Monday, 23 April 2018

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park is Jane Austen's most profound and perfliexing novel.

Adopted into the household or her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, Fanny Price grows up a meek outsider among her cousins in the unaccustomed elegance of Mansfield Park. Soon after, Sir Thomas absents himself on estate business in Antigua.

Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive at Mansfield, bringing with them London glamour, and the seductive taste for flirtation and theatre that precipitates a crisis.

I always feel rather reluctant to write a review of such a well known classic. After all, this book was published in 1814, so from  nineteenth century academics to modern day bloggers, not to mention a plethora of academics, I really cannot imagine that I have got anything new to add to the multitude of opinions that are already out in the public sphere.

However, what I can do is to just tell you what I thought of it and why I think that this old timer of a book should be read, read and read again.

First, I love Jane Austen - her sense of wit, irony and social commentary of the time. Secondly, I have read Mansfield Park before although probably not for some twenty years or so. Interestingly, I still have the same copy and I had forgotten all the little notes I had written in the margins of this book. So re-reading this book was a little trip down memory lane for me as well as a reminder of why I like this particular Austen book so much.

Who could fail but love Fanny Price, our indomitable heroine of this book? Published two years after Pride and Prejudice, which I also love, I could not help but see how Mansfield Park demonstrates a maturity in Austen's writing. On the surface, the contrast between Elizabeth Bennett and Fanny Price is significant. Elizabeth is strong and not afraid of standing up to her mother or Mr. Darcy when needed. Fanny, on the other hand, is a quiet, unassuming, almost mouse-like character who does not appear to be at all heroine-like. 

And this is precisely why I liked Fanny so much. Fanny's desire in life is to 'be of use to others', she appears to always put the needs and wants of others before her own until a time occurs within the story when she really has to stand up for herself and refuse to budge despite the maneuvering of all those influential people around her who attempt to bend her will to theirs. I will not go into any further detail here because if you have not read this book then I strongly urge you to do so. If you have previously read it then you might like to re-read it as I have. I think you will really like it and I would love to hear your views.

ISBN: 978-0141439808

Publisher: There are many editions but the above cover photo is taken from the Penguin Classics edition.

About the Author: 

Jane Austen was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature, her realism and biting social commentary cementing her historical importance among scholars and critics.

Austen lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. She was educated primarily by her father and older brothers as well as through her own reading. The steadfast support of her family was critical to her development as a professional writer. Her artistic apprenticeship lasted from her teenage years until she was about 35 years old. During this period, she experimented with various literary forms, including the epistolary novel which she tried then abandoned, and wrote and extensively revised three major novels and began a fourth. From 1811 until 1816, with the release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), she achieved success as a published writer. She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began a third, which was eventually titled Sanditon, but died before completing it.

Austen's works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th-century realism. Her plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. Her work brought her little personal fame and only a few positive reviews during her lifetime, but the publication in 1869 of her nephew's A Memoir of Jane Austen introduced her to a wider public, and by the 1940s she had become widely accepted in academia as a great English writer. The second half of the 20th century saw a proliferation of Austen scholarship and the emergence of a Janeite fan culture.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Jewish Resistance by Paul Roland

"The Jews have always lived in hope."
Threatened with extermination, many Jewish people refused to go passively to their deaths at the hands of the Nazis during World War II and instead put up heroic resistance. Prisoners at Sobibór and Treblinka organized successful revolts, while at Auschwitz they sacrificed their lives to dynamite the crematorium.
Beyond the barbed wire of the camps, hundreds of Jewish people were active in the French resistance and thousands fought with partisans in other occupied countries. One and a half million more served in the Allied armed forces. Incredibly, it took the Nazis longer to subdue the forces of the Warsaw ghetto than it had taken them to defeat the Polish army in 1939. This book reveals a little-known chapter of history and uncovers many stories of amazing courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

Over the years I have read many books, both fiction and non-fiction, regarding the Holocaust and with every book I continue to be shocked, appalled and heartbroken. It is completely outside of my understanding, and the understanding of most of us, how such atrocities could ever have occurred.

This book strikes a slightly different chord to many accounts of the Holocaust and details how many Jews fought back. I was unaware that the Baum Group, from Berlin, who were a resistance group within the Auschwitz death camp, organised the sabotage of various SS activities from within the camp itself.

Or Hannah Senesh, a Hungarian poet and partisan, who left the safety of Palestine to help Jews in Eastern Europe. She had emigrated to the Jewish Homeland in 1939. Four years later she enlisted as a paratrooper in the British Army.

