Category Archives: Review

84 Charing Cross Road

by Helene Hanff

This particular edition also includes the sequel “The Duchess of Bloomsbury”, and together they make the most amusing, touching and simply wonderful read.

84 Charing Cross Road itself is a collection of letters between Helene Hanff and London bookshop Marks & Co. Most of Helene’s correspondence is with the firm’s buyer Frank Doe, but other members of the Charing Cross Road store also get involved over her twenty years as a customer. 

Helene, a Philadelphian trying to make a living as a writer in New York, had a taste for antiquarian books she was unable to find in New York. This led to her writing to Marks & Co in 1949 beginning a relationship that would prove beneficial in more ways than one. Not only was she able to satisfy her taste for out of print books, but also gave her the material for her best selling work. 

The letters between Helene and Frank are extremely touching. Helene’s dry wit and Frank’s relaxed and friendly style make the whole collection a sheer delight to read. I was immediately fascinated by the relationship and found it difficult to put the book down once I had started. I have read several books based on collections of letters (most of them fiction) but none as touching, funny and totally captivating as this. 

In “The Duchess of Bloomsbury”, Helene recounts her eventual visit to London in 1971, ironically to promote her collection of letters in which she often expressed her desire to visit the city. And like it’s predecessor, it has an honesty and warmth that are captivating make it extremely difficult to put down. 

In this volume, she finally gets to meet the family of the man she corresponded with for so long. She spends over five weeks meeting the most eclectic and eccentric collection of individuals, including the British actress Joyce Grenfell. 

Even more than the letters, this journal displays Helene’s natural charm and wit. Her observations on the city and it’s inhabitants are often laugh-out-loud funny but honest and very true. 

On their own, the two works are delightful, but together they paint a complete picture and open a window on the personality and life of the writer. An excellent book well worth the read.

The House of Sleep

by Jonathan Coe

Coe is a favourite of my wife’s, but I have never actually read any of his work myself before. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but the cover promised me something “hilarious and devastating”; what I got some was something mildly interesting and eventually amusing. 

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book because I did. But not because of the plot, which I found contrived and lacking in focus. I found some of the characters to be extremely engaging and the twist in the tale unexpected but welcome. Describing this book as hilarious is really stretching it. In fact, it barely raised an amused smile until over halfway through when started to get into his stride.

The plot revolves around a group of students, each with their own issue around sleep and dreams. Misunderstandings and madness give the tale an interesting and unusual twist, but for me, the real meat of the story came too late to fully rescue the book. 

The House of Sleep is not one of the better books I have read recently. It was not a bad book, but it simply wasn’t as good as it could have been. In the hands of someone like Tom Sharpe, this story could have been a real gem. 

 

The Fate of Mercy Alban

by Wendy Webb

The Fate of Mercy AlbanEvery now and again there comes a book that takes me very much by surprise and this is definitely one of them. The Fate of Mercy Alban is written in the fine old tradition of Gothic Horror. There are dark secrets, unexplained happenings and more than a hint of the supernatural. Combine these elements with a smooth and easy writing style and clever plot twists and you have the makings of an exceptional book.

The story itself centres around the Alban family, [articuarly Grace Alban who has returned to the family home after twenty years and is almost immediately drawn into a mystery spanning back to the 1950s. Following the sudden death of her mother, Grace returns to the family home on the banks of Lake Superior to arrange the funeral and settle the estate. But what she discovers very quickly leads Grace to face not only events from her own past that have kept her away but also the darker secrets that surround events of the summer of 1956.

Alban Househas stod on the banks of Lake Superior for over 100 years and in that time there have been enough tragedy to have led to talk of the Alban Curse. Whilst Grace may not believe in such things, events at the house soon begin to make her wonder.

Uncovering a bundle of old letters sets Grace on a course that brings her face-to-face with a secret that has been kept by her family for over 50 years. but she is not the only one trying to uncover the truth about that fateful summer night.

There is an underlying sense of terror that runs throughout this book that makes it one of the most compelling books I have read for some time. The interplay between the characters and the truth is painstakingly revealed make it almost impossible to put the book down. Whilst it does not have the same pace as the likes of King or Herbert, there is no let up in the drive to find the answers. A really good read from an author I am very pleased to have been introduced to. 

Aimez-vouse Brahms…

Aimez-vouse Brahmsby Francoise Sagan

This is not a book I would normally have chosen to read; it came as part of  “coffee and book” package. I could have just passed it on but decided to give it a try instead. And I am glad I did.

Set in 1950s Paris the book follows a brief period in the life of Paule, a 34-year-old Parisian career woman. She is in a long-term relationship with Roger, but from the reader’s perspective, it is a very one-sided affair. While she waits for Roger to call, he lives the life of a single man. It is the kind of relationship that seems to be going nowhere and from which Paule seems to derive little comfort of affection. Surely Paule deserves much better than this?

