Category Archives: Modern Literature

The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

I have put off reading this book having read widely varied reviews. It seems that the book’s critics fall into one of two camps: those who get it and those who don’t. And I have to say that I am very firmly in the former. I not only got it, I loved it. from the very first page, I was captivated by the unique narrative style and almost as quickly entranced by the character.

It is the story of a young girl – Liesel Meminger – growing up in Nazi Germany of the early 1940s. The twist is that the story is told by Death, based on Liesel’s own words. Death first comes across the nine-year-old Liesel as she heads towards Munich on board a train with her mother and her little brother. It is an encounter that will change her life forever.

I can appreciate that the style of the narration may put some people off, but for me, the unusual way in which the story unfolds adds to the attraction of the book as a whole.

Dealing as it does with life during war-time Germany, it inevitably deals with subjects like the Holocaust and the Nazi party’s domination of ordinary people’s lives. The book deals with these things through the eyes of Liesel and passes no judgement other than her sense of injustice at the things she sees and hears. But it is not all doom and gloom. Liesel becomes very close to her stepfather, Hans, who instils in her a sense of hope and a love for reading. And it’s reading and a love of books that get her through the worst of times.

Of course, there have been innumerable books covering Nazi activities during the war years. Life in Germany and occupied Europe has been well documented but never quite like this. I found the whole thing to be very moving and totally captivating. 

The Book Thief is a great book that I felt deserves the positive critical acclaim it received. 

A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Oveby Fredrik Backman

Every now and again you come across a book that really says something to you, and for me, A Man Called Ove is just such a book. From the very first page, I felt I understood Ove. To many of the people he meets he comes across as a grumpy old man, but, as is often the case, there is more to him than first meets the eye.

For Ove, life is simple and made up of two types of people: those who drive Saabs, and twits. And there are a lot of twits about! 

As the book progresses we learn more about Ove’s past and the events that shaped the man he became. The biggest single event being the day he met his wife-to-be Sonja. To everyone who knew them, Ove and Sonja were an odd couple, like chalk and cheese. But to Ove, Sonja was his world and without her, nothing makes sense any more.

But with the arrival of new neighbours, Ove’s life is about to take on a whole new meaning. 

A Man Called Ove is a delightful and very moving story. Fredrik Backman has a real gift for blending humour and pathos in a totally compelling way. There is a slapstick element to the story that makes the tragedy even more profound. For me, it is one of the best books I have read this year and one I can wholeheartedly recommend. 

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.

Sweet Caress

Sweet Caressby William Boyd

Sweet Caress is the memoir of a fictional photographer, Amory Clay. In a life that spans some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century, from the decadence of 1920s Berlin to the horrors of the Vietnam War. And in between, her struggles with the various men in her life, all of whom inevitably let her down.

But no matter how strong-willed and determined she may be, carving a career in a male-dominated society is a challenge for any woman and in Amory Clay, William Boyd has created a character who has all the strength needed to succeed. Her character comes across as a homage to all those incredibly strong women who have helped to shape our modern society.

At one point I forgot that I was reading a work of fiction and actually started to believe that this wonderful woman had actually existed. And I suppose in a way she did. Maybe not as an individual, but in the shape of the many women whose lives provided the inspiration for the character.

Boyd is a great writer who knows how to reel the reader in and keep them hooked. Unfolding as it does over a long lifetime, Sweet Caress may lack the pace of books like “Ordinary Thunderstorms”, but it more than makes up for in depth and character development. There is also the selection of old photographs interspersed throughout the book that help to give a feeling of authenticity to the tale. Each image provides a hook on which Boyd rather skilfully hangs elements of the photographer’s tale.

Sweet Caress is a great book from one of the country’s most respected contemporary novelist. I found it compelling and at times quite moving. It may not be a classic, but it is certainly one that deserves recognition for both its content and style.

The Other Hand

The Other Handby Chris Cleave

According to the blurb on the back of this book, the story is too special for them to say anything about what happens. They even implore the reader not to tell anyone once they have read it. All we are told is that it is the story of two women whose lives “collide” where there is a terrible choice to be made. Then they meet again two years later. And that’s it! There is even a letter inside from the editor saying all kinds of wonderful things about the story.

But does it live up to these lofty expectations?

