Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Lives She Left Behind by James Long

After so enjoying James Long's Ferney last week, I knew I wouldn't be able to leave it very long before starting on the sequel. There will be spoilers to Ferney ahead, so look away now if you'd like to read it (and you should - it's lovely!)

Our story begins with Jo, a sixteen-year-old girl who has had a difficult life with an uncaring mother. Since she was a little girl, Jo has heard a voice inside her, a woman called Gally who helps her make sense of the world and calm her fears. Though Jo's mother sees this as evidence of mental illness and tries to keep her quiet with pills, luckily Jo has two good friends at school who she can rely on for support. One of these friends is the daughter of an archaeologist, and when she suggests the three of therm go on a dig in Somerset, it's the perfect opportunity for Jo to get away from her domineering mother and find her real self. 

On the first day of the dig a young boy called Luke also gets a strange feeling of destiny. It leads him to the place where Jo and her friends are digging and, though the two of them don't properly meet, they both feel a thrilling sense that the other is near. By chance, there is another person at the dig who is of significance to both of them; Mike, a teacher who was once married to a woman named Gally who broke his heart.

Readers of Ferney are never in any doubt as to who Luke and Jo are, and much of the book is a game of cat and mouse with the reader as the two characters are almost brought together then torn apart several times before actually meeting. Luke is much quicker than Jo to realise his real identity, and there is plenty of scope for more fascinating historical episodes when the two finally do get together and he starts filling in some of the blanks for her. As in Ferney, these tangents are one of the best things about the book, and the author has found a great way of making history come alive with this unusual plot device.

The big stumbling block for Ferney and Gally's rose tinted future is, of course, Mike, who is even more sympathetic in this sequel than in the original book. He suffered hugely over Gally's actions, but he never stopped loving her and it's so sad to read about his futile hope that he might be able to be with her again after so many years. I think the author almost went too far here, but I suppose it did illustrate just what a force of nature Ferney and Gally were to have them unwillingly cause Mike so much pain.

There are far more characters in The Lives She Left Behind than there were in Ferney, which helped replace the sense of mystery that was inevitably missing in a sequel. The bonds of friendship between Jo and her friends, the colourful characters on the dig and the slowly developing sympathy of Mike's lawyer all helped broaden the scope of this novel and take some of the intensity out of the Ferney and Gally love train. Reading this was a slightly different experience to that of reading Ferney, but still very enjoyable and I had no trouble polishing off the book in one day. Four stars.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Final Demand by Deborah Moggach

This book was a Christmas gift from my stepfather, who became mildly obsessed after watching the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movie and went on a mission to read everything Deborah Moggach had written. Of all the books he tried, this sounded the most intriguing and it was nice to finally get around to reading it.

The book follows Natalie, a bored employee of the NuLine Telecommunications company, who spends her days processing bill payments and answering customers' telephone calls. Her relationship is on its last legs, she has no close friends and her job is dull and perfunctory, but Natalie craves the good things in life and manages to work out a clever scheme to get them. Some of the cheques she processes at work are made out to NT, rather than the full company name of NuLine Telecommunications. If only Natalie's surname began with a T she could alter those cheques and pay them into her own account, processing the bills as paid, and nobody would ever know. All she needs to do is find herself a husband whose surname begins with a T.

Natalie sees her crime as victimless; she is robbing from a faceless corporation and it's only what she deserves anyway as a loyal employee. As for the unsuspecting husband she ensnares... well, she's good to him, and there's no reason why he should ever know that she never really loved him. And yet Natalie's crime does have consequences, though she could never have guessed what they might be. This is a dark and twisting story about the ways in which our actions can affect others, perhaps people we don't even know. 

Natalie is a thoroughly unlikeable heroine, and we just know something terrible is about to happen, which gives the book a wonderfully oppressive feel. Our sympathies lie with Natalie's poor chump of a husband, who can't believe his luck when such a pretty girl appears to fall for him, and it's heartbreaking to watch him duped and taken advantage of. The characters in Final Demand are all cleverly written and feel like real people we could meet in our everyday lives. I don't want to say too much about the plot, but there is a family we are introduced to later in the book that is portrayed just exquisitely. They love each other, but hardly show it, and it's achingly sad to read about the things they don't say to each other, choosing instead to complain and bicker.

