Category Archives: Literature

The Peacock Emporium

The Peacock Emporiumby Jojo Moyes

Suzanne Peacock is a troubled young woman, never quite fitting in with family or friends. With her marriage on the rocks, she decides to embark on a new adventure, opening her own shop – the Peacock Emporium. But for someone who clearly finds the social niceties a challenge, making this new venture a success was never going to be easy. But she finds an unexpected friend and ally in young Jessie Carter. Jessie is the kind of girl that everyone loves and proves to be just when the shop, and Suzanne, needs.

Suzanne is not alone in seeking a new path. Telling his own story, the Argentinian midwife has come to England to escape the hardships and violence of home. Their lives become entangled and the emotional highs and lows are typical Jojo Moyes. Her books are driven by complicated characters. They may not exactly be heroes but certainly strong and driven women whose stories are as inspiring as they are entertaining. 

The Peacock Emporium is a delightful and very touching novel. The title may suggest something soft and fluffy, but it definitely isn’t. There is certainly plenty of colour, but there is darkness as well. Moyes never shoes away from difficult storylines and tackles social and emotional issues head-on with great flair and compassion. 

I have become quite a fan of Jojo Moyes and her wonderful characters. There is no formula to her books, no predictability, and it is that that attracts me to her work. 

A really good book.

A Far Cry from Kensington

A Far Cry from Kensingtonby Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark is probably best known for her novel The Prime Of Miss Jean Brody. It was made into a TV series, and is considered in some circles to be a modern classic. I must admit that when I purchased this particular book I hadn’t made the connection.

A Far Cry From Kensington displays great wit and charm. It is a relatively short (190 pages) and uncomplicated story about life in the world of 1950s publishing. By uncomplicated I mean it has an easy flow with no sudden swerves or change of direction. As far as the characters are concerned, it is far from uncomplicated.

The book has a friendly and at times informal style as its narrator, Mrs Hawkins, looks back at a year in which her life changed dramatically. It is 1954 and London is still scarred by war.With rationing only just coming to an end, Mrs Hawkins, a 28-year-old war widow, is living frugally but conformably in a furnished room in a quiet corner of Kensington. The tenants each have their own eccentricities but there is an air of companionship between them that makes it sound homelier that might otherwise be the case when a group of strangers find themselves living under one roof.

Mrs Hawkins has respectable job working for a publisher, but all is not well and there is an uncertainty in the air about the company’s future. Then, on her way into work one morning she has an unexpected meeting with one Hector Bartlett that will change everything. In fact, this meeting costs her two jobs and makes the obnoxious would-be writer a thorn in Mrs Hawkins’ side for many years to come.

The book has some wonderful characters and the vagueness of some of Mrs Hawkins’ memories is actually quite refreshing. I have never been a fan of first-person narratives, due mainly, I think, to the certain knowledge that I could never recall past events with such clarity. It is a light-hearted look at life during a period of profound change. Britain was on the cusp of a revolution in music, social attitudes and economic prosperity, but the characters and situations portrayed in this story are comfortingly old-fashioned. 

I found the style of the narrative refreshingly honest and just loved the character of Mrs Hawkins. A good, unchallenging holiday read. 

Northanger Abbey (The Austen Project #2)

Northanger Abbeyby Val McDermid

Northanger Abbey is the second in the series of books reimagining some of the works of Jane Austen. Of Austen’s books, Northanger Abbey is probably the least well known, but it has always held a certain fascination for me. Although it follows the traditional girl meets boy, they fall in love, are separate by circumstances before finally coming together for the obligatory happy ending, Northanger Abbey has a darker and more intriguing theme. And it is that element of the story that seems to have attracted McDermid to the Austen Project.

At first it might seem rather strange to have a respected crime writer tackling a piece of romantic fiction. But Northanger Abbey’s sinister undercurrent provides the perfect vehicle for McDermid’s style.

