January wrap-up 2021!

I don’t know about everyone else, but this January has felt sooooooo loooooong. It’s not been a bad start to the year for reading though, with a couple of real gems popping up already. I’m just sorry I haven’t got round to reviewing them all, but in lieu of that, here’s a run down of January’s book discoveries – I’d love to know if you’ve read and enjoyed any of these too!

  • The Hand of Justice by Susanna Gregory – I come back to this series periodically after first getting into it in 2018, and this is number ten. If you’re a fan of historical crime that’s not too dark or heavy-going I’d highly recommend them; the first is A Plague on Both Your Houses. Perfect escapism from the trials and tribulations of the modern world!
  • Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers – Do you ever come across a book that you love and want to produce a glowing review for…… and then find that somehow you just can’t write about it?! Unfortunately this was one such book, but I want to put a word in for it here because it was excellent, and if you’re interested in retellings of ancient myths then it will fascinate you. It’s the story of Oedipus as told to a dying Sigmund Freud by a mysterious figure who visits him in his final weeks – a figure who it transpires was a participant in the story itself! I thought Salley Vickers’ novel was an exceptionally clever twist on the idea of how we retell old tales, and it’s definitely worth a look.
  • Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession – I wrote a review of this only a few days ago (which you can check out here) so I won’t say too much more other than, put it on your tbr pile now!
  • The Foundling by Stacey Halls – I’m aware that I’m very late to the party as regards Stacey Halls, and having LOVED this book I’m sorry I didn’t read her sooner. It was one of those novels that kept you up until the small hours, desperate to find out what was going to happen; her previous book, The Familiars, has just arrived in a parcel this morning, and I’m currently debating whether to leap into it straight away or save it for a time when I need a guaranteed page-turner.
  • The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley – and this was a guaranteed page-turner that I’d been saving! I thought The Guest List by the same author was enormous fun (read my review here); to be perfectly honest, this was pretty much an identikit format with an incredibly similar cast of characters, but actually, I found I didn’t care as what was also identical was the level of enjoyment I got out of it!
  • Little by Edward Carey – Before I started on this wrap-up post I was debating whether to pick a January Book of the Month and decided I couldn’t because the choice was too hard. If I had to though, this would be a definite contender. My full review is here, but in summary it was a thoroughly original, striking, macabre and imaginative piece of historical fiction: highly recommended.
  • Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer – This was the final installment of the Southern Reach trilogy, which I started reading not long before Christmas, and I can honestly say I can’t remember a series that disturbed me as much as these. It’s not outright horror by any means, yet the ideas at play here are so terrifying when you really start thinking about them, that it’s difficult to get them out of your head. I am SO lucky to have just received a proof of his latest novel, Hummingbird Salamander (out this Spring), and it’s next on my list to read.

As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read any of these, as well as any must-reads I need to add to February’s list! Until next time, happy reading x

“Leonard and Hungry Paul” by Ronan Hession – review

There are some books that announce their presence with fireworks and fanfare, and there are some that slip quietly in by the side door and wait for you to notice them. Leonard and Hungry Paul is understated in almost every way, yet manages to blossom into something pretty special. There’s little to summarise in the way of plot; although the novel is loosely framed by the run-up to the wedding of Hungry Paul’s sister Grace, that’s not where the real depth of the novel lies. It’s as much of a character exploration as it is a story, focusing its lens on a brief period in the lives of two best friends whose personal circumstances and life trajectories don’t quite fit the expectations of those around them – and perhaps those reading about them too. Both are single, neither are pursuing an all-consuming quest for romance. Both have spent their whole lives (they are now in their 30s) living with parents, although when the novel begins Leonard’s mother has just died, and with it the world he knows. Neither do they have high-flying careers as some sort of acceptable “substitute” for relationships: Leonard writes entries for children’s encyclopedias and Hungry Paul works a couple of days a week as a postman, standing in when the regulars are off duty. Through the course of the book, the author explores the big-hearted friendship that has kept the complications of the outside world at bay. They talk, they play board games and simply enjoy each other’s company, kindred spirits who understand each other perfectly, even if not everyone else understands them. Yet even Leonard and Hungry Paul’s tranquil existence isn’t immune from twists of fate, and little by little a trickle of small surprises and unpredictable turns of events conspire to raise the possibility that their lives might be about to change.

