Archive for October 2012

The Land Girls by Angela Huth

Get yourself settled into a comfy armchair with a pot of tea and biscuits close to hand and read all about the marvellous tales of The Land Girls by Angela Huth. The story begins in 1941 England with three girls headed towards a Dorset farm to take the place of the male farm workers who have recently been conscripted into the war effort. The girls, Prue, Agatha and Stella are not by any means familiar with the demands of farm work but are all the same answering the call to save England’s farms. The three characters are so different from one another and their backgrounds are so far removed from muck and manure that you can’t help but admire them and enjoy their ‘adventures’ (though I suppose the real Land Girls of World War 2 would never have described their farm experiences as jolly adventures! Far from it!)

The Land GirlsIt’s great getting to know the girls, Prue’s a street savvy hair stylist, swotty Aggie’s just graduated from Cambridge and Stella is madly in love with a handsome soldier. Just as so many did, when the war turned the country on its head, these girls attempt to throw themselves into unfamiliar territory…and in a lot of case, the results are hilarious!

Living on a farm is generally without its comforts but despite this, they muck in and help each other through the difficulties. I have since read a number of factual books on how our ancestors coped with the war such as “Wartime” by Juliet Gardiner and “Wartime Women” by Dorothy Sheridan and have found the subject completely fascinating. What a great story!

I was particularly interested in the farmer’s initial reactions to the girls and the considerable doubt in their minds that these girls would be up to the job. Everyone just gets on with the job in the hand and makes the best of the situation. The results speak for themselves as the girls eventually succeed in their efforts and gain the respect of those around them.

This was an entertaining tale of friendship, duty and country living. Off course, as with all wartime stories, there’s plenty of romance too. The impact of the war forced people to live for the moment because there might not be a tomorrow and this was demonstrated in the within the storyline of the farmers’ son Joe and his relationships with the girls.

I love nostalgic storylines, especially ever since reading The Land Girls by Angela Huth, other wartime tales. How heroic everyone was and how genuinely selfless everybody seemed to be. Everyone just mucked in together all joined together as one against the might of Adolf Hitler et al. Now that the wartime survivors – our grannies and granddads of that time – are largely long gone, it is from books like these that the memories of the war live on. I think we could all learn a thing or two by reading books such as this.

If you love the author and fancy trying something else out, I can recommend “Easy Silence” about the trials and tribulations of marriage and violinists.

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Rachel Kelly a bipolar artist is working on a new collection of paintings in the confines of her pokey little loft studio within a Cornish seaside resort when without any warning whatsoever she has a heart attack and dies.

Notes of an Exhibition by Patrick Gale is about the life of the artist Rachel Kelly investigated (as is all too often the case with many an artist) when she becomes popular after her death. Not only are people in the public eye interested in her, so too are her family who gradually piece together the events of their mother’s life. All, including her patient and loving husband Anthony, have to pick up the pieces and to put them together to finally understand the depressed eccentric artist that was their mother and wife.

Notes From An ExhibitionThe story is presented before us in a seemingly random pattern of particular periods of time in Rachel’s life. With this in mind, what I especially enjoyed, being an artist myself, were the little segments that discussed the pieces of work painted in life by Rachel. These portions of writing would have been on the little cards found in an exhibition next to the paintings. This made me think of recent visits to an art gallery and the devouring of the information typed onto these little cards to help to understand a painting that much more. Those little cards in this book were equally as instructive. Not only did I crave this information in the book but would have devoured the actual Rachel Kelly pictures.

What I truly loved about this book was the continuing balance by Rachel Kelly of her artistic brilliance versus psychological condition. Creative dead ends are a fact of life for anyone involved in the producing and delivering of art – so the insights provided by the writer were genius in my opinion. Where does inspiration come from and how does it come about? We get a bit closer to understanding and respecting those principles. In Rachel’s case, she was on medication to even out her mood swings but became aware that her creativity was suppressed whilst on the pills. Naturally, and to the detriment of her family life, the artist stopped taking them in order to continue with her paintings having to face those familiar demons of her psychological condition.

