Book Review: Letters From The Suitcase

Letters From The Suitcase, edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan, is exactly what it says on the cover. It chronicles the wartime love story of Rosheen Finnigan’s parents, David and Mary, in epistolary format. The correspondence started in 1938 soon after the couple first met in London. It continues until 1943 when David died of smallpox in India.

The letters are grouped to cover significant changes in the couple’s circumstances over the years. Each chapter is prefaced with a short introduction by Rosheen putting the letters that follow into context. Although the world was changing around them due to the Second World War, many of the letters contain details of the minutiae of their day to day lives alongside ceaseless outpourings of their love for each other.

At the beginning of the book Rosheen explains how she was first given the letters just prior to her mother’s death. She had not previously understood the intensity of her parents’ relationship which flourished despite the fact they spent much of their married life apart. An epilogue explains how reading the letters enabled Rosheen to understand how important she had been to both David and Mary. This was a moving denouement to what is a lengthy work.

Mary was a feisty young woman determined to live her own life even after marriage and motherhood. She suffered depressive periods and would call David out if she did not feel supported. David seemed more typical of the period with his concerns that she retain her slim figure, although his love for her and desire for her wider well-being are clear. They both reference a mutually satisfying sex life and there is jealousy if any unfaithfulness is suspected.

The letters are deeply personal and provide a picture of day to day life during a war. As well as the loneliness of separation there are financial hardships. These do not prevent them from enjoying a lively social life both when together and with their many friends. They reference books read, films watched and the politics of the day. Privations are mentioned although the letters are written with largely good humour.

Despite some interest in the wartime detail this was not a book for me. I found the letters repetitive and the book overly long. I had hoped for something along the lines of Chris Cleeve’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven. I can understand their value to Rosheen, but these letters did not provide enough to keep me interested for close to five hundred pages.

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

Book Review: Tin Man

“And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.”

Tin Man, by Sarah Winman, is a hauntingly, achingly beautiful story of friendship and love. It opens with a night out at a community hall in 1950 when young mother-to-be, Dora Judd, wins a painting of sunflowers in a raffle, her first ever act of defiance. The timeline then moves to 1996 when Ellis Judd is living alone in a house that has stood still in time for several years. He works nights at a car plant in Oxford. He is struggling to survive.

Ellis’s life, like most people’s, has had its ups and downs. He once had a best friend, Michael, and a wife, Annie. He dreamt of being an artist until his father got him an apprenticeship at the local factory, a potential job for life. Ellis is good at this job where he is accepted and respected. He understands that he has made choices and must somehow learn to live with their consequences.

The story takes the reader back through Ellis’s memories: of his beautiful and loving mother; his distant, angry father; and to Michael, his charismatic friend. Michael came to live with Mabel, his grandmother, when he was twelve years old. Both boys were made welcome in Mabel and Dora’s homes, treated as if their own.

Michael was the exuberant, risk taker in the friendship but it was Ellis who enabled him to shine. When Annie arrives on the scene she is determined not to come between these two young men. The weight of life’s continuing experiences increasingly stunts all of their abilities to fly.

Following on from the short prologue, the book is written in two parts telling the story of Ellis and then of Michael with intersections offering depth to each other’s tales. The language throughout is artistry in prose. The imagery feels so rich it is almost decadent. The grief is raw and heart-rending to read.

The author has woven a love story that is intensely moving yet avoids all the cliches and banality typical of the genre. It does nothing for effect even though deeply affecting. Despite presenting each life lived with a stark actuality, this is a tale oozing colour and possibility.

I have read many excellent books this year but have no hesitation in saying if you buy only one then let it be this. A glorious, heartfelt read.

“I look at these young men, not in envy but in wonder. It is for them now, the beauty of discovery, that endless moonscape of life unfolding.”

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

Book Review: See What I Have Done

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See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt, is a reimagined account of the notorious case of Lizzie Borden. On the morning of 4th August 1892 the mutilated bodies of Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby, were found in separate rooms of their large house in the town of Fall River, Massachusetts. They had both been murdered with what was suspected to be an axe. Andrew’s younger daughter, Lizzie, was first on the scene. His older daughter, Emma, was away from home at the time, visiting a friend. The girls’ Uncle John had been an overnight guest. Also in the house was the maid, Bridget.

The author has taken the known facts of this true crime and woven a chilling story which takes the reader inside an unhappy household where resentments run high. Events are presented through the eyes of each of the surviving key players.