She then meets Simon, the son of a business client who immediately besotted by Paule and embarks on a campaign to woo her away from Roger. At first, Paule is reluctant to be drawn into a relationship with Simon who is 14 years younger than her, but he is persistent and attraction of being with someone willing to devote time and energy on her is irresistible. The ensuring love triangle leaves Paule confused about what she really wants, The ending was a little surprising, but on reflection, inevitable. 

Although very short, Aimez-Vous Brahms is a captivating story. There is plenty of content in its 120 pages and the characters are engaging and believable. I enjoyed the book a lot more than I thought I would. The story itself is still relevant today as it was in the 1950s when it was first published and it could be set almost anywhere. I found it to be a great little book with good characters and plot. 

 

The Lie

The Lieby C L Taylor

Captivating and engaging with a plot that moves at just the right pace: slow enough to give the reader a chance to reflect and the events, but quick enough to keep the reader’s interest. Like a number of books I have read recently, The Lie relies on a dual narrative, weaving the story’s twin timelines with precision. Nothing from the present gives you too much insight into the events of five years previous. If anything, they are a teaser.

Jane Hughes has, on the face of it, a very settled and happy life. She loves her job and her new boyfriend, but there is a secret behind the mask she wears. Then an anonymous letter threatens to shatter her happiness and the life she has built for herself in rural Wales. Five years earlier she had set out on what was to be the trip of a lifetime with three of her closest friends, but it very soon turned into a nightmare that would haunt her for the rest of her life.

Jane’ past and present are all based on lies some bigger and more dangerous than others. There are certainly times when hiding the truth is a necessary evil, but some lies can only lead to disaster. For the four friends, the web of lies and deceptions that have held them together begin to bubble to the surface and threaten their very lives.

As the story weaves seamlessly between the parallel timelines, Jane proves to herself and those around her just how strong and resilient she can be. The character is well defined and provides a very believable vehicle for the plot.

I really enjoyed the story, the style and the characters. A great modern thriller. 

 

Last Night in Montreal

by Emily St John Mandel

last night in montrealIn One Night In Montreal, Mandel takes the reader on a rather disturbing but also very intriguing journey. It’s a road trip like no other, as for Lilia, the book’s central character, life on the road, drifting from motel to motel, is simply a way of life. But Lilia is not the only one whose life is changed by the events of that cold winters night. 

Although this is very much Lilia’s story, she is not the only focus of the narrative. In fact, the book follows two different timelines, only one of which features Lilia.

In the present, Lilia has done what she always does – she has moved on. But this time she has left behind someone who is determined to find her if only get an answer to his questions. In this thread of the story, Lilia is something of an intangible being, always just beyond reach, as we follow Eli and Michaela. Both have been profoundly affected by the strange friend and both are seeking answers they believe on Lilia can provide.

Alongside this, we have Lilia’s story, from her abduction by her father to her own wanderings across America. She also needs answers to the mysterious part of her past she cannot remember, but is she ready to hear it?

All the characters in the book are searching for answers to questions that continue to haunt them. Last Night In Montreal is a gripping and compelling tale, well written and with a narrative that never fails to deliver. I think we can all relate to one or another of the elements if this excellent book. Whether its the need to find resolution or simply answers to unresolved questions. 

An excellent read by a really good author. 

 

Before We Say Goodbye

by Gabriella Ambrosio

Before We Say GoodbyeOne day, two cultures, many lives.

Before We Say Goodbye is the story of a single day in Jerusalem in 2002. Although it primarily follows two different 18-year-old girls, one Palestinian the other Israeli, there is a very large cast of characters. If anything, there are so many characters making the interweaving plots difficult to follow. 

The direction of the plot becomes obvious quite early on. The two girls, Dima and Myriam each find themselves facing a day of change. Myrian is trying to come to terms with the loss of her closest friend to a Palestinian bomb. For her, this particular morning brings her some hope for the future. On the other hand, Dima’s mind is set on revenge for the treatment her friends and family have received at the hands of the Israelis. 

The two girls lives are separated by more than culture. Their life experiences give them very different prospects and outlooks. And although Dima and Myriam are the central characters in the short but poignant story, the others involved each plays their part in the story’s tragic journey.

It is not an easy read. Keeping track of the multitude of characters and events presents a challenge in itself, but add to that the intensity of the story itself and I would struggle to call it entertaining. But it is well worth the read.

Gabriela takes about as neutral a stance as possible, looking at both sides of the conflict. And in that, I thank she has achieved what she set out to do. Conflicts such as that between Israelis and Palestinians are never quite as straightforward as they seem. 

Sense and Sensibility (The Austen Project #1)

by Joanna Trollope

Sense and SensibilityThis was the first book of the Austen Project which sees contemporary writers revisit Jane Austen’s timeless stories. And the one thing that the project proves, to me at least, is just how timeless Austen’s work really is. Obviously there have to be some changes to the plot and, in some cases, characterisations, but on the whole, the stories stand up well to being dragged into the twenty-first century.