Throughout the book, you get to know the characters around the central character who I think are brilliantly drawn from her husband Anthony who always put his wife’s life first and looked after her to her children including her youngest son Petroc. There is a daughter Morwenna who has effectively inherited her mother’s disposition and psychological difficulties and two other sons Garfield and Hedley.

This is about an artist’s family life as well as how a family suffer (and benefit) from having a mother who is bipolar. It’s a very clever story and one that I really enjoyed. Patrick Gale continues to write novels that stop you in your tracks. I can highly recommend having a read of ‘The Whole Day Through’ and ‘Ease’ by the author.

The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert

Prepare yourself for an amazing richly atmospheric ghost story.

Writers like James Herbert and Stephen King are to blame for my overactive imagination! I have been reading Herbert ever since The Rats and The Fog hit the shelves. I can still remember the thrill of the read and how I, a mere teenager, first went upon my horror rollercoaster read as though it were yesterday! It’s good to know that there are others out there who hugely appreciate the talents of James Herbert – the king of the horror/ghost story!

The Secret Of Crickley HallThe Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert was fantastic! One of my favourite Herbert books! The story begins with the arrival of a family moving into the huge, forbidding but stately Crickley Hall in a place cheerfully known as the Devil’s Cleave. The family have moved as they have recently lost the young son – he tragically just disappeared. So, thinking it would be best for all, the father, the American Gabe, manages to convince everyone that moving into an old creepy mansion-like building would be just the ticket to help them move on from their tragedy.

The house is dark and as with all houses of a certain age, there are creepy sounds and puddles of water have a habit of appearing. Gabe being at work from day to day is oblivious to the paranoia that is as much a part of the house as the dust and the termites. Eve, the wife, becoming increasingly unsettled engages the services of a psychic or a paranormal investigator if you will (and who can blame her!). Throughout her grief for her son she and her daughter are hearing all sorts at night such as the sound of hasty bare footed running, the whipping sound of a headmaster’s cane etc. There is a very nasty scene where the daughter is actually whipped by a spectre who turns out to be the sadistic Cribben the ghost of the headmaster of what was previously an orphanage. As dark and atmospheric as Crickley Hall, it didn’t come anywhere near creeping me out as the character of Cribben did. Those children under his command feared him like he was the devil and he enjoyed the power that he had over them. You feel so helpless that you can’t help these innocent little children and save them from the unadulterated cruelty they have to endure in the place of the love they should be getting from their parents.

As the chills increase with nightly apparitions the story strips back the surface and takes you back to a time when Crickley Hall flooded. It was in fact during 1940 and the former orphanage was inundated with evacuees from Blitz fearing London. It turns out the children would have been much better off living in fear of the bombs in London with their mothers than in the hands of the sadistic headmaster and his sidekicks in bomb free rural Devon. Disaster ensues when the village is devastated by flood and Crickley Hall becomes terrifyingly flooded. Children used to hiding from Cribben within the wall panelling are unable to escape their self-imposed exiles and so tragically drown. We eventually discover that it is the spirits of these frightened children along with the sadistic headmaster who continue to this day to haunt the house.

If you like this book, some further reading by the same author that I highly recommend include The Magic Cottage and the Ghosts of Sleath by James Herbert.

The Runaway Jury by John Grisham

This is one of my favourite stories by one of my favourite writers. There are some plotlines in books that are totally unbelievable and are pure escapism while there are other plotlines that are extreme yet totally believable. All through this book you find yourself wondering if the kind of activity delivered in the book actually goes on.

The Runaway Jury is simply another great legal thriller by the great American writer John Grisham and another great read! The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Rainmaker etc are all in a class of their own when it comes to looking for a brilliant reading experience. You just can’t go wrong with a John Grisham!

