Literary Fiction

The Prisoner of Heaven- Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Posted in Books about Books, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on July 16th, 2012 by admin – 2 Comments

The Prisoner of Heaven

Published
21/06/2012

Publisher
Weidenfeld & Nicolson

ISBN
9780297868095

My Rating – 4.5 stars

The Prisoner of Heaven is the long awaited third instalment in the Cemetery of Lost Books series.  Carlos Ruiz Zafon is such a talented storyteller I think he could make the phone book unputdownable! I always approach his new books with a mixture of pleasure and dread – I’m always confident they’re going to be good but I know I’ll feel bereft once the final page is turned.

The story begins in 1957, a year after Daniel and Bea Sempere’s wedding and they now have their hands full with a new addition to the family, baby Julian.  All seems peaceful enough apart from the usual pressures of adjusting to parenthood and the need to bring more customers into Sempere and Son’s Bookshop where Daniel and family now live with his father.  Fermin is still working in the bookshop and will soon be married to Bernarda so what could possibly happen to taint this picture of domestic bliss?  Cue the entrance of the mysterious stranger who readily spends a small fortune on a rare copy of The Count of Monte Cristo only to instruct Daniel to pass it onto Fermin.  Thus, a window is opened on the murky past of Fermin Romero de Torres and we are swept back in the mists of time to 1939 when Barcelona fell to General Franco.   Fermin was amongst those unfortunates imprisoned in Montjuic Castle, considered as escape-proof as the Chateau d’If in The Count of Monte Cristo.  Yes, the past has a nasty habit of catching up on folk and Fermin is no exception.

If you enjoyed The Shadow of The Wind and The Angel’s Game you will experience equal delight in this latest episode.  The usual Zafon ingredients are present – the gothic undertones, the inner heart of Barcelona, the love of literature, the sheer joy of creating a vibrant, atmospheric story peopled with characters who feel like old friends. 

The only thing preventing me awarding  a five star rating  (maybe I’m too greedy or too harsh..) is the fact that, at 288 pages,  this novel is almost half the size of its two sister volumes (The Shadow of The Wind 528 pages, The Angel’s Game 544 pages) and it feels more like part one of a two parter a la Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows movie version.  I guess it prolongs the inevitable despair of finishing the series, which will happen with the next novel but it could frustrate those accustomed to the “meatiness” of the previous tomes.  I’ll just have to bide my time waiting on the final course, grazing on less savoury fare to satisfy my literary munchies in the interim…

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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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Blow on A Dead Man’s Embers – Mari Strachan

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on May 14th, 2012 by admin – 8 Comments

Blow on a Dead Man's Embers

Published
04/08/2011

Publisher
Canongate Books Ltd

My Rating – 4.5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed Mari Strachan’s first novel, The Earth Hums in B Flat, set in rural Wales in the 1950s with its unforgettable 12 and a bit narrator, Gwenni.  Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers is set in an earlier era, it is 1921 and Non (Rhiannon) knows she should be relieved to have her husband Davey safely returned from the Great War where so many perished.  Davey might be physically present but Non worries about his emotional and mental state and she is determined to “fix” him and make him whole again even if it means subterfuge on her part. 

This is such a beautifully written story peopled with vibrant, interesting characters.  I felt like I really got to know Non and her step-children including the quiet, reticent Osian and the wilful, teenage Meg.  I felt immersed in the intensity of the interminable heatwave assailing the small Welsh village and its inhabitants and the fact I was also brought up in a tiny, remote village made the characters resonate with me even more.   Life is hard, the laundry is never-ending but there is little for it but to just get by the best one can.  However it’s not all doom and gloom and comic interludes are provided by Maggie Ellis, the village gossip (my village still has one like her!) and Non’s dour mother-in-law, Catherine Davies.

As well as the stifling ambiance of village life we have the global issues of love and loss, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, autism, the struggle for Irish independence, medical advances, women’s rights, the growth of the Labour party.  Change is coming whether the villagers like it or not. 

Mari Strachan has a knack of engaging the reader almost immediately, drawing you into this other world, immersing you in another era - highly recommended particularly if you enjoy excellent storytelling in a rural setting.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what Mari comes up with next.