My overriding emotion when reading this novel was actually one of relief: finally, a contemporary novel brave enough to feature as its lead characters the type of people who are all too often sidelined in fiction of all kinds, whether it’s in book form, or on TV or film. What made the book particularly clever, I thought, was the way it went one step further, and flipped the conventions of what we expect from a novel about relationships. Paul’s sister Grace fits the “main character” bill perfectly: she has a successful career, a wedding on the horizon and just enough doubt about why she doesn’t feel as excited about it as she should to fuel a whole story of romantic angst and self-analysis. Paul and Leonard would normally be the sideshow, two single men in their thirties brought into the story ever now and then for a bit of comic relief or to provide a shoulder to cry on, before receding quietly to allow Grace, star of the show, her happy-ever-after moment. But in this novel the author gives them their own story. We care about Grace, and follow her with some interest, but the hope we have for a happy ending is well and truly on behalf of Leonard and Hungry Paul.

What was refreshing as well was the fact that you might assume at the start of the novel that these two men are somehow to be pitied, falling as they do outside the normal parameters of what society regards as a success. Yet the only thing that saddened me during the course of the novel was not the nature of Leonard and Paul themselves, but the way they were sometimes misinterpreted or misjudged by others. When Leonard makes a misstep in a potential romance he has absolutely no idea he has done so; since everything he does comes from a place of kindness, he is taken aback to find out that some people aren’t used to being on the receiving end of something he sees as so fundamental that it doesn’t even warrant thought or analysis. Grace badgers her brother Paul constantly, seeing him as a drain on her parents and completely lacking in drive or ambition, yet failing to realise that his situation isn’t borne of laziness or selfishness, but rather a certain zen-like simplicity of worldview. If your life is going smoothly, and you and those who surround you are content (and to be fair his parents have never told him outright that they aren’t) then why would you want to change things for the sake of it?

However, throughout the course of the novel, opportunities present themselves to the two friends that could mean change is on the horizon, but they come in very different forms. Leonard’s encounter with a co-worker sparks the courage to pursue a romantic relationship in a way he’s never done before, but perhaps more importantly provides him with the inspiration to unleash the creativity that’s been smouldering inside him with no outlet. For Hungry Paul, it’s his entry for a very banal local competition (leading to some laugh-out-loud funny moments) that has unexpected consequences. Yet in keeping with the tone of the novel, any changes that come aren’t cataclysmic. There are no epiphanies, no earth-shattering events that result in either of the friends suddenly shaking off their past selves and becoming different people. Indeed, what the author seems to care about more than anything is the idea that personal growth should be about embracing rather than abandoning who you are; it’s not about trying to mould yourself to someone else’s idea of achievement, but tapping into the unique abilities you possess just by being you. It sounds a bit trite when written here but believe me, in Ronan Hession’s hands it’s very powerful – and moving.

There were a few sections of the book that for me didn’t quite work as well as the bulk of it. The author clearly knows his characters inside out – their thoughts, motivations, worries and priorities – and is keen to share them with the reader in as much detail as possible. However, there were times when the desire to go inside a character’s head in such depth started to read a bit more like a psychological description than a novel. The most striking example is a chapter that describes every relationship Grace has had since her teenage years, in an attempt to provide context for why her current relationship with her fiance has so far worked out well. I’m all for building three-dimensional characters, but this felt like a slightly odd way to do it and was a little off-kilter to read.

That niggle aside, Leonard and Hungry Paul was a real pleasure, and it was a joy to spend time in the company of two men whose warmth, gentleness and complete lack of artifice is a ray of light in an angry, noisy and frenetic world. The novel, although as benign as its characters, is at the same time a quiet call-to-arms to re-evaluate the way we regard our fellow humans, and to really consider what it is that gives a person their true value. It’s all too easy, the author suggests, to overlook those who aren’t shouting the loudest, pushing themselves to the fore or meeting preconceived notions of social attainment. He knows, however, how precious and special his characters are, and shows them the care and attention they truly deserve. If you feel like you need a glimmer of hope – don’t we all – then I would tell you to pick up this book, go into a quiet corner and allow yourself to absorb all the love contained in these tender pages.

