Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Nemesis by Philip Roth

It's the sweltering summer of 1944, and Newark is in the grip of a terrifying epidemic, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming paralysis, life-long disability, even death.

Decent, athletic, twenty-three year old playground director Bucky Cantor is devoted to his charges and ashamed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his contemporaries. As polio begins to ravage Bucky's playground - child by helpless child - Roth leads us through every emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering and the pain.

This is an exceptionally good book and Roth's invention of Bucky Cantor is one of the best characters I have had the pleasure of reading.

For decades I have claimed that my favourite book is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as the characters of Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout left a lasting impression on me since I first read it at school when I was just thirteen. I have also re-read it on numerous occasions during the intervening decades. However, this book comes very close to knocking it off the pedestal from which I have held it for so long.

This is a very powerful book and contrasts the war raging across Europe to that of a localised war taking place in Newark as a polio epidemic sweeps through, claiming many lives in the process. The pace of the book is fairly slow but echoes the events taking place within the plot perfectly and at no point did I want things to hurry along.

Atmospherically, Roth creates a sense of being there. I could feel the heat being experienced that summer as I read this book through the tangible descriptions the author creates. He is succinct with his words and thus packs his writing with meaningful narrative.

Written with a gritty realism whilst at the same time demonstrating sensitivity, Roth has written an intelligent and powerful novel which will remain with me for a very long time.

ISBN:  978-0099542261

Publisher:  Vintage

About the Author:

Philip Milton Roth is an American novelist. He gained early literary fame with the 1959 collection Goodbye, Columbus (winner of 1960's National Book Award), cemented it with his 1969 bestseller Portnoy's Complaint, and has continued to write critically-acclaimed works, many of which feature his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. The Zuckerman novels began with The Ghost Writer in 1979, and include American Pastoral (1997) (winner of the Pulitzer Prize). In May 2011, he won the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The Saint Zita Society by Ruth Rendell

When millionaire banker, Preston Still, kills his wife's lover by pushing him down the stairs, he looks to the family au-pair to help him dispose of the body.

But the au pair belongs to the Saint Zita Society, a self-formed group of drivers, nannies and gardeners, who are servants to the rich - and whose intentions are not entirely benign.

Accident, murder, illicit affairs, and a young man recently released from a hospital for the criminally insane come together with devastating consequences in Ruth Rendell's gripping crime novel.

When I was in my twenties I devoured everything that Ruth Rendell had to offer and, for no reason whatsoever, I haven't read any of her books in the intervening period. So, reading this novel was like being reacquainted with an old friend with whom I was able to just pick up from where we last left off.

There are a lot of characters in this book which would have been hard to keep track of if it had not been for the useful street map with a key to who lived in which house at the beginning of the book and which I referred to on several occasions whilst reading the first few chapters. As my reading progressed through this book and the characters were fleshed out this became less necessary.

It is the coming together of this contrasting cast of characters that Ms Rendell always did so well. In this book she brings together characters from different classes and cultures and allows the reader to observe the way in which they interact with one another as the plot line develops. I think what this book does so well is to allow the reader to be the judge of whether the various characters dealt with the consequences of their actions appropriately.

I found this book thought provoking. Ms Rendell never sugar coats her characters, and therefore, they are not always terribly likeable. However, the plot is played out so intricately around the characters that they are very easy to engage with.

Reading this book has reawakened my admiration for this author and I am looking forward to reading and re-reading more of her work. Here, she wrote an excellent psychological thriller that will keep you turning the pages. Her death last year remains a great loss to the crime fiction genre.

ISBN:  978-0099571032

Publisher:  Arrow

About the Author:

Ruth Rendell was an exceptional crime writer, and will be remembered as a legend in her own lifetime. Her groundbreaking debut novel, From Doon With Death, was first published in 1964 and introduced the reader to her enduring and popular detective, Inspector Reginald Wexford, who went on to feature in twenty-four of her subsequent novels.