The Runaway JuryThe book is loosely based on the 1957 play “12 Angry Men” by Reginald Rose and unlike the film version in that the plot centres on the dangers of smoking whereas the film starring John Cusack and Gene Hackman was based around the gun industry. If you’re expecting to read the book version of the film you could be disappointed, or on the other hand, you may find that you enjoy the book all the more for its differences.

A case has been brought to court where damages are sought against a tobacco company placing the blame at their doorstep for the death of her husband with to lung cancer. The court case is set to take place in Biloxi in the state of Mississippi where sympathetic juries and tort laws are commonplace. The main character is Nicholas Easter who is what is known as a rogue juror who for money claims to be able to turn a jury on request.

Nicholas Easter goes into court as a brilliant undercover jury candidate and gets himself picked for jury service of a big case against the huge tobacco industry. After that he cleverly plays on the characters of the jury in order to achieve his end goal – to provide those paying for his services the verdict they require. He isn’t working alone as he has co-conspirator Marlee on the outside playing the dangerous game of tying up the loose ends.

Nicholas Easter, as you would expect, is in a lot of danger here, as he puts his life on a limb in order to pull this off. His nemesis is the consultant Rankin Fitch employed by the tobacco company who plants cameras all over the jury inside and out of the courtroom. Nothing can happen without his knowledge or say so. For the sum of £10 million he receives the offer to swing the jury verdict in his client’s favour but he doesn’t like being at the mercy of another. As a result, determined to undercover the mystery juror, he plans to use illegal and dangerous means of his own to gain back his control.

A whole host of interesting characters that make up the Nicholas Easter’s jury such as Frank Herrara ex-military colonel and the white blind foreman Herman Grimes and Nick Easter is amongst them busy sowing the seeds of reasonable doubt. Read it! Then read “The Client” by John Grisham, another fantastic read!

The Red House by Mark Haddon

Richard (hospital consultant, newly remarried), sister Angela, Karen (stillborn daughter), holiday home in Wales not a million miles from Ross on Wye possibly. Estranged. Losing of their dad made Richard reach out to his sister. 4 children, four adults, all strangers but family. But not for much longer. 7 days in the wet of wales will change that.

The Red House - Mark HaddonThe Red House by Mark Haddon was my holiday read. About a family who somewhere along the line have become complete strangers to one another. You begin as all holidays do with a journey. In this case you’re riding on the train across to Herefordshire full of anticipation for the coming week. To most people, a holiday begins with excitement but in this case you sense little more than dread. The reason being the two families have become estranged with one another and there is hope in the air that something can be improved on the matter.

It is the idea of Richard the hospital consultant and brother to Angela that they both take their families and spend a week together out in the countryside of Wales. Angela, on the other hand, is somewhat reluctant as she basically thinks very little of her brother and doesn’t seem to want to let go of this ill feeling. A tricky situation. Not sure this is what I would call a holiday yet, once I get this I can’t wait to get to the bottom of all the ill feeling that hovers over the 2 families. Gradually you get to know the other members of the family such as Angela’s adulterous husband Dominic, Richard’s new wife Louisa, his step daughter and Angela’s three children. Most of all I was intrigued by Angela’s headstrong daughter Daisy. She’s a teenager who’s finding out who she is and is currently involved in a journey of self-discovery as well as coming to terms with her sexuality.

There is a teenage son in the family who is obsessed with sex – he’s on a journey of his own which is quite good fun to watch as he pursues seemingly every female who moves.

What’s great about this book is the way the story unfolds through each and every character.  From the complex thoughts of the teenagers to the confusion of the adults to the innocence of the very small child Benjy, each and every one of them has an opportunity to step forward and let us know exactly what is going on in their minds.

One other thing, Angela had a stillborn child, Karen, some years ago and she has never got over the experience. What makes the story all the more intriguing is the inclusion of Karen the ghost, watching over the Red House, out in the gloomy countryside. Combine all these ingredients and you have the makings of a deliciously gripping romp! Readers of The Red House who fancy a similarly good read by the same author, why not have a go at “A Spot of Bother” by Mark Haddon?