There are a multitude of similar accounts that the author has presented with a good writing style and I encourage you to read them for yourself. Clearly well researched, Mr. Roland has added another excellent account of WWII atrocities to his existing works.

Without doubt, this is a sobering read and I can not finish this review without quoting a passage from the book. It is written by Irena Sendler who was a Polish nurse and helped rescue 2,500 children from the ghetto.

"Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory. Heroes do extraordinary things. What I did was not an extraordinary thing. It was normal.
I was brought up to believe that a person must be rescued when drowning, regardless of religion and nationality. The term 'hero' irritates me greatly - the opposite is true - I continue to have pangs of conscience that I did so little."

I do beg to differ with her claims here as, in my humble opinion, she and her contemporaries most certainly were heroes. May their memories be for blessing.

ISBN: 978 1788283977

Publisher: Arcturus Publishing

About the Author:

Paul Roland is a recording artist with many albums to his name. He has been called the godfather of steampunk.

Roland is the author of more than 40 books on the subject of mysticism, crime, WWII and the occult. His books, which have been translated into more than 15 languages including Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Greek and Hebrew, cover spiritual and occult traditions, which culminated in his creation of The Kabbalah Cards (AGMuller/Urania) in collaboration with artist Sylvia Gainsford. The cards are a radical reinterpretation of the Jewish mystical teachings with a serious psychological orientation which distinguished them from the Kabbalah themed tarot packs which preceded them.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Charles Bramwell Brockley was travelling alone and without a ticket on the 14.42 from London Bridge to Brighton. The Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin in which he was travelling teetered precariously on the edge of the seat as the train juddered to a halt at Haywards Heath. But just as it toppled forward towards the carriage floor it was gathered up by a safe pair of hands.

Anthony Peardew has spent half his life collecting lost objects, trying to atone for a promise broken many years before.

Realising he is running out of time, he leaves his house and all its lost treasures to his assistant, Laura, the one person he can trust to reunite the thousands of objects with their rightful owners.

But the final wishes of the ‘Keeper of Lost Things’ have unforeseen repercussions which trigger a most serendipitous series of encounters….

I am going to be brutally honest here. When I first started this book I was not very impressed. The first couple of chapters felt rather saccharine, predictable and the characters felt somewhat two dimensional. I did not have high hopes.

However, once the aptly named Sunshine appears in the story all that changed. It was as though her character really did breathe life and well…. sunshine into all the characters and immediately this became a book I very much wanted to continue reading. The presence of her character enabled the plot, setting and other characters to become fully rounded and I thought that Ms. Hogan’s use of dark and shade were admirable and an extremely clever writing device.

I really like the way the house and garden are virtually characters within their own right. They are both extremely significant to the story and I could almost smell the fragrance of the rose garden. The pretty front cover also hints at this significance.

It has a fairy tale quality complete with some supernatural happenings which give the plot some added interest. What could have been a simple romantic tale, Ms. Hogan adds some magic to the mix and creates a wonderful feel-good story which anyone who fancies a bit of light-hearted escapism will enjoy reading. 

In the words of Sunshine, I am now "going to make the lovely cup of tea.” Happy reading.

ISBN: 978 1473635487

Publisher: Two Roads

About the Author:

In her own words – “I was born in the house where my parents still live in Bedford. My sister was so pleased to have a sibling that she threw a thrupenny bit at me.

As a child, I loved the Brownies but hated the Guides, was obsessed with ponies and read everything I could lay my hands on. Luckily, my mum worked in a bookshop. My favourite reads were The Moonmintrolls, A Hundred Million Francs, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and the back of cereal packets, and gravestones.

I passed enough O and A levels to get a place at Goldsmiths College, University of London, to study English and Drama. It was brilliant and I loved it. And then I got a proper job.

I worked for ten years in a senior local government position (Human Resources – Recruitment, Diversity and Training.) I was a square peg in a round hole, but it paid the bills and mortgage.

In my early thirties I had a car accident which left me unable to work full-time and convinced me to start writing seriously. I got a part-time job as an osteopath’s receptionist and spent all my spare time writing.

It was all going well, but then in 2012 I got cancer, which was bloody inconvenient but precipitated an exciting hair journey from bald to a peroxide blonde Annie Lennox crop. When chemo kept me up all night I passed the time writing and the eventual result was The Keeper of Lost Things.

