Book Review: Wolf Hall

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Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is the first book in a proposed trilogy which explores the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationships with his contemporaries in the court of Henry VIII. Much has, of course, been written about the Tudors, especially those who came and went during the reign of this much married monarch. The main plot holds few surprises yet the author weaves an engrossing tale around these key events. This is a compelling and fast moving story which takes the reader into the heart of the powerhouses of Britain at that time. It is a reminder that social changes have complex settings.

Thomas Cromwell was noteworthy because he was low born yet rose to become the king’s key advisor in an age when the aristocracy guarded their power with an iron fist. Cromwell’s prodigious memory and attention to detail, alongside his political astuteness, enabled him to ride the changing tides of favour and fortune which brought so many others down. He bought and sold secrets with adroitness, a shadowy figure amongst peacocks. He valued knowledge and looked after his own.

The story is a fascinating biographical fiction but it is the quality of the prose which sets the book apart. Well known names are given life, the period is evoked with precision but also feeling. Cromwell’s inner thoughts offer explanations as to why notable events occurred as they did.

As Cromwell mulls over events, calculating odds on emerging players, he keeps much hidden from the reader, as he does from all those who surround him. In rare moments he will recognise in himself certain of his less admirable characteristics. How often do we all rewrite even our own memories?

Despite being over six hundred pages long the plot moves along apace and the writing flows. Use of language and imagery are exquisite. I am wary of Booker Prize winning novels as I have, in the past, found some to provide turgid reading; to be scholarly more than enjoyable. This is a readers book, an immersive and captivating story presented in an accessible, potent voice.

Random Musings: Going up and Coming down

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It is the end of the summer, the August Bank Holiday weekend. I am nearing the end of my fourth, big summer read and I am hibernating from the world. It has been a summer of highs and lows.

We managed only a few days away; once again there was no big family holiday this year. The children could not agree on where they wanted to go or commit to dates when they would be free. Even the weekend we booked was boycotted by elder son who preferred to stay home alone than come away with us. At least this precluded the need to organise a chicken sitter as he can be trusted to look after our feathered friends.

Yet these difficult to please children provided me with the major highlight of the season when they managed to achieve straight A’s in their exams. Elder son can now apply to the universities to which he aspires. After two years of focused effort daughter will be going up to medical school in October. I am so incredibly proud of their achievements.

I announced to the world that daughter had achieved her dream and was accused of crowing. Other friends quickly stepped in to reassure me that I had every right to feel proud. My view? It would be sad if, after dealing with all the crud that teenagers throw at their parents, we were not permitted to take enjoyment from their successes.

Life goes on. After the highs of family celebrations came the inevitable low. I have been through this often enough to know that it will pass but have still to deal with the noises in my head. I unfold each of my strategies: good food, regular exercise, fresh air, early nights. The lethargy of body and relentless questioning that anxiety brings drain my reserves.

Thank goodness for my books. I have read some wonderful works this summer. I discovered Urbane Publishers who sent me ‘Leaves’ and ‘Eden Burning’, both of which I enjoyed immensely. Another small, independent publisher, Influx Press, sent me two non fiction works which turned out to be fascinating reads; look out for ‘Imaginary Cities’ and ‘Total Shambles’. I had the big books set aside for summer to enjoy: ‘Purity’, ‘The Bone Clocks’, ‘Wolf Hall’ and the incredible ‘A Little Life’. And then there were a slew of less demanding but still thoroughly enjoyable works. I have written reviews for them all, do check them out.

We now have this long weekend at home before school resumes for my boys. Both are entering academic years which will culminate in yet more important exams. Daughter will be with us for another month before going up to Imperial College in London. There will be shopping to do, packing for her move and then the challenge of a drive into the city to settle her into her new home. Husband is already saying that he does not wish to deal with the inevitable difficulties of traffic and parking so I, the reluctant driver, will be taking on this challenge.

Life goes on. I received no new books in the post this week. My husband is pleased as he tuts at the size of my overflowing TBR mountain. He is not a reader. He does not understand. Although I feel no entitlement to ARCs the buzz of receiving them never diminishes. When a publicist offers me a book and it does not then arrive a little part of me shrivels. Do I not write good enough reviews? Is my readership not big or diverse enough? I comfort myself with the thought of the books which I already own that I can now read instead.

I had planned to attend an event last week to hear an author, whose book I enjoyed over the summer, talk about her work. Then my little car died. Husband diagnosed the problem, ordered the necessary part and left elder son to fit it. I was dubious but he did a careful, effective job and my car is once again on the road. I should have more faith.

I should have more faith in myself. That is my biggest challenge.