The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth

The Odessa File is an explosive journey of one man’s search for retribution of a crime and crimes committed decades ago. The Nazi’s state sponsored genocide of millions of people is relived through this book, specifically in the journal of the concentration camp survivor Salomon Tauber. I am surprised to hear young people announce they have no idea of the atrocities during World War Two – it is shocking to think the occurrences of the Holocaust are gradually becoming forgotten over time. We owe it to those people who lost their lives, their families and their freedom to the Nazi occupation to never forget what they went through. The Odessa File, is a disturbing tale with its foundations in actual events. This is not light reading although I would highly recommend you read this book. It is not escapism but a fictional account of a terrible atrocity that occurred just over half a century ago.

The Odessa FileYou live out the story through the character Peter Miller – a freelance German journalist. When he sniffs out a story his whole life becomes consumed with reaching a conclusion. At the beginning of the book he uncovers something called the ODESSA FILE (veiled in secrecy, the file contains information concerning the relocation and repatriation of senior German officers. Their identities a closely guarded secret allowing their escape from attempts at retribution and prosecution following World War Two.)

As briefly mentioned earlier, Peter the journalist, after reading the journal of an elderly jewish survivor of the Riga ghetto (Tauber) he decides to track down a particular Captain Eduard Roschmann commonly known as ‘the Butcher of Riga’ who was observed killing a German army officer. When the authorities fail to show any interest that the Butcher of Riga is alive, Peter takes matters into his own hands by attempting to infiltrate the ODESSA. With the assistance of the Israeli secret agency Mossad Peter completely changes his identity and becomes immersed into that of a former SS sergeant. The training is long and hard going but in the end Peter succeeds in pulling the wool over the eyes of the Odessa. The story reaches its climax when Peter Miller confronts the Butcher of Riga for his crimes.

This is one of those books that are heavily based in historical fact – the Holocaust was something I knew very little about when I read The Odessa File but have since read a lot on the subject. Even the ‘Nazi Hunter’ war criminal investigator Simon Wiesanthal was introduced as one of the characters in the book as our protagonist Peter went to him when the German authorities refused to become involved in the bringing of Eduard Roschmann to trial for his crimes of over thirty years ago.

Other great books by Frederick Forsyth include The Day of the Jackal and The Dogs of War.

The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday

Here’s a creepy book if ever I read one! The thing is it doesn’t seem that way at first, until you get sucked in! Loved this rollercoaster ride! It’s a story about a married couple who have got stuck into their dull routines. Elizabeth is particularly fed up with things but Michael is quite happy pottering about in his dull uneventful manner.

The Girl On The Landing - Paul TordayMichael takes trips over to his gloomy ancestral Highland retreat  Beinn Caorrun. He’s proud of the house and is chuffed to be in a position to enjoy a stately Highland home no matter how damp and remote it is.

All of a sudden the boring Michael changes into a much more interesting character – someone who his wife finds exciting. This change seems to happen as a result of spotting within a picture what he thinks is a captivating girl on a landing in the Scottish house.

What you begin to discover as the story unfolds is that this is a story of mental illness. Michael takes pills to help with his depression until he stops one day. The brilliance of the book is due to the way the story is presented to us. At first you read a chapter and get to know the male character and his day to day type existence. I liked him at first although yes he was a tad dull. The next chapter, we got to know his wife Elizabeth. She’s not what you would call a contented wife however financially it is clear that she has no worries. She is pretty bored though. And so the story progresses as you get to know the 2 characters intimately and what makes them tick. Then gradually things change as the married couple become interested in each other. It is evident there is a case of mental breakdown going on but at first its not in a bad way. Everyone is having fun. Gradually, Michael’s character experiences vivid dreams or what turn out to be flashbacks of a time or times in his past.