I live in a chaotic Victorian house with an assortment of rescue dogs and my long suffering partner. I spend all my free time writing, or thinking about it, and have notebooks in every room so that I can write down any ideas before I forget them. I am a magpie; always collecting treasures (or ‘junk’ depending on your point of view) and a huge John Betjeman fan.

Mu favourite word is antimacassar and I still like reading gravestones.”

Monday, 9 April 2018

When the Moon is Low by Nadia Hashimi

"Kabul's children were not children for long."

Mahmoud's passion for his wife, Fereiba, a schoolteacher, is greater than any love she's ever known. But their happy, middle-class world implodes when their country is engulfed in war and the Taliban rises to power.

When Mahmoud becomes a target of the new fundamentalist regime and is murdered, Fereiba is forced to flee Kabul with their three children. Finding a way for her to reach her sister's family in England is her one hope to survive. With forged papers and help from kind strangers they meet along the way, Fereiba manages to smuggle the children as far as Greece. But in a busy market square, their fate takes a frightening turn when her teenage son, Saleem, becomes separated from the rest of the family.

Faced with an impossible choice, Fereiba pushes on with her daughter and baby, while Saleem falls into the shadowy underground network of undocumented Afghans who haunt the streets of Europe's capitals. Across the continent, Fereiba and Saleem struggle to reunite, exhausted but undefeated, and ultimately find a place where they can be a family again.

When I read and reviewed Nadia Hashimi's debut novel back in 2015, I commented that I was looking forward to reading more of her work in 2016. Well, it has taken me until 2018 to fulfill that promise but I have enjoyed this novel every bit as much as I enjoyed The Pearl That Broke It's Shell (click on title to read my review.)

This book is set during Afghanistan's darkest days; a time when no one was safe from Taliban extremism, a time when the rights of women were non-existent, a time when children lost their childhood and when boys had to assume the responsibilities of men overnight.

This deeply moving account of the fictional Fereiba and Saleem will be impressed upon my heart and mind for some time to come. It is thought-provoking and, at times, difficult to read and it challenges us all to consider what it must really be like to walk in the shoes of a refugee.

Written in beautiful prose, the narrative switches between Fereiba and Saleem and we are able to ascertain the different physical and emotional journeys they each are on. It is an intelligent and sensitively written novel which has been expertly accomplished by Ms. Hashimi. She has brought to life the difficult issues of human trafficking and immigration that will ensure that every reader will appreciate the courage that it takes for men, women and children to cross borders in the hope of a safer life.

This novel is heart-rending and unsettling but it is also a novel full of hope and inspiration and I highly recommend it. Last time it took me three years to get around to reading another of this author's outstanding books. I guarantee it will not take me so long to read another.

ISBN:  978 0062369611

Publisher: William Morrow

About the Author:

Nadia Hashimi was born and raised in New York and New Jersey. Both her parents were born in Afghanistan and left in the early 1970's before the Soviet invasion. Her mother, the granddaughter of a notable Afghan poet, went to Europe to obtain a master's degree in civil engineering and her father went to the United States, where he worked hard to fulfill his American dream and build a new, brighter life for his immediate and extended family. Nadia was fortunate to be surrounded by a large family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, keeping the Afghan culture an important part of their daily lives.

Nadia attended Brandeis University, where she obtained degrees in Middle Eastern studies and biology. In 2002, she made her first trip to Afghanistan with her parents, who had not returned to their homeland since leaving in the 1970's. Finding relics of childhood homes and reuniting with loved ones was a bittersweet experience for everyone.

Nadia enrolled in medical school in Brooklyn and became active with an Afghan-American community organisation that promoted cultural events and awareness, especially in the dark days after 9/11. She graduated from medical school and went on to complete her pediatric training at NYU/Bellevue hospitals in New York City. On completing her training, she moved with her husband to Maryland, where she works as a pediatrician. She's also part of the 'Lady Docs', a group of local female physicians who exercise, eat and blog together.

With her rigorous medical training completed, Nadia turned to an interest that had been ignored for too long. Her upbringing, experiences and passions came together in the form of stories based in the country of her parents and grandparents (some even make guest appearances in her tales!)