Elinore and Marianne Dashwood’s story is one of Austen’s most endearing tales. thrown out of their childhood home the family find themselves dependent on the charity of relatives in Devon. Far from their friends and relatives, the Dashwoods are going to have to make some serious changes if they are to survive. But while Marianne wears her all-too-fragile heart on her sleeve, falling in love with the dashing Joh  Willoughby on first sight, her sister Elinor’s heart is much harder to find and even harder to win. 

Bringing the wonderful cast of characters up to date was particularly tricky in this book, so dependent on 19th-century manners and rules of inheritance, but Joanne Trollope pulls it off with real panache. The characters are still very true to Austen’s originals, and the tweaks and twists necessary to make the plot work in the modern age work well.

Whilst I don’t think any adaptation is ever going to match the wit and insight of the original, I have enjoyed each of the books in the series so far. I suppose that by getting such well-established authors as Joanne Trollope involved guarantees a high standard. 

A really good read.

 

Gateway

By Frederik Pohl 

GatewayFrederik Pohl has an enviable reputation in the Sci-Fi community. His seven decades as a writer and editor brought him many awards and plaudits from critics and fans alike. Gateway has become one of his best-remembered novels, and for a very good reason. The premise behind the story is simple and ingenious. It is the story of one of a new breed of prospectors, men and women venturing into the unknown in search of wealth, much like the prospectors of the old west during the Gold Rush. 

Like the intrepid prospectors if America’s Wild West, the adventurers of Pohl’s vividly imagined future are out for wealth and, if they can get it, a little glory. The parallels between the two run quite deep, at least at the human level. Those that chose to risk their lives at Gateway do so for many different reasons, but ultimately, they are either running away from something or aiming towards their fortunes. Either way, Pohl’s masterpiece paints a very vivid picture of life on a wild frontier. 

Gateway is an alien construct, it’s the base for hundreds of alien spacecraft. Each has its own pre-programmed destination, the only trouble is, the human flying them can’t read the maps. Nor can they change the destination. It’s like a cosmic lucky dip, some you win, some you lose. Consequently, if you don’t know where you are going or how long it will take, you don’t know how many supplies you need.  

And of course, unlike Earthbound explorers, you can’t take a small detour to replenish your food and water supplies. Trusting yourself to the unknown could mean being sent into a Super Nova, a Black Hole or simply starving to death. 

But there is another side to this story. The book alternates between the narrator, Robinette Broadhead’s past and his present. And for me, that is the really clever part of the book. On the one hand, Pohl gives us a good old-fashioned adventure story complete with heroes, villains, romance and tragedy. On the other, he examines, through a computer psychiatrist, the mixed emotions that inevitably come from daring to stare the universe in the eye and shout “bring it on”. 

As the book approaches its climax, the parallel threads begin to resolve themselves and the reader is made aware of the reasons behind our narrator’s present position.  

Gateway is an imaginative yet simple book that proves beyond doubt how well deserved Frederik Pohl’s reputation is. 

Lost In A Good Book

Lost In A Good Bookby Jasper Fforde

I sometimes find myself wondering what is going through an author’s mind when they plat and write a novel. In Jasper Fforde’s case, it is probably best we don’t know.

For the second in his Thursday Next series, Fforde takes us even further into the strange and wonderful world where characters can move between stories and a police force exists to keep the stories in good order. This is also a world where Mammoths roam the English countryside, Dodos are popular household pets and the very idea of supersonic flight is, well, just plain daft.

Thursday Next is our guide for this journey through a world almost as batty as our own. Thursday is a Literary Detective working for SpecOps-27. Her previous success in saving Jane Eyre (see The Eyre Affaire) has made her something of a celebrity, thrusting her into a seemingly endless round of interviews and meet-and-greets. But if she thought that killing the evil Hades was an end to her adventures inside books.

But what is bad news for Thursday is good news for us. If things had ended there then Lost IN A Good book would have just become me of those forgotten stories languishing in the Well of Lost Plots (this will make sense if you read the book).

The story follows on immediately after the equally madcap “The Eyre Affaire”. Thursday herself is trying to balance her newfound celebrity status with her day job solving crimes against literature. And she seems to be managing OK. That is until she and her partner are sent to investigate a claim that a previously unknown Shakespeare play has been discovered in a private collection. IN her role as a Literary Detective such claims are bread and butter cases, but when it turns out to be true, events begin to take some rather unexpected turns. Add to this the fact that she seems to have become the target of agents from Goliath, the country’s largest and most sinister conglomerate, and also fro, the Hades family, Thursday’s life has just got very complicated indeed. 

Lost In A Good Book is a comic adventure that manages to combine the best elements of traditional crime fiction with one of the most twisted and hilarious plots I have read for a long time. To fully appreciate Jasper Fforde’s humour you need to be prepared to suspend belief and be prepared to follow whichever twisted path the plot decides to take. And I can assure you it is well worth the effort.

Admittedly, this kind of surreal nonsense is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if, like me, you enjoy the rather crazy worlds created by Tom Holt and Terry Pratchett, then Jasper Fforde is right up your street.