There's a touch of the Muriel Spark about Final Demand which is hard to define, but it put me in mind of the darker Spark novels I have read, like The Driver's Seat or The Public Image. Perhaps it's simply the way the author manages to say so much in so few words - though this is a short novel I felt as though I had been through quite an experience with these characters. Deborah Moggach is an incredible author and I can see now why my stepfather is such a fan. Five stars.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Valentine Grey by Sandi Toksvig

I'm a little nervous about buying books by celebrities. I worry that they might get them published more easily because of who they are, rather than the quality of their writing, and I could be spending my hard earned cash on a dud. However, as soon as I read the blurb of Valentine Grey I knew I had to buy it, and fortunately I needn't have worried for a second about the quality of writing. This is Sandi Toksvig, after all, not Katie Price.

The year is 1897, and Valentine Grey is still a child when we meet her as she is sent from her home in India to stay with relatives in England, a country she has never known despite her parentage. Her relatives are kind but distant, and she misses her beloved father desperately. When he dies shortly after her arrival Valentine is desolate, and the only bright spot in the girl's life is her young cousin, Reggie. Reggie is bright and vibrant, full of life and adventures, and he offers an escape for Valentine, who feels stifled at home by the lack of freedom allowed to women in England, right down to the restrictive clothes and corsets they wear.

When Valentine finds out that Reggie is gay, she accepts it as just another aspect of her cousin's personality, and she is happy to spend time with him and his new lover, Frank. Yet the trio's carefree world is soon to come crashing down, as Reggie's father enlists him as a soldier in the Boer War, something Reggie is hopelessly unsuited to and almost certain not to survive. Valentine, on the other hand, would love to be a soldier and knows it would offer her a freedom and a chance to see the world that she could never get as a Victorian lady. On the eve of Reggie's departure, while he hides with Frank, Valentine cuts her hair, puts on his uniform and heads off to war in his place.

The term "emotional rollercoaster" could have been coined especially for this book. I was in actual tears on the very first chapter when Valentine's father died, but there are plenty of laughs too in the early part of the book. Sandi Toksvig can be very witty and she knows how to turn a phrase to make the reader smile. However, this is also a book about war, and her descriptions didn't shy away from its horrors; there are passages in the later part of the novel that perfectly conveyed the hopelessness and hardships that the ordinary soldier went through. 

Valentine is a wonderful character, full of spirit and determination, and we get to know and love her remarkably quickly. Reggie is loveable and naive, and we can well understand why Valentine has such a need to protect him. Minor characters are also well drawn and help to make the book such a pleasure to read, like Valentine's fussy aunt, her bluff but good-hearted uncle and the supercillious Lady Talbot, a family friend and thorn in Valentine's side. Aside from Valentine and Reggie, the characters that make the most impression are the other soldiers in Valentine's batallion. The cameraderie, the laughs, the loyalty and interdependence of a small group of men thrown together in the most horrendous conditions is perfectly portrayed here. Seeing it all through the eyes of a woman is an interesting twist that makes the novel even stronger.

When Valentine leaves the book takes up a dual narrative, and the chapters about Valentine's exploits in South Africa are alternated with the story of what happened to Reggie and Frank back home. Reggie tries to keep a low profile as he is supposed to be off soldiering, and spends most of his time holed up in Frank's flat. This enforced confinement adds even more intensity to their relationship, and it's easy to get swept up in their love affair. This is Victorian London, however, and homosexual relationships are simply not allowed. Reggie and Frank are to live through some very difficult times, and much of their story is very hard to read. I was almost more affected by Reggie's story than by Valentine's, and I admit to feeling quite upset with the author for what she put him through. 

I absolutely loved Valentine Grey, devoured it in one day, and felt quite bereft when I turned the last page. It's left me with huge respect for Sandi Toksvig's writing talent and a definite wish to seek out her other novels. Five stars.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Tideline by Penny Hancock

Tideline was included in the Richard and Judy list last year, and I bought it in a fit of enthusiasm as soon as I heard the premise. Like so many of these “must have” purchases, as soon as I got it home somehow other books seemed to take priority and this has sat forlornly on my shelf ever since. It's a shame I waited so long, because Tideline was a suspenseful and creepy book that well deserved all its rave reviews.

