Monday, 19 November 2007

The Amnesia Clinic - James Scudamore

" Bewitching...This is a rigorously plotted novel masquerading as a pciaresque romp and highly recommended. Scudamore has talent to burn." Sunday Telegraph.

The Amnesia Clinic is an extraordinary, powerful novel set in Quito, Ecuador. Anti, a quiet English boy, strikes up a friendship with flamboyant local classmate Fabian. Fabian is everything Anti isn't: handsome, athletic and popular. What's more, he lives with his cool, eccentric Uncle Suarez, while Anti is stuck in the dull ex-pat world inhabited by his parents.
Suarez, a storyteller par excellence, infects the boys with his passion for outlandish tales, and , before long, the relationship between them becomes one conducted entirely through the medium of storytelling.
One subject is taboo: Fabian's parents. But when details surrounding their disappearnce begin to emerge, Anti decides to console his friend with a story suggesting that Fabian's mother may be living at a bizarre hospital on the coast for patients with memory loss.
With confused emotions and reality losing its tenuous grip, the boys embark on a quixotic voyage across Ecuador in search of an "Amnesia Clinic" that may or may not exist...

I really enjoyed this novel, and found it exciting and suspenseful, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the reader learns from page 1 that a lead character will die before the story is through. The relationship between Fabian and Anti is touching, and unlikely, and Uncle Suarez is rather mysterious and enigmatic. The boys, both teenagers, seem younger than any teen boys I'm acquainted with, maybe because Anti has asthma, and Fabian is closeted by his uncle following his parent's death. In this way, they would perhaps not be as naive or innocent to find themselves in the circumstances that they do. A clever aspect of the story is that the reader never can be totally sure, what is fact or fiction as far as the boys narratives go.
The Amnesia Clinic is Scudamore's debut novel and won the 2007 Somerset Maugham Award as well as being shorlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, The Commonwealth Writer's Prize, the Glan Dimplex Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize.

" A polished debut ...turns the tables on both characters and reader as imagination segues into dangerous reality" Guardian.

Just In Case - Meg Rosoff

"Extraordinary and original. Yhisdisturbing blackly comic, sophisticated meditation on death, madness and sexuality is powerful and haunting" Sunday Times book of the Week.

What would you do if you thought fate was out to get you?
If you're fifteen year old David Case, you might decide to change your name and the way you look. You might reinvent yourself as an athlete, try to outrun the terrible things that could happen at any second. You might leave home and find yourself caught up in a series of strange misadventures. You might even fall in love.
But is David Case really in control of his life? And if he isn't, who is?
Meg Rosoff's suprisingly funny and utterly compelling new novel is as daring as her first, the award winning How I Live Now.

One day, David Case's baby brother, Charlie looks out of their top floor window and thinks, "Why not fly?" David reaches him just in time to stop him plunging out, and is suddenly hit by panic. He begins to see all kinds of danger in the world, "Suddenly everywhere he looked he saw complete ctastrophe, bloodshed, the demise of the planet, the ruin of the human race...The weight of it wrapped itself around his ankles and dragged him under."
Believing himself to be doomed, David sets about reinventing himself, changes his name to Justin, (get it?) changes his friends, clothing and acquires a zanily dressed photographer girlfriend and an imaginary greyhound, Dog.
As this occurs, fate looks on mischeiviously, and Charlie with concern.
I really enjoyed this novel, although it is a little strange. I wondered if David /Justin was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), going to extreme measures to prevent catastrophe. I'm not sure if this was the author's intentiom, but Justin certainly exhibits many of the signs. Clearly he is depressed and sees the world as a hostile place.
Fate is personified and given a voice, but it was never clear to me whether the author was playing a game with the reader in the same way the fate is playing games with Justin.
Justin is helped by Peter and his enigmatic and wise young sister Dorothea, who seem to accept and sympathise with Justin's angst.
Peter tells Justin, "...try rethinking your proposition. Check your logic. Are you running because you're being chased? Is something chasing you in order to do you harm? Think of a dog. What if fate is chasing you because you're running?"
Justin has to come to terms with his mortality in order to survive, and his journey of discovery is thought provoking and moving.

