Saturday, 22 June 2013

If you're looking for something a little bit different- and thought provoking to boot- then Dany Laferriere's The Enigma of The Return could be for you.

 It charts the return to Haiti by Montreal based Laferriere, who left his motherland to escape Baby Doc’s brutal dictatorship. His first stop is New York to attend his father’s funeral (who was also an exile). Then it’s on to Port-au-Prince to meet up with the family he has not seen for decades, and to give his mother the news of her long lost husband.
            The book alternates between poetry and prose as the author tries to come to terms with his return to his homeland; the poverty, the crime and the poor infrastructure. The feelings it arouses in Laferriere are clearly too painful and poignant for a straight description of what he comes across. He uses a lot of simile and metaphor which I think does his experience more justice: ‘A day here lasts a lifetime/ You’re born at dawn./ You grow up at noon./ You die at twilight.’
            I didn’t choose this book- it was sent as a substitute for something else by Newbooks Magazine. But it was a happy accident because I loved the beautiful and sharp imagery and although Laferriere doesn’t give us a clear resolution, we share his journey all the more for it: ‘Returning South after all these years/ I am like someone/ who has had to relearn what he already knows/ but had to forget along the way.’
           Read this if you want a trip out of your literary comfort zone.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

A Family Affair by Mary Campisi

            This novel has the meaning of ‘family’ as its premise: can we choose our family or is blood really thicker than water?
Christine Blacksworth- a driven, hardworking twenty-something is flying high in her corporate job in the family business. Her world is turned upside down by the sudden death of her father Charlie in a road accident at his small cabin in the Catskill Mountains; some 700 miles from the family home in Chicago. Charlie spent four days a month there, taking a well earned break from running the Blacksworth Corporation. Or so the Blacksworths thought.
            When Charlie’s will is read, a part has been left to a Lily Desantro. Confused and horrified, Christine decides to go over to the Catskills herself to meet this Lily. It transpires that four days a month, Charlie was living with another woman, Miriam, and together, they had a thirteen year old daughter, Lily.
            As Christine starts to piece her father’s other life together, she gradually builds up a relationship with both Miriam and Lily, who has Down’s syndrome. She begins to understand how much her father loved them: Charlie was a good but weak man who was torn between his two families and by trying to do right by both, ended up doing right by neither.
            Christine believes she has really ‘found’ herself with the Desantros. But there are two flies in the ointment. One is Nate, Miriam’s son who hated Charlie and what he did and transfers his hostility to Christine. The other is Christine’s alcoholic, pain-killer addicted mother, who has no idea of the Desantros’ existence, or where Christine is now going regularly. Or does she?

            There are no huge surprises in this novel. It’s more a case of how things are going to pan out rather than what is going to happen. But it’s a good story with some really loveable characters (Lily and Christine’s roguish Uncle Harry). It poses some interesting questions about families, honour and legitimacy. The burgeoning romance between Christine and Nate was a bit obvious and I found myself more interested in Harry and housekeeper Greta. Nevertheless, I would recommend the book.

            Read this if you like an interesting take on your family sagas.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

A Particular Eye For Villainy by Ann Granger

            This murder mystery is the fourth book in the Inspector Ben Ross series. It isn’t necessary to have read any of the previous books- I hadn’t and still thoroughly enjoyed it.
            Set in Victorian London, a neighbour of Ben’s- a seemingly penniless yet obviously educated loner is bludgeoned to death in his lodging. Ben sets off on the investigation, following all manner of twists and turns and turning up various suspects. He’s unofficially aided by his lively wife Lizzie who carries out her own enquiries and becomes convinced that the victim, Thomas, was being followed by a mystery clown…
 I seldom read whodunits but I really enjoyed this book. It kept me guessing (most) of the way through and I found it gripping and humorous. The dialogue especially, though written in Victorian-style speech was realistic and lively. Lizzie is a perfect foil to her inspector husband. The characters of pompous Jonathan Tapley (barrister and brother of the victim) and flirtatious Victorine Tapley (widow and chief suspect) are brilliantly drawn.
            I’d definitely look out for the other books in the series. Read this if you like your historical crime veering towards the light-hearted rather than the harrowing.

The novel was sent to me by Newbooks Magazine.