She and her husband are the beaming parents of four curious, rock-star children and an African grey parrot.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

The Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth

The small suburb of Pleasant Court lives up to its name. It's the kind of place where everyone knows their neighbours, and children play in the street.
Isabelle Heatherington doesn't fit into this picture of family paradise. Husbandless and childless, she soon catches the attention of three Pleasant Court mothers.
But Ange, Fran and Essie have their own secrets to hide. Like the reason behind Ange's compulsion to control every aspect of her life. Or why Fran won't let her sweet, gentle husband near her new baby. Or why, three years ago, Essie took her daughter to the park - and returned home without her.
As their obsession with their new neighbour grows, the secrets of these three women begin to spread - and they'll soon find out that when you look at something too closely, you see things you never wanted to see.

This novel encapsulates everything that we think we know when we casually use the term that we never know what goes on behind closed doors. And if you have ever glanced at your neighbours and wondered what their lives are really like then you will love this book which explores this very concept and delves into the lives of five women who all live in Pleasant Court in Melbourne, Australia.

It also explores whether our assumptions of other peoples lives can be right or wrong and the author does this by allowing the reader into the homes and minds of the characters. I liked each of the characters in this book as individuals and I was fascinated to see how their lives would pan out throughout the story. Told from each of their individual perspectives, they were well rounded characters which made their individual situations believable and easy to engage with.

There were also some surprises in the plot of this book which lent this book some gravitas. This book has been labelled by the publishers as 'women's fiction' but I would hesitate to place this book within that specific genre as I think this book would appeal to many men too.

This is the first book I have read by Sally Hepworth and certainly think I will be reading more of her fiction.

ISBN: 978 1473674233

Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks

About the Author:

Sally Hepworth is the bestselling author of The Secrets of Midwives (2015), The Things We Keep (2016)The Mother's Promise (2017), and The Family Next Door (Feb 2018). Her books have been labelled “enchanting” by The Herald Sun, “smart and engaging” by Publisher’s Weekly, and New York Times bestselling authors Liane Moriarty and Emily Giffin have praised Sally’s novels as “women’s fiction at its finest” and “totally absorbing”.

Sally's novels are available worldwide in English and have been translated into 15 languages. She lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive - but not how to live.

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted - while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she's avoided all her life.

Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than... fine?

An astonishing story that powerfully depicts the loneliness of life, and the simple power of a little kindness.

When I am browsing the shelves in a book shop or library, I am always a little wary of books which claim to be "hilarious, made me laugh out loud." Conversely, "heartbreaking, I sobbed from start to finish." Not that either of these specific claims were made about this book but I'm sure you understand what I mean in general terms?

Now, I have read books making these sorts of claims in the past and, sometimes, I find that the book has barely made me raise a smile let alone have me reaching for a box of tissues. So, feel free to think I am a cynic but I am rarely impressed by these kinds of grandiose claims.

However, this wonderful book really was hilarious and heartbreaking and I did indeed laugh and cry. Why? Because this is a book full of humanity and compassion and I do not think I have ever rooted for a fictional character in the fifty or so years since I first picked up a book that my beautiful late-sister taught me to read before I had even started school.

This wonderfully evoked book tells the story of the scarred and socially inept Eleanor, who is trapped by her lonely existence with no prospect of that ever changing. Ms. Honeyman has created an outstanding cast of characters, all of whom are extremely well developed and easy to engage with. There is real skill evident in the writing and for a debut novel this is one of the best I have ever read.

I would challenge anyone not to be deeply moved by the chapter where Eleanor visits the hairdresser. I will say no more as I do not want to give anything away and ruin the experience of reading this marvellous book.

I think this book will stay with me for a long time and I do not doubt that I will probably read it again sometime. I could waffle on interminably concerning the virtues of this book as there is so much to like in it. I strongly encourage you to read it as I am sure you will love it every bit as much as I did and I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

ISBN: 978 0008172145

Publisher: Harper Collins

About the Author:

Gail Honeyman wrote her debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, while working a full-time job, and it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress. She has also been awarded the Scottish Book Trust's Next Chapter Award 2014, was longlisted for BBC Radio 4's Opening Lines, and was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. She lives in Glasgow.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

January Roundup

I have read some fabulous books this month and travelled to some interesting places on my literary travels. If you are not familiar with my world wide book travelling then please read my blog posting The Well Travelled Reader .

I haven't had an opportunity to review all these lovely books yet but they will be coming. In the meantime, please click through on the links below to read the reviews.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson

Judas by Amoz Oz

Histories by Sam Guglani

The Mountain by Luca D'Andrea

So, where have my travels taken me this month? I have been to London twice, Scotland, Israel and Italy.  Histories by Sam Guglani was set in an unspecified location so I have not included that.

How about you? Have you travelled anywhere interesting this month?