As the story unfolds we are privy first hand to the mental illness of Michael and become concerned as you would a friend that he is losing his grip on reality. Most importantly, through the chapters on his wife you realise through her investigations that Michael does have problems with depression. What she doesn’t realise is that he is gradually becoming psychotic and her life will be at risk if she sticks around.

This is a book you won’t forget in a hurry! You will find the characters had very gradually cajoled you into living their experiences through them. As you would never take your eye off the ball in a match I found I couldn’t put this book down for doing so would make me vulnerable. I got dragged into this story hook line and sinker and like waking up relieved from a nightmare I was almost similarly relieved that the scary bits were a story and not my real life!

Paul Torday is a great writer. I have read a few other books by him such as The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – I loved each one of them. I now realise there are a few more to catch up on such as the Legacy of Hartlepool Hall and The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers. Watch this space!

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

Here’s an uncomfortable holiday read! This is a brilliant book that is probably best not read on or before a holiday … as did I to my regret! A holiday can be a rewarding experience especially when open to the cultural nuances and differences. We all have differing ideas of what a good holiday constitutes and for many of us, it is to meet new people and enjoy a learning experience. If we are lucky too, a good holiday offers peace and relaxation.

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan opens with a married couple, Colin and Mary. They are on holiday possibly to fix their broken relationship but to a greater extent, this holiday to them (I felt) is a way to take their attention off the failings of each other by enjoying new sights.

The Comfort Of Strangers - Ian McEwanThe holiday (in Venice or thereabouts) begins as many do with the couple taking things slowly, enjoying a meal out and an evening stroll until they get lost in a sort of labyrinthine collection of narrow streets with not a soul about. The holiday then feels menacing and claustrophobic. Not knowing what is waiting around the corner in a strange land is not something we hope to encounter on holiday and you read such terrible stories of what can go wrong during a seemingly innocent holiday in the sun.

Whilst this isn’t the most ideal of holiday reads because the book will leave you so paranoid that you won’t ever want to leave your apartment, I found I couldn’t put it down. There’s something about Ian McEwan for me. To read him is to feel like a wiser person. He knows things through his encounters and you feel grateful that he chooses to share his wisdom with you. You feel privileged somehow, this is why once I’d read Atonement, I picked up Solar, Saturday, Amsterdam and this one and I’m so glad that I did!

Back to the menacing storyline awaiting you! The lost unhappy couple are rescued by a local man. He’s big on charisma and offers to help them and takes them to a bar that is so hidden from the tourist trail that only the locals know about it. Ideal. A holiday that changes direction through a chance encounter with a local is the perfect way to tap into the underbelly of an unknown holiday destination. But there’s a big ‘but’, the couple are not allowed to take off and disappear into the nearest crowd of holidaymakers into oblivion, for their ‘rescuer’ wants to tie them into meeting up again. They get to know the man’s wife over at their home and a seemingly nice couples’ situation gets going. Everyone has their issues and Colin and Mary were certainly not without theirs and so too were their holiday ‘hosts’. What ensues is a very disturbing event followed by a macabre ending.

Read this book! You won’t be disappointed! But do not read this book on your holidays as it could spoil your trip – one way or another!!

Happenstance by Carol Shields

I really loved this book! When you hit your forties there is a tendency for some to feel like life has passed you by with nothing to show for it. This is a brilliant story of a married couple in their forties, their everyday life together and how they get so used to co-existing side by side that they forget to live their own lives. This is a wake-up call to all of us who forget about the people with dreams that we started out as just because we settled down and got married.

Happenstance - Carol ShieldsWe live out the tale of this man and woman through the characters themselves. We see, hear, smell and think everything they are experiencing and through the sheer wealth of fine detail become completely immersed in their lives. The fun element to this book is that you get 2 books in one. Some writers would intertwine the 2 characters chapter by chapter but with Happenstance, Carol Shields chose to offer us the husband’s side of events first until the defined time and then decided it was time to read the wife’s version of events. Once you have read the husband’s story, it’s a brilliantly fun experience to read the wife’s story next. You start to understand things from both points of view. This is a book about marriage which for the reader’s benefit has become dissected right through the middle.