Much of the book is told in the first person by Sonia, a middle class woman with a successful husband, a teenage daughter at university and a beautiful house - the home she grew up in - on the banks of the River Thames in Greenwich. One day a friend's fifteen-year-old nephew, Jez, pops round to borrow a record and Sonia invites him in. They talk and seem to get on well, but in Sonia's mind is the thought that she doesn't want Jez to leave. Jez is so young, on the cusp of manhood but still a child in many ways, and Sonia thinks he is perfect. That first night Sonia gives Jez so much wine that he passes out on the sofa, but when he wakes he finds that every time he tries to leave she finds a reason why he can't. Within a couple of days he's gone from being a bewildered guest to a prisoner locked in a room, drugged up with pills to keep him quiet, and desperate to escape back to his home and family.

Jez's abduction happens gradually, and Sonia isn't really thinking about the consequences. In her mind she believes that she'll let him go, but she never seems quite ready to do so, and she doesn't think too far ahead or believe that what she is doing is really wrong. In her disturbing narration we also get little stories from her youth when she was in love with a boy called Ben. We sense some tragedy surrounding Ben, and it's clear that Jez reminds Sonia of him, but it isn't until the end of the book that we find out exactly what happened. Sonia's relationship with her husband is also interesting; as he works away during the week he is introduced later to the story, and we get to examine the dynamics of a very chilly marriage.

Along with Sonia's narration are passages in the third person which focus on Jez's family and their slow realisation that he is missing. In particular, we follow Helen, Jez's aunt and Sonia's friend, whose house Jez was staying at when he went missing. Helen has always held a minor resentment towards Jez, her sister's perfect child who outshines her own sons in every way, and irritation at her sister's mollycoddling of him mingles with feelings of guilt for ever having such thoughts. As the only character who knows both Jez and Sonia, Helen may be the only one who can solve the mystery of what's happened to him, but as she drowns her sorrows in alcohol and becomes more unstable with each passing day, she's a forlorn hope for the unfortunate boy.

This book oozed oppresive atmosphere and dread, as we slowly realise just how disturbed Sonia is and how much danger Jez is in. It made me feel incredibly uncomfortable to read the interactions between Sonia and Jez, as its obvious that her obsession with him has a sexual componant, but the author manages to tread the line here very well and there are no graphic scenes of abuse. One thing that does stand out about the book is its brilliant use of its location on the River Thames. The Thames is filthy, full of unseen horrors dumped there over the last couple of thousand years, it's seedy, misty, cold and opaque, and every bit of that mysterious and unsavoury atmosphere permeates the pages of Tideline. It's obvious that the author knows the area very well, and Sonia does too; the river almost becomes its own character in this book.

I did have one gripe with Tideline, which I suppose I'd better get out of the way. Jez really doesn't make enough of an effort to get away. At fiteen, he's described as a strapping young lad, and I'd have thought he could have made a much better and more sustained attempt at freedom than the one half-hearted one that is included. Nor does he try to talk his way out of the situation by getting to know Sonia and trying to manipulate her. I know he's only a boy, but I'm sure at fifteen I would have had a lot more determination than he does, and wouldn't have just meekly accepted the situation. 

If you can overlook this one blip in realism, Tideline is a very solid and creepy thriller with a slow build up and a nail-biting climax that will keep you turning the pages. It's Penny Hancock's first novel, and I'll be very interested to see what her second one will be. Four stars.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Ferney by James Long

You might think that time travel romances aren't normally my kind of thing, but there was something about the description of Ferney that made it sneak into my basket a while ago. The time travel romance tag turned out to be woefully inadequate for this complex and nuanced novel, which I loved  for its warm characters and highly original plot, quite unlike anything I'd ever read before.

We are introduced to Mike and Gally Martin, who are looking for a new home together somewhere in the West Country. Mike adores his wife, but he feels she needs his protection too; her mental state is sometimes fragile, she can be a little disconnected at times, and at night she suffers from terrible nightmares. One day the couple stumble across a dilapidated cottage in Somerset and Gally immediately falls in love with it. She feels as though she knows this place in some deep, inexplicable way and this feeling grows even stronger when she meets an old man, Ferney, who lives nearby. Ferney seems to know her, though they have never met before, and Gally in turn is drawn to him. The feeling of coming home is so comforting that Gally soon persuades Mike to buy the cottage and have it turned into their new home. 