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Dead Men – Richard Pierce

Posted in Dual Time Frame, Literary Fiction on March 15th, 2012 by admin – 4 Comments

Dead Men

  • Paperback: 284 pages
  • Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd (15 Mar 2012)
  • Language English
  • My Rating = 4.5 stars
  • As young children, in a tiny rural primary school, we used to listen rapt to the Master as he told us stories of great adventurers both mythical and real.  Forty years on, I still vividly recall the three “heros” who impressed me the most – Abraham Lincoln, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Captain Scott.  The story of Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole, only to be thwarted by Amundsen, has always fascinated me so I was delighted to get the opportunity to read a new novel about Scott especially in this, the centenary  year of his and his colleagues’ death.

    It’s a fairly compact novel, just short of 300 pages but it gives just enough detail to hook the reader from the opening pages where Scott, Wilson and Bowers are discovered in their  tent, having starved to death.   There is a dual time-frame narrative as past events told in the third person involving Scott, Amundsen, his wife amongst others are balanced with a contemporary storyline in the present tense involving a girl obsessed with finding the current location of the explorers’ bodies and some clue as to how they perished only 11 miles away from a base which could have provided them with the food and shelter they needed to survive.  The girl is Birdie Bowers, whose parents named her after one of their heros who was Scott’s companion in both life and death.   She enlists the help of Adam Caird, a would-be suitor, to assist her in her quest to lay some ghosts to rest – her single-mindedness is on a par with that of Scott and his team but there’s a recklessness there too which cranks up the tension and drama.

    My favourite parts of the novel are those set in the Antarctic, both past and present, as the writer really captures the beautiful desolation of the landscape – an environment which could turn on you and kill you without warning.  There’s an eerie, haunting atmosphere, the feeling of being watched by the ghosts of the past, be they malevolent or benign but this never spills over into farce or fantasy. 

    Highly recommended if you are already intrigued by Antarctic adventure and have a respect for nature.   Those who enjoyed Dark Matter by Michelle Paver will equally enjoy the polar parts here.

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    The Lifeboat – Charlotte Rogan

    Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Proofs on March 13th, 2012 by admin – 7 Comments

    The Lifeboat

    Published in the US by

    Little, Brown and Company

    Pub Date: April 03, 2012

    ISBN: 9780316185905

     

    Published in the UK
    29/03/2012

    Publisher
    Virago Press Ltd

    My Rating = 5 Stars!

    The Lifeboat is another choice from Waterstones Eleven, eleven debut novels which they have earmaked for commercial success and critical acclaim in 2012.  This is my fourth read from the selection and yet another one which I thoroughly enjoyed, even on a par with The Snow Child which is high praise indeed.

    Set in 1914, most of the action, or should that read “inaction”, takes place on a lifeboat stranded in the Atlantic Ocean following the sinking of the Empress Alexandra five days after her depature from Liverpool.  Our narrator, newly wed Grace Winter, has written an account of her experiences during three long and exhausting weeks spent aboard the overladen vessel – an account which could once more mean the difference between life and death for her as she now stands trial for murder.  Some of her fellow passengers didn’t survive – some jumped and some may have been pushed but Grace’s involvement is rather unclear and she isn’t the most reliable of narrators.  What is crystal clear though is that the reader will question what he or she would do in a similar situation, how far would we go to survive?

    This is one of those novels you will want all your friends to read so you can discuss it afterwards and share your views.  Underneath the deceptively simple prose lies a multilayered entity which sucks in the reader from the opening pages.  Grace is an interesting character, flawed and human but does her devious streak extend to murder?  Lifeboat No 14 is predominantly female with 30 women, 8 men and 1 child and half of the men end up perishing in the ocean.  The whole power struggle between Hardie (the ship’s crewman) and Mrs Grant mirrors women’s struggle for emancipation and Grace tries her best to steer a middle course between the two.  However when they’re back on terra firma facing a murder accusation, it’s back to normality, to a male dominated society so everything changes.

    Charlotte Rogan wrote the first draft of The Lifeboat 10 years ago and she has been writing whilst raising triplets so she has had little in the way of spare time.  I, for one, am glad that she decided to revisit this novel and set it loose on us readers - grab your lifejackets or at least have plenty of snacks to sustain you as you will be enthralled by this compelling debut.