 

 

Book Review: Once Upon A Flock

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Once Upon A Flock, by Lauren Scheuer, is the perfect read for those of us who keep hens, those who are considering doing so, or those who are simply curious as to why back garden hen keeping has become so popular. It is a humorous account of the author’s decision to acquire a small flock of hens, and how she then came to love and care for her feathered friends.

Illustrated throughout with photographs and sketches it is a visually appealing book as well as being an entertaining read. It also provides some great insights into the challenges that keeping hens presents.

The adventure begins when:

“one day, totally without warning, Sarah grew up. She retreated to her room and began morphing into a teenager – the sedentary, electronic type.”

Having lost her outdoorsy playmate, the author decided that her daughter’s place in the garden could be taken by chickens. Lauren already had a chicken keeping friend. She also had impressive carpentry skills so could make her own coop. When I was contemplating my own hen keeping adventure the initial cost seemed the biggest hurdle. Lauren could offset this by making everything from scratch.

Her initial flock were purchased as day old chicks which Lauren raised inside her house under a heat lamp. When the cute and fluffy chicks had grown and developed enough to become feathered they were relocated to the yard. Lauren describes how she regularly moves them to fresh ground, and keeps them safe while they free range. Training the family dog not to attack the birds was just one of the challenges she faced.

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Over the course of a couple of years she deals with sickness, changes to the pecking order, re-homing, a broody hen, death, and the integration of new birds. There is also a proliferation of eggs, extremes of weather, and the need for hen sitters whilst on holiday. The book reads like a story but manages to cover the basics of looking after a back garden flock in a useful but always amusing way.

Chickens each have their own quirky little characters and are great company in the garden as well as being entertaining to watch. Lauren obviously adores her birds, but she doesn’t shirk from describing the difficulties they can present.

The writing flows and the illustrations help bring each new challenge to life. This book was a pleasure to read and I will be recommending it to all my chicken keeping friends.

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

Lauren blogs about her chicken keeping adventures over at Scratch and Peck.

Book Review: Hello, Goodbye and Everything in Between

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Hello, Goodbye and Everything in Between, by Jennifer E. Smith, is set over a twelve hour period during which High School sweethearts, Clare and Aiden, must decide if they are to stay together or break up before they leave their small suburb of Chicago for separate colleges in distant states. As they drive around their old haunts, meeting up with friends and saying their goodbyes, they debate and argue the pros and cons of maintaining a long distance relationship when their personal horizons are about to expand and change.

Although I was drawn into the story I found it quite slow moving. The language jarred slightly, especially the continuous use of ‘I know’, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘you know’ in the narrative. I understand that the conversations were between young adults, and perhaps this is how some of them talk, but the repetition was a tic that affected the flow of the tale.

The characters were varied and believable. Aiden and Clare, along with their families, were nicely drawn as were their relationships with their closest friends, although I found it hard to believe that some of the cruelties inflicted with words would be easily forgiven. These were young people who had known each other for years; I would have expected more understanding and compassion.

The feelings of excitement and trepidation as the realisation that what they had worked towards for so long was about to happen were well evoked. I liked that Aiden was as upset at the prospect of leaving his best friend as he was about leaving his girlfriend, and that Clare had not understood this before. The scene where Stella called her out on her self-centredness was satisfying. Clare was making such a big deal of her decision when all around, her peers were dealing with their own emotional challenges.

The denouement worked well even if, in my view, the final pages could have been set after more time had passed.

This is a gentle story of endings and beginnings, of the bittersweet experiences of first love, and of the nervous anticipation that precedes even the most longed for milestones in the timeline of a life.

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

Book Review: Eden Burning

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Eden Burning, by Deirdre Quiery, is set in early 1970’s Belfast, and brought home many memories. I was raised in the city in this troubled time, although not around the inaccurately named peace line. My home was in a newly built suburb on the opposite side of town. From the Castlereagh Hills I could look down over the city and see the Cave Hills beyond. I would hear the deep boom of the bombs but knew only a few who were injured or killed. It wasn’t until I went up to the university that I met those from the ‘other side’.

After my first trip into the Ardoyne, where much of this book is set, I was phoned by a friend and warned that the security forces had noted the presence of my car. I ignored their advice to stay away. I wanted to understand why we were required to live apart.

Eden Burning takes the reader into the heart of this conflict and, by introducing the reader to two families on either side of the sectarian divide, goes some way to explaining the background to the personal vendettas which fueled the bloodshed for so many years. The hatred was bred into the children as they grew. With large numbers of schools and residential areas still segregated by religion, too many still feel this way today.

The protestant family in the book has William McManus as its patriarch. He remembers the Easter Rising, the introduction of Home Rule, and the Republic of Ireland being granted full independence from Britain:

“it was one of the darkest days of William’s life. William felt that he had lost something. Something had been stolen from him which was a warning of worse to come.”