With worldwide sales of approximately 20 million copies, Rendell was a regular Sunday Times bestseller. Her sixty bestselling novels include police procedurals, some of which have been successfully adapted for TV, stand-alone psychological mysteries, and a third strand of crime novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. Very much abreast of her times, the Wexford books in particular often engaged with social or political issues close to her heart.

Rendell won numerous awards, including the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for 1976’s best crime novel with A Demon in My View, a Gold Dagger award for Live Flesh in 1986, and the Sunday Times Literary Award in 1990. In 2013 she was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in crime writing. In 1996 she was awarded the CBE and in 1997 became a Life Peer.

Ruth Rendell died in May 2015. Her final novel, Dark Corners, was published in October 2015.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

This Secret We're Keeping by Rebecca Done

A pupil and a teacher. Is it ever right to break the rules?

Jessica Hart has never forgotten Matthew Landley. After all, he was her first love when she was fifteen years old. But he was also her school maths teacher, and their forbidden affair ended in scandal with his arrest and imprisonment.

Now, seventeen years later, Matthew returns to Norfolk, with a new identity, a long-term girlfriend and a young daughter, who know nothing of what happened before. Yet when he runs into Jessica, neither of them can ignore the emotional ties that bind them together. With so many secrets to keep hidden, how long can Jessica and Matthew avoid the dark mistakes of their past imploding in the present?

From debut author Rebecca Done, This Secret We're Keeping is a powerful and provocative novel about the ties which can keep us together - or tear us apart.

I liked this book very much in that it made me question myself on several occasions and I think it is a skilled fiction author that can make me, as a reader, deliberate over my feelings several days after I have finished the book. I suppose what I mean by this is that I was very engaged by the story of Jess and Matthew. I was very caught up in their relationship and hoping they would find a way. However, I had to continually keep reminding myself of the illegality and non appropriateness of their relationship and therefore, I should not be rooting for them. It is a very thought provoking read and one that I would recommend you read for yourself.

It was very well written and I enjoyed the dual narration. We hear Matthew's version of how their relationship developed in 1993 when he was still her teacher. Then we also have Jess' contemporary point of view. It flows seamlessly between the two periods and each enhanced the alternate narrative.

For a debut novelist this is a marvelous accomplishment. Ms Done has taken a taboo topic and built a really interesting story around it. I am looking forward to future work by this author.

ISBN:  9781405923941

Publisher :  Michael Joseph

About the Author:

Rebecca Done lives in Norwich. After studying Creative Writing at the Norwich School of Art & Design, she worked for several years as a magazine editor. Currently a copywriter, Rebecca is also a keen runner, fair-weather surfer and one-time marathon canoeist. This Secret We're Keeping is her first novel.

Her new novel, My Husband the Stranger, is due to be published in April 2017.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths

In the next Ruth Galloway mystery, a vision of the Virgin Mary foreshadows a string of cold-blooded murders, revealing a dark current of religious fanaticism in an old medieval town.

Known as England’s Nazareth, the medieval town of Little Walsingham is famous for religious apparitions. So when Ruth Galloway’s druid friend, Cathbad, sees a woman in a white dress and a dark blue cloak standing alone in the local cemetery one night, he takes her as a vision of the Virgin Mary. But then a woman wrapped in blue cloth is found dead the next day, and Ruth’s old friend Hilary, an Anglican priest, receives a series of hateful, threatening letters. Could these crimes be connected? When one of Hilary’s fellow female priests is murdered just before Little Walsingham’s annual Good Friday Passion Play, Ruth, Cathbad, and DCI Harry Nelson must team up to find the killer before he strikes again.