"Intelligent, ironic and darkly funny." Time Out

Monday, 8 October 2007

Lorelei's Secret - Carolyn Parkhurst

"A shimmering fictional portrait of love and loss" Scotsman

"Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24th, my wife Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death. There were no witnesses save our dog Lorelei..."
From their first date, Lexy swept Paul Iverson off his feet and brought passion and adventure to his previously stable existence. Unable to accept that her death was an accident, Paul sets out to divine Lorelei's secret and, in doing so, he learns things about his wife that he could never have imagined.

This book is stunning, it completley captivated me up until the very last page. Published in America as The Dogs Of Babel, is not only a study of grief and loss, but also a tender and compelling love story.
Linguist, Paul begins to find certain "anomalies" concerning Lexy's death, which lead him to believe that his wife had commited suicide. She had begun to reorganize their bookshelves and Paul believes she has tried to leave him a message somehow, yet he cannot work out what that message might be. He is also confused by the fact that Lexy had cooked Lorelei a twenty pound steak they had planned to barbeque that evening. The only way he can solve the mystery, is to have Lorelei tell him what happened, therefore he must teach her to talk.
Lexy's character is revealed in a series of Paul's memories of her, and she is suprisingly complex. Her fits of sudden, inexplicable rage and destructiveness hint at some deep emotional damge, but Parkhurst does not tell us what. I liked this, it lent a further air of mystery into the connundrum that was Lexy. Her black spells are in sharp contrast to the spontaneous, creative, fun-loving woman Paul falls in love with. I loved the part where they wear masks of the other's face. Their relationship is a delight to read about, and Parkhurst really makes the reader care about both of them.
Lexy has a fascination with Tam Lin, and tells Paul her favourite part, "Had I known but yesterday what I know today, I'd have taken out your two gray eyes and put in eyes of clay. And had I known but yesterday you'd be no more my own, I'd have taken out your heart of flesh and put in one of stone".
This extract proves to be very significant, and makes for extremely moving reading.
Paul's attempts to teach Lorelei to talk provide a lot of humour, but also have a dark side. His colleagues think he is crazy, and he is a little, crazy with grief.
As always, I won't give away the ending, but I can say that it is intensely sad and I cried. A lot.

"Prepare to have your heart smashed into melancholy pieces" Elle

Getting Rid of Matthew - Jane Fallon

"Sparkling and unpredictable, a brilliant first novel" Elle

When Matthew, Helen's lover of the past four years, finally decides to leave his wife Sophie (and their two daughters) and move into Helen's flat, she should be over the moon. The only trouble is, she doesn't want him anymore. Now she has to figure out how to get rid of him...
Plan A
*Stop shaving your armpits. And your bikini line.
*Buy incontinence pads and leave them lying around.
*Stop having sex with him.
Plan B
*Accidentally on purpose bump into his wife Sophie.
*Give yourself a fake name and identity.
*Befriend Sophie and actually begin to really like her.
*Snog Matthew's son (who's the same age as you by the way. You're not a paedophile).
*Befriend Matthew's children. Unsuccessfully.
*Watch your plan go absolutely horribly wrong.
Getting rid of Matthew isn't as aesy as it seems, but along the way Helen will forge an unlikely friendship, find real love and realize that nothing ever goes exactly to plan...

I avoided reading this for a while. It was one of Richard and Judy's Summer Reads, but it isn't their greatest pick. It basically chick lit in the vein of Bridgit Jones just as I suspected it would be. Single career girl with best friend and useless boyfriend, who gets herself into a load of humerous scrapes but you love her anyway and it all comes good in the end.
Jane Fallon, creator of Tv shows, This Life and Teachers and girlfriend of the wonderful Ricky Gervais has successfully pulled it of though, and although cliched, Getting Rid of Matthew is actually quite good fun. There are no suprises, indeed the story is very predictable, but it is entertaining none-the-less. I couldn't quite understand why Helen didn't just tell Matthew to go, instead of digging herself into a hole full of trouble, but there we are.
Ideal for anyone who enjoys Marion Keyes.

