Tag Archives: family drama

Top Ten Unique Reads…

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Once again those fine folks at The Broke and Bookish came up with a Top Ten Tuesday list I found irresistible, so I put my thinking cap on and came up with these – hopefully you’ll forgive the fact that it isn’t Tuesday…

Snowflake by Paul Gallico
A delightful story of the life of Snowflake, who was “all stars and arrows, squares and triangles of ice and light”. Through Snowflake’s special role in the pattern of creation and life, Paul Gallico has given us a simple allegory on the meaning of life, its oneness and ultimate safety.
A teacher read this one to us when I was in the equivalent of today’s Year Six and I was enchanted. I tracked down a lot more of Paul Gallico’s reads – and to be honest, many of them are unlike anything I’ve ever read, before or since. But they certainly fired up my taste for something different…

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
A carnival rolls in sometime after the midnight hour on a chill Midwestern October eve, ushering in Halloween a week before its time. A calliope’s shrill siren song beckons to all with a seductive promise of dreams and youth regained. In this season of dying, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to Green Town, Illinois, to destroy every life touched by its strange and sinister mystery. And two inquisitive boys standing precariously on the brink of adulthood will soon discover the secret of the satanic raree-show’s smoke, mazes, and mirrors, as they learn all too well the heavy cost of wishes – and the stuff of nightmares.
We were on a caravan holiday in France and I’d scooped this one off the shelves to take with us. I read it one heavy, hot summer afternoon while nibbling on chocolate – suddenly very glad for blazing sunshine and comforting presence of family. And as soon as I got to the end, I started reading it all over again, wanting more of that alluring prose and dark ideas.

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan
Tricia Sullivan has written an extraordinary, genre defining novel that begins with the mystery of a woman who barely knows herself and ends with a discovery that transcends space and time. On the way we follow our heroine as she attempts to track down a killer in the body of another man, and the man who has been taken over, his will trapped inside the mind of the being that has taken him over. And at the centre of it all a briefcase that contains countless possible realities.
There is no one whose imagination works in quite the same way as Tricia Sullivan – and this amazing offering is certainly unique. I loved this quirky story and the directions in which it went, while following the fortunes of all the remarkable characters who seem perfectly reasonable – until you realise the prism through which you are looking at them has refracted into something different…

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
The Jorgmund Pipe is the backbone of the world, and it’s on fire. Gonzo Lubitsch, professional hero and troubleshooter, is hired to put it out – but there’s more to the fire, and the Pipe itself, than meets the eye. The job will take Gonzo and his best friend, our narrator, back to their own beginnings and into the dark heart of the Jorgmund Company itself.
Another extraordinary tale that swept me up, held me rapt and then – finally – released me with a doozy of a twist ending I certainly didn’t see coming. This roller-coaster read snaps off the page with memorable lines and exuberant characters – see my review here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment? Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother, Lowell. Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.
This is a remarkable book – more so as it is based on a true event. And as we follow Rosemary when she goes on a quest to try and track down what happened to Fern, we discover a heartbreaking story of loss and abandonment that started with the best of intentions and ended up blighting the young lives of all the siblings in the family – see my review here.

Touchstone – Book 1 of the Glass Thorns series by Melanie Rawn
Cayden Silversun is part Elven, part Fae, part human Wizard—and all rebel. His aristocratic mother would have him follow his father to the Royal Court, to make a high society living off the scraps of kings. But Cade lives and breathes for the theater, and he’s good—very, very good. With his company, he’ll enter the highest reaches of society and power, as an honored artist—or die trying.
This remarkable series is a tour de force. I haven’t read anything quite like it and I don’t think I ever will… Cayden is a remarkable, spiky character cursed with genius and flashes of prescience. No one else has ever managed to depict the cost of this type of talent so thoroughly as Rawn in this magnificent series, which deserves to be a lot better known – see my review here.

Among Others by Jo Walton
When Mori discovers that her mother is using black magic, she decides to intervene. The ensuing clash between mother and daughter leaves Mori bereft of her twin sister, crippled for life and unable to return to the Welsh Valleys that were her own kingdom. Mori finds solace and strength in her beloved books. But her mother is bent on revenge, and nothing and no one – not even Tolkien – can save her from the final reckoning.
The writing is extraordinary in the pin-sharp description of the everyday, alongside the remarkable and Mori’s character is so compellingly realistic and nuanced, I’m undecided whether there is a large chunk of autobiographical detail wrapped up in this book. And I don’t really care – other than to fervently hope, for her sake, there isn’t too much that is borrowed from Walton’s own life. Memorable and remarkable art invariably is a fusion of imagination and reality – and this is both a memorable and remarkable book. See my review here.