Once restoration of the cottage is underway, Mike and Gally start to see a lot more of Ferney. Gally's relationship with the old man grows ever closer, and he seems to understand her and ease her fears in a way that Mike never could. When Ferney explains the reason for their deep connection Gally is shocked, but she can't deny the truth of what he says.

The relationships between the characters in Ferney are fascinating, particularly in the case of Mike. He can see Gally getting closer to Ferney and it bothers him, but Ferney is an old man in his eighties and Gally is twenty something, so he feels guilty for feeling jealous. He worries that Ferney's tall tales will influence Gally negatively, but at the same time he can see his wife becoming calmer and more secure as she spends more time with him. I was really impressed at how the author manages to make Ferney and Gally's relationship so sweet and tender without ever feeling icky. Somehow we are able to look past Ferney's age to the person inside, and we are able to imagine how Gally feels when she is with him. There's a lot more I could say to explain why this works, but I don't want to give away too much of the plot, so just trust me, it's all ok!

One of the great joys of Ferney is its sense of place; it's deeply rooted in the Somerset countryside and I could almost smell the fresh air and fields as I was reading. The historical sections are fascinating too, and it brought events from history to life in a way that a dusty textbook never could. I felt I learned a lot from these sections, which was a nice bonus I hadn't expected. 

I was very happy to hear that a sequel to Ferney has recently been published, and I shall definitely be reading that very soon. In fact, I might just dowload it to my kindle now and spend the rest of the afternoon happily engrossed in a bucolic epic love story. Marvellous stuff.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Part of the reason I wanted to read this is because I've got Will Self's novel, Dorian, sitting on my shelf and I thought I might get more out of it if I'd read this first. Of course, most of us know the story, but with something this well known it can often be surprising to read the original novel and see how it can differ from your preconceptions.

The first we learn of Dorian is through a conversation between Basil Hallwood and Harry Wootton. Basil is an artist who has become completely infatuated with the young Dorian, who is fresh faced, youthful, innocent, and becomes Basil's artistic muse. His friend Harry is intrigued to meet the boy who has inspired such devotion and goes with him to watch him create his latest portrait of Dorian. This turns out to be a masterpiece which captures Dorian's beauty perfectly, and which Basil gives to Dorian as a gift.

After an impassioned speech from Harry about the golden days of youth and how precious and fleeting they are, Dorian makes a wish. He wishes that the portrait could grow old instead of him, and display all his wrinkles and blemishes, while his own face remains as clear and fresh as the day it was painted.

The book is filled with hateful people, not least of which is Harry, who is partly responsible for what happens next. Wilde is less interested in the effects of age on the features than in the effects of sin, and as Harry uses his influence over Dorian to set him on an evil path, Dorian's every cruelty shows up on the portrait. You could argue that there are religious overtones here; that even though a person may look innocent, somewhere his misdeeds are being recorded and they may be used against him one day.

The book caused a huge scandal when it was first published, and it's easy to see why. Wilde is so obviously writing about romantic infatuation between Dorian and Harry, and even more so between Basil and Dorian, that I wonder at his bravery publishing certain chapters given the attitudes at the time. In fact, it did come back to haunt him later as parts of The Picture of Dorian Gray were read out at Wilde's trial as evidence against him.

Oscar Wilde is possibly best known for his clever witticisms and, even in a book as dark as this, there are a few examples to be found that made me smile. One thing that didn't make me smile is his attitude towards women. He says some terrible things about women in general and its obvious he felt nothing but distain for the whole gender, even after making allowances for nineteenth-century attitudes. Not cool, Mr Wilde.

The idea of a portrait that grows older, and that becomes more grotesque with every sin, is pretty amazing. The passages that focus on the picture are still very creepy to read today, and Wilde does a great job of imagining how it might feel to have a thing like that in your attic. Dorian is horrified by it, but he's also compelled by it, and he can't resist going to peek at it every so often to see how it's changed.

I had some reservations about The Picture of Dorian Gray, and found it a little slow moving in parts, but the plot and characters are so strong that I can see why it's considered a classic. Four stars.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Bout of Books - The Updates

So this is how it works, right? I post about each day's progress after the day is over? Well, it's now 10.30am on Tuesday and I've only just woken up (oh, how I love having time off work), and so now seems like a good time to tell you about yesterday, and also set up the post for future updates through the week. 