The first half of the book is delivered through the character of Jack and the second half of the book comes direct through his wife Brenda. We experience their daily routines as we all experience our own mundane tasks and chores such as visiting the bathroom first thing then sticking the kettle on – all the things you just do that you wouldn’t normally give any thought to. We become the characters who of course are actually us! How many times did I come across a passage and think ‘hey, I do that!’?!

Is this a happy marriage? Put it this way, I wouldn’t go rushing in to buy Happenstance for a wedding present not unless I wanted to put them off! This is a realistic tale of living with someone and forgetting about who you are or who you have become.

In the case of Jack, he is so used to Brenda, the rock, that he takes her for granted a bit. He goes off and does his own thing but only really lives on the periphery of family life. When problems come along, it’s the role of Brenda to respond to distress calls. She lives a completely unselfish existence but comes a little unstuck when an opportunity arises that forces her to step outside of her comfort zone and put herself first. Is her quilting convention seen as an act of one-man-ship by all who observe her desire to zip off on an overnighter to Philadelphia? No! We’re chuffed for her and a little bit in awe of her for stepping outside of her usual boundaries.

Hopefully, as I did, you will love this book. You may even feel inspired by the characters, you never know where a book will take you! When you’ve finished with this book, give Larry’s Party and Closer by Carol Shields a bash – they are brilliant too!

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This was a marathon read. It was impossible to put down and when finally I’d finished Freedom by Jonathan Franzen I could have happily done it all over again.

This was the second book I had read by the author, The Corrections being the first. This is an author who really gets inside his character’s heads and he’s not afraid to show the warts and all which is the main reason I’m into his writing.

Freedom - Jonathan FranzenThis is a big tale about life, in particular, wedded bliss and everything that goes with it. It’s about missed opportunities and opportunities taken, it’s about consequences (of which there are always some – especially when you take a gamble) and mostly it’s about a really nice man, a lawyer who passionately cares for the environment called Walter Berglund (who, I pictured as Philip Seymour Hoffman throughout the book – I couldn’t help it!). He’s generous to a fault in character, in particular he’s generous to his wife Patty.

The story begins with the Berglunds and revelations concerning the life they have built together. They have two children, one of which, Joey, becomes involved with the utterly sycophantic Connie the teen next door neighbour. Joey decides to leave home and move in with Connie and her overwhelming mother which Patty finds unbearable. Soon the Berglunds move to Washington DC as it’s all getting too problematic. But the problems don’t just go away.

The story really changes a gear when Patty and Walter begin having romantic marital problems. We find out through the autobiography that she’s encouraged to write during therapy that she only married Walter because his close friend wasn’t interested. In love with Walter’s rock star friend Richard Katz she struggles to fight his allure always convinced that she was born for something less mundane than her marriage to Walter. On some level she feels as though her life hasn’t lived up to its potential ever since her accident and the end of her basketball career. She makes do with Walter who absolutely loves her to bits.

When Patty and Walter break up their lives become very different. Walter gets involved in the issues of global overpopulation while Patty settles for Richard Katz though not for long. Walter will eventually become famous when a press broadcast that turns into a rant becomes viral and becomes involved with his young assistant Lalitha.

Joey, their son, to the horror of his father Walter, has become a staunch Republican taking on a very dodgy occupation of selling remanufactured spare parts from South America to the US Iraqi war effort to finance his college education. His selfish  ambition knows no bounds as he gets involved with his friend’s upper class sister to fuel his emotional and animal desires.

Without giving the end away events occur to turn the Berglunds lives on their head. You will enjoy this! There is a lot to this book that I (to put it mildly) have not even mentioned in this review. This is a wordy, pithy novel packed with delicious detail – the stuff for proper bookworms!

As I said, I came to this book following the reading of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. If you haven’t indulged already, I can highly recommend that too!