison but you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her!  Likewise, Cecily is not quite so demure as she first appears and her ambitions stretch way beyond the village boundaries. Yes, there are some male characters but the female of the species tends to dominate…

After a slightly shaky start, I was soon engrossed in the lives of these Edwardian ladies, swept along by the ebb and flow of Cora’s memories.  A very thoughtful, evocative story which would make a marvellous film as would its predecessor.

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The Drowning of Arthur Braxton – Caroline Smailes

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction, Proofs on April 19th, 2013 by admin – 2 Comments

Cover Matt-quote

Published
11/04/2013

Publisher
The Friday Project Limited

ISBN
9780007479092

Source
Publisher

My Rating
5 stars

The only predictable thing about Caroline Smailes’ writing is that it’s unpredictable.  She has such a wonderful wealth of imagination and this is evidenced by the diversity of her novels.  I have already read and enjoyed Black Boxes and Like Bees to Honey (reviewed here ) but I think Arthur Braxton might be the one which brings her to a much wider audience.

Why?  Well, the story of Arthur B can be read on so many different levels.  On the surface it’s an urban fairytale – young teenager, alienated by his peers, falls for a mythical creature only he doesn’t see any problem in their living happily after after.  Dive a little deeper…and you’ll see all the complexities of human relationships, the tragedy of everyday life alongside the joy of feeling loved and wanted.  A little deeper and you appreciate the splashes of Greek mythology which infuse this boy meets girl story – the stories of Daphne, Medea, Castor and Pollux amongst others.

Even though the characters seem very out of the ordinary and not of this world, they come across as real-life, flesh and blood people and the reader is invested in their fate.  Young Laurel was the character who captivated me the most – forever child-like, spelling out words with her Smartie lids, deserving of a much brighter future.  Then there are the ageless twins, Kester and Pollock, heckling from the viewing gallery of the pool, reminding me a lot of those curmudgeonly old hecklers from the Muppet Show, Statler and Waldorf….I told you it was different from your usual comfort read!

Whereas some of Caroline Smailes’ other novels have “challenged” readers with their unconventional formats, here she retains the variety of text without overwhelming the reader and it all seems more controlled and lets you settle into the novel with less distractions.  It’s one of  those books you will want to stay up into the wee small hours reading and yet it will seem time as passed as quickly as an episode of Waterloo Road….read the book and you’ll understand.

I have a strong feeling this novel will bring Caroline Smailes much success and mark her out as one of our most promising writers…ahem, Granta…

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And The Mountains Echoed – Khaled Hosseini

Posted in Literary Fiction, Proofs on April 11th, 2013 by admin – 6 Comments

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (21 May 2013)
  • Source : Amazon Vine
  • My Rating : 4.5 stars

It’s been six years since the publication of Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling second novel A Thousand Splendid Suns and his fans have been eagerly awaiting his latest novel.   Hosseini has said that it focuses more on the relationship between siblings rather than tales of fatherhood and motherhood.  This is true but it also differs from his previous novels in other ways.

This is an epic multi-generational family saga starting in the 1950s with a variety of settings – from Afghanistan to France, from Greece to the United States.  Siblings Pari and Abdullah are devoted to each other but their paths take very  different directions early on in their lives.  Hosseini uses his skill as a master storyteller to weave a complicated pattern of family stories which take off in different directions.  The narrative is quite complex, flitting between eras, characters and locations but Hosseini is always firmly in control, pulling the strings and easing the reader’s journey.

I found the descriptions of siblings Abdullah and Pari’s childhood the most evocative and moving.  Also, the story of their Uncle Nabi in Kabul and his dedication to his employer left a big impression on me.  Less effective for me were the Greek interlude and the story of the Afghan Warlord Baba Jan – yes, they were linked to the main story but I found them less engrossing and found myself mistaking Baba Jan for a reincarnation of an earlier character – mea culpa!

The final section of the novel, set in the US, was the piece de resistance for me.  I won’t give away any spoilers but, suffice to say, Hosseini expertly captures the effects of age with quiet, understated but supremely powerful writing – a quiet domestic scene between siblings can be as, if not more, effective than all the battle scenes one can conjure.

And The Mountains Echoed lacks the gut-wrenching impact of Hosseini’s previous novels but it remains a compelling read.  I have no doubt it will be a bestseller.  Now, how long do we have to wait for the next volume??  Not that we’re impatient…

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Havisham – Ronald Frame

Posted in Literary Fiction on March 11th, 2013 by admin – 2 Comments

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber (1 Nov 2012)
  • Source – Library
  • My Rating - 4 stars

Like many other readers I have been fascinated with the character of Catherine Havisham since I first encountered her in Great Expectations at the tender age of 13.  Jilted on her wedding day and frozen in time and bitterness in Satis House, she endeavours to wreak vengeance on treacherous, unreliable men via her ward, the irresistible Estella.  Ronald Frame uncovers the human side of Miss Havisham, revealing an ambitious and vivacious young woman not yet tainted by the trauma of broken relationships.