Monday
I got off to a great start and read one whole book. It was quite a chunky book too. To be honest, Ferney was so amazing I don't think I could have put it down anyway, so it's a good job I didn't have to. I also managed to write one review, which isn't the two I was hoping for, but that's OK.

Books read from - Ferney by James Long
Pages read - 536
Reviews written - 1
Running total - Books: 1, Pages: 536

Tuesday
I didn't quite manage to keep distractions at bay yesterday, so ended up reading less than on Monday, though I still finished a book so I'm happy with that. I couldn't gather the enthusiasm to write a review however, which isn't so good, but I'll try and do better for the rest of the week!

Books read from - Tideline by Penny Hancock
Pages read - 340
Reviews written -  0
Running Total - Books: 2, Pages: 876


Wednesday
Oooh, three fewer pages than the previous day - yes, I'm slacking indeed ;-) Valentine Grey was an amazing book - one of the best historical novels I've read in ages and quite the emotional rollercoaster. I did write a review of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the morning, intending to write another one in the evening, but it didn't quite happen, so I'm still behind but not catastrophically so. All in all I'd say this read-a-thon is going pretty well.

Books read from -Valentine Grey by Sandi Toksvig
Pages read - 337
Reviews written -  1
Running Total - Books: 3, Pages: 1213


Thursday
We finally got a bit of sunshine yesterday, so I decided to spend most of my time out and about enjoying it. It was lovely, but it does mean my page count suffered and yesterday was the first day I didn't read a whole book. Ah well, never mind - Bout of Books is supposed to be low pressure so I won't get too upset over it. Lack of book finishing in no way reflects on the awesomeness of my current read; Final Demand is seriously good, quite dark and disturbing, and with a great plot that's twisting and turning all over the place. I shall definitely finish it soon.

Books read from - Final Demand by Deborah Moggach
Pages read - 134
Reviews written -  0
Running Total - Books: 3.5, Pages:1347


Friday
Oh dear, I started the week with such lofty expectations, but I'm afraid that page count just keeps on dropping. Do I have an amazing excuse for not reading much yesterday? Um... not really. I kind of got sidetracked by The Sims - there's something about that game that just swallows time! I did at least finish Final Demand, so it wasn't an entirely wasted day, but I'm afraid my reviewing mojo did not put in an appearance. Ah well, never mind, at least I'm having a nice relaxing time off, even if I'm not quite reading as much as I'd hoped.

Books read from - Final Demand by Deborah Moggach
Pages read - 96
Reviews written - 0
Running Total - Books: 4, Pages: 1443


Saturday
Sorry for the lateness of my update. I didn't get home until 4 o clock this morning (Sunday) after a night of Eurovision-based shenanigans so, as you can imagine, I slept on late today (well, afternoon actually!) Apart from being out all evening, yesterday was a day of getting boring jobs done (car to garage, apply for new driving licence, baked a cake, food shopping, cleaning,), so unfortunately very little reading was done. I just managed 40 pages of my latest read first thing yesterday morning. Pitiful, I know, but sometimes real life does get in the way. I Have Waited and You Have Come has got off to a promising start and, as it's pretty short, I should be able to get it finished in time for the end of the read-a-thon. This would bring my total books read to a respectable five, which isn't the seven I was hoping for, but has at least made a modest dent in my TBR. I also have next week off, so I should be able to read a few more before I have to go back to work. I do need to crack on with my reviews though, as so far I've only written one. That's worse than a normal week!

Books read from  - I Have Waited and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh
Pages read - 40
Reviews written - 0
Running Total - Books: 4, Pages: 1483


Sunday
Well, that was Bout of Books! My first but probably not my last, even though I didn't quite manage to hit my ambitious goals. I did finish I Have Waited and You Have Come but it's quite short so I only have another 134 pages to add to the total. And reviews... Oh, I don't know what's wrong with me lately, I seem to be finding reviews such a chore. I always used to love writing them so hopefully it's only temporary, but being off work makes me want to run away from anything that even vaguely feels like work at the moment. Does that make sense? Ah well, I don't know, maybe I need some time off from the blog - we'll see. Anyway, despite my reviewing rubbishness, I did enjoy all the reading, so thanks to the hosts of Bout of Books for making it such a lovely event.

Books read -1
Pages read - 134
Reviews written - 0
Running Total - Books: 5, Pages: 1647