A Kind of Vanishing by Lesley Thomson
Summer 1968: the day Senator Robert Kennedy is shot, two nine-year-old girls are playing hide and seek in the ruins of a deserted village. When it is Eleanor’s turn to hide, Alice disappears.
Thomson immediately plunges into the world of young girls, depicting first Eleanor’s rich interior landscape and then allowing us to access to Alice’s carefully modulated world, where her doting parents watch her every move. Thomson paints an exquisite picture of each girls’ fragilities, their aspirations and pin-sharp awareness of adult expectations. She beautifully inhabits the terrible, wonderful world of childhood – and the girls’ growing antipathy towards each other as they are forced to play together – until that disastrous game of hide and seek. This thriller/mystery is like nothing else I’ve read – see my review here.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
This is the first of the acclaimed Man Booker prizewinning books about Henry VIII’s bully boy Thomas Cromwell, who oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries. Mantel instantly had me off-balance with her present tense, third person deep POV when we first meet Cromwell being beaten by Walter, his drunken father, and he is lying on the ground trying to summon up the will to move. So Mantel quickly gains our sympathy for her protagonist – but rather than chart his adventures in Europe where he spent time as a mercenary and scholar, we then jump to when he is in Cardinal Wolsey’s employ and establishing himself as a man of substance.
The biggest problem for Mantel in choosing this period of history, is that many of us know the progression of events all too well. But while that is the frame and backdrop in this compelling read – it is Cromwell’s intense presence throughout that had me turning the pages and mourning the fact when there were no more pages… See my review here.

Embassytown by China Miéville
Embassytown, a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. On Arieka, Humans are not the only intelligent life. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes.
Miéville’s brilliant imagination produces a truly unusual alien species with a Language where emotion and meaning are inextricably linked, requiring human identical twins raised to be able to think and talk in tandem in order to keep the isolated human enclave, Embassytown, supplied with food and resources. Until it all goes horribly wrong… A fabulous examination of what it means to communicate. This book should be required reading for all prospective diplomats, in my opinion… See my review here.

Review of A Half Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb

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half forgotten songI’d read The Legacy a couple of years ago and loved it. And – more to the point – it is among the handful of books that I can vividly recall. So, would I find Webb’s latest offering just as engrossing and memorable?

1937. In a village on the Dorset coast, fourteen-year-old Mitzy Hatcher has endured a wild and lonely upbringing – until the arrival of renowned artist Charles Aubrey, his exotic mistress and their daughters, changes everything. Over the next three summers, Mitzy sees a future she had never thought possible, and a powerful love is kindled in her. A love that grows from innocence to obsession; from childish infatuation to something far more complex. Years later, a young man in an art gallery looks at a hastily-drawn portrait and wonders at the intensity of it. The questions he asks lead him to a Dorset village and to the truth about those fevered summers in the 1930s…

Those of you familiar with The Legacy will recognise that Webb has again revisited the dual narrative, with one story unfolding back in the past and one storyline gradually progressing in the present. The past finally meets the present in an exciting and unexpected denouement – but the engine that drives this story is a lost, unloved soul who anchors all her hopes and affection on a charismatic artist. Webb apparently loosely based Charles on Augustus John, who had a reputation as a womaniser and clearly loved women’s bodies with a strong, sensual appreciation – you only have to look at his sketches and paintings to realise that.

Webb’s depiction of Mitzy’s harsh childhood, where she spends much of time scavenging the surrounding countryside for plants, herbs, fish and small animals to eat or make up potions for her mother to sell, is far from the rural idyll that soft-focused adverts use. Yet, she still manages to evoke the beauty and rhythm of the Dorset countryside – so much so, that I fell asleep with the colours of this book swirling in my head. The initial friendship of Charles’ two girls is a revelation for Mitzy, who is shunned by all the village children, except for Wilf. This particular narrative caught at my heart and as it spirals into a tailspin of obsession and the inevitable darkness, so much so that I found myself reading through the night to discover what happens to forlorn Mitzy.

Zach’s story becomes entwined with Mitzy’s narrative when as an expert on Charles Aubery, he is commissioned to write a book about the artist and decides to investigate his personal life – particularly the events surrounding the tragedy that caused him to unexpectedly join up in the early days of World War II, when he died on the Normandy beaches. Zach has miseries of his own, as his ex-wife is emigrating to America with his only daughter, all set to start a new life with another man – and if he doesn’t complete this book, he’ll have to return the advance and shut down his struggling art gallery. But when Zach visits the village and discovers that one of Aubery’s most famous sitters is still alive as an old woman, he is astonished and realises that if he can get her to talk about those days, he will have a unique angle on the artist.

So, piece by piece, the story is uncovered as Mitzy starts to remember. Or tries to forget…

The themes of remembering, of obsessional love and loyalty are all played out in the small cast of vividly depicted characters, where Mitzy’s tragic story rises above the rest, as she has to continue to live with the consequences of what happened all those years ago.

The book may be called A Half Forgotten Song – but I won’t be forgetting this beautifully told tale for a long, long time.
10/10

Review of The Villa by Rosanna Ley

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Rosanna Ley, aka Jan Henley, has been through several incarnations during her writing career – and this enjoyable slice of escapism is certainly attracting attention as the book steadily climbed the best-seller lists during the summer.

