Category Archives: Modern Literature

Crooked Heart

Crooked Heartby Lissa Evans

Lissa Evan’s openly admits that she has a deep fascination for the lives of ordinary people during the 1939-45 war. There seems to be a growing interest generally in this side of those dramatic and turbulent years. Wars are not always fought exclusively on the battlefields, and the lives of those left at home are becoming of increasing interest. I have never been a fan of conventional war stories but do enjoy books that take a look at life on the home front.

Lissa will be recognised by many as the writer of “Their Finest Hour-and-a-Half” (since made into the film of almost the same name). Where “Finest” focused on the struggling British film industry, Careless Heart takes an often humorous but always enlightening look at evacuees, the black market and the Blitz. 

At the outbreak of the war, Noah Bostock is living with his elderly godmother on the fringes of Hamstead Heath. Life is simple and Noah is happy. But very soon events turn his life upside down and he finds himself evacuated to St Albans. An on cue, enter Vera Sledge, thirty-six-year-old widow, drowning in debts and struggling to care for her mother. Vera is unscrupulous about how she makes the money she needs and sees the rather sickly looking Noah as just another opportunity.

Vera and Noah and as different as chalk and cheese, but their needs soon begin to bridge the gap. Noah has the cool head and ability to plan the vera lacks, making them a perfect team. Together they cook up a scheme to make money quickly. But there are some things that even Vera will not stoop to, and when they come across those who will, things begin to get dangerous.

Careless Heart opens a window on the seedier side of wartime Britain, but with humour and compassion. Lissa’s research into home front activities of the period makes this book not only entertaining but informative. I thoroughly enjoyed Noah and Vera’s story and was left wanting to know more about this miss-matched pair. 

 

 

Perfect

Perfectby Rachel Joyce

For 11-year-old friends, Byron and James, the summer of 1972 was a landmark in their lives. It was a time of innocence, a time when all young boys should have been having adventures and enjoying the great outdoors. But for Byron and James – and their families – this was a summer of momentous change that set them all on new and very strange paths.

It all began with a traffic jam on the way to school. When Byron’s mum decides to take a short cut through the notorious housing estate she sets in motion a train of events that lead us to the second thread of the narrative.

it is 40 years later. Jim spends his days cleaning tables in the supermarket cafe and his nights slavishly following the routines imposed by his OCD. He has no friends but his routines keep him far too busy as he strives to keep himself and everyone around him safe. 

As the narrative swings between 1972 and the present, the connection between the two slowly begins to take shape. It is a very tragic tale but one with an all-be-it discretely hidden sense of hope. It is not an easy story. Byron in particular faces challenges that no 11-year-old should ever have to. 

If there is a villain in this tale it is Byron’s distant and domineering father. The greatest tragedy of the book is that when his young son needs support and love, his father is unable to offer it, leaving a very confused boy to make sense of the cruelties of the world on his own.

I found this to be an emotionally charged but very enjoyable book. I was just a couple of years younger than James and Byron in 1972 and have my own memories of the period that Rachal Joyce evokes very clearly. And although our backgrounds were very different, I found I had a real affinity with both boys, but Byron in particular. I could feel his frustrations. how much different his life might have been if anyone had just given him a hug and sympathised with him when he needed it.

Although not perfect, Perfect is a compelling read that will pull all your emotional strings. A great read. 

A Few Green Leaves

A Few Green Leavesby Barbara Pym

Having already read a couple of Barba Pym’s novels before, I picked this one up expecting much of the same. In one way I was not disappointed – Green Leaves is a simple story of ordinary folk facing new challenges told in a straightforward, matter of falk sort of way. It is the simplicity and ordinariness of the characters and their situations that make her work so captivating. There is nothing too demanding.

But ultimately I found Green Leaves rather disappointing. The plot was a little thin, the story a little meandering. The narrative tried to follow too many characters with the result that none were given the time and room to grow and develop in a way I would have expected. It is all a little too shallow for me.

Whilst I enjoyed the way the book opened a window onto a community and way of life that was under threat at the end of the 1970s when the book was written, the story itself lacked the focus and insight that made her earlier work so compelling.

A Few Green Leaves was Barbara Pym’s last novel and I really wish I could say she finished on a high, but I can’t. 

To be fair, the book is a light, gentle read perfect for a summer afternoon on the beach, just don’t expect to be swept away by it. 

Second Chance To Live

Second Chance to Liveby Roscoe T Kearns

Hmm. I find myself in a quandary over this book. For one thing, I am not sure why it made its way onto my wish list. I can only think I was looking for something a bit “different” that day. If that was the case then I certainly got what I asked for. 

The premise behind the book is interesting enough, but sustaining that idea through 400 pages or more proved a little too much. In the book, Kearns questions the concept of fate and destiny which I found intriguing, but I found he laboured the point a little too much. It is about two people meeting by chance and immediately recognising a kindred spirit. Almost immediately they begin to unburden themselves, revealing their pasts and hidden secrets to someone who is, effectively a total stranger. Events in each of their pasts have set them on the path that ultimately leads to each other. And whilst I found their stories intriguing, the idea that they would tell each other these things on their second date I found very hard to swallow.

I have to say that although I found the writing itself to be generally very good, I did feel that the whole thing was overlong and in need of a good edit. There is a fair bit of repetition but for me, the biggest cuts would have to be the totally unnecessary erotic sex scenes. Don’t get me wrong, I am no prude, but for me, they added nothing to the thrust of the story (no pun intended!). 