Thank you for reading x

My week in books – wrapped up!

It’s Sunday night so that means it’s weekly wrap-up time! I’ve been in a bit of a weird reading limbo over the last couple of days, principally because I know I have some AMAZING proof copies and online orders on their way and I’m reluctant to start anything too involved or lengthy as I want to get onto them as soon as they hit the doorstep. More about those later in the wrap-up, but first a run down of the books I’ve finished this week:

*Books finished*

  • Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession – this is one of those books for which I have to thank the book twitter universe; if it hadn’t been for the reviews and general enthusiasm that I kept coming across on there it would have passed me by completely. It definitely wasn’t without its flaws but nonetheless there was a real charm and warmth about it, and most important of all a willingness to grant its central roles to the kind of characters that wouldn’t normally get much of a look in. Review to follow this week!
  • Little by Edward Carey – if you’re a regular visitor to This Girl’s Book Room you’ll know how much I love a novel based on real life figures from history (if you’re interested, you can read about some of my all time faves here). This one is haunting, macabre and features one of the best female leads I’ve come across for some time: she is Marie Grosholtz, the woman who later became known to the world as Madame Tussaud. It comes highly recommended by yours truly, and you can read my full review here.
  • The Foundling by Stacey Halls – I was reading this thinking, how on earth has this fabulous author gone undiscovered by me for such a long time??? It’s a gripping story of a mother’s attempts to find the child she gave away only hours after it was born and it’s WONDERFUL – I was up reading well into the night, totally unable to put it down until the small hours, desperate to find out how the story was going to unfold.

*Books purchased*

Luckily I still have some Christmas gift vouchers to burn (although they’re diminishing fast!) so another hefty book parcel was definitely on the cards. I’m currently waiting for all these beauties to pop through the letterbox – I’d love to know if you’ve read any of these already and what you thought.

  • Unfollow by Megan Phelps Roper – I don’t read a whole lot of biographies but I do find the world of these kind of closed religious communities (and the damage they can do) absolutely fascinating so looking forward to this.
  • The Familiars by Stacey Halls – because after loving The Foundling so much I just had to get her back catalogue ordered asap!
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami – I’ve seen quite a few bloggers and bookstagrammers taking part in the January in Japan hashtag, and while I don’t quite have the time to commit to that on top of all my other reading, I’ve picked up on some intriguing-sounding titles from their reviews, and this one in particular caught my eye.
  • We are all Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan – I tend to save my hardback purchases for books that look REALLY amazing, and this certainly does! Again, I’ve seen lots of bookish peeps talking about it so very excited to get going.

*Currently reading*

Lastly, onto my current reads; as I mentioned earlier I’m kind of treading water until my proofs and new book purchases arrive, so in the meantime I’ve gone for a thriller that I know I can race through and simply have fun reading. I read The Guest List by Lucy Foley last year and loved its page-turning pace and multiple-character narrative, so I’ve gone for The Hunting Party, which to be honest is more of exactly the same but I’m more than happy with that!

That concludes the wrap-up for this week! Next week will be the last one of January already (which I can’t quite believe) but until then, happy reading.