Following the death of their beloved mother, Emma was tasked with caring for Lizzie, her junior by almost a decade. Lizzie was not an easy responsibility to manage. She has always felt entitled to her sister’s affection and attention. Both desire their domineering father’s love. The girls regard his remarriage as a betrayal. Andrew is a cruel and controlling figure. Despite his wealth he keeps a tight rein on all expenditure.

The oppressive heat of the summer permeates each scene. This is a house filled with adults who do not get on yet who can see no way of changing how they live. They feel hard done by, often with good cause. The hurts bubble over into heated exchanges.

The writing evokes an atmosphere dark and chilling despite the heat. Sweat blooms on constricted skin. The sounds of scraping and swallowing grate the inmates sensibilities in the brooding silences. Body odours are rife, breath rancid as food that spoils in the heat must still be eaten; waste will not be tolerated. Boredom and the prospect of endless confinement together allow grievances to fester.

The house is kept tight shut, doors locked, secrets held close. This is a respectable family in a small town. Lizzie is a Sunday School teacher, Emma dabbles in art. Their oppression is hardly unusual for the time. The murders threw a spotlight on what most worked hard to keep private.

I was aware of the Borden story from The Legend of Lizzie Borden (TV Movie 1975), a film I watched as a child. Even knowing what would happen I found this book compelling.

The story is skilfully constructed, the writing taut and evocative. The truth of the denouement may be questionned, as it has been since the conclusion of the murder trial, but this is a riveting tale that I recommend you read.

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

Book Review: In a Land of Paper Gods

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In a Land of Paper Gods, by Rebecca MacKenzie, is a book that I approached with high expectations having read many glowing reviews. Perhaps for this reason it took some time before I felt fully engaged. Yet the early chapters were necessary in order to understand what came next. By half way through my heart was hurting for what had been done to the young protagonist. This was the human cost of religious fervour from a point of view I had not previously considered, and having been inspired by true events was all the more difficult to comprehend.

“Missionary parents need somewhere to send their children so that they might continue their work. […] As Jesus said to Peter, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold.” God will bless us for these sacrifices […] The adults nodded and murmoured. I felt furiously sick.”

Etta is a young schoolgirl born in China, sent away when she was six years old to a boarding school for the children of British missionaries on the distant mountain of Lushan. Prior to this she had spoken Chinese as well as English and answered to her Chinese name of Ming-Mei, which means bright and beautiful. Now aged ten she has only vague memories of her parents having seen them but twice in the interim. She is forbidden to speak Chinese whilst at school.

Etta is a lively, boistrous girl, regularly losing points from her Goodness Card for untidiness and unseemly behaviour. Like all children, she craves admiration. When she believes that God has spoken to her she sets up the Prophetess Club, recruiting the other girls from her dormitory. When one of these girls threatens to gain control Etta dreams up tasks to draw the others back to her. She takes them out of bounds, to a glade she has discovered where a young Chinese girl plays. She proposes that they copy their elders and convert the child, with tragic results.

In the background are the rumblings of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The cruelties of children and loneliness of the school regime give way to the more extreme experiences of wartime occupation. The challenges Etta and her school must face are now physical as well as mental.

The poignancy of children sent away by their parents is painfully presented. When a mother pays a visit to the school her young son breaks down when she leaves and must be manhandled away. A girl from Etta’s dormitory, Sarah Charleston, has her mother come for a short stay. The girls are taken to a mountain pool to play, all eager to experience a mother for themselves.

“We dived – Mrs Charleston, look at me! We bombed – Mrs Charleston, watch this! We roly-polied underwater – Mrs Charleston, did you see that? We swung on the vine, out over the pool – Mrs Chrleston, look, I’m a monkey! Mrs Charleston’s name rang across the forest. Even Sarah leapt up on the vine shouting, ‘Look at me, Mrs Charleston!’ When she caught what she said, a look of pain crossed her face, and she fell into the pool.”

The arrival of the war to their doorstep curtails such visits. The children hear news of parents escaping the country, or being held prisoner in camps. They wonder if they will ever again see these strangers who have become faded memories, black and wight images from the photograph each keeps on their bedside cabinet.

The author brings China, especially the mountain of Lushan with its mists and glades and temples, to life with stunning imagery. Etta’s journey goes briefly beyond, but the girls’ known world is their school until the soldiers arrive. They have learned to follow rules and live within themselves, indoctrinated with the Christian teachings and starved of love. One of the first acts of a threatening Japanese soldier is to free a young boy from a cruel punishment inflicted by a teacher. Etta had once again broken rules by trying to offer comfort.