This is not just the story of the two women whose tales are being told. It is the story of a clash of cultures, of hope, desperation, despair and love. On the face of it, Sarah and Little Bee’s live’s are about as different as you can imagine, but underneath the surface, they are not too dissimilar. 

In my experience, over-hyped books tend to be disappointing. However, in The Other Hand, Chris Cleave has written the kind of story that is bound to make everyone that reads it stop and think about the absurdity and the cruelty of the world we live in. Both of the women here make sacrifices that will cost them dearly, but they do so without hesitation. 

I found it to be very moving, told in two distinctly different voices that Cleave maintains throughout. Whilst I wouldn’t say the book has changed my life or perspective, it was as enlightening as it was entertaining. 

The Other Hand is not an easy read, but it is worth the effort.

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. 

Sex in the Title

Sex in the TitleA Comedy about Dating, Sex, and Romance in NYC (Back When Phones Weren’t So Smart)

by Zack Love

I suppose there is a kind of art to coming up with book titles. They should covey the essence of the story; they should be snappy, memorable and, above all else, they have to grab the attention of the potential reader. And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t be drawn to a book called “Sex In The Title”, even if it’s just for the sake of curiosity? But does it tell you anything about the book it is trying to sell? In a way yes, it does. That is not to say it is either erotic or pornographic. It is a romantic comedy, and a very funny one at that. What the title does tell you is that this is not a run of the mill rom-com. 

Set at the turn of the new millennium, Sex In The Title follows the loves, losses and dating disasters of five young men, newly arrived in New York and seeking fortune and love. It is a time when the internet is still trying to find its feet and mobile phones were, well, just phones. For these intrepid wannabe executives, the dating game is not always one they seem destined to win.

The characters and their stories are both engaging and believable. Each has their own hang ups about sex and romance. For some, the attempt to follow the stereotypical macho path society has set out before them is not leading them where they want to be. For others, their own past and family commitments make dating in New York city fraught with dangers. On their own, each struggles to find and maintain any kind of lasting relationship. But, when a freak (and I do mean freak!) incident brings them all together, that all begins to change.

The support they find in each other’s experiences and strengths lead them all on a path of self-discovery that ultimately helps them discover now only who they are, but what they truly want from their lives.

For me the book is pretty much a first. I have read plenty of romantic comedies, but I have come across very few that are written from the male point of view. That alone makes this a book worth trying, but add Zack Love’s honesty, wit and engaging style, Sex In The Title is a unique insight into the male view of the world. His characters are engaging and tragic and the story itself compelling and at times, laugh out loud funny. There is a gentle humour that makes even the most extreme character traits endearing. I loved the way these diverse and rather mixed up individuals come together to support each other in their pursuit of love. 

There are moments of introspection sitting alongside slap-stick comedy. The plot does on occasions veer towards the absurd, but I think it is a very accurate reflection of the period, and a painfully accurate look at the anxieties of twenty-something males trying to make their way in a world that is more competitive than they would like. 

A very enjoyable read from a writer from whom I have come to expect nothing less.

The Accidental

The Accidentalby Ali Smith

I picked up this book after reading several reviews of Ali Smith’s work and was really looking forward to what I believed would be a captivating and amusing read. After all, it is an award-winning book from a multi-award-winning novelist.

From previous experience, I should have realised that award winning doesn’t always relate to an enjoyable read. From the very beginning I felt that I was not going to get on with this particular book. Whilst I am used to novels that switch focus between characters, even changing narrative style each time, but in “The Accidental” I found myself quickly losing empathy and interest in their individual stories.

The Smarts are the kind of dysfunctional family that would normally be found in a sitcom. And if this book were a comedy, I might have had more understanding and feeling for the story. And whilst there are undoubtedly moments of mild humour, for me it just doesn’t work. The only character that I felt any empathy for was young Astrid for whom the stranger, Amber, becomes a kind of mentor.

Amber’s unexpected arrival at the holiday cottage, and the way the family handle her arrival, I found difficult to swallow. Her influence stretches credulity and the more I read, the more cheated I felt. But not just by the story. I found the narrative to be difficult to follow at times, with much of it adding little, if anything, to the story itself. 

For me this was a very disappointing book. I would say I am surprised it is an award winner, but it isn’t the first time I have been let down by critically acclaimed work. We all see different things in a novel – there is a saying that “no two people ever read the same book” and I am certainly not seeing what others do in this work. 

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.