We see a young girl, an only child doted upon by her widowed father who lavishes her with gifts  “Children, handpicked” are brought to play at Satis House but Catherine remains an outsider, the money coming from the Havisham Brewery marking her as different from the local villagers but still not quite good enough for noble families.  Her one friend is Sally, the daughter of a labourer, but she is not a suitable companion for an heiress so Catherine is shipped off to the Chadwycks, a more socially appropriate setting for someone of her social stature.  However the overriding impression is that Catherine is her own woman, a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, stuck in a limbo between new and old money.  She’s never presented as a paragon of virtue but you feel she’s doomed to be an outsider, living on the periphery of others’ happiness.

In this reimagining of Miss Havisham, Frame forges his own style and gives a realistic background  to a very troubled lady.  It’s a bit of a slow burner but give it time to breathe life into a ghostly figure and you will be rewarded with the compelling story of a much maligned and perhaps misunderstood character.  A must for fans of Great Expectations.

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The Palace of Curiosities – Rosie Garland

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

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (28 Mar 2013)
  • Source: Amazon Vine
  • My Rating – 4 stars

This is a promising debut novel which will appeal to fans of quirky fiction peppered with a dash of magical realism. Alternate chapters tell the stories of Abel, the Flayed Man and Eve, the Lion Faced Girl whose lives intertwine when they both perform in Josiah Arroner’s Palace of Curiosities. Estranged from “normal” society, they share a basic human need for acceptance and love.

Their story is told in the present tense, similar to The Night Circus and like Erin Morgenstern’s debut, this will probably be a “marmite” read. There are elements of the grotesque as you might expect in a tale about those characters considered freaks by the rest of society – probably not to be recommended for those of a sensitive nature!

I really enjoyed this whimsical tale of unconventional characters set against the backdrop of a murky Victorian London. Looking forward to reading more from this author.

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The Last Runaway – Tracy Chevalier

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Proofs on March 1st, 2013 by admin – 5 Comments

The Last Runaway

Published
14/03/2013

Publisher
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

Source
New Books Magazine

My Rating - 4.5 stars

Tracy Chevalier is one of  my favourite authors and she has a way of making history come alive in her novels which have subjects as diverse as Vermeer and fossils.  In The Last Runaway she switches her focus to America, in particular 1850s Ohio where the young English Quaker, Honor Bright starts a new life very different to her quiet upbringing in Dorset, England.

It is a time of great upheaval in America as the country inches towards civil war with a variety of runaways, both black slaves and white settlers, trying to forge a better life for themselves.  Honor finds life hard as a single woman unaccustomed to the American way but she is aided by the flamboyant Belle Mills, a milliner, who takes Honor under her wing.  Belle’s brother, Donovan, sets his sights on Honor but his reputation as a dissolute slave hunter makes him an unlikely suitor.

Reminiscent of Gone with the Wind, this is a novel with strong female characters who use their wits to survive difficult times.  Those travelling the Underground Railway are not the only runaways in this well-researched and eloquently written novel.

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Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

Posted in Literary Fiction on February 28th, 2013 by admin – Be the first to comment

Instructions for a Heatwave

Paperback, 352 pages

Published February 28th 2013 by Headline Book Publishing

Source – my own treasured copy which was keenly anticipated!

My Rating – 5 stars

For an avid reader nothing quite compares with that thrill you get when you open the pages of a favourite writer’s latest novel.  Even seeing glowing advance reviews does nothing to temper that underlying apprehension that this one might not tick all the boxes but you would think I’d know by now, 6 novels in, that I can rely on Maggie O’Farrell.

Instructions for a Heatwave is mostly set in London in 1976.  The city is in the midst of a searing heatwave and “strange weather brings out strange behaviour”.  In the case of the Riordan family, the rising temperatures mirror rising tensions. Secrets which have lain dormant for many years are about to erupt.  The catalyst is the sudden, unexplained disappearance of Robert (Ronan) Riordan, retired, respectable, mild-mannered former assistant bank manager.  His wife Gretta wavers between playing the martyr and sticking her head in the sand but her now-adult children know something is up.  Little by little the skeletons emerge from the closet threatening to destabilise this already fragile family.