“Little” by Edward Carey – review

Today we know her as Madame Tussaud, but for much of her life she was plain Marie Grosholtz – “Little”. This wonderfully imaginative novel gives a backstory to the diminutive girl who grew up to become the hugely successful businesswoman whose name is now familiar the world over. Her start in life was far from auspicious: orphaned at a tragically young age, she found herself in the care of the eccentric – and although not unkind, far from warm – medical model-maker Dr. Curtius. It marked the start of an extremely bizarre childhood, learning how to make lifelike wax models of internal organs and other parts of the human body in all their biologically accurate detail. Then one day Dr. Curtius gets a strange request: to cast the head of a medical colleague in wax. From that moment on, Marie’s life will never be the same again. The great and the good all want their likeness cast in wax, a new kind of status symbol, and Dr. Curtius has found his niche in business. The peculiar but touching partnership of Marie and the doctor, however, is not to last; circumstances drive the pair to Paris, where they lodge in the home of widowed Mme Picot and her son Edmond. The widow seems to have one aim from the offset, namely to exploit Dr. Curtius’s commercial success for her own gain and to drive a wedge between him and the little girl who’s worked so faithfully alongside him. Marie endures years of cruelty, neglect, exploitation and violence at the hands of this most horrendous of characters, until fate intervenes once again and she experiences a reversal of fortune that no-one from a poverty-stricken background such as hers could ever have imagined was possible.

In the decades that follow, Marie bears witness to some of the most famous events in French history, from royal machinations at the Palace of Versailles to the grim horrors of the French Revolution and its aftermath. During this volatile and dangerous era, it is wax that saves her again and again, her talent being both a release from fear and loneliness, and a literal life-saver in the darkest throes of The Terror. You can well imagine, then, how this pairing of the brutal time period and the naturally unsettling nature of wax heads that look like they’re about to spring to life, combines to create a novel that doesn’t just flirt with the macabre so much as jump into bed with it. The casting of wax heads is an uncomfortable business at the best of times, but one that turns into a truly gruesome practice when used on the freshly severed heads brought to the doctor and his apprentice by revolutionaries in the heat of their bloodlust. Yet even years before the anarchy in the French capital explodes in its bloody climax, the entire world is troubled by a sense of unease, whether it’s the wax replicas of notorious murderers in the exhibition hallway, the ghosts that Marie is sure she can hear stalking the Paris house or the chilling feeling that society itself is about to fall over a precipice from which there can be no return.

Little is also a deeply sad novel. Over the course of her life Marie experiences loss after devastating loss, the ones she suffers in later years proving to be the most soul-destroying of them all. She is not alone; many, if not most, of the people with whom she crosses paths are carrying the weight of their own grief, suffering and what we would today call post-traumatic stress with them as well. This is a world where people disappear, taken either by fate or by others intent on causing pain and hurt. Yet Marie somehow carries on, bearing her burdens with a resolute steadfastness and strength of character that never feels contrived or unrealistic, but rather keeps you rooting for her right to the end. The story is told in her voice, and I loved the way the tone gradually shifted from a childlike view of the world around her to the more mature outlook of a grown woman. Even as an adult, however, Marie never loses the sense of imagination and wonder that has been with her since the beginning; there is a hint of something magical, undefinable and unknowable in the air even in those times when the grim earthliness of events cannot be ignored.

I enjoyed Little from beginning to end, and Marie Grosholtz is one of the most beautifully drawn lead characters I can remember reading about for some time. Her life is strange, unconventional and pervaded by the sinister, and all the more memorable for it. If like me you love novels reimagining the lives of real figures from history then you’ll be a fan of this for sure; if you’ve read it already, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thank you for reading x

Reading in tough times: the books that got me through 2020

It’s been a recurring theme on my blog over the last 9 months: how reading has been a genuine lifeline for getting through sad, worrying and uncertain times. When things are at their worst, sometimes it’s a question of simply getting through a day, an afternoon, an hour – never mind coping for the long haul. We all know 2021 hasn’t got off to the most joyful of starts, so I thought I’d bring a little ray of reading sunshine with a rundown of some of the books that got me through 2020. To be fair, there wasn’t a single book I read that didn’t contribute to my sense of wellbeing, but I’ve gone through my reading log and picked out some titles that have, in my eyes, a particular uplifting quality to them. If you’re after something to raise your spirits on a cold, dark winter’s day then maybe you’d like to try one of these!

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

It might seem a bit of a strange inclusion this one as it’s not an easy read by any means, addressing as it does themes of forced marriage, domestic abuse, violence and oppression. However, while reading it I was taken aback at what could, bizarrely, be described as the almost fairytale-like quality of the story; Adunni, the girl of the title, fights to overcome the most horrendous of circumstances with a fortitude that is both inspiring and almost unimaginable given the extreme nature of the obstacles she faces. If you want a tale of triumph over adversity this will not disappoint.

