Montpelier Parade, Karl Geary

montpelier

This is Karl Geary’s debut novel, set in rainy Dublin in the late eighties.  The story is told by sixteen year old Sonny Knolls, who narrates the story by talking to himself in the second person (an unusual narrative), but one that grew on me.

Sonny is studying at school, but also works part time as a butcher’s assistant, and helps his dad with labouring.  Sonny lives in a cramped council house with his parents and his six brothers.  His life is bleak, and he escapes it by drinking too much alcohol.  Sonny’s only friend appears to be Sharon, who will do anything for his attention.

Sonny encounters Vera whilst helping his father to fix the wall of her grand, Georgian house on Montpelier Parade, situated in a more affluent part of the city.

Vera is everything that Sonny is not – wealthy, educated, well travelled, and old enough to be his mother.  A passionate affair ensues, an affair that is sometimes unsettling to witness.  However, there is an attraction between the pair, and their relationship is real and utterly convincing.  Vera inspires Sonny to do things in life that he never thought was possible.

Towards the end of the book, we realise that Vera is confronting her own demons, and although the ending is sad and dark, we wonder what became of Sonny in the next phase of his life.  Perhaps there will be a sequel…

The characters of Sonny and Vera fascinated me, and I was intrigued (and sometimes disturbed) by their relationship.  The novel was well written and convincing, but I found it a depressing read, and I was almost relieved to read the final page and reach for another book.

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A Thousand Paper Birds, Tor Udall

This book interested me because of its unusual setting of Kew Gardens.

We are introduced to Jonah at the beginning of the novel, a music teacher still reeling from the unexpected and sudden death of his wife, Audrey.

Overcome with grief, Jonah retreats to Kew Gardens, where he spends most of his days wandering around remembering the times he spent there with Audrey.

We discover more about Audrey through Jonah, and another man who seems to spend much of his time at Kew: Harry Barclay, and Milly, the little girl whom Harry looks after. But others cannot see Harry and Milly. Who are they and what connection do they have to Audrey?

During his time at Kew, Jonah meets Chloe, an artist who makes origami birds (hence the title of thr book). Chloe is a vivid and unique character and the relationship which develops between Jonah and Chloe is realistic and convincing.

This is a quirky and beautifully written book, but the writing is overly descriptive in places. The historical and botanical information about Kew Gardens adds an interesting touch, but sometimes I felt this distracted from the story itself.

This is a book about grief and loss, but also about love, friendship and desire. It is about the beauty of nature and how it can heal us.

I felt that the ending was slightly rushed, and that I was left with many unanswered questions, but perhaps this was the point. The novel left me to make up my own mind, but I found that the characters in this story did not linger in my mind for too long after closing the book. I found that I didn’t care enough about them, but it has certainly made me wsnt to pay Kew Gardens a visit…..

Seven Days of Us, Francesca Hornak

seven days of us

Around the festive period, I am always on the search for a warm, cosy, Christmas read, but I want something that isn’t too fluffy, a book with a gripping storyline and believable characters.  When I heard about this debut by Francesca Hornak on Radio 2’s book club, I made sure I got my hands on a copy, and it didn’t disappoint, although I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to.  The book is currently in hardback, so if you fancy it, why not wait until it comes out in paperback and save for next Christmas?!

In this novel, we meet the Birch family, mother Emma, father Andrew, and their two daughters, Olivia and Phoebe, who are in their early thirties.  Eldest daughter, Olivia, is a medic, and is treating an Ebola-style epidemic in Liberia called Haag.  She must now spend seven days in quarantine, and this week happens to fall over the Christmas period.  The family decide to use their grand house in Norfolk to spend the week together.

Everyone can resonate with the Birch family.  Christmas is a time when we are all forced to spend time together, whether we want to or not.  A part of us cannot wait to see our families again, and an equal part of us wants to run a million miles away after a just a few hours of their company.

Each family member has a secret.  Olivia is in  a forbidden relationship with fellow medic, Sean.  Andrew, is desperately trying to ignore the emails and letters he keeps receiving, and there is no way that his family can find out them as his devastating secret will be revealed and could ruin everything.  Emma, is determined that her recent Cancer diagnosis will not ruin Christmas for her family and is determined to keep it a secret until the holiday season is over.  Materialistic Phoebe, is obsessed with her recent engagement, but does she really love George?

Things are complicated enough, when an American stranger turns up on their doorstep with a revelation of his own.

