Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

An amazing first novel from Andrew Davidson, his descriptive writing is incredibly realistic and the opening scenes of the novel, where the protagonist survives (if you can call it survival) a car crash are particularly gruesome.
Did I enjoy this novel, well to be perfectly honest even after reading all 500 pages I am still not really sure. I know this does not make sense but novels with an allegorical tale are rarely if ever a genre I read from choice. So why did I read it, one it was a recommendation and secondly I found it strangely fascinating!

The unnamed protagonist suffers the most horrendous burns apparently not for the first time in his existence as this story crosses the boundaries of time. The love of his ‘lives’ Marianne Engel appears at his bedside to help him survive his modern day burns ordeal.  The stories of their previous love affairs are narrated to him by Marianne and interspersed amongst the present day events and their growing relationship.
In this life the protagonist is or rather was before his accident not a very pleasant young man, a pornographer and drug addict. Now he looks like a monster as well as behaving like one, so he plans to commit suicide as soon as he is released from hospital. That is until Marianne arrives at his hospital bedside to befriend him, a strange and possibly psychotic woman, a sculptress who claims they were lovers in previous lives. Our narrator although is intrigued by her tales of their previous love affairs in lives in 14C Germany, Medieval Japan, Viking  Iceland, Italy and England.

Already an international literary sensation, The Gargoyle is being called a Dante’s Inferno for modern times, which will have you believing in the impossible. Maybe, maybe not! Read it for yourself and see what you think.
I gave this 8* at Bookcrossing not necessarily because I liked it that much but because I think it is an extremely well written novel.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hidden Talents by Erica James

I have been reading the novels written by Erica James since her first one ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’ was published in 1996. With the exception of ‘Gardens of Delight’ which is still sitting on my bookshelf, plus ‘Love and Devotion’ which I still have not obtained a copy of, I have now read all her novels. I regard her work as a thoroughly good read where you can immerse yourself in the story, not great literature but so much better than some of the novels regarded as ‘chick lit’ or ‘romantic women’s fiction’.
I continue to enjoy her work when I want to sit back relax and read a reasonably realistic romance with once again believable characters. We appear to share a love of Italy as Italian locations often appear in her novels, this time Venice. 

The protagonists in this novel all decide to cope with changes in their lives by joining a writing group, giving them an opportunity to meet new people with a shared interest. ‘Hidden Talents’ is the name given to the writer’s group and the members were of varied ages and backgrounds, with to start with not much in common apart from a shared passion in writing.
Dulcie Ballantyne is the organiser and leader of the group a sixty three year old who has been a widow for the last twenty two years and has learnt to cope with life in an optimistic manner whatever life throws at her. However as the novel opens her married lover is in hospital as the result of a heart attack and there is nothing she can do.
The first member of the writing group that we meet is Jaz Rafferty a seventeen year old with an intensive desire to write. This is something she keeps secret from her large and exuberant family, of which she is the middle child of five, as she feels they will just laugh at her.
We are next introduced to Beth King a widow from the young age of thirty-two, eleven years ago and soon to become an ‘empty-nester’ when her son Nathan goes to university.  She knows that she needs to expand her horizons so has joined Dulcie’s writing group. Since her husband died she has found comfort in writing down her thoughts.
Next we are introduced to Jack Solomon although he does not immediately become a member of the group in the first chapter devoted to him. Jack a local estate agent is struggling to make a new life for himself after the shock of having his wife leave him for his best friend.
The final person to make a commitment to joining the group is Victor Blackmore a pompous sounding prat who was already working on a novel and looking for expert appraisal.

The novel is not so much about the group and its meetings but about the lives of members of the group and how their friendship grows as they support each other through changes going on in their lives.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Property by Valerie Martin

Shocking and disturbing, yet compulsive reading about the master slave relationship that took place in America’s Deep South in the early nineteenth century.
At the centre of the story is the narrator Manon Gaudet a New Orleans girl who is married to the owner of a Louisiana sugar plantation. When he was courting her she thought he was mysterious and his aloofness due to his sensitivity. However she was soon to discover that she was married to a hideous monster, we never learn the Christian name of this racist bigot. The tension was heightened by the fact that they had no children of their own but her husband had a mad son, Walter whose mother was their slave girl Sarah and who lives as a member of the household. It is no wonder that Manon hates Sarah but at least she tries to escape slavery. Whereas all Manon seems to do is blame Sarah for all her problems, without trying to change things. Until this household drama extends into a bloody uprising of slave unrest causing Manon to gain her independence but only after a series of terrifying episodes.
I did not really warm to any of the main characters although I have extreme sympathy with them for the terrible way that the slaves were treated. Manon even annoyed me in a way as I felt she did not help her own misery by treating her slaves the way she did.
Slavery was diabolical and this story certainly makes that clear but it also reminds us that it was not just the slaves that were seen as ‘ Property’ but also the wives in those times!

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer only discovered that the Germans occupied Guernsey during WWII while researching for another book in England. On a whim during this trip she made a visit to Guernsey and was fascinated by her brief glimpse and gave her the impetus to write this novel albeit it many years later. Sadly ill health meant she was never able to finish the book , but her niece Annie Barrows herself an author stepped in and finished the project, for which Mary Ann gives special thanks in her acknowledgements.
In her own words her intentions in writing this story were “If nothing else, I hope these characters and their story shed some light on the sufferings and strength of the people of the Channel Islands during the German Occupation. I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art-be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music-enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised”.

I think she has succeeded with her intentions and shown us what an impact the occupation had on the inhabitants of the Channel Islands. I was especially interested as I have a brother in law who was born in Guernsey just a few years after the end of WWII.

