Book Review: The Mountain Can Wait

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The Mountain Can Wait, by Sarah Leipciger, is a haunting tale of misjudgement, disconnection and the scars that run deep within families. Set largely in the mountains of British Columbia, Canada, the story centres around Tom, a widower, whose wife walked out on him when their youngest child was just a few months old. Tom is a practical, reticent man. He has raised his children in the environment which he loves, teaching them the practical skills that have served him well. He struggles to give them the emotional support that they desire.

The story opens with a hit and run on a lonely mountain road. Tom’s son Curtis, high on drugs, hits a young girl as she walks home from a party which they both attended. He leaves her in a ditch, thus changing the course of his life.

Tom works away from home for months at a time managing his tree planting business which aims to restore the damage caused by the logging companies. He harbours a dream of a home high up in the mountains where he may hunt and live at peace with his surroundings. When Curtis turns to him during a visit to town Tom does not understand his son’s need. It is only when the police arrive that he realises the seriousness of what has happened to his eldest child.

Tom has made his own mistakes. The spiteful actions of an employee tarnish the reputation of his business and fracture his relationship with his girlfriend. With his carefully laid plans falling apart he comes to understand what he must do for his family.

“His children? Like letting his heart and lungs go walking off without him.”

Parents serve their children’s sentences alongside them.

The writing has a stark, lonely quality that belies the beauty normally associated with this part of the world. There is nothing idyllic about these people or their surroundings.

The pathos of the story is countered by the avoidable foolishness of the protagonists actions. It could be argued that they deserved what they got, yet the harshness of such a judgement is highlighted by the empathy that the reader must feel when presented with the history and loneliness of each character’s situation.

A raw tale of the mistakes people make and the hurt that can be caused by misunderstanding those we love. If good writing causes strong feels then this novel, the author’s debut, is impressive indeed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

 

Book Review: Princess Bari

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Princess Bari, by Hwang Sok-yong (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) tells the story of a young girl from North Korea who is named after the legendary princess. The seventh daughter of a couple desperate to have a son, she is abandoned in the woods by her mother at birth before being rescued by her grandmother who gives her the name. Throughout her life she turns to her grandmother for help and advice, even after the old woman’s death.

Bari’s early life is as settled and happy as could be hoped for given the time and place in which she lives. Her father is astute in providing for his large family. With difficulty they survive a devastating famine but he is brought down by the actions of a relative. The family is fractured with Bari escaping to China with her grandmother and one of her sisters.

From here Bari’s life is a series of challenges. She is fortunate in her friendships, training as a masseuse and finding work at which she excels. However, as an illegal immigrant she is always at risk of deportation. Clampdowns in China lead her to seek her fortune elsewhere and she endures horror and degradation travelling to England as a stowaway in the hold of a container ship. Life in London, alone amongst the many other colours, religions and cultures, presents difficulties of its own.

The first half of the book is set in Korea and China with the second half set in England. Bari’s precarious position in society means that the contrasts are not as pronounced as one may imagine. Always she must live under the radar of the authorities, relying on the kindness of strangers from many backgrounds. She works hard, has some luck, but must also endure personal tragedy.

The plot is interspersed with dreams as Bari has a gift that enables her spirit to see other’s pasts, to talk to animals and to the dead. She believes that she is destined to live the life of her namesake. Her dreams are told as stories woven around the main plot.

The style of writing is conversational. The theme throughout is one of endurance, of the risks people will take to survive as they search for a better life. There are no demands for sympathy. The people Bari meets come from varied countries, cultures and backgrounds but are presented as human, the same except in how they treat others.

In the current climate of increased nationalism, demonisation of immigrants, and encouragement in the media to blame large swathes of society en masse, this is a sobering story. It does not preach but enlightens making the reader think about their attitudes and how they are manipulated by those whose aim is to retain and improve their own position.

The subject matter may be grim in places but this tale reads as a contemporary fable. It offers hope that if we treat others well we have a chance of a better life for all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Periscope.

 

Random Musings: Poldark

If you are unfamiliar with the early story of Ross and Demelza Poldark then please be aware that this post may contain some spoilers. I also refer to one plot line which has not yet aired in the current TV series. 

I am very old. Thus I remember, back in the day, watching the original television adaptation of the Poldark novels by Winston Graham. How I enjoyed that series. It even led to one of my first acts of rebellion. My Brownie Guide leader had been trying to instill a sense of competition in her charges as to who amongst the older girls should carry the unit flag at a ceremony to be held in our church. I was smarting from the perceived insult of not having been made a Sixer (this did happen eventually) and informed Brown Owl that I would prefer to spend my Sunday evening watching the latest adventures of Ross and Demelza. She was not impressed.

My sister bought herself the Poldark books and I read them avidly. At first my heroes behaviour fed my aching heart, but then they began to act in such a silly way. I persevered but the joy was gone. Why couldn’t they all have just stayed with their loves and lived happily ever after?