"A punchy piece of inverted chick-lit" Big Issue

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Pobby and Dingham - Ben Rice

"Intensely moving and brilliantly realised...a pocket masterpiece" Observer

Pobby and Dingan live in Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, the opal capital of Australia. They are friends with Kellyanne Williamson, the daughter of a miner: indedd only Kellyanne can see them. Pobby and Dingan are imaginary.
Ashmol Williamson, Kellyanne'sbrother thinks his sister should grow up and stop being such a fruit-loop- until the day that his father is accused of ratting, the worst sin an opal miner can commit.
As Kellyanne, grief-stricken, begins to fade away, Ashmol recruits the whole town in the search for Pobby and Dingan. In the end however, he discovers that he can only find them if he too begins to believe they are real.
Pobby and Dingan will enchant everyone who reads it. It is very funny, moving and told without a wasted word. It introduces a new writer of prodigious gifts.

What a beautiful little book! I adored it.
Ashmol is the narrator, and he moves from being irritated by his sister's imaginary friends to doing all he can to help her find them. Kellyanne is a sensitive soul, who has few real friends and is a cause of worry to her parents. Rex, the father, takes Pobby and Dingan to the mine, in an effort to create some distance between them and Kellyanne, but when he returns to search for them, he is accused of ratting. The arrest and trial run alongside the search for Pobby and Dingan, and young Ashmol changes a lot in the process. He recruits the whole town to help his sister to find her friends, "And I did some explaining about what had happened to my dad and what a mix-up there had been. And how Pobby and Dingan weren't real but Kellyanne thought they were and that's what counts, and how my dad wasn't a ratter but people thought he was and that's what counts too."
Pobby and Dingan has been made into a film called "Opal Dream" directed by The Full Monty's Peter Catteneo, which I shall look forward to viewing.
There is an unexpected twist at the end which I obviously will not give it away, but I believe even the hardest hearted person would ind it difficult not to be moved.

"Undeniably rich: a tale woven around the importance of faith, whether in imaginary friends or undiscovered treasures, and the strength of family." The Times

The Other Side of The Bridge - Mary Lawson

"A beautiful read. on every level" Independent on Sunday

Arthur and Jake: brothers, yet worlds apart. Arthur is older, shy, dutiful and set to inherit his father's farm. Jake is younger and reckless, a dangerous man to know. When Laura arrives in their 1930's rural community, an already uneasy relationship is driven to breaking point...

In case any readers of this blog think I only read what Richard and Judy tell me I should, I would like to make clear that I read this before it appeared on their list of Summer Reads! Just as I savoured Mary Lawson's Crow Lake, I loved this book. The plot synopsis on the back cover I felt was a little misleading, it is not really Laura's arrival in the story that drives the brothers to breaking point, rather than Jake's return to the town, years later. A visit that ultimately ends in a tragedy.
The story switches between past and present and the main character, Ian, son of the local doctor, who works at Arthur's farm in an effort to be near the beautiful Laura, narrates the present. He is unaware of the history between Jake and Arthur and somewhat absorbed in his own troubles, and this somewhat contributes to the ensuing tragedy. Ian is a very likeable character, and his friendships make for some poignant reading. He, like Arthur, is old beyond his years, solid and dependable.
The relationship between the Dunn brothers is told from Arthur's point of view, and I really sympathised with Arthur. Jake is clearly his mother's favourite, and Arthur is assigned to keep Jake out of danger and trouble, a difficult job when Jake is so very reckless. It seems that he has a deep dislike and resentment of Arthur, and it is difficult to see why.
This novel was longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, along with The Testament of Gideon Mack, but did not make the shortlist which M.J Hyland's Carry Me Down did.
I look forward to her next book!