I liked this story, although I disliked most of the characters. I wanted to care for them, but found that I didn’t.  The family relationships were realistic, especially the relationship between sisters Olivia and Phoebe.  I loved the setting (the big rambling house in Norfolk), and I enjoyed reading about the family’s traditions (such as buying one another stocking gifts, although I found it odd that they opened them separately!).  I found all of the family members a bit cold towards one another and would have liked some of the scenes to have been more heart warming and tear jerking.

The ending was bittersweet and life-affirming and I felt satisfied with it.  On the whole, an emotionally uplifting story.  Next Christmas I will be on the search for another festive novel, and I wonder if it will beat this one?  I’ll let you know…..

How to Stop Time, Matt Haig

how to stop time

You may have heard of Matt Haig before.  His book, Reasons to Stay Alive, is a personal account of his experience of depression, and is a fantastic source of help and inspiration for anyone suffering from it.  Even if you don’t suffer from depression, you will still find Reasons to Stay Alive an amazing, uplifting, and inspirational book, and I’m sure it has saved many lives.  In a recent interview with the Guardian, Matt said:

“I think books can save us.  And I think they sort of saved me.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Reading is the perfect escapism, and they can teach us things about ourselves that we never realised.  His latest offering (a novel), How to Stop Time, is many things.  It is funny, light, and hopeful, but also bitterly sad and romantic, and it portrays an important message about time and meaning, and poses the questions; What is it we live for?  What is life without love?

This novel is about Tom Hazard, who has a rare and undocumented condition.  He ages slowly, about 1/15th the rate of normal people (who are referred to as mayflies in the book). Tom was born in 1581, which makes him 439 years old, but he doesn’t look much older than forty.  I know – (I can hear you groaning inwardly), it sounds like a ridiculously far-fetched storyline.  A fantasy perhaps, and this sort of thing turns me off immediately.  I will be honest, I only picked it up because it was a chosen book club read.  (But please do give this book a go, because the premise is interesting, and you will not be disappointed, no matter what your usual preferred genre is).

Tom is a member of the Albatross society, a secret support group for people with his condition.  The society is run by a man called Hendrich, who supports members of the Albatross society by providing them with a new identity every seven years, a safe location to live, and a decent job.  All he asks is that members abide by two rules:

  1. Members should not fall in love
  2. Members are not allowed to leave the society

And in return, Hendrich asks that members repay him for his services by owing him a favour.

The thing is, Tom Hazard has been in love –  a very long time ago in the Tudor times, to a lady called Rose.  They had a daughter, and unfortunately his little family were hounded by Witch hunters (Tom witnessed his own mother die from the cruelty of the Witch hunters), which gave him no choice but to leave his wife and daughter to ensure their safety.  When Tom went in search of Rose in the 1600’s, he found her dying from the Plague.  Tom later learned that his daughter had inherited his condition, only she had disappeared from his life, and it is Tom’s quest to one day find her.

In the present day, Tom’s new life is back in London, and he has acquired a job in a secondary school as a History teacher, an occupation that seems perfect for Tom as he has lived through four centuries: Elizabethan, Victorian and modern England, Jazz age Paris and Los Angeles.  He has met Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Captain Cook.  There is no-one better qualified to teach History.

When Tom is not working, he is looking for his daughter, whom he hopes is still be alive in the world somewhere and his only connection to Rose, the love of his life.

At the school where he works, Tom meets a French teacher, who claims to recognize his face, and a mystery unravels.  Tom is drawn to this beautiful French lady, and finds himself falling for her, but knows that it would be too risky and dangerous to make the same mistake twice.

This book was so unlike anything I have ever read, and yet I loved it.  I enjoyed the historic element, and I thought the story had a bit of everything thrown in; mystery, romance, adventure.  It is a book that made me stop and think, a life-affirming story which has earned a permanent place on my bookshelf.

Try it, I think you’ll love it too.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

little fires everywhere

Having loved Celeste Ng’s first novel – Everything I Never Told You, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her second offering, Little Fires Everywhere.  I was beside myself with excitement when the Amazon van turned up and that little brown package was placed in my hands!

Yet, it has taken me a while to write this review, because after closing the book, I wasn’t sure what I felt.  This book didn’t have me desperately turning the pages.  I didn’t fall in love with any of the characters (although they were all vividly drawn).  I wanted to love it, but quite frankly, I didn’t.  This book has had so much publicity.  It was Reese Witherspoon’s book club favourite, and it was featured on every Instagram page about books.  I was expecting it to blow me away, and the reason it has taken me so long to write this review is because I thought that maybe there was something wrong with me.  Should I have loved it?  Was I missing something?