Bringing these books into the 21st century does require some imaginative thinking, but to me what is most intriguing is just how little needs to change. In this interpretation, only the location has changed, moving the bulk of the action from the original Bath to modern day Edinburgh, where the Fringe provides the necessary gatherings and public events. Consequently, Northanger Abbey is now in the Scottish Lowlands which seems rather more fitting than the original.

The story remains virtually unchanged, as do the characters, with just the occasional tweak to bring their stories up to date. Catheryn Morland is the same innocent young woman, sometimes struggling to tell the difference between reality and the plots of the books she reads and begins to invent her own theories about the family and events that inhabit Northanger Abbey.

As you would expect from a writer with McDermid’s reputation, Northanger Abbey is well written and full of pace and drama and not a little wit and tension. As a fan of Miss Austen’s work, I have approached each of these reimaginings with just a little trepidation. These books have become part of our literary heritage, but their language and settings are not to everyone’s taste.

What this series does is make Austen’s original stories more accessible to a wider audience. For me, the originals can never be improved on. The language, settings and manners of the time are as much a part of the book as the story itself. However, I very much enjoyed this retelling of one of my favourite Austen stories and would happy recommend it to fans and novices alike.

Reading this book has also reminded me of the works of one of our most respected modern authors. I will definitely make an effort to pick up a book or two in the near future. 

The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bonesby Alice Sebold

Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon was murdered on a cold December afternoon in 1973. Outwardly, here was nothing special about Susie other then she attracted the attention of the local loner who also happened to be a serial killer.

Now, from her place in heaven, Susie watches as her family and friends come to terms with her loss and face a future without her. From this vantage point she becomes aware of the threads that bind those who loved her and just how much damage can be done when those bonds are broken. The police are literally clueless in the search for her body and her killer. Only her father realises the truth but is unable to convince anyone else of what he has seen and felt.

Lovely Bones is the story of family falling apart from within, trying to come to terms with the devastating loss of a child. Told from the perspective of the teenage victim it remains strangely naive and optimistic despite the breakdown of all that is normal.

Through the eyes of Susie Salmon, Alice Sebold investigates the ways in which extreme tragedy can impact on all of us. Fr some, the need to understand what has happened forges closer bonds, for others the introspection drives a wedge between them and those around them.

Although I sometimes found the portrayal of heaven to be a little over indulgent, it is a vital element to Susie’s story. It just wouldn’t have worked without it. And to have told the story from any other perspective other than Susie’s would have left it too dark and introspective.

There are times when I find it difficult to put my feelings about a book into words. IT either comes across as formulaic and insincere or rambling. Lovely Bones is an example of this. The tragedy at the heart of the story is one that few will have to face, but many will fear. How would any of us cope with the loss of a child or sibling? What effect will this loss have on even the closest of families? As a parent, I found Lovely Bones to be both heart-warming and deeply disturbing. At times it was difficult to read, but I was comforted and lead on by the voice of young Susie.

In all, Lovely Bones is a beautifully told story of the ultimate loss. But at the heart of the book there is a feeling that we can overcome tragedy, there is always another path. An excellent and compelling read.

H G Wells Classic Collection I

Classic Collectionby H G Wells

A collection of five of H G Wells’ finest and best known stories: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon and The Invisible Man. Anyone with even a passing interest in Science Fiction will already know these stories; all of them have been made into films or TV series and have influenced several generations of writers.

Wells is often cited as the father of modern science fiction and re-reading these stories is a reminder of just how influential he has been. There have been many books and films with plots that owe a great deal to the stories in this collection. We have alien invasion, genetic manipulation, time travel and first contact sitting alongside some great social commentary.

Wells was not just a visionary, he was also great writer who understood what made people tick. Unlike many modern writers, he avoided getting too wrapped up in the science behind his stories. He hints at processes and theories, but always falls short of offering any concrete science, but considering the age, that is hardly surprising.