    My thanks to Net Galley for allowing me to review a digital proof of The Lifeboat.

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    The Last Summer – Judith Kinghorn

    Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on March 12th, 2012 by admin – 3 Comments

    The Last Summer

    Published
    02/02/2012

    Publisher
    Headline Review

    My Rating – 4 stars

    I must confess to having grown a bit weary of dual-time frame novels so it was a delight to pick up The Last Summer knowing that it would focus on one particular period in history, the Great War and beyond.  Brownie points are awarded for the inclusion of a sumptuous country house, Deyning Park – come Spring, of a weekend, you will find my family and I wandering around the grounds of Mount Stewart, a National Trust property, not unlike Deyning with its own lake and beautifully manicured gardens and grounds.   I find myself often wondering what it was like in its heyday with cocktails and croquet on the lawn….anyway, if you read The Last Summer you are instantly transported back to that world without even having to leave the comfort of your own armchair.

    Our story begins in the early summer of 1914 with events narrated by Clarissa, the privileged daughter of the wealthy Granville family.  During a weekend party she meets and falls in love with Tom Cuthbert, the housekeeper’s son, who is “allowed” to socialise with his betters for a short while while on holiday from university.  War interrupts this burgeoning, forbidden romance and ends what Clarissa describes as a “belle epoque”,  turning everything on its head but will attitudes change to such an extent that their partnership will ever be accepted in polite society?

    This is an epic yet surprisingly compact story which draws you in from the opening pages.  It does no harm, I guess, that Downton Abbey is currently enjoying such success with the Great British Public and even further afield as Downton devotees will fall equally in love with Deyning Park and its inhabitants.   The characters are vivid and engaging with just the right amount of flaws to make them appear “almost” one of us.  The author does a splendid job of recreating the accepted mores of post-Edwardian society including the seedier side of drug-taking as well as the intense suffering of those returning from the Front.  Yes, there’s a lot packed into just over 400 pages but it remains an immensely readable, compelling story.

    Highly recommended for all romantics and an extremely fine debut – looking forward to her next offering for my future romantic fix…

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    The Land of Decoration – Grace McCleen

    Posted in Literary Fiction, Proofs on December 29th, 2011 by admin – 6 Comments

    The Land of Decoration

    Published
    01/03/2012

    Publisher
    Chatto & Windus

    I jumped at the chance of reading and reviewing this when it showed up on a recent Amazon Vine newsletter.   It’s a story of many parts encompassing the frequently fraught relationship between a father and his daughter set against a backdrop of manic religious fervour and the stress of  strike action with a pinch of fantasy thrown in for good measure – a heady mix indeed!

    Ten year old Judith McPherson leads a rather isolated life with her widowed father.  Their routine revolves around their strong religious conviction that the End Times are approaching fast but such faith won’t be a match for the bullies at Judith’s school – or will it?  Could  Judith’s model of the Promised Land, the Land of Decoration save her from the brutality of the real world?  Whilst Judith focuses on her own daily struggles, her father is facing his demons too as he defies the union and joins the much hated scabs.  Previously held beliefs and certainties are shaken and torn apart as the McPhersons’ lives hurtle out of control.

    There’s no doubt about it, this is an unusual novel.  At first it seems almost childlike in tone, with our young narrator Judith concoting her imaginary Promised Land out of old sweetie wrappers and cotton wool.   However, as the narrative develops, the atmosphere becomes darker and more sinister as Judith becomes more and more convinced of her miraculous powers.  It does get slightly confusing at times, spoiling the reading experience somewhat but I guess this serves to mirror Judith’s own distress and confusion of fantasy and reality

    With hints of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (the religious extremism bits!),  I found this a challenging, strangely enjoyable read and a promising debut but not quite the miraculous masterpiece the blurb would have you believe.

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    The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

    Posted in Literary Fiction on November 29th, 2011 by admin – 9 Comments

    The Snow Child

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Headline Review (16 Feb 2012)
  • With a nod to Russian folklore, Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel is truly a thing of beauty.  In the 1920s, middle-aged couple, Mabel and Jack, up sticks and move to Alaska, hoping to flee the heartbreaking memories of their still-born child.  How can this vast, bleak landscape possibly fill their empty hearts?  Hope comes with the appearance of Faina, a quasi-feral child who brings equal amounts of joy and sadness into their once barren lives as she flutters in and out of their home. 