William and his elder son, Cedric, fight for God and Ulster. In the late 1960’s they burned Catholics out of their homes. They pick up random Catholics in their black taxi and murder them, deriving pleasure from watching them die. With the help of another man, Sammy P, they plant car bombs to breed fear, to damage and kill.

William’s wife, Eileen, does not question where her husband and son go or what they do. Her younger son, Peter, is still at school and has dreams of being a doctor. His father wishes him to join the family firm.

The Catholic family is headed by Tom who grew up in the Great Depression. He recalls scouring the pavements for dropped coins that his family may buy food. His father had his mother locked away in the Purdysburn mental hospital, quickly remarrying when she died. Tom treasures his memories of his mother, embracing her willingness to forgive.

Tom married Lily but they were not blessed with children. After his sister Catherine’s death they cared for her daughter, Maria, and then later for Maria’s daughter, Rose. Tom, Lily and Rose were burned out of their home on Glenbryn Park near the Ardoyne so took a house on the Crumlin Road opposite their church. Rose falls asleep at night to the sounds of riots in the street outside. She is secretly friends with a British soldier, and goes to school with Clara whose father, Ciaran, is a killer for the IRA.

As the story opens we learn that Cedric and William plan to murder Rose. Tom has gone to the priest to ask for a gun that he may protect his family. What unfolds is how each of the characters got to this point, and what happens next.

There are vivid descriptions of the mindsets of the time. The undercurrent of hatred that William and Cedric carry for all Catholics is well evoked. Alongside the violence, destruction and random bloodshed on both sides of the divide are descriptions of everyday life. Whatever else is going on the families offer welcoming cups of tea, soda bread, tidy homes and concern for their loved ones. Breakfasts are cooked and pints drunk in the pub.

One scene that felt eerily familiar occurred when Cedric asked the barmaid, Jenny, out for dinner. Almost as soon as they arrive at their destination Jenny wonders why she agreed to come:

“Jenny smiled weakly, feeling slightly uncomfortable and not knowing why. Maybe it was because Cedric seemed to not so much smile at her but rather to leer at her. His voice was unusually sugary sweet. She began to wish she hadn’t said yes to this date.”

I have been on that date with that man, only my experience was with someone from the other side. As well as taking me to dinner he took me to a party and proudly introduced me to his friends in the IRA. I was not impressed.

Perhaps I should not be reviewing a book that feels so close to my own experiences as it will inevitably colour my views. However, this is a story about people and place, written to draw the reader in whatever their own lives may be. I can confirm that what is written feels real, terrifyingly so.

Perhaps because it is so close to home I did not feel satisfied by the denouement; it was the only part of the book that I could not empathise with. I enjoyed the twists and turns which drew these two families together, but found it hard to believe that such embedded hatred could be so quickly diffused.

I left Belfast because I could not bear to live with the attitudes lurking beneath the surface of so many otherwise lovely people. I could never understand how the hating could be done in a God of love’s name.

For those who are interested in The Troubles this book is an interesting read. It is also a fine and well written story. Any conflict requires the support of ordinary people; in this tale they are brought vividly to life.

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

 

Guest Post: Sarah Jasmon

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Published earlier this month by Black Swan (a Transworld imprint), ‘The Summer of Secrets’ is author Sarah Jasmon’s debut. I was fortunate enough to be sent a copy by the Curtis Brown Book Group (you may read my review by clicking here) and was then invited to discuss the book at an on line meetup. Sarah took the time to answer a lot of questions!

As I said in my review, I do not quite understand why Helen’s life was impacted to such a degree by the events revealed. I am therefore delighted that, in this guest post, Sarah focuses on the relationships between her characters. Do you remember the summer you were sixteen? I know I do.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Sarah Jasmon.

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The Summer of Secrets is mostly about friendship, about the intensity of those early proto-love affairs, when you find a soulmate who, for a season, becomes your constant companion. Think of films like Me Without You, or almost any story about high school. (In trying to narrow the choice down, I came across this excellent article by Rowan Pelling: The darker side of female friendship – Telegraph.) Such friendships tend to fizzle out in the end, with one or both participants moving on to different relationships and wider interests. In film and fiction, and occasionally in real life, they move into darker territory.

Helen and Victoria are not equal partners in their friendship. Helen has been unhappy at school, and is facing a summer with little interaction outside of her home environment. She is wary of Victoria even as she is dazzled by her, constantly on the lookout for snubs and dismissal. The younger sibling, Pippa, is safe in comparison, an uncomplicated child with a sweet nature. Victoria is tough, world-weary and single-minded. She is happy to take up with Helen whilst no-one else is available, but she’s not a friend to rely upon. She is exciting, though, her plans always hovering on the outer edge of acceptable.