This is Happiness by Niall Williams

Like the previous choice, there is certainly an element of sadness to this novel, albeit of a more gentle variety; lost love, uncertainty around your place in the world and deep regret for the things we leave undone and unsaid as the years catch up with us. Yet the overwhelming sensation here is one of calmness and a quiet optimism that things will turn out as they’re meant to. It almost feels like a novel-length meditation, with prose so beautiful it catches your breath, and you’ll close the last page with a feeling of having been very deeply moved.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

I started this back in February last year and finally finished it around Christmas, which has got to be some sort of record! My excuse (and I’m sticking to it!) is that it’s the kind of book that lends itself to being read in small chunks due to its episodic format, and I actually really enjoyed reading it in that way, coming back to it a couple of chapters at a time when I was in need of a burst of humour without needing to get embroiled in a must-read-on-and-see-what-happens kind of linear storyline. Despite its age, the comedy is as fresh as ever and it’s simply a huge amount of fun.

Murder at the Grand Raj Palace by Vaseem Khan

I absolutely adore this series of detective novels (if you’ve never tried them, you can read my review of the first in the series here). The Indian setting is alive with sound, smell and colour, and transports you to a world very far away from this one, which is what we all need sometimes. But the ace in the pack is without doubt the addition of Detective Chopra’s unorthodox sidekick, domesticated baby elephant Ganesha – and if you can read a novel featuring a baby elephant without feeling completely cheered then I don’t know what else to suggest!

A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles by Ned Palmer

I going with a non-fiction title to finish off my list of uplifting books, and it’s the kind of history book I love: quirky social history written by an author who clearly has a life-affirming passion for his unusual subject. I do happen to be an enormous fan of cheese in all its forms, but if you’re thinking this is too niche for you and only of interest to the extreme cheese-nerds out there then think again. The beauty of the book is that it encompasses yes, the history of cheesemaking of course, but also works as a more general social history, autobiography and travelogue. It was Ned Palmer’s infectious enthusiasm however that really earned the book its place on my list; you feel like you’re being gently ushered into a fan club you didn’t know you wanted to join.

I really hope you enjoyed my list of reading for tough times, and of course if you have any of your own suggestions I’d love to hear them! Thanks for reading x

My week in books – wrapped up!

Like most of us I’m spending a lot of time looking at the same four walls at the moment; a grim sense of groundhog day on one hand, but on the other hand immensely grateful that I’m in the enormously lucky position of getting to stay safe at home, and also incredibly thankful for the books that surround me and that are going some way to keeping me sane. I don’t do reading or blogging resolutions for the new year, other than read what I want, when I want and write about it when the mood takes me. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t even a little bit pleased with the bookish start I’ve made to 2021 so far!

*Books finished*

  • Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers – a book I picked up in a charity shop ages ago, this is one of the Canongate myths series, and is a highly imaginative take on the Oedipus story. A dying Freud receives a mysterious, otherworldly visitor, who it transpires played a key role in Oedipus’s sorry tale, and who shines a new light on the psychology of a story that we – and Freud – thought we knew so well. There have been loads of ancient myth retellings recently, and if you’re a fan of the genre this gives it a fascinating spin.
  • The Hand of Justice by Susanna Gregory – when things are getting me down I always reach for a Susanna Gregory book; easy, escapist reading that takes you to a safe place many centuries ago and a world away from everything that’s going on right now.
  • Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer – this is the conclusion to the Southern Reach trilogy, which I started just before Christmas, and I can honestly say I haven’t been this haunted by a story for a very long time. There was something about the psychological ideas at play here that really got under my skin and disturbed me; notions about what it means to lose your identity, to face a long and drawn out contemplation of your own death….. it’s chilling stuff. But SOOO amazing to read, and I highly recommend.