Monday, 6 August 2012

The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen by Lindsay Ashford

            Based on letters and Austen archives, this fictionalises governess Anne Sharp's first meeting with Jane Austen in 1805 when Anne is governess to Jane's brother Edward’s children. Over time, Anne’s feelings for Jane deepen to soemthing beyond friendship and readers are privy to Anne’s innermost thoughts as she struggles to come to terms with her sexuality and the pain of knowing that her love is unrequited. When Jane dies of a mystery illness, once Anne has got over the initial trauma, she subsequently starts to believe that Jane’s death was due to poisoning rather than illness.
            Despite it being a work of fiction, it certainly made me imagine Jane Austen in a different light; humourous, bright and lively. Anne and Jane are true soulmates and one of the most poignant images in the novel is when Anne is planning her next visit to Jane, not realising her friend died some months before. Nobody thought to invite her to the funeral as a mere governess who lived some distance away and of course, they could never imagine the strength of Anne's true feelings. The book says much about social structures of the time: class as well as gender constraints. 
I think a reader would have to be familiar with Austen’s novels to fully appreciate it as they are referred to a great deal, but then you probably wouldn’t pick up this book unless you were a fan anyway.
            A couple of small gripes: there is a huge cast of characters, many with similar sounding names so at times I struggled to recall who individuals were and where they fit in. I also preferred the earlier parts of the book which focused on Anne and Jane’s relationship. At times, the quest to solve the mystery at the end felt a little rushed.
            But this doesn't spoil what is a thought provoking, different take on a real life event. Read it if you like a tragic love story with an unusual twist.
I first reviewed this book for Newbooks Magazine.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Rhumba by Elaine Proctor

            Set in the world of North London council estates, this book is populated by Congolese gangsters, people-traffickers and displaced people. Ten year old Flambeau is searching for his mother who promised him she’d follow him to London. He befriends Knight, a gangster whose flamboyant sapeur style and love of Congolese Rhumba belie his dangerous existence. Knight and his Scottish girlfriend Eleanor take Flambeau under his wing and Knight knows he can track down Flambeau’s mother through his criminal contacts- but at what personal cost…?
            This is Elaine Proctor’s first novel, but her scriptwriter background is evident: the writing is cinematic and very visual; I think it would make a brilliant TV drama. The realistic dialogue and secondary characters all contribute to a very believable, identifiable world. The novel is peppered with references to African music and flashbacks to both Flambeau’s and Knights respective childhoods. This shared heritage and loneliness  gives them a familial bond which in turn  highlights Knight’s dilemma.
            The book is both heart-warming and heart-breaking with gentle humour to counteract the more distressing aspects of the story. I loved it. 
            Read it if you like edgy, urban tales full of colourful characters and uncomfortable social commentary.

Rhumba was sent to me by Newbooks Magazine.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge

I initially read this book because it was on a list for a writing workshop. I dived in eagerly as I love the Eighteenth Century with all it's flayboyantly bad costumes, wigs and characters.
This is a fictionalised account of Dr Samuel Johnson and his relationship with his friend’s wife, Hester Thrale as seen through the eyes of her daughter Queeney.
Taking place over a number of years from middle-aged Johnson’s first meeting with the Thrales, until his death in 1784, the chapters alternate with various letters written by the adult Queeney, containing her reflections and loyal defence of Johnson and his various behaviours. His relationship with outspoken, precocious Queeney as they are ultimately bonded by Hester’s eventual neglect of them both, adds a touching dimension to a man who otherwise comes across as childish, petulant and embittered.
This is the only Beryl Bainbridge novel I have read, but would definitely read more. It’s alive with characters- real people in all their flawed glory. We are privy to a number of characters’ thoughts and Bainbridge moves seamlessly from one to another thus creating a deep sense of the real Johnson and Eighteenth Century society.
Read it if you like to find out more about famous historical figures as human beings rather than famous historical figures!
Review first appeared in Newbooks Magazine

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

I think this is an intriguing novel because of the many different levels that it works on. I see it as a fairytale for adults. Certainly, there are the usual qualities: a gutsy and resiliant heroine, a 'baddy' who gets his comeuppance, a love affair, and a magical element which is mainly played out through sensual descriptions of the main character (Vianne)'s chocolate shop. There's an ominous Handsel and Gretal element going on, to my mind.
The plot is concerned with Vianne and her daughter arriving in a French village and opening a chocolate shop directly opposite the church, much to the consternation of Father Reynaud who believes it is a spiritual danger to his people, as it is the beginning of lent. He makes it his mission to rid the town of them...

There is a definite feeling of supernaturalism to the story and also the conflict between spiritualities: good versus evil, organised religion versus ancient spirituality and different concepts of sin- it is written from various character's points of view making the debate more complex as the readers' sympathies are divided. The pithy characters are believably drawn and the various villagers add to the richness of the book, whilst also dealing with that universal topic that affects all communities; that of newcomers and locals, insiders and outsiders and the symbiotic relationship between them.

Read it if you like unconventional happy endings and mouthwatering descriptions.