I was content to dislike Elizabeth who, having made her decision, should have tried harder with Francis. George Warleggan was easy to despise. It was Ross who hurt me so. I still feel disappointed when I hear of people giving in to temptation as he did. How can they expect such behaviour to ever cause anything but pain and regret rippling out amongst those they know and are supposed to care for?

All of these years later and the remake is causing quite a stir. The stills did not appeal to me with their objectification of Aiden Turner, the actor chosen to play Ross.

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In my view, Eleanor Tomlinson could never be Demelza after the wonderful Angharad Rees.

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However, I dislike being left out of the conversation. A few episodes in and I realised that I was enjoying the remake as much as I had the original. The actors have made these parts their own.

This time around I am seeing the story through different, older eyes. I also know where the plot is going.

At the end of Episode 4, Ross tells Demelza that he loves her. I have stopped watching here. I want to imagine that he will continue to be kind, generous, loving and giving. I don’t wish to watch the handsome hero fall.

In the books that I choose to read, the films that I enjoy, I am not a happy ever after sort of person. I find such a premise unrealistic. Life goes on and is never going to be entirely sunshine and roses. Why then does this story affect me so? What is it about the character of Ross that evokes such a desire that he should continue to be true to the young serving girl who loves him and who he took for his own?

The only other fictional character I can think of who has affected me in this way is Mr Darcy, but Pride and Prejudice finishes when he and Elizabeth wed. The reader is not required to consider what happens next.

Mr Darcy may have raised Elizabeth’s status in society but not to the extent that Ross did Demelza. In quite literally picking her up from the gutter and then teaching her how to be a lady Ross changed Demelza’s life irrevocably. His character is shown to be caring of all; he should have appreciated how far his wife had come for him and treated her more generously. He himself should have behaved better.

I recognise that I am intolerant of those who seek the excitement of the new when experience shows that hurting those we should be caring for is never going to lead to a happy outcome. The new all too soon becomes the mundane and, whilst it is possible to forgive, it is not possible to forget. My cynicism when I hear of affairs or marriage breakdown is reflected in my generally negative attitude towards fictional romance, except it would seem for Ross Poldark.

The first four episodes of the series see Ross rebuild his home, his land, his mine. He offers practical help to his tenants with jobs and housing. He rescues an urchin and, despite the disapprobation of his peers, marries her. He tells her that he loves her.

Ross’s willingness to work, alongside his disinterest in how society views him, makes him so very appealing to me. When he falls all those admirable qualities are tarnished.

I have still to decide if I will watch beyond Episode 4 although I wonder how my older eyes would view what is to come. I wonder how much understanding I have gained in forty years of living, and if increased tolerance of such behaviour would be a good thing.

Do you have any fictional characters who affect you deeply?

 

 

Book Review: Little Black Lies

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Little Black Lies, by Sharon Bolton, is disturbing, riveting, haunting. Set in the Falkland Islands a decade after the Argentinian invasion of 1982, it tells the tale of a close knit community brought to the brink by a series of child disappearances. Themes of grief, trust and the lies people tell to protect themselves are explored. How well can one person truly know another?

Catrin and Rachel have been best friends since childhood; that is, until Catrin’s two sons are killed whilst in Rachel’s care. Their deaths devastate them both. Three years later all Catrin can think of is revenge. Rachel is fighting her own demons in the form of crippling depression.

As Catrin considers the methods by which she may make her former friend suffer the most, a visiting child to the islands goes missing, the third in just a few years. The community mobilises to search for the little boy believing that he must have wandered off from his family. Few are willing to consider that he may have been taken. When a small community has grown up together, lived in close proximity, sometimes for generations, it is hard to accept that one of their own could act in such a heinous way.

What follows is a series of events which lay bare the individual secrets that are being harboured by so many. In the space of a few days accepted weaknesses become threats, causality is assumed and sides are taken. Actions that would previously have been understood as a necessary part of life on the islands are cited as proof of inhumanity.

The writing is dark and menacing. The isolation of the location along with the potential danger from natural phenomena on land and at sea are used to good effect. The reader feels the threats but cannot be sure of their source.

Woven into the mix is the plethora of damaged people who have all managed to present acceptable fronts to society. The grieving mother holds down a good job; the former soldier with PTSD is well liked; few realise how much Rachel is being hurt by her apparently supportive parents. What would normally go politely unremarked becomes reason to distrust.

The tale is filled with small town secrets and petty lies. These are not, however, what the story is about. At its heart is the darkness and isolation that can be created when a community turns on its own, how quickly trust can turn to hatred when those who belonged become ‘othered’.

I did not guess the denouement and found it most shocking of all; not because of who it was but that it appeared the secret was to be kept. I will be haunted by that thought. How far would those we know go to protect their loved ones?