This collection highlights the genius of H G Wells and is, above all else, a collection of good stories that have stood the test of time. Granted, some of the language is dated, but these as all but one of the stories is set in the Victorian age, that is hardly surprising.

Sons and Lovers

Sons and Loversby D H Lawrence

Sitting down to write a review of what is often heralded as a classic of English literature is always a little daunting, particularly when you feel unable to give it the praise everyone else seems to think it deserves.

As a piece of literature, it is very much of its time. Depicting the grim lives of typical mining community at the turn of the twentieth century, the story, although well written, has a plodding feel to it. I also felt that the characters, who may well be a true reflection of the period were difficult to feel any empathy for.

The two central characters are Mrs Morel and her son Paul. Whilst I felt some sympathy for Mrs Morel’s plight, I felt no such thing for her son who I found to be selfish, egotistical and, at times, infuriating. The way he behaves towards the two loves of his life – Miriam and Clara – make him impossible to like. It is almost as if he refuses to be happy and does everything he can to keep everyone at arms length, Except his mother that is.

You get the feeling that no woman would ever be good enough for her precious son. And it would be her influence that keeps Paul from committing to the one woman who probably could make him happy. 

What I did enjoy about the book was the insight it gives into the lives of these often-forgotten small communities centred around the mines. And so it should as it is in many ways autobiographical; Lawrence himself was brought up in just such a community. I suppose that from this we might gather that the characters he has created are also typical. 

Whilst I can see why many people would want to rate this book as a classic, for me it is interesting but dull. I found the style long winded and not always easy to follow. I am glad I have read it, but I shan’t be going out of my way to read any more.

Emma (The Austen Project #3)

Emmaby Alexander McCall Smith

Whilst there have already been several sequel’s to Jane Austen’s books, the very idea of this short series of modern retellings just sounds wrong. But, as a fan of Austen’s work, and with an ever open mind, I decided to give this one a try.

I wouldn’t say I was disappointed. The story itself is well told, as you would expect from a writer of McCall Smith’s calibre, but somehow, brining Emma Woodhouse kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century just didn’t quite work. Finding modern equivalents to the various dilemmas and manners of the early 19th century is an almost impossible task. And part of the charm of Austen’s works is the gentle and at sometimes innocent world in which they are set. The modern world is no place for the likes of Mr Woodhouse, Miss Bates or even Emma herself. It is a story of manners, and this is lost in the retelling.

Rather interestingly, what we do get is much more of a back story for the main characters. Whilst Austen concentrates on mobbing her story forward. McCall Smith takes much more time to flesh out his characters. This is interesting and adds some originality to the story. But for me, the whole thing seems to lack the integrity of the original. There is no modern equivalent for many of the events or social interactions and expectations, so the whole thing has an air of unbelievability to it that I found disappointing.

All that said, there is a kind of timelessness about the character of Emma Woodhouse that does manage to come across. Her attempts to manipulate the love lives of those around her does have an element of truth to it.

All in all, an enjoyable bit of light reading. I very much doubt I will return to it later, something I do fairly regularly with the original, but I don’t feel I wasted the time it took to read it. A good summer read, but hardly challenging.

 

Anissa’s Redemption

by Zack Love

Anissa's RedemptionAnissa’s Redemption is the second and concluding part of Zack Love’s Syrian Virgin series. In the first book we were introduced to 16-year old Anissa, living with her family in the Syrian city of Homs at the start of the civil war. Being Christians, they became targets for the Islamist extremists and Anissa was forced to flee from her home. She must now build a new life for herself in New York as she comes to terms with the tragic loss of her family.

In this sequel, Anissa must make some difficult decisions about her relationships and finally come to terms with the secrets of her past she kept hidden from everyone, including herself.

But she is not the only one hiding deep and troubling secrets.

Through her letters we see Anissa’s struggle with her feelings for the two men in her life: fellow student Michael who leads the Mideast Christian Association, working to help fellow Christians in war-torn Syria; and Julien, her wealthy and charismatic college lecturer whose own secrets threaten their growing relationship.