When Tess Angel receives a solicitor’s letter inviting her to claim her inheritance – the Villa Sirena, perched on a clifftop in Sicily – she is stunned. Her only link to the island is through her mother, Flavia, who left Sicily during World War II and cut all contact with her family.  Initially resistant to Tess going back to her roots, Flavia realises the secrets from her past are about to be revealed and decides to try to explain actions. Meanwhile, Tess’ teenage daughter Ginny is stressed by college, by her blooming sexuality and filled with questions that she longs to ask her father, if only she knew where he was.

the villaSo this book has three protagonists – Flavia, Tess and Ginny. It’s a big ask to be able to pull off writing convincingly as a seventy-something and as a seventeen year old – and Ley manages it. Ginny’s chippy comments are both poignant and funny, while the story that Flavia gradually reveals, along with Sicilian recipes is both remarkable and believable. While her stay in Sicily allows Tess the space to finally decide what she wants from life, after struggling to raise Ginny as a single parent.

This book has the potential to be an almighty mess – balancing three separate stories spanning over half a century, with a backdrop straddling modern Britain and a remote Sicilian village certainly is harder to achieve than Ley makes it look. In addition, Ley has further challenged modern tastes by insisting on slowing the pace down, particularly during the Sicilian interludes. We are treated to lengthy descriptive passages and detailed instructions on how to make several classic Sicilian dishes – in effect a substantial section of this book is an homage to a slower, simpler pace of life. However, Ley is also at pains not to paint too cosy a picture of these tough, touchy people, who are quick to take offence and very slow to forgive – with sometimes catastrophic consequences.

While there is a love interest, this isn’t the engine that drives this book forward – it is the tension running through all three generations of strong-minded women in trying to find some kind of peace and happiness. Do they succeed? What is the mystery that has torn apart two families who had been friends for generations? And why is Flavia so determined never to return to the land of her birth? How can Ginny negotiate the demands of her friends, along with those of her boyfriend?

This isn’t the sort of book I generally read and enjoy – but I stayed up reading into the small hours, unwilling to put The Villa down as I was drawn into the story and wanted to know what happened next. And while the cover blurb repeatedly suggests it is an ideal summer read, I think it would be also be one to curl up with in the dead of winter, where those vivid descriptions of the baking Sicilian landscape may help to keep you warm…
9/10

Review of The Legacy by Katherine Webb

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This book was recommended to me by my mother; I picked it up with no great hopes from the cover – and within a handful of pages was hooked.

In the depths of a harsh winter, Erica and Beth Calcott return to the house where they spent idyllic summers as children. As Erica sorts through her late grandmother’s belongings, strange fragments of family history and vivid memories break the surface of the present day… Memories of their cousin, Henry, who disappeared on summer long ago. Of their grandmother, a bitter woman, full of a deep dark hatred.

As Eric sifts through remnants of the past, a secret emerges, reaching all the way back to a beautiful heiress in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma. As past and present converge, Erica and Beth must come to terms with two terrible acts of betrayal – and the heartbreaking legacy left behind.

And there you have it. The book is split between two narratives – Erica, in first person viewpoint, tells of her present day hunt forthelegacy something in their past to help her fragile sister, Beth. While Caroline’s story, set in Oklahoma in the early 1900’s, is told in third person point of view. It’s a tricky balancing act. Almost inevitably in dual narrative books, I generally find myself drawn to one of the stories above the other. However, Webb’s flawless pacing and deft characterisation ensured that I was equally absorbed in both these plotlines. She also manages to pull off another neat trick; there is quite a lot of foreshadowing in this book, which certainly had me making certain assumptions about where the story was going – only to find that it didn’t. Yet, at no point was I exasperated.

This is an extraordinarily accomplished debut book that tells two intertwining stories with such clarity, that I’ve read several reviews that described this book as ‘simple’ and ‘uncomplicated’. However, there are plenty of elements within this book that could have rapidly caused the story to degenerate into an impenetrable mess in the wrong hands.  In addition to her skilful handling of the plot structure, Webb’s writing is a delight to read. Both main characters give detailed descriptions of their surroundings without holding up the narrative tension, which steadily builds so that I read late into the early morning to discover exactly what happened. I also appreciated the fact that Webb also manages to have one of her heroines commit a terrible act without losing the sympathy of the reader.

I found I was genuinely moved by this book – the effect of what happened wreaks havoc on this family and Webb is unflinching in exposing this to our gaze. So, after a 400 page build up, keeping me on tenterhooks right to the end, does the climax and denouement deliver? Absolutely. And again, although Webb manages to make it look very straightforward – this is a tricky balancing act when dealing with a dual narrative. Two story strands have to come to a convincing and satisfactory ending and in this case, there also has to be an answer to a major mystery dangled in front of our noses for most of the novel… If this had somehow fallen flat, or I had successfully guessed the answer fifty pages from the end, then The Legacy would have been seriously compromised – and it isn’t.

Small wonder, then, that this book was recommended as one of the TV Book Club’s 2010 summer reads. If you missed it and you enjoy a well-constructed, engrossing family drama – go and hunt for a copy. You’ll be glad you did…

9/10