*Books purchased*

It wouldn’t be lockdown without a Waterstones parcel arriving on the doorstep, and these are the first arrivals of 2021:

I’m really looking forward to all of these, particularly The Foundling as I’ve been meaning to try a Stacey Halls novel for ever. Leonard and Hungry Paul seems to be the book of 2020 that I somehow completely missed, and from what I hear it’s a really uplifting read, which is just what’s needed right now. But first, I need to finish my current pile:

*Currently reading*

  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau – this was one I read at uni but raced through before I’d really had a chance to appreciate it, so I’m revisiting it now when I can really take my time with it.
  • Little by Edward Carey – a friend recommended this novel to me a while back but it’s only just made its way on to my currently reading pile, and I’m sorry I waited so long because I’m absolutely loving it!

Having been away from the blog for a little while, I haven’t quite got back into the swing of writing regular reviews yet, but I hope to have some up here for you before too long. In the meantime, happy new year and happy reading!

A New Year’s Treat!

I get a bit grumpy sometimes about having a December birthday but it does have its upsides: a combination of Waterstones vouchers for both birthday and Christmas (yay!) means I’ve got a proper stash to go on a spree with in 2021! Of course, sadly bookshops are now closed for the foreseeable, but I managed to get in there just before the shutdown and grab myself these beauties.

Loads of my book-loving friends have multiple editions of their favourite books, but I’ve never done that; no matter how much I love a book (or how hard I fall in love with a special edition) I just can’t bring myself to double up. All these beautiful things, therefore, are classics I don’t already have in my collection. How I’ve missed out on owning Persuasion all this time I’m not sure as it’s probably my favourite Austen, but that hideous error is now rectified by this glorious Chiltern edition. I only came across this publisher for the first time a few months ago and their books are GORGEOUS – if you’ve not seen one in the flesh before I thoroughly recommend checking out their website. As for the other two purchases, well, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Macmillan Collector’s Library editions – classy cover art, gold-edged pages and small enough to fit in your pocket; what’s not to love? I have vague memories of reading Walden at university some years ago, but as anyone who’s ever studied English Literature will confirm, you have to get through soooooo many books so quickly that even some of the most enjoyable ones end up going in one side of your brain and out the other at some speed. Time then, I thought, to revisit it when, let’s face it, I have A LOT more time on my hands….

If any of you were lucky enough to get book tokens this Christmas, what was in your new year book haul?

Thanks for reading, see you next time x

Six Degrees of Separation – January’s journey in 6 books

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books are my Favourite and Best. Every month she chooses a different book as a starting point, and from then on it’s up to everyone to create their own chain of 6 books that follow on from it. The last book doesn’t have to be connected to the first in any way; all that matters is that each book links somehow to the one before. Hop over to the 6 Degrees page to learn more or see previous connections, or follow the hashtag #6Degrees on Twitter – I’m a bit tardy taking part this month but it’s not too late if you want to join in!

The jumping-off point for January is a book I haven’t read yet, but is high on the list for 2021: Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. So where to go next…..?

The Tutor by Andrea Chapin

Hamnet is a re-imagining of an episode in the life of Shakespeare and his family, so I’m taking the 6 degrees chain straight on to another book featuring a fictional version of The Bard. I’m a sucker for novels featuring real figures from history, and this one in particular is a lot of fun.

The Truants by Kate Weinberg

This gripping novel, like the previous one, explores the relationship between student and teacher – the mood, however, is very different! I started off thinking it was going to be just another campus drama, but in fact the author ended up taking it somewhere quite unexpected. It was one of several debut novels I read in 2020, so this seems like a good opportunity to mention another favourite first novel from last year:

The Cat and the City by Nick Bradley

This dreamlike and – I’m going to say it – slightly weird novel lodged itself in my head long after reading, and I was completely taken by surprise in terms of how much it moved me. It’s a seemingly fragmented tour of Tokyo that starts to link together in more and more intricate ways as the book progresses: all overseen by the enigmatic cat of the title as it stalks the streets. Which leads me to another book featuring a fantastic feline (or two)…..