    The writing is so evocative and atmospheric, it’s hard to believe that this is a debut novel.  We see the crisp beauty of the wild Alaskan landscape which can be equally cruel and bountiful.   We see real folk trying to carve out a decent living against all the odds, clinging onto the slightest glimmer of hope. 

    Eowyn Ivey has spun a spellbinding, haunting story, skilfully blending fantasy and reality.  Throw another log on the fire (virtual or real!) and be transported to the Alaskan wilderness through this captivating tale.

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    The Roundabout Man – Clare Morrall

    Posted in Literary Fiction on November 29th, 2011 by admin – 4 Comments

    The Roundabout Man

    Published
    02/02/2012

    Publisher
    Sceptre

    I have previously enjoyed other books by Clare Morrall, “The Man who Disappeared”, “The Language of Others” , “Astonishing Splashes of Colour”.  Her characters usually drift around the edges of “normality”, not quite fitting in with the mundanity of daily life.  Quinn Smith, the protagonist of her latest novel, follows this pattern, having elected to opt out of his usual routine and, ironically, achieve tranquillity living in a caravan on a busy roundabout.  Disruption comes with the arrival of a junior reporter for the local rag, trying to sniff out a human interest story and Quinn’s life is literally turned upside down.

     Like the roundabout, the telling of Quinn’s tale takes the reader on a meandering, circuitous route as we gradually learn more about this reclusive character.  The narrative flits between present and past, giving us snippets of Quinn’s rather unusual childhood, son of a prolific children’s author who showed little affection to her own three children or indeed the series of 14 foster children who make brief appearances.  The mother is very reminiscent of Enid Blyton with her predilection for creating stories of a bygone age and a nostalgia for an innocence which perhaps never was.  Ironically, Quinn’s present isolated existence with a narrow circle of acquaintances seems to be his first opportunity to live life to the full, away from the shadows of the past.

     This is a beautifully written story with fully realised and engaging charcters. It’s a slow burner and one which rewards the reader’s time and concentration.   At times I was slightly irritated by the tortuous nature of the narrative but then Quinn certainly didn’t lead a straightforward life!   Fans of Clare Morrall will not be disappointed.

     

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    The Sandalwood Tree – Elle Newmark

    Posted in Dual Time Frame, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on August 21st, 2011 by admin – 7 Comments

    Transworld Book Group

    I read and reviewed this book as part of the Transworld Reading Group Challenge.

    I am very partial to well told dual time-frame stories although I usually find the contemporary narrative weaker so this is a rare gem indeed, a dual time frame narrative with both stories set in the past, both in India, one in 1947 and the other in the mid 19th century.  I’m delighted to report that both stories drew me in from the opening pages and I was sad to finish this very engaging novel.

    In the 1947 setting, Evie and Martin Mitchell, and their little boy, Billy, have moved to India in a bid to embark on a new life, far away from the nightmare memories of WWII which continue to haunt Martin, a former soldier.  Unfortunately, the turmoil of war torn India with all its religious divisions mirrors the turbulent nature of the Mitchells’ relationship.  Evie feels isolated but a diversion arrives when she discovers some old letters hidden within the walls of their bungalow – she is enthralled by the story which emerges of two Victorian women who once occupied their home during the 1840s.

    There’s a lot to satisfy the reader in this carefully woven tale – history, romance, eccentricity, various thrills and spills.  Elle Newmark has an almost painterly approach to her descriptions and you feel plunged into this dusty landscape – it is very easy to visualise the eponymous sandalwood tree in front of the bungalow which has witnessed so much change as India gradually edges its way towards partition.  We also witness first-hand the sights, smells and sounds of an India which has learned to “bend” rather than be “broken” by the streams of invaders and conquerers over the centuries.

    I was very saddened to learn of the recent death of Elle who was still working on the final draft of this captivating novel during a long illness.  However she has left a wonderful legacy in both this and her previous novel The Book of Unholy Mischief.

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