The war forces the residents of the school to live in constrained and tightened circumstances. It also allows the children to experience more worldly adults and Etta begins to understand that there are other ways to live. Her subversive tendencies become her strength despite the continuing rejection by her peers.

I wondered how the suffering inflicted on these children, instigated by their own parents, would affect them in later life. So much hurt had to be suppressed in order to survive. Perhaps this is why our boarding school educated politicians appear to lack the ability to empathise.

This poignant tale slowly engulfs the reader with its beautifully crafted prose. I ache for what these children were put through, and not just by the war. A highly recommended read.

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

 

Book Review: A Year of Marvellous Ways

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A Year of Marvellous Ways, by Sarah Winman, is a book to be savoured. The use of language is exquisite, the imagery surreal. The reader is transported to the quiet creek in which much of the story is set and can experience the magic of the place. This is a tale of people broken by grief who find healing in time, tide, and friendship.

The protagonist is eighty-nine year old Marvellous Ways who lives alone in a gypsy caravan on the shores of a remote tidal inlet in Cornwall. She has lived there for much of her life. Although age is affecting her body and her memory she feels that she has one more thing to do before her life ends, she just isn’t sure what it might be.

Francis Drake is a young soldier, scarred by the Second World War. He returns to England to fulfil a promise he made to a dying man. Before setting out on this quest he visits London and the scenes of his childhood. Here he encounters a love he had thought lost, then loses her again in circumstances that stretch him beyond what he can bear.

Marvellous finds Drake and nurses him back to health. In the process they share their stories and we learn of lives lived, loves lost and the damage inflicted by loneliness. There is happiness and regret, success and stoicism, grief and acceptance.

I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Marvellous. We get to know her as an eccentric old lady but she has lived a long life and is more than the worn body the world now sees. She is both ordinary and extraordinary as so many people are. Strangers mock her dress and habits; Drake looked further and saw the love she had always longed to share.

The denouement mixed sadness with hope, the endings and beginnings that make up a life. This is a beautiful, satisfying read with plenty to ponder after the last page is turned.

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

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go

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If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go, by Judy Chicurel, is a coming of age story set in 1970’s Long Island in the USA. Despite being populated by chain smoking, hard drinking, drug taking teenagers it has a poignancy that transcends the antipathy these activities may evoke in some readers who have perhaps led more sedate lives. The characters are universal in their hopes and dreams for a better future, their feelings and frustrations portrayed vividly despite the veneer of their rebellious lifestyle.

The protagonist, Katie, is the adopted daughter of parents who frown upon many of her choices, from friends, to habits, to the places she chooses to hang out. In her desire to find a place where she can belong she has taken to frequenting the down at heel cafes and bars, a result of the economic fragility of an area abandoned by the rich when they discovered cheap air travel. The story is set in the summer when Katie and her friends graduate from High School. They are on the cusp of the rest of their lives.

Katie has grown up in this area. She has had friendships at elementary school with the Puerto Ricans who are now drug dealers. She has watched from afar the privileged Dunes with their cashmere sweaters, their clothes never to big, their teeth never crooked.

“Those girls from the Dunes! We envied them, hated them, and wanted to be them, isn’t that always the way? It’s an old song, because those girls are everywhere, in every story, in every life; fairy tale princesses […] Prettier, brighter, lovelier than everyone else, or at least they think so, and they are never fearful of ridicule or laughter or life.”

Katie and her eclectic group of working class compatriots dream of escape from parental displeasure and the confines of a community where they are so well known. Some dream of marriage and babies, a fate which several achieve early. Others eschew this result of unwise couplings seeking abortions. Sex is a hot topic of conversation as they make out on the beach or in the back of cars. This is teenage life at its most raw.

Alongside the growing up and getting out is the shadow of Vietnam which only those who have experienced it can fully understand. The vets are welcomed home but then silently resented when they fail to slot back into the places they once held. Katie has long held a candle for one such boy, Luke, who she dreams of seducing. As she bides her time, believing this summer to be a beginning rather than an ending, she watches as her friends, one by one, move on with their lives.

There were things about this story that I felt were overdone: the constant smoking, the drinking and drugs; but what do I know of the reality of the time?

However, the teenage dreams were memorably intangible yet painfully authentic. The generational disconnect, the importance of friends and the aching need for something more were evoked perfectly.

I loved the denouement. The author wove together all the stories told; treasured memories of experiences, good and bad, that can never be repeated. Who does not look back on this period in their lives with both fondness and regret? Katie’s story reminds the reader of the transience of the present, no matter how important it may seem at the time.

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

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.