"Evokes beautifully the big joys and sorrows of most people, no matter how small their town" The Times

Bad Monkeys - Matt Ruff

"Fiendishly clever" Booklist

Jane Charlotte: A woman with a serious attitude problem, a drug habit and a licence to kill.
She has been arrested for murder, and during questioning tells police that she is a member of a secret organisation devoted to fighting evil. Her division "The Department For The Final Disposition Of Irredeemable Persons" or "Bad Monkeys" for short- is an execution squad that rids the world of especially evil people. However, the man Jane has been arrested for killing is not on the official target list.
This strange confession earns Jane a trip to the jail's psychiatric wing, where a doctor interviews her at length about her supposed career as an assassin. Her tale grows increasingly bizzare, with references to hidden messages in crosswords, dollar bills that can see and scary axe-wielding clowns. The doctor does his best to sort truth from lies, but whenever it seems he's getting to the bottom of things, there's another twist to unravel.
Not until the full, extraordinary story is told will we learn whether Jane is lying, crazy...or playing a different game altogether.

Exciting, intriguing and fantastic, I loved it! I never once thought that Jane was lying, but greedily swallowed her story. There are twists and turns at the end of practically every chapter. The interviewing doctor keeps uncovering evidence that contardicts her story, yet I still kept rooting for Jane. Just when I thought I knew what to believe, what was happening, the story just turned on its head! Secret organizations, not usually my type of book, reminded me somewhat of The Matrix, and all the way through could imagine the story as a film (please?).
The exploration of what it means to be genuinely evil or good is effctive and never too deep, as the reader tries to work out if Jane herself is a "Bad Monkey".
Many of the reviewers drew comparisons with J.D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and also with Philip K Dick (who has a mention in the author's acknowledgements. The book is sci-fi and could be turned into a computer game as well as a film! The pace of the novel is really fast, and usually this results in a rubbish let down of an ending, but not in this case. I'm a real Matt Ruff fan!
I loved it, just as I loved his last novel Set This House In Order. I intend to read his previous books, The Fool On The Hill, and Sewer, Gas And Electric.

"Buy it, read it, memorise then destroy it. There are eyes everywhere" Christopher Moore

Friday, 5 October 2007

The Girls - Lori Lansens

"A graceful meditation on partnership, identity and enduring love" The Times

In twenty-nine years, Rose Darlen has never spent a moment apart from her twin sister Ruby. She has never gone for a solitary walk or had a private conversation. Yet, in all that time, she has never once looked into Ruby's eyes. Joined at the head, "The Girls" (as they are known in their small town) attempt to lead a normal life, but can't help being extraordinary. Now almost thirty, Rose and Ruby are on the verge of being the oldest living craniopagus twins in history, but they are remarkable for a lot more than their unusual sisterly bond.

This book is just superb. From the very first page, I was entranced by "The Girls" and feel that Lori Lansens has written a beautiful, emotional and effortlessly satisfying novel. Another Richard and Judy favourite, I was suprised that this didn't win book of the Year (Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder took the honour).
Ruby and Rose are born to a teenage mother in Leaford, a small fictional town in Ontario, Canada, during a tornado. Raised by the nurse who delivered them, Aunt Lovey and her Slovakian husband Uncle Stash, the Girls are loved fiercely and encouraged to become individuals in their own right. "You're lucky to be you" Lovey tells the twins, "You girls are remarkable. Most people can't say that."
Lovey and Stash are also remarkable. Alongside and entwined with Rose and Ruby's story, is the beautiful and touching tale of love between their adoptive parents. They tell each other, "You" meaning I love you and every other expression of love, simply in that one word.
Tied up in the story are a nearby family, the Merkels, whose young son Larry disappeared during the tornado on the night the girls were born. Mrs Merkel, Cathy,who was present at the birth, never gets over the loss of her son. She and her husband Sherman, play an important part in the story and are part of the secrets Rose and Ruby keep to protect one another.
Rose, who has aspirations of being a writer begins the story, and soon Ruby joins in with chapters of her own. Ruby's chief interest is finding Indian artifacts, and is not particularly keen on the idea of their wrting the book, "Whowants to read a book about a couple of sisters who work at the library in a boring small town, even if they are joined at the head?"
The love between the girls is really what makes this story so very special. They do not seem to mind that they are joined and have worked out a system of fairness whereby each sister has a turn at doing what she wishes to do. When asked if it was possible to separate them,would they proceed, both reply that they wouldn't want this.
They do quarrel, but ultimately share a bond that is unforgettable. "When Ruby and I were little, she used to put her delicate hands inside my shirt, on the skin of my back, or sometimes my tummy. Her clubfeet she'd pres to my thighs. She'd giggle and tease, "I'm taking your warm Rose. I'm taking all your warm." I never minded, and never protested, because I felt that while she was taking my warm, I was taking her cool."
I found this story unbearably at times, there is so much joy interspersed with so much tragedy.
I've lent or recommended this novel to many people, all of whom have enjoyed it immensley. It is quite unforgettable and in Roses's words, "The story of me, of Ruby and me, of Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, and the Merkels and the others, it's hard to let go."