The novel is written in the form of letters from and to the protagonist Juliet Ashton, starting with her publisher and her best friend then by sheer chance a Guernsey islander, Dawsey Adams. They exchange letters and through a love of reading forge a friendship. Juliet is researching a subject for her next publication at this time and it is through Dawsey and other islanders he puts her in touch with that her ideas start to form. Eventually very much against the wishes of her beau Markham V. Reynolds she heads off to visit the island and her new found friends.

The society of the title came into being as a literary society due to a group of neighbours being caught out after curfew by the occupying German soldiers during WWII. They had been enjoying a forbidden roast pig together and it was only quick thinking by one of the group that saved them from being arrested. On the spot she invented the literary society and invited the soldiers to drop in any time to discuss literature! The Potato Peel Pie part came about due to one of the group saying that if he had now had to attend society meetings regularly there needed to be refreshments provided. With a scant shortage of ingredients available Potato Peel Pie was invented, became a favourite and was added to the society’s name.

Recommended, but do not forget it is fiction!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach

This novel was just what I needed a good laugh, not because I was miserable but the last novel I finished although excellent had very serious undertones. I needed a complete change of pace which this certainly supplied.

Ravi Kapoor a doctor in London is fed up with his somewhat repulsive and difficult father-in-law whom is currently living with him and his wife Pauline. He is living with them as he keeps getting thrown out of old peoples homes! No one wants him and Ravi wishes he was somewhere far away and therefore not his and his wife’s problem. When his cousin Sonny an entrepreneurial business man from Bangalore, India is in London on business he and Ravi come up with what they see as a brilliant plan. They set up a retirement home currently a run down guest house into a home for the more discerning customer. Of course Norman is the first customer to move in when the plans reach realisation and he is joined by the most wonderful cast of characters, other retirees, their grown up children, the staff of both ‘Dunroamin’ and a local call centre where some of the residents make friends with young Indians trying to pretend they live in England! We are gradually told the tales and secrets of the characters in classic Debroah Moggach style; somehow both funny and touching at the same time, the highs and lows of not just retiring to a residential home but one that is abroad.

In fact most of these elderly residents seem to get a new lease of life by making this bold move and one even reads that one of them considers seventy to be the new forty. Now that is something to look forward too!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

The Siege of Sarajevo is a very real event in modern history, lasting for just under four years, April 1992 to the end of February 1996. Sarajevo was at that time a city of some half a million people and it is estimated that around ten thousand were died due to the siege and a further fifty-six thousand wounded. Ten thousand homes were completely destroyed and an incredible hundred thousand suffered damage.
Steven Galloway has based this very moving and harrowing novel on an event that actually happened during the siege when mortar shells struck people queuing to buy bread. Many people were injured and twenty two people died. A well known local cellist played the same piece of music at the site of this atrocity for twenty two consecutive days following the event in remembrance of those that died.
Although the cellist was the inspiration for the novel none of the protagonists’ characters are based on real people but all from the author’s imagination.
The siege is made horribly realistic for the reader by the protagonists as they live through The Siege of Sarajevo, firstly the Cellist, then a young female counter sniper chosen to protect him who hides her real identity behind a pseudonym Arrow. Kenan, looking old but not yet forty, struggles to keep his wife and three young children supplied with water by traversing the dangerous city streets for supplies every few days. Then there is Dragan who has worked at the city bakery for nearly forty years and were it not for the war would probably be contemplating retirement. Having managed to get his wife and son out of the country before the war started, he now lives unhappily with a sister and her family the bread he provides making him indispensable.

I now feel I have thanks to this powerful novel a better understanding of exactly what the inhabitants of Sarajevo had to endure during this conflict.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

It's the Little Things by Erica James

I have enjoyed reading the novels written by Erica James since her first one ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’ was published in 1996. With the exception of a couple (Gardens of Delight and Hidden Talents) that are still sitting on my bookshelf, plus Love and Devotion which I still have not obtained a copy of, I have now read all her novels. I regard her work as a thoroughly good read where you can immerse yourself in the story, not great literature but so much better than some of the novels regarded as ‘chick lit’ or ‘romantic women’s fiction’.

It was interesting to read at the end of the novel Erica James notes as to why she had written this novel. Her starting point was the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 an event she herself witnessed and survived. She always felt that one day she would use this experience in one of her novels, not writing about the actual event but a story of how lives could be changed as the result of surviving such an ordeal.

I think she has succeeded and written a very readable novel around this theme.
In her words “We humans have an incredible ability for surviving the seemingly insurmountable, but it’s always the little things – the daily irritations of every day life – that prove more challenging”
It is three years since four friends, Dan and Sally Oliver, Chloe Hennessey and her boyfriend Paul survived the Boxing Day Tsunami. We catch up with the lives they are now all living in the countryside not far from Manchester, Sally a successful Lawyer in Manchester, Dan a stay at home father and Chloe a local GP. Dan and Sally appear to have a happy marriage and a child, two major things Chloe lacks and desires in her life having broken up with her boyfriend Paul. Chloe thinks she may have found the ideal man when she meets Seth Hawthorne, but it is complicated!
As the story line is a realistic one it is easy to become immersed in the lives of the protagonists and find oneself feeling emotions regarding their behaviour. For example Sally Oliver is a most irritating and thoroughly unpleasant young woman, why did her husband Dan stupidly put up with her behaviour for so long. Even the other main protagonists Chloe Hennessey and Seth Hawthorne I felt I wanted to shake more than once!
I suspect that these were just the sort of reactions to these characters that Erica James wanted us to have.
Anyway in my opinion she has produced yet another delightful realistic novel of romance, duplicity and misconceptions in the 21st century.