Everyone reads a book differently, and perceives it in a completely different way to the next person.  So just because I didn’t love it, it doesn’t mean you won’t.

The book opens at the scene of a house fire in the Shaker Heights neighbourhood, Ohio, in the 1990’s.  The author, Celeste Ng, partially grew up there.  Shaker Heights is an affluent neighbourhood, a neat, orderly and harmonious community.  The perfect place to live, you may think.

It certainly is for the Richardson family, whose house is burning down at the start of the novel.  It is an intriguing opening.  Who started the fire, and why?  The novel then takes us back to 11 months previous, where the story begins.

The Richardson’s also own a duplex, which they are renting out to Mia Warren, and her fifteen year old daughter, Pearl.   Mia is an artist, and also works part-time in the local Chinese restaurant to make ends meet.  Elena Richardson is intrigued by Mia and her background, and so are her four children.

Pearl soon makes friends with the Richardson siblings, Lexie, Izzy, Trip and Moody, and Mrs Richardson employs Mia as her housekeeper.  Mia and Pearl are a mystery to Elena Richardson, and the truth is about to be revealed.

At the beginning of the book, we think the story is mainly about the cause of  the fire, but as the story progresses, we realise that the book is mainly about mothers and the relationships they have with their children.

Mia befriends a Chinese waitress at the restaurant she works at, and it becomes apparent that the waitress recently abandoned her baby girl at a fire station because she felt she wasn’t capable of caring for her.

Meanwhile Elena Richardson’s close friends (who cannot conceive) have taken the baby into their home with the hope of adopting her.  Elena Richardson is completely unaware that her teenage daughter has also found herself pregnant and isn’t sure if she can keep her baby.

A custody battle unravels, and Mia Warren and Elena Richardson have completely conflicting views as to who would be a better mother to the little Chinese baby girl.  Can Elena Richardson’s affluent friends give the baby a better life, or should she be reunited with her biological mother who has nothing to offer her child but love?

As the custody battle continues, Mrs Richardson becomes curious about Mia Warren’s past, and she discovers a shocking truth about Mia and her daughter Pearl.

This novel is thought provoking and could be a good book club read, as it will spark debate about what really makes a mother, biology, wealth or love?

It is a well crafted novel and written well, but there was not enough pace for me, and I found there was something missing, although I couldn’t work out what it was.

 

The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, Haemin Sunim

The things you can only see when you slow down

This month, our book club made an unusual choice for our book club read.  I say unusual, because it isn’t fiction, but more of a self-help book.  Nevertheless, the title of this book struck a chord with everyone, because slowing down is something we just don’t seem capable of in this day and age.

I too, am guilty of it.  There is always something to be done, at home or at work.  I wake up, and the first thing I do is reach for my mobile phone to see if I have missed anything.  A text, a Whatsapp message, an email… I check my social media accounts (even more so now that I am blogging and posting to Instagram).  I jump into the shower, whilst shouting at my two kids to start getting ready for school.  I gulp down mouthfuls of tea whilst buttering toast and stuffing packed lunch containers with sandwiches and fruit.  As I drive my children to school, I am making a list in my head of all the things I have to do when I get to work, and remind myself of what is happening after school; which activities or clubs my boys are attending.  During this frenzy of mental activity, my boys are trying to speak to me, they are asking me questions to which I am nodding and umming and ahhhing, but not actually taking any information in.

I kiss my boys quickly goodbye, and roar off in my car to work, tutting and swearing under my breath as I stop at red traffic lights and to let pedestrians cross the road.  I literally have twelve minutes to get from the boys school to work every morning, and this doesn’t involve parking in a jammed car park and running up two flights of stairs to the library.

When I get to my desk, there is a pile post waiting to be sorted, a box full of book returns to process, and customers wanting attention.  Libraries can be busy places.  I absolutely love my job, but by lunchtime, I am frazzled, starving, and dreaming of an afternoon nap.  I wolf down lunch, answer various messages on my phone, go for a quick loo break, pull a brush through my hair and a slick of gloss over my lips.  The afternoon flies by, I pick up the children, and we whizz home to conjour up some tea and put on some washing before we go out again to football practice.  Then it is home, bath, bed, story, time for them to ask a million questions because it is the only time they really have my attention, and the time when I am much to tired to give sensible answers.

