Category Archives: Modern Literature

The Island

The Islandby Victoria Hislop

When this book was passed on to me I was told simply that I would love it. Reading the synopsis, I wasn’t so sure, but then you can’t always judge a book but it’s cover.

The story begins when Alexis Fielding, holidaying on Crete with her boyfriend, takes time out to visit the village of Plaska to see an old friend of her mother’s. Alexis’ mother, Sophie, was born on the island but has kept her past a closely guarded secret, even from her daughter. Alexis soon begins to learn the truth behind her connections to not only Crete but also the former leper colony of Spinalonga.

In the spring of 1939, the Petrakis family are about to be torn apart when much-loved schoolteacher and beloved mother of Maria and Anna, Elenia, is forced to leave her home and take the one-way journey to Spinalonga.

The inhabitants of Spinalonga live an isolated and peaceful existence, but nothing can hide the toll that mankind’s oldest disease can take on those who unfortunately contract it. Whilst the family are spared the worst of Elenia’s suffering, they soon face new troubles when your Maria is diagnosed with leprosy.

Anna is now married into a wealthy family but there are problems brewing and their father, Giorgis doesn’t know how to health either of his daughters.

The outbreak of war brings research into a cure for leprosy to a halt, prolonging the suffering of those living on Spinalonga.

The Island is a story of love, heartbreak, prejudice and determination. It challenged my preconceptions about leprosy and introduced me to the history and people of Crete. It is entertaining as well as thought-provoking. I loved the characters and their intricately woven lives.

 

Great Small Things

Small Great Thingsby Jodi Picoult

Reading Small Great Things made me angry!

Now I know that may not be the way you would expect a positive book review to start I suppose I really need to explain myself.

You see, if there is one thing that is guaranteed to get my hackles up, it’s blatant injustice. I am by and large a tolerant, liberal-minded person. I always look for the good in people and am willing to see the best. But when I see innocent people suffer at the hands of institutions, governments or individuals for no good reason I find myself wanting to do nasty things to those behind it all. To read or hear of people persecuted or denied their basic rights simply because of the circumstances of their birth I find totally unacceptable and it makes me very angry.

Small Great Things made me angry. Not because I didn’t like the book, but because I did. The story was very frighteningly real. The plot, the narrative and the issues it raised forced me to question my own preconceived ideas about race and equality in a way I never have before.

The story centres around the death of a newborn baby, Davis Bauer following a routine procedure. When the fingers start pointing there is an inevitability about where the grief-stricken father’s finger is pointing – the nurse who he had banned from looking after him. But why had she been told not to treat young Davis? Did the family question her qualifications? Had she done something terrible? No, to the child’s parent’s Ruth Jefferson’s only crime was not being white.

The story is told through the eyes of the book’s three main protagonists: Ruth Jefferson the nurse accused of murdering the baby, her lawyer Kennedy McQuarrie and Turk Bauer, the father. As they each tell the story as they see it, it becomes very clear that although each is doing what they think is right, their perceptions are very different.

Using three voices to tell the story highlights the very different life experiences and turns this from a gripping drama into something very special. We all see the world from our perspective; what this book does is give the reader an insight into someone else’s point of view.

From the initial events, through the investigation and trial to the gripping conclusion, Great Small Things is an exceptional work of fiction that reads like a true story. A great book that I can thoroughly recommend.

An Unsuitable Attachment

An Unsuitable Attachmentby Barbara Pym

Originally submitted in 1963, An Unsuitable Attachment was rejected by her publishers. Even after revision it failed to be accepted and marked the end of Barbara Pym’s initial success as a published author. Barbara enjoyed a second helping of success in the late 1970s but this, which should have been her seventh novel was not published until 1983.

Reading the book now I can see why it failed to excite the interest of publishers at the time. It is in much the same vain as her previous six novels but if lacks full characterisation and the premise is dated, even for the early 1960s. The story lacks focus and seems to meander about between the various characters, as if looking for somewhere to land. The central characters of the story, whose relationship inspires the title, are ill formed and lack any real depth. This is down to the fragmented nature of the narrative rather than the ability of the author. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really good characters, they are just not fully realised in the way they deserve to be.

There is still plenty of gentle humour and wry observation that are the hallmark of Barbara Pym’s work and make her books so enjoyable. But, for me, it was a little disappointing. I really wanted to know more about Ianthe Bloom and her beau John Challow.