It’s this imbalance that stops the friendship from becoming dangerously intense. Victoria is careless and occasionally cruel, but not malicious. Someone asked me the other day if I thought that, had the summer not ended in the way it did, would Victoria and Helen stayed in touch? And I think they wouldn’t. Victoria would have left, shedding Helen without much regret. Helen would have taken time to recover, but would have ended up a stronger person, with wider horizons. Except that fiction is never that straightforward.

The book is also about absent parents, and the effect that can have on events. I’ve always liked how children’s fiction allows for total freedom. The Famous Five are forever left to their own devices whilst parents go abroad, or find themselves too busy with important work to take any notice of what the children are doing. Arthur Ransome makes sure that the Swallows and the Amazons are without supervision, Just William goes out in the morning and evades the adults with chaotic consequences. I wanted to capture some of this release.

In any other summer of her life, Helen would have been unable to follow Victoria in the way she does. Her mother’s absence and her father’s self-absorbed depression are not her normal experience, unlike the Dover family with their long-lost father and the fragile mother who is always at least one remove from reality. But at the end of the summer, when everything has fallen apart, it’s Helen who is left with no emotional safety net. Her mother, having been absent, is now permanently excluded from her confidence. There is no return to normal, no resolution.

Another question that’s often asked is how can Helen have forgotten what happened so completely? I’m not going to answer that: being vague is the author’s prerogative after all! What I will say is that I think trauma and a guilty sense of half-recognised responsibility, coupled with shock and sudden change in circumstance, can lead to suppression. Helen has no-one to talk to, no fresh air or perspective to make the unthinkable into a manageable thought. She turns in on herself instead, and packs everything away. When we meet her as an adult, the person she was that summer is encased in a hard shell and hidden deep inside.

Meeting Victoria again forces her to chip away at that protected centre. I know what I think happens afterwards, but you’ll have to decide for yourself. Let me know.

Summer of Secrets Front Cover

This post is the final stop on The Summer of Secrets Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

Sarah-Jasmon-Blog-Tour

If you would like to know more about this author, her website may be found here: Sarah Jasmon – All the best writers live on boats.

Book Review: A Better Man

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A Better Man, by Leah McLaren, is a story about a couple who have drifted apart after the birth of their twins. From being two highly paid professionals who devote the majority of their non working hours to each other, they have become virtual strangers who just happen to live under the same roof. There are insights which any parent of a young child can relate to, although it is written in an unchallenging way which will not appeal to all. This is easy reading but with added humour and poignancy.

Maya Wakefield is a stay at home mum with a nanny to help her care for her toddler twins and their comfortable home. Unlike any nanny I have known, Velma is willing to act as cook, cleaner and counsellor as well as providing childcare. Maya also has a therapist and a personal trainer, an expensive hair stylist and a wardrobe of immaculate clothes. None of it makes her happy.

As Maya worries over the exact ingredients of the foods her children ingest, continues to breastfeed and share a bed with her offspring – an arrangement which has driven her husband to sleep in another room – she nurses a dull awareness that even when he is there in body, his mind is elsewhere. She knows that he has stopped loving her. Maya gave up a successful career as a family lawyer to care for her children and now devotes the energy and attention to detail that her job demanded, to raising them in the way that her parenting books and magazines instruct.

Maya’s husband Nick feels incompetent around his children and irrelevant to his wife. As the co-owner of a successful advertising agency he works long hours and is admired by his staff. He flirts with many of the young women and questions why he should not allow himself to take things further. He is unsure how his marriage went so badly wrong but he has had enough; he wants a divorce.

The problem is that a divorce is going to cost him all of the lovely things that he has worked so hard to acquire. Despite recognising that they are mere baubles he is unwilling to give them up. His wife is their children’s primary carer so would get the family home, and he would be required to keep her in the manner to which she has become accustomed.

I found this quite hard to believe. The children have a nanny so there seemed little reason why Maya wouldn’t have been expected to return to work if Nick and she divorced. She has an impressive career track record and has not been out of work for so very long. However, the legal advice that Nick is given is that if he wishes to minimise his financial liabilities then he needs to become a better husband. He needs to help Maya with the children and encourage her to return to work. He also needs to make her like him again, that the divorce may have a better chance of proceeding amicably.

The main plot looks at how Nick goes about enacting this plan, and then how Maya finds out what he is up to and reacts. There are few surprises but it is nicely written with a pleasing flow. In many ways Nick does Maya a favour by snapping her out of her obsessive perfection parenting. Given the way she is presented to the reader I was rather surprised by just how far in the other direction she went.

I prefer a little more depth to characters, but do not wish to pick holes when I suspect that this was never intended to be that kind of book. This is a nicely constructed and effortless read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.