Elly Griffiths is fast becoming one of my favourite writers and I am loving her Ruth Galloway series. This is number eight in the series and I have hitherto read the previous seven. For those of you that have not already become acquainted with the series I thought I would let you know which order they come in (including a charming Christmas novella) along with links to those books that I have previously reviewed:

1.    The Crossing Places
2.    The Janus Stone
3.    The House at Sea's End
4.    A Room Full of Bones
4.5  Ruth's First Christmas Tree
5.    A Dying Fall
6.    The Outcast Dead
7.    The Ghost Fields
8.    The Woman in Blue
9.    The Chalk Pit

Personally, I like to read a series in order but these would standalone. However, the chronology of the devolpment of the relationships between the characters really comes to life when they are read it order.

What else can I say other than that I am thrilled that there is one more book in this series, The Chalk Pit, that I am still to read and I am fervently hoping that Ms Griffiths has many more of these books up her sleeve.

I highly recommend you giving this series a read if you enjoy a good thriller or have an interest in archaeology.

ISBN: 978-1848663371

Publisher: Quercus

About the author:

Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway novels take for their inspiration Elly's husband, who gave up a city job to train as an archaeologist, and her aunt who lives on the Norfolk coast and who filled her niece's head with the myths and legends of that area.

She has two children and lives near Brighton.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is the long-awaited new novel - a book that sold more than a million copies the first week it went on sale in Japan - from the award-winning, internationally best-selling author Haruki Murakami.

Here he gives us the remarkable story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man haunted by a great loss; of dreams and nightmares that have unintended consequences for the world around us; and of a journey into the past that is necessary to mend the present. It is a story of love, friendship, and heartbreak for the ages.

I find Murakami to be an intriguing author. He first came to my intention when I read the first volume of his trilogy, 1Q84, and this was very quickly followed with volume two and three. I had never read anything quite like it before and if you haven't read it then I highly recommend it.

I found this story equally fascinating. I love the way he uses language to create an aura around his characters. The language has a formality about it. The author clearly chooses his words very carefully and uses them to full effect. The novel has been translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel who seems to have done an excellent job.

Tsukuru is a reserved and detached figure stemming from the deliberate isolation inflicted upon him when his group of very close friends unexpectedly isolate him from the group. No explanation is given him and reading his story I could feel his pain and loneliness.

I am fast becoming a fan of this very skilled and intelligent author and I am very keen to sample more of his excellent writing. I highly recommend this book as it makes for an interesting and impressive read.

ISBN:  978-0099590378

Publisher: Vintage

About the Author:

Since childhood, Murakami has been heavily influenced by Western culture, particularly Western music and literature. He grew up reading a range of works by American writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, and he is often distinguished from other Japanese writers by his Western influences.

Murakami studied drama at Waseda University in Tokyo, where he met his wife, Yoko. His first job was at a record store, which is where one of his main characters, Toru Watanabe in Norwegian Wood, works. Shortly before finishing his studies, Murakami opened the coffeehouse 'Peter Cat' which was a jazz bar in the evening in Kokubunji, Tokyo with his wife.

Many of his novels have themes and titles that invoke classical music, such as the three books making up The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleThe Thieving Magpie (after Rossini's opera),Bird as Prophet (after a piano piece by Robert Schumann usually known in English as The Prophet Bird), and The Bird-Catcher (a character in Mozart's opera The Magic Flute). Some of his novels take their titles from songs: Dance, Dance, Dance (after The Dells' song, although it is widely thought it was titled after the Beach Boys tune), Norwegian Wood(after The Beatles' song) and South of the Border, West of the Sun (the first part being the title of a song by Nat King Cole).

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

After the Last Dance by Sarra Manning

Two women. Two love affairs. One unforgettable story. 

Kings Cross station, 1943. Rose arrives in London hoping to swap the drudgery of wartime for romance, glamour and jiving with GIs at Rainbow Corner, the famous dance hall in Piccadilly Circus. As the bombs fall, Rose loses her heart to a pilot but will lose so much more before the war has done its worst. 

Las Vegas, present day. A beautiful woman in a wedding dress walks into a seedy bar and asks the first man she sees to marry her. When Leo slips the ring onto Jane's finger, he has no idea that his new wife will stop at nothing to get what she wants. So when Jane meets Rose, now a formidable older lady, there's no love lost between them. But with time running out, can Rose and Jane come together to make peace with the tragic secrets that have always haunted their lives? After the Last Dance is an extraordinary story of two women, separated by time but connected by fate, that will make you believe in the redemptive power of unexpected love.