Before bed, I try to read a few pages of a book, but the words start to blur before me, and sleep beckons.  Apparently, I fall asleep, but it feels like I have only blinked, before the alarm is sounding in my ear, and we begin the whole process again.

Sound familiar?!  Yes, I hear you cry!! This is my life!  This is what I do every day.  It’s like being on a fairground ride that never stops!

Reading The Things You Can See Only When you Slow Down by Haemin Sunim, was like a breath of fresh air.  The words written before me made prefect sense.  I want to put them into practice, I want to slow myself down and breathe in the scent of the flowers and trees, taste the food in my mouth, spend half a day reading a good book.  I want to stop in the street and have conversations with random people, to turn off my phone and take my time wandering through the countryside where I live.   I want to, so, so much, but I feel guilty!  Why?! Why do I feel guilty for enjoying the simple things in life, the little moments?  Why do I feel guilty for sitting still sometimes, when I know it is the right thing to do? When I know that stillness and silence is actually good for me?

We all think that busy is good, that success is good.  There are certain milestones in life that we are expected to reach.  We should do this, we shouldn’t do that.  We should be at Manager level at work by the time we’re forty, we should own a property, we should meet up with that friend we haven’t seen all year.  We shouldn’t eat that slice of cake, we shouldn’t go out on a work night, we shouldn’t wear that colour.  Why, why, why?  Why are there so many should’s and shouldn’ts?  We are only here once, surely we should do what the hell we like?

One quote from this book really hit me like a sledgehammer:

happiness quote Haemin Sunim

It really sums up the truth about life.  As long as you are happy, nothing else should matter.

 

The Last Night by Cesca Major

Cesca Major is another recent discovery of mine. Don’t you just love it when you discover an author that you love?

I absolutely loved Major’s first book, The Silent Hours, a story based on the true, shocking events that happened in France during World War One. The story is told from the different perspectives of three different characters, whose lives are intertwined; Adeline, a mute woman in the 1950’s seeking refuge in a nunnery, nine year old Tristan, whose family have moved from Paris to a remote village in France, and Isabelle, a teacher in the village, who falls in love with a Jewish man. The tension builds throughout the book and concludes in the final chapters with a devastating, unimaginable tragedy.

It took me weeks to stop thinking about The Silent Hours, but once I had recovered from my book hangover, I found myself googling frantically to find out if Cesca Major was planning to write another novel! Her second book, The Last Night, (which is just as good) is reviewed below:

the last night

The Last Night is told from the perspectives of two different characters: Irina (2016) and Abigail (1952). The chapters alternate between the past and the present, which works really well, and I found the book to be a real page turner; I was eager to discover what would happen next.

Irina is a quiet, self contained character who seems to distance herself from the people closest to her; her mother, and her boyfriend, Andrew. Irina also has scars on her face, which indicates that something terrible has happened in her past, and she is desperately trying to deal with the feelings and emotions connected to her tragic past. Irina is a furniture restorer, and one day she is offered a new commission – to restore an antique bureau. As Irina begins to work on the piece of furniture, she feels a supernatural presence and begins to see and hear things. Irina is obviously quite emotionally unstable, and as a reader, I wasn’t sure if she was really seeing and hearing things from the past or if it was all in her mind.

Back in 1952, Abigail leaves her home town of Bristol and her best friend, Mary, to go and live with her sister Connie and her husband, Larry in a Devonshire village. Abigail hasn’t seen her sister for a few years, and she is shocked by their wealth. She is also shocked by Larry’s behaviour, and it becomes apparent that he is not the kind of man whom the rest of the village believe him to be. Abigail begins to avoid being in the house with Larry, and soon meets a fisherman called Richard and falls in love with him. As the novel progresses, secrets are revealed by both Irina and Abigail, and the tension begins to build. The tragic events that follow change the lives of Richard and Abigail forever, and we discover the truth about Irina’s secret past.

Cesca Major has a talent for writing accurately about little known historical events, and she brings these events to life through beautifully written fiction. Both of her books have many layers to them. As you read, it is a bit like unwrapping a Christmas gift, and another part of the story is revealed. Cesca’s stories are real and unflinchingly raw, and I love the fact that she doesn’t try to ‘fluff’ them up or write unbelievably happy endings.

I’m really looking forward to discovering Major’s next offering.

The Last Night