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T S Eliot

This is actually the first poetry book I remember coming across as a child, although I’m pretty sure I didn’t appreciate it to its full extent, Michael Rosen’s comic verse being much more to my taste! In fact, my abiding memory is of thinking it was pretty odd and not entirely fathomable. What I did appreciate, however, were the much more accessible versions of the stage musical – which leads me to the inevitable, and very non-literary (sorry, but I am going to do it!) connection:

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

From singing cats to singing revolutionaries, this is – as you will well know – another book made famous to millions by the all singing all dancing musical version. Apparently it’s also much more entertaining than the book, which I’m told is a bit of a slog. It does, however, lead me nicely to my last book in the 6 degrees chain:

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

As I was writing this I inevitably got sidetracked by Google and starting reading about the genesis of Hugo’s masterpiece. Apparently – pub quiz fact for you – it’s the longest novel ever written in terms of word count (in the original French), so in celebration I decided to finish today’s literary linkage by scouring my shelves for the longest novel I own. Hands down winner is Vikram Seth’s doorstop, a mighty book that reads so much more easily than its intimidating page count would suggest.

If you’ve taken part in 6 Degrees this month do let me know below: I’d love to see your connections!

My week in books – wrapped up

Welcome to this Friday night’s foray into the books that have been in my life this week!

*Books finished*

The Guest List by Lucy Foley – I’m a bit late to the party with this one, but in this case the adage of better late than never definitely applies. If you want an easy to read, just-one-more-chapter page turning thriller then this is perfect. The personalities on show are hideous, the grudges, secrets and backstories grubby and twisted as you like, but this is still an immense amount of fun.

*Books purchased*

I’m being very restrained at the moment as I know I’ll be getting book vouchers for my birthday and Christmas (the requests are already in so no risk of being disappointed!) My aim therefore is to hold off buying any books for the whole of November; I’ll keep you updated as to how that goes…..

*Currently reading*

Lots!!

  • The Betrayals by Bridget Collins – feeling a bit ho-hum about this one at the moment, and I’m SO sad about that as I loved The Binding so much. It’s one of those books that when I’m reading it I enjoy, yet somehow don’t feel a pressing need to go back to when I’m away from it. As a result it’s been on the “in progress” pile for a few weeks now, but I remain hopeful it will pick up.
  • A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles by Ned Palmer – yes, I know this doesn’t sound like the most riveting of reads but you’d be surprised how a few fascinating facts about Neolithic cheese production can brighten an evening. Seriously, it’s light-hearted, informative, celebratory and just the sort of thing that suits my mood right now.
  • Light by Eva Figes – I never would have even heard of this if it hadn’t been for the recommendation of a fellow bookseller. It’s a brief but beautiful novella following an imaginary day in the life of Claude Monet, and it reads like a painting, full of light and colour.
  • The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – I read the original novel many, many years ago, but this is a wonderful new version, transformed into a graphic novel by sisters Scarlett and Sophie Rickard.

The book’s political message made an enormous impression on me, and if anything this revisit is even more effective; the novel, I’ll be honest, is a bit overlong and repetitive, but its power is condensed here, and the illustration style is a perfect match for the mood of the story. If you can’t face Robert Tressell’s tome, then I would urge you to try this.

*Reviews posted*

The gloriously spooky thriller Pine is the subject of my latest review, which you can read here – just in time for Hallowe’en! Half ghost story, half missing person crime thriller, it’s got atmosphere in spades.

That’s it for another busy week, but I hope to have more reviews for you soon x

Pine by Francine Toon – review

It’s the perfect time of year for something creepy, when even the most easily spooked of souls (like myself) are tempted by the prospect of a book that makes you want to leave the light on. Pine is without doubt my pick of the spooky season, ticking all the spine-chilling boxes and then some. It’s not, however, a traditional ghost story by any means, and that’s part of the reason I loved it so much – nothing here is predictable, and nothing about it was like anything I’ve read before. It’s a full-on mash up of thriller and supernatural, and it’s really hard to say on which side of the line it falls. I’ve come across a number of thrillers (as I’m sure you have too) that throw in the odd thunderstorm or creepy old house to add a bit of atmosphere and amp up the tension, when in actual fact there’s nothing paranormal going on at all, and we’re never meant to really believe there is. This novel, however, flips wholesale between the very real, earthly mystery of a woman who went missing in unexplained circumstances several years before, and genuine occult chills: the figure at the window, stone circles that appear out of nowhere, not to mention some very literal bumps in the night.