This is the first of Sarra Manning's novels that I have read and it was very enjoyable.

Written with a dual narrative it follows the present day story of Jane, alongside the wartime escapades of Rose, with a crossover as the book progresses. Both characters were excellently drawn and I was engaged with both narratives equally.

There are many novels out there set during World War Two but this had a slightly different perspective as through the character of Rose we see some of the experiences of the GI's in wartime London. The descriptions of Rainbow Corner are very evocative and I was drawn into the atmosphere the author created.

Jane's narrative is equally engaging. She is certainly not the innocent that Rose is portrayed as but her character is equally compelling. Whereas Rose was easy to like from the beginning, the character of Jane was not instantly likable but as the author gradually develops her character she becomes much more engaging and I found I liked her character very much.

I think this book is well worth a read. Combining the past and the present with some romance thrown in this novel will appeal to many readers.

ISBN:  978 0751561159

Publisher: Sphere

About the Author:

Sarra Manning is a teen queen extraordinaire. She spent five years working on the now sadly defunct J17, first as a writer and then as Entertainment Editor. She then joined the launch team of teen fashion bible Ellegirl, which she later went on to edit and has consulted on a wide range of youth titles including Bliss, The Face and More. 

Sarra is now editor of What To Wear magazine. She's also been a regular contributor to ELLE, The Guardian, ES Magazine, Seventeen, Details and Heat and wrote the Shop Bitch column for Time Out. Sarra lives in North London with her dog Miss Betsy.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

The Bradley's see the world as a place where miracles are possible, and where nothing is more important than family. This is their story.
It is the story of Ian Bradley—husband, father, maths teacher, and Mormon bishop—and his unshakable belief that everything will turn out all right if he can only endure to the end, like the pioneers did. It is the story of his wife, Claire, her lonely wait for a sign from God, and her desperate need for life to pause while she comes to terms with tragedy.
And it is the story of their children: sixteen-year-old Zippy, experiencing the throes of first love; cynical fourteen-year-old Al, who would rather play football than read the Book of Mormon; and seven-year-old Jacob, whose faith is bigger than a mustard seed—probably bigger than a toffee candy, he thinks—and which he’s planning to use to mend his broken family with a miracle.
Intensely moving, unexpectedly funny, and deeply observed, A Song for Issy Bradley explores the outer reaches of doubt and faith, and of a family trying to figure out how to carry on when the innermost workings of their world have broken apart.

I would challenge anyone to read this book and not  to be deeply moved by it. It is a heart searing evocation of the grief felt by a family whilst trying to maintain an equilibrium with their faith.

I knew very little about the Mormon church prior to reading this book and it was very informative. It came as no surprise to me to learn that the author grew up in a Mormon  family as she writes with real insight and it shows that she has first hand knowledge.

Every character in this novel is expertly drawn and easy to engage with.  I went through a tumult of emotions with them experiencing the grief felt in its individual way by all of them. I felt moments of frustration and anger with Ian's character, pain for Claire's and my heart bled for little Jacob and his brother and sister. I think an author who can create such feelings in her reader is very skilled and as a debut novelist is one to watch out for.

This is a fantastic read written with insight and intelligence. I do not think I am being preemptive by saying that I will be surprised if this book does not make into into my Top Ten reads of 2016 as it will need to be quite some book to knock this one down the list. Do let me know what you think of this book and whether you enjoyed it as much as I did.

ISBN:  978-0099591870

Publisher: Windmill Books

About the Author: 

Carys Bray was brought up in a devout Mormon family. In her early thirties she left the church and replaced religion with writing. She was awarded the Scott prize for her d├ębut short story collection Sweet Home. A Song for Issy Bradley is her first novel. She lives in Southport with her husband and four children.