One of the books most intriguing twists – and something I can’t remember coming across before – is that we never know the names of the two characters, nor where they live. Whilst they openly talk about other people and places, they remain anonymous. Kearn’s explains the reasoning for this in his prologue, he wanted to leave it to the reader to decide who these two people are. 

Not a book I would recommend to friends, but it is interesting enough if you enjoy erotic fiction with a bit of a twist. 

Still Me (Me Before You #3)

Still Meby Jojo Moyes

The third (and final?) instalment of Louisa Clark’s journey of self-discovery.

Since her first appearance in the very moving “Me Before You”, Louisa Clark has faced her fears, horrors from her past and her own mortality. She has loved, lost and loved again, following her heart and built a new life away from the confines of the family home.

Here we find her taking up a new job in New York as an assistant and companion to the exotic and temperamental Agnes Gopnik. As she begins to settle into her new role and acquaint herself with life in the Big Apple, she also has to deal with what she has left behind, namely her new boyfriend Sam. Can a fledgeling romance survive the distance she has put between them? Only time will tell, but as she begins to make new friendships maintaining old ones in far off England do seem t be becoming increasingly difficult.

Louisa Clark is Jojo Moyes’ most endearing and captivating creation. She is something of an anti-heroine. She does not comply with any stereotypes and for me, that is what makes these books so much more interesting.

If I am being totally honest, the previous book was a little disappointing, but I think that is largely because the first was such a hard act to follow. As a conclusion to Louisa’s story, “Still Me” as something of a return to form. She has to face a number of challenges, not least of which is finding herself homeless and jobless at one point. But her positivity and belief in human nature and it has to be said, her rather unconventional sense of fashion, prove to be her salvation. In forcing Louisa to question what and who she is, Jojo Moyes throws those questions out to the reader. Do we shape ourselves to fit in with those around us, or do we go our own way?

“Still Me” is a great read. I have to admit that the more I read the more enjoy Jojo Moyes’ work. Hidden beneath the sugary romance are some interesting plots and questions that go beyond the usual romantic fiction.

A Glass of Blessings

A Glass Of Blessingsby Barba Pym

I have to admit to being a bit of a newbie as far as Barbara Pym is concerned, this being only the second of her books I have read. 

This is the story of Wilmet Forsyth, a bored young housewife, living in the London suburbs with her husband, Rodney, and her mother-in-law Sybil. 

She begins to attend a local church, becoming increasingly involved with the clergy and their congregation. But that is not her only distraction; she has also become the focus of attention for the brother of her closest friend. 

First published in 1958. A Glass of Blessings offers an insight into the prejudices of the time. Wilmet is bored, but there is no realistic chance of her returning to work; wives of men who work at “the Ministry” are supposed to stay at home, arrange the flowers and play hostess for dinner parties. 

Wilmet is very much a product of her times. Even her flirtations have an innocence about them.  The book itself is a joy to read, as much for the naivety of its characters as for the story itself which is light and easy going.

Pym’s renewed reputation has allowed readers such as myself to enjoy her work. Whilst they may not be challenging, what I have read so far have been enjoyable and entertaining. 

 

Exit West

Exit Westby Mohsin Hamid

Over the past couple of years, I have become quite a fan of Mohsin Hamid. His books are insightful and entertaining. His reputation as a writer of great fiction is well established and well deserved, so I embark on each new book with high expectations.

Opening in an unnamed city, presumably in the middle or far east, Exit West is a love story with a hint of science fiction/fantasy. As their lives are shattered by war and intimidation, Saeed and Nadia meet at college and soon become lovers. Whilst their relationship blossomed, stories began to circulate of mysterious black doors appearing all over the city, offering an opportunity to start a new life elsewhere. That is where the science fiction comes in. Individuals passing through these doors are transported, via a companion doorway in another location. 

Saeed and Nadia are amongst those who pay to use one of these doors to escape from the death and destruction that surrounds them. Looking for a new life leads the couple to make several such trips, taking in Greece, London and California. 

Each of the places they visit offers a mix of opportunities and troubles. As the number of these black doors grows, the number of travellers grows with them, bringing with it increasing pressure on the points of arrival. 

The subject of immigration is a very relevant one at the moment and this book taps into that, but from the point of view of the immigrants themselves. Saeed and Nadia face many difficult decisions and their relationship is tested many times before they eventually find themselves somewhere to call home. 

Although this book is very different from his previous works, it does share their intriguing insights into human nature. His characters are all well-formed and very easy to feel empathy for. Leaving your home behind to step into the unknown is a daunting prospect and would test the resilience of any individual doing so. In Exit West, Hamid asks some very difficult questions about not only immigration but also about tolerance and acceptance. 

I admit that I was not sure about the concept of the doorways. Not that I have any issues with the idea of instantaneous interdimensional transportation. As an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, these concepts are not new to me, but I have never come across them in the context they appear here. I can see that many of Hamid’s regular readers might find the idea of the doorways distracting and off-putting. For myself, they were simply a convenient device to enable the more intense and intriguing examination of human nature and xenophobia.

Mohsin Hamid’s standing as a great writer remains undiminished. An interesting, insightful and novel that only goes to prove what a good writer he is. 

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.