Category Archives: Modern Literature

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Harold Fry #1)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fryby Rachel Joyce

Recently retired brewery rep Harold Fry lives a quiet life with his wife Maureen in their South Devon home. He is a man of routine and simple pleasures with no discernable ambition other than to make other people happy. He never goes anywhere or does anything. Not, you might think, the most likely type of character to be the hero of a book. And if it had not been for the letter, you would be right. For Harold, the note he receives from along forgotten work colleague, Queenie Hennessy is the unexpected catalyst that changes everything.

It is not the letter itself, or its contents, that turn Harold’s life upside down. 

He had only left the house to post his short and simple reply, but as he walked down the roads to the post box, something changed within him. He continues past the post box, starting on a journey that would change not only his life but those of his wife, Queenie and many others who take inspiration from this strange man’s pilgrimage.

Not that he sees it that way. For Harold, it just something he has to do. 

What makes his journey so different and inspiring is that he is doing it on foot. Walking six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to Berwick-upon-Tweed would be a challenge for anyone, but for a 65-year-old man who, on his own admittance does not walk, wearing only a pair of yaughting shoes and with no map, compass or phone, this trip was never going to be easy.

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage…” is a touching and entertaining tale of one man’s journey of self-discovery. Through the people he meets and recollections of his own long-buried memories, Harold learns again what it means to love and be loved.

The highs and lows of Harold’s journey are both entertaining and thought-provoking. I coldn;t help but have some sympathy for the poor man. I felt I understood his confusion and frustrations, although I like to think that I could get my own life in order without all the blisters and nights spent on park benches.

A thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking book. 

Missing You Already

Missing You Alreadyby Pauline McLynn

I always enjoy Pauline McLynn’s books. I like the gentle humour she brings to what are often challenging and emotional subjects. In Missing You Already, McLynn’s heroine Kitty Fulton faces the break down of a long-term relationship and the problems of dealing with her mother’s fight with Alzheimer’s.

Hardly what you would expect from a respected comedy actress, but that is what I find so appealing about her work.

Watching a loved one with Alzheimer’s slowly fade away is heartbreaking. Anyone who has had to cope with what has to be the cruellest of all illnesses will understand the pain and anguish Kitty faces as her mother drifts away from her. Whilst it does seem a rather odd choice of subject, and a very difficult one, McLynn seems to be at her best when confronting things no one else really wants to talk about. And of course, there is humour to be found in even the most tragic of circumstances. What comes through in this story is an incredible optimism and a wicked sense of humour that keeps the story buoyant and light.

Of course, there is a romantic twist to the story, although not in the typical rom-com style. Kitty has to deal with a lot of baggage from her past before she can consider making any new plans for her future. 

For me, this is one if Pauline McLynn’s best, with a page-turning combination of tragedy, humour, heartbreak and joy. An excellent read from an outstanding writer. 

Eligible (The Austen Project #4)

Eligibleby Curtis Sittenfeld

Pride and Prejudice is one of the great classics of English literature and undoubtedly Jane Austen’s most loved novel. Revisiting the Bennet family as part of the Austen Project is no easy task, But Curtis Sittenfeld takes on the challenge with some relish it seems. Not only does she transpose Austen’s most dysfunctional family into the twenty-first century, but she also manages to relocate them several thousand miles to the North American city of Cincinnati. Now I have to say that I was immediately put on my guard but such a bold move. The Bennet’s and their friends have always seemed to be the most English of communities. How could they ever be American? But once you begin to look at the characters, their lives, their prejudices and the social circles they move in, they just don’t exist in the UK anymore, but it seems they are alive and well and making a nuisance of themselves in Cincinnati. 

In their new surroundings, Liz is a magazine writer and Jane is a yoga teacher. They both live in New York but have returned to their hometown following their father’s recent health scare. Once they are back home the book follows the themes and general plot of the original story, but in some unexpected ways. Whilst the fundamental characters remain the same, the prejudices they face are very different indeed from those envisioned by Jane Austen in her original book. This new version tackles everything from class to racial and gender issues. In many ways it is like a mini soap opera with a whole host of twists and turns.

Whilst I enjoyed this modernisation of one of my favourite books, I did find it a little uncomfortable at times and through it lacked a little of the clever observational wit that made the original so endearing – and enduring. Of the books in this series, this is the one I felt the least connected with. Whilst the characters by and large remain true to Austen’s original creations, the twists ion the plot I found too far removed. That is not to say I didn’t like the book – I did. Sittenfeld is an accomplished and compelling writer but I sometimes felt she had her own agenda that had nothing to do with Austen’s classic. Although I haven’t read any of her other books I am sure I will before too long.

 

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.