But before I get too carried away, I should probably back-track a bit. The book’s two main characters, who share the majority of the narrative between them, are Niall and his daughter Lauren, who live in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands. Lauren’s mother (and Niall’s wife), Christine, is the woman who disappeared some years before, when her daughter was only tiny. No body was ever found, but no-one ever heard from her again – and no-one knows why she would have left or where she went. This tragic event – and the effect it had on the family left behind – creates a genuine sadness that runs through the core of the story, giving it a lump-in-the-throat emotional depth that many thrillers lack. Niall responds to his grief by drinking, and alternates painfully between moments of overwhelming love and affection for his little girl and periods of neglect, when the lure of the local pub proves stronger than his paternal instincts. Lauren faces isolation on all fronts: the absence of a mother she doesn’t remember yet whose presence she knows she misses, an unreliable father with a propensity to vanish for hours on end leaving her to fend for herself, and loneliness at school, where the other children seize on her vulnerability and subject her to a constant barrage of verbal and physical bullying. She isn’t completely friendless, however, and while her father drinks she creates her own adventures with schoolmate Billy and a couple of older girls from the village, Diane and Ann-Marie. Her relationship with Ann-Marie in particular will turn out to have some very chilling and ultimately dangerous repercussions.

The Highland setting is an absolute gift for anyone wanting an unnerving backdrop for their tale! The pine forests behind the village are full of frightening potential; when Lauren and Billy head off to play in this disorientating, menacing wilderness, we as readers follow them with some reluctance. Where I thought the author surpassed herself, however, was in her imaginative creation of Lauren’s home; the very place where you’re meant to feel safe became one of the most sinister settings in the novel. From the moment we take our first tour of the wooden paneled walls, dark blue carpets and damp rooms we get an unshakeable sense that all is not well. Francine Toon stirs up fear through the simplest things – the sound of dripping without an obvious source, a curtain that divides the living and dining area – a barrier that seems somehow insecure and subject to be breached without warning; a lamp that may or may not have already been on when the characters first entered the room….

Seriously, I’m getting a cold sensation up my back even just sitting here typing this out as I remember how I felt reading those spooky passages! I read a book of M R James ghost stories earlier this year and creepy though many of them were, none gave me quite the physical sensation that Pine managed. It’s easy, I think, to misjudge horror, and there’s a very fine line between scary and silly, so I have to take may hat off to Toon for evoking maximum discomfort while staying on the right side of the line. My only tiny niggle is that perhaps the supernatural element of the book becomes slightly overdone right at the end, but certainly not enough to spoil the book as a whole.

I mustn’t forget of course that there’s a whole other side to the novel, carried away as I am with the thrill of the paranormal! It is just as successful in its other guise as a crime novel, and the human relationships are what makes the whole story so, well, believable. Whatever spooky goings on may or may not be happening up in the forest, at its heart Pine is the story of a father and daughter who are both grieving, one for a life he lost and the other for a life she could have had. If you took away all the other mystery, that relationship alone would have made for an immensely powerful novel. It would have been easy to make alcoholic father Niall, who forgets to come home to feed his daughter and takes out his misery in violently destructive rages, a despicable character, but he is so nuanced and complex that he garners our sympathy rather than our condemnation. Ten year old Lauren, too, is given a voice that feels utterly authentic for her age (which must be very hard to do I think) an despite being “only” a child is as fascinating and sophisticated a character as any of the adults. The whole book, in fact, is a beautifully realised mosaic of elements that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find together, but the end result is a striking, unforgettable book that defies easy classification. It won the Bloody Scotland Crime Debut of the Year, but if you overlook it because you don’t consider yourself a crime fan (and I certainly don’t) then you’d be missing out on something really special – and you’d be spending a little less time looking over your shoulder when you turn the last light out before bed….

Related posts

The Ghost Stories of M R James – review