Anissa’s Redemption, told through letters and journal entries takes the reader on a roller-coaster journey. Written with a sympathetic understanding of the realities of the situation in the Middle East and its affect on the people involved, this book presents both a touching and romantic story combined with stark reality and a glimpse of the darker side of the human soul.

In Anissa, Zack Love has created a strong but vulnerable character who I found myself wishing was real. It is much more common these days to find strong female characters, both in books and in film. As she fights her demons and builds a better life for herself, Anissa is one of the most captivating of this new breed of leading ladies.

An excellent conclusion to a moving and well written story.

 

Hidden Knowledge

by Bernardine Bishop
 
Hidden KnowledgeDespite this books seemingly dark and serious subject matter, Hidden Knowledge is a surprisingly upbeat and interesting read.

The story itself centres around two families, the Trees and the Winterbornes, each dealing with tragedies both old and new. Roger Tree is a Catholic priest facing an accusation of child abuse ten years previously. He confesses at once to the crimes but there is a much darker secret that he cannot bring himself to admit to anyone. His brother, a famous writer, lies in a coma and he find himself supporting his sister, Romola, who is struggling to come to terms with life without he beloved Hereword, and his brother’s much younger fiancé, Carina.

Life for the Winterbornes is also facing great upheavals as mother and daughter, Betty and Julia, find themselves reassessing their own relationship in the face of the challenges they both must face.

The story of the two families are linked by the tragic death of Julia’s brother Mark on a school trip twenty years earlier. It is Betty Winterborne’s decision to re-examine her son’s last days that bring her some hope of closure.

For me, Hidden Knowledge proved to be something of a hidden gem. It is not the kind of subject that would normally attract my interest, but I am glad I did.

It seems that Bernardine wrote just three novels in her retirement after a varied and full life. I am certainly going to look out for the other two on my travels.

Child abuse is not an easy subject to write about, but Bernardine does it with great compassion and empathy. As the story unfolds it is easy often to forget that Roger is the abuser. There is no getting away from the serious nature of his crimes, but for the duration of the story Roger is the rock that supports his family. 

We all have secrets, some we keep from those closes to us, some we try to hide from ourselves. Each of the characters in Hidden Knowledge find themselves confronting their own demons. Some are more profound than others, but are equally demanding emotionally.

In the end, Hidden Knowledge is a book about ordinary people having to face extraordinary truths. It is a powerful story told with skill and experience. It is a much easier and more satisfactory read than I had imagined it would be. It challenges the reader, but doesn’t overwhelm.

 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThis book was passed onto me by a work colleague who couldn’t recommend it to me enough. And almost immediately I could see why.

Even without the recommendation, the title alone would have attracted me to this poignant and touching story about life in German occupied Guernsey. Told through a series of letters between a young writer, Juliet Ashton, and members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. The book follows the highs and lows of life on the islands during the Second World War.

The book opens in 1946 with Juliet seeking inspiration for her second novel. When she stumbles across the Literary society shew soon finds herself on a ferry to Guernsey to find out more. Still suffering from the ravages of the war, the people of the island take her as one of their own and Juliet’s life begins to change forever.

The use of letters to tell the story makes it much more intimate than a normal narrative would have been. You get a much better understanding of each of the characters and how the two strands of the story impact on all their lives.

For Juliet, the islanders provide not just the inspiration for her own book, but also a new direction for her life.

Populated with beautifully portrayed characters, this is an inspiring, touching and compelling take. I found myself totally captivated by the members and their stories.

What really comes across is the author’s fascination with Guernsey, but what is not so obvious is that she was American. Mary Ann Shaffer wrote the book after prompting from her local book club, but due to ill health, asked her niece, Annie Barrows to help her finish the book.

It’s a totally captivating book. What a shame it was Mary Ann’s only novel.