"Utterly entrancing...touching, tender and, at times, beguilingly funny" Daily Mail

The House at Riverton - Kate Morton

"It's a corker...probably my favourite of all the summer reads" Judy Finnegan

A story of love, mystery, and a secret history revealed.
Summer 1924. On the eve of a glittering society party, by the lake of a grand English country house, a young poet takes his life. The only witnesses, sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, will never speak to each other again.
Winter 1999. Grace Bradley, ninety-eight, one-time housemaid at Riverton Manor, is visited by a young director making a film about the poet's suicide. Ghosts awaken and old memories- long consigned to the dark reaches of Grace's mind- begin to sneak back through the cracks. A shocking secret threatens to emerge, something history has forgotten but Grace never could.
Set as the war-shattered Edwardian summer surrenders to the decadent twenties, The House At Riverton is a thrilling mystery and a compelling love story.

This beautiful novel was the winner of Richard and Judy's Summer Reads. Clearly Kate Morton has done extensive research on this period, and the bibliography at the back is testament to this. Morton writes that this period of history has always fascinated her, and this is clear from the way she engages the reader, painting a credible picture of the time.
The characters are very rich and believable, but I would have liked to learn more about Frederick and his secret past. I loved the upstairs-downstairs theme in the book, and enjoyed the banter the servants enjoy.
Some reviewers felt that the book was too long and contained unecessary detail, though I strongly disagree. I loved the confessional narrative of Grace, and felt that these details were important in understanding her loyalties to the sisters, especially Hannah.
Ultimately, the secret is revealed, and though it didn't really suprise me, I felt it was written both cleverly and originally, in Hannah's letter. The ending is sad on a number of levels, but I shan't give anything away.

"An extraordinary debut...written with a lovely turn of phrase by someone who knows how to eke out tantalizing secrets and drama" The Sunday Telegraph.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

All Families Are Psychotic - Douglas Coupland

"Irresistably hilarious, unique and wonderful" Independent On Sunday.

In a cheap motel an hour from Cape Canaveral, Janet Drummond takes her medication, and does a rapid tally of the whereabouts of her children. Wade has spent the night in jail; suicidal Bryan is due to arrive at any moment with his vowel free girlfrien Shw; and there is Sarah, "a bolt of lightning frozen in midflash" -here in Orlando to be the star of Friday's shuttle mission. With Janet's ex-husband and trophy wife also in town, Janet spends a moment contemplating her family, and where it all went wrong. Or did it?