I finished this book in a day. It got under my skin and I could not put it down. I envy those who have not read it the treat they have in store.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bantam Press.

Book Review: Chickenfeed

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Chickenfeed, by Minette Walters, is based on the true story of the ‘chicken farm murder’ which took place in East Sussex in December 1924. It was written as a Quick Read; a short, compelling and accessible work of fiction created to encourage more reluctant readers to pick up a book.

The protagonist, eighteen year old Norman Thorne, is flattered when the slightly older Elsie Cameron singles him out for attention after church one Sunday morning. Elsie is desperate for romance and dreams of getting married, but in the aftermath of the First World War suitable men are in short supply. Elsie is not good looking and is known to be moody. Few have paid her any attention.

Norman’s father is not pleased when the couple start to walk out together. He agrees to lend his son money to enable him to set up a small poultry farm in Sussex in the hope that he will lose interest in the girl. Elsie is determined not to let this happen.

What unfolds is a tragic story of loneliness, weakness and manipulation as both Norman and Elsie try to force each other to acquiesce to their desires. This is a believable tale of a relationship gone sour.

Norman was hanged for murder but always maintained his innocence. Elsie’s unstable state of mind was common knowledge but so too was Norman’s desire to have her out of his life.

The reader’s attention is grabbed from the first page to the last. Whatever opinion may be formed from the facts, questions remain. The author is not alone in asking, were Norman’s intentions proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’?

I will be distributing copies of this book in Chippenham, Wiltshire on World Book Night.

Book Review: Black Lake

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Black Lake, by Johanna Lane, is a story of a place and the effect it has on a family. Set in the fictional Dulough estate in remote Donegal, which the author has loosely based on Glenveagh, its beauty and isolation have been ingrained in the psyches of each member of the resident family. At the time of the tale they are being forced to move from the big house to a small cottage in the grounds for financial reasons. The estate is to be opened up for tourists. The effect that this change has on each of them is profound.

The Campbells have lived in the rambling and now crumbling big house for generations. John brings his new wife, Marianne, to live there after they graduate from Trinity College, Dublin. She had lived in this city all her life. She struggles to cope with the changes brought about by marriage and the move, with the history, remoteness and grandness of her new home; it takes some time for her to settle. John does not tell her that money is tight.

With the arrival of their two children Marianne determines to fit in to the place which is starting to work its magic on her. She finds solace in the gardens. Where once she was a prospective teacher she now uses her skills to home school the children. They are unaware that their unusual but settled lives are about to be sundered.

The isolation of the place is mirrored in the isolation of the family members. The tale is told from each of their perspectives bringing home how little even those close to us know of each other’s thoughts. Assumptions are made about why individuals act as they do. The children are young but still think and feel in ways their parents do not comprehend. An apparently innocuous incident leads to tragedy and this mutual lack of understanding is laid bare.

Loss, grief, guilt and the effect of imposed decisions are powerfully explored. Marianne resents that John has not shared his knowledge of Dulough and his concerns for its future with her. His motives may have been sound but were never explained. Neither parent appreciates the impact the changes in their lives have wrought on their children.

These universal themes are an undercurrent to a fascinating story that weaves one family’s history into a contemporary tale of the complexity of relationships. It is gently told but offers much food for thought. At just over two hundred pages the book did not take long to read. The feelings evoked will linger for much longer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: The Last Days of Disco

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The Last Days of Disco, by David F. Ross, is a nostalgic romp through a town in working class Scotland in 1982. Margaret Thatcher is in power and unemployment is high but for the small time crooks, the long time residents and the emerging youth, life remains largely introverted. Fashion sense may have lost its way but in the pubs and clubs around which local society revolves family, friends and music reign supreme.

The protagonists of this tale are Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller; best mates, about to finish school and with little idea what to do with their lives. They decide to try their hands as mobile DJs, thereby invoking the wrath of a local mobster, Fat Franny Duncan, who sees their endeavour as a threat to his own tiny empire. A motley crew of characters are drawn in to the turf wars that develop, each adding humour and pathos to the plot.

The comedy is schoolboy level with much being made of cock size, farts and the titillation created by female body parts. All of this is in keeping with the times.

The pathos is more thought provoking. Bobby’s brother Gary has recently joined the army and is called to serve in the Falkland’s conflict, bringing home the reality of war. Decades old family secrets bubble to the surface. The young people may dream but few have managed to move on from the lives expected of them.

The author has created a big hearted story which pulls no punches in the evocation of the times. The soundtrack keeps it upbeat as do the descriptions of clothes, place and attitudes; we really did dress like that. Despite many of the characters shortcomings it is hard not to wish them well.

I read the book in a day, the narrative bringing back memories, a realisation of what is lost and how far we have come. I will dig out my vinyls and re-listen to those songs. The hairstyles and outfits are best forgotten.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.