This is not one of her best works. It is a pleasant enough read but failed to capture my imagination.

The Humans

by Matt Haig

The Humans opens with Professor Andrew Martin walking naked through the wet streets of Cambridge. To say he is not feeling himself at that moment is something of an understatement. In more ways than one, he really isn’t himself.

The Andrew Martin that his family and friends know is no more. In his place is a very different Professor Martin for whom clothes are a mystery and food and drink sickening. Even his lovely wife and teenage son he finds repulsive.

For Andrew Martin is literally not of this world. He has been replaced by an alien sent to Earth with a simple mission – to prevent the dissemination of Professor Martin’s recent discovery by whatever means necessary. 

As a life-long reader of science fiction, I am quite at home with the concept of alien abductions, body snatchers and close encounters. They are de rigueur as far as sci-fi goes. What I am not used to is coming across these plots in a book that is very clearly not of that genre. “Humans” is not a science fiction story, just a thought-provoking and witty tale whose narrator just happens to come from another galaxy.

I have read plenty of books where we see alien life from the human perspective, but never before have I been asked to view humans from the alien point-of-view, at least not si directly.

Matt Haig’s unique approach is both funny and profound. As out unnamed alien discovers for itself, humans are much more complicated than a quick glance at our history or new headlines might imply. Certainly, there is more to humanity than conflict and greed. You just need to get up close to see it.

Although I was a little uncertain at first I very quickly realised that the odd nature of the book was one of it’s most compelling attractions. The inner conflict between the new Andrew Martin’s mission and his newly discovered humanity give the story its impetus. It is well written, very funny and ultimately revealing about human nature.

This book may not be for everyone – I know many people may find the concept of an alien amongst us difficult to deal with – but I found it very engaging and enjoyable. 

Luck Bunny

Luck Bunnyby Jill Dawson

Lucky Bunny is on the second Jill Dawson novel I have read and I am already seeing a pattern. Not that that is a bad thing. It is a story of a strong woman looking back on her tough childhood.

Queenie Dove’s story is one of frustrated opportunities, abuse and determination. She grows up in the grim surroundings of London’s East End during the 1930’s Life is tough for everyone. Queenie is a genius but any ambitions that she or anyone es might have had for her are stifled by her would-be criminal father and her depressive mother. Her only anchor is her Nan who does all she can to protect Queenie and her brother Bobby from the worst excesses of their unsuitable parents.

With her father’s connections, it is almost inevitable that the two children find themselves on the wrong end of the law. But this in itself brings Queenie new friendships that will last a lifetime.

There is nothing fanciful in Jill Dawson’s writing. Her characters and the situations they face are believable because they are disturbingly real. Children like Queenie really did exist and to some degree still do. The events portrayed in this book can and did happen.

Queenie Dove is a strong woman molded by the opportunities and terror of the war years. Her story will resonate with many women I am sure.

Luck Bunny is full of atmosphere. The story has a gritty reality that makes Queenie’s tale believable and compelling. 

 

Watch Me Disappear

Watch Me Disappearby Jill Dawson

Watch Me Disappear is a haunting and at times disturbing tale. Tine Humber returns to her native Norfolk for her brother’s wedding only to reawaken tragic memories she has fought long and hard to suppress.

Thirty years previously, in the summer of 1972, her childhood friend Many Baker disappeared. No trace was ever found of the 10-year-old and now, as Tina begins to reassemble the fragmented memories of that long-ago summer, she begins to see events more clearly. But with the new clarity dawns a certainty that the truth behind Mandy’s disappearance may be much closer to home than she had dared to believe.

Her questions threaten to tear her family apart and bring to the surfaces memories and feelings they would all rather forget.

I found this book a little disturbing in places, dealing as it does with a subject most of us would much rather not contemplate. It reminds me that sometimes, true horror and real monsters are with us every day and not just between the well-crafted pages of a Stephen King novel.

The plot is slow-burning leaving the reader plenty of space to consider their own speculations about what happened Mandy on that summer afternoon. It also offers an interesting view of the remote and often-overlooked corner of England.

Jill Dawson is a skilled storyteller. She brings not only her characters to life but also the period itself and the innocence of youth. This is the first Jill Dawson book I have read and I am sure it won’t be the last.

 

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.