"All families are psychotic, Wade, everybody has basically the same family - it's just reconfigured slightly different from one to the next. Meet my in-laws one of these nights." Wise words from Norm, the smuggler during a covert meeting in Disneyworld. Sound intriguing? It certainly is! This novel is a real rollercoaster, as well as smuggling you will find kidnapping, shootings, drugs, adultery and Aids. But I don't want to give too much away.
Wade is the eldest Drummond son, a loveable bad boy trying to come good with his new pregnant and bible-bashing wife. He shares a close relationship with his sister, Sarah, who was a thalidomide baby born with only one arm, their father Ted's favourite and the reason for the family reunion. Bryan is pretty useless and his dislikable girlfriend Shw is pregnant and planning to sell their baby. Ted is probably the reason for the Drummond family being psychotic, having been abusive to every member apart from Sarah.
Their mother, Janet is the real star of the book, and I felt real tenderness towards her, especially towards the latter part of the book, when through a series of flashbacks we learn her sad story. " She considered herself one of the surviving members of a lost generation, the last generation raised to care about appearances or doing the right thing- to care about caring."
Despite this she throws herself into the farcical crime road trip the family find themselves on, and proves herself to be nothing like the 60's soap opera Mom she considered herself to be. I adored the relationship she formed with the ruthless and amoral Florian, laugh out loud funny.
The family hurt one-another, lie, cheat and belittle, yet they also save one another, and psychotic or not, they are a joy to meet. Dougals Coupland has certainly written a winner.
“People are pretty forgiving when it comes to other people's family. The only family that ever horrifies you is your own.” How true.
This novel is reportedly to be made into a film by R.E.M's Michael Stipe. I can't wait.
"heart-breakingly bitter-sweet...This book will make you want to phone your own psychotic family and tell them how much you love them" Daily Telegraph.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The Year the Gypsies Came - Linzi Glass

"In the spring of 1966, there was no one living with us, and the tension between my parents was left to grow like untended weeds. It was then that the gypsies came."
"They came to us that spring and cast a spell over us. They changed our lives forever.
Emily Iris looks forward to the times her parents welcome house guests to their family's unhappy home on the edge of Johannesbur. For a while, for as long as the visitors are there, her father and mother will put their quarrels aside and be like a real family.
One spring, a family of wanderers- an Australian couple and their two boys- come to stay. But the arrival of these "gypsies" starts a chain of events that will shatter Emily's hopes of a happy family life and change them all forever.

Emily is a twelve year old tomboy, living with her perfect older sister Sarah, her self-obssessed mother and her distracted father. She enjoys a close relationship with Sarah, and the pair are kind and loving towards one another in the face of discord between their dysfunctional parents.
Their father, Bob, invites a family of Australian travellers to stay, a family every bit as, if not more dysfunctional than themselves. Emily befriends the younger son, Streak, whilst Sarah helps Otis, a backward teenage boy. The result is tragedy.
This book is classified as young people's fiction, yet the pervasive and underlying horror makes it disconcerting for even adult readers. Despite, or maybe because of this, I absolutely adored it.
Set in South Africa in a time when aparteid was still the norm, Linzi Glass paints a picture of a lonely child on the brink of adolesence.
Emily's relationship with Buza, their Zulu night watchman, lends a flavour of the setting to the novel, as he tells her African folk tales. Buza is Emily's confidant and surrogate parent, and the relationship between the two, makes for emotional and beautiful reading.
The gypsies themselves are a lot more difficult to like. Streak and Otis have never been to school, much to Streak's dismay, and he envies Emily her lifestyle. There is something increasingly menacing about Jock, the boys' father. Streak begins to confide in Emily about what goes on behind the closed doors of their trailer, and Peg, their mother provides an inkling as to what is wrong with Otis.
I wouldn't like to give away too much of the plot, I can only say that I found myself weeping uncontrollably by the end, and thought about this book and it's rich characters long after I finished it.

Carry Me Down - M.J Hyland

"Instantly likeable" The Times.

John Egan has a gift. He can tell when people are lying. Hoping that this talent will bring him fame, he has written to the Guiness Vook of Records. But while he waits for a letter in return, his obsession with the truth begins to threaten his already fragile family.

John Egan is an unnaturally tall, awkward eleven year old living in Ireland with his parents and grandmother. As his father observes, he is an "odd mixture" of "little boy and a grown lad" and the story spans a year in John's life, from age eleven to age twelve. His ultimate ambitionis to appear in the Guiness Book of Records, with which he is obssessed. When he realises that his father is lying to him, he recognises in himself a talent that could fulfill this ambition- he is a human lie detector. He begins to keep a record of the lies he detects in his "Gol of Seil", yet becomes accomplished at lying himself.
His relationship with his mother seems unnaturally close, and his home and school life are a constant trial to him. When the family are forced to move, his world becomes increasingly difficult, and his mental state more and more precarious. His father becomes wayward and his mother depressed and together with his fixation on the truth, John helplessness spirals out of control