O’Farrell’s writing is searingly honest, acutely insightful and always tempered with a wry sense of humour.  Gretta is a joy to read – she has the obstinacy of the Irish Catholic Mammy, determined to protect her children from secular England and wallowing in self-pity when they fall off the rails.  Her eldest, Michael Francis, has woes of his own with marital problems which he might have exacerbated.  Middle child, Monica, is out in the sticks, trying but failing to be the doting step-mother,

“Peter came with a ready-made family, with spare children, she’d hoped she might slot into their lives almost as if they were her own”.

Aoife, the youngest, has somehow managed to conceal her dyslexia from her nearest and dearest but struggles to live life to the full with this secret burden.  Every family has its secrets but the Riordans have been particularly adept at keeping them hidden and letting things fester.

This is an extremely readable, insightful novel and O’Farrell once more shows her expertise at stripping family dynamics bare, exposing the elephant in the room.  The Riordans are ordinary folk but their story is fascinating and it will engage readers from the opening pages.  Most certainly a 5 star read.

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The Light Between Oceans – M.L. Stedman

Posted in Australian fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on February 20th, 2013 by admin – Be the first to comment

Front Cover

Transworld Publ. Limited UK, 11 Apr 2013 – Fiction – 464 pages
Source – Publisher
My Rating – 4.5 stars

The moors in Wuthering Heights, Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native, both settings which have drawn me in and remained with me long after turning the final page.  Now I have a new setting to add to the favourites list – the island of Janus Rock, set in the wild, remote region where the Great Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean meet off the coast of Western Australia.   Here on Janus Rock, in the aftermath of World War I, ex-serviceman Tom tends the lighthouse and he and his wife Izzy hope to raise a family here.   Their plans are thwarted until one day, a foundling is washed up on the island and Izzy’s desire for a child of her own overrides any sense of moral obligation to investigate the child’s origins.

I loved how the author describes the love story of Tom and Izzy in a completely non-judgemental way, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether to make any moral judgements.  I was drawn into the lives of the main characters, particularly Tom who still feels the emotional fall-out of his time in the army.

You know in your heart that things will not turn out well for Tom and Izzy.  Who could possibly live with such a heavy secret?  You know there can’t be an idyllically happy ending but you find yourself rooting for these characters knowing that they mean well.

This is a compelling, beautifully written story peopled with real, flawed characters.  It’s hard to believe it’s a debut novel.

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In the Shadow of the Banyan

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on October 25th, 2012 by admin – 2 Comments

In the Shadow of the Banyan

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK (13 Sep 2012)
  • My Rating – 4 stars
  • Source - Amazon Vine

My knowledge of Cambodian history and the role of the Khmer Rouge is rather limited, based on viewing the excellent but harrowing film, The Killing Fields when I was 20. I relish the opportunity to discover the history and culture of other countries through fiction and In the Shadow of the Banyan has the added kudos of having an author who experienced these desperate times first-hand.

The author allows us to view the horrors of civil war up close but filters the more gruesome aspects by using a very young narrator, the seven year old Raami who has been swept from a life of privilege in an aristocratic family to the grass roots of a peasant existence. The language is so elegant and beautiful, very lyrical at times, allowing the reader to see the beauty and grace of the humans at the centre of this dreadful war. Ironically it is the exquisite nature of the prose which causes this to be a good but not great read for me as I just can’t get past the fact that the narrator is only 7 years old yet capable of such eloquence. Maybe it’s because I have young children myself but it seems incongruous for such a young child to express herself in such a consistently lyrical manner.

Having said that, it is an extremely moving read and a very good introduction to the troubled history of a country which, in my opinion, has been rather overlooked by the world of literature.

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The Secret Life of William Shakespeare – Jude Morgan

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on July 31st, 2012 by admin – 2 Comments

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare

Published
12/04/2012

Publisher
Headline Review

Source – Amazon Vine

My Rating – 3 stars

I loved A Taste of Sorrow, Jude Morgan’s wonderful novel about the Brontes and hoped to be similarly thrilled by this window onto the world of William Shakespeare.  Unfortunately the view is rather blurred, to the point of opacity and I was left feeling slightly bewildered and convinced I must have missed something which was so obvious to other readers….so I waited a month before reviewing, thinking that I’d soon experience some sort of epiphany, a dawn of understanding but nope…it didn’t arrive.

If Shakespeare remains elusive and reclusive, we at least have some interesting snippets via Morgan’s portrayal of Kit Marlowe and Ben Jonson.  Anne Hathaway captured my attention also, a feisty lady whose stoicism allows her to survive extended time with the in-laws, raise a family, all with her husband living away from home.  Unfortunately these characters weren’t enough to hold my interest in a novel whose central character remains not only enigmatic (enigmas can be interesting!) but extremely dull and dispassionate.

Overall, a disappointing read for me.  I should really stick with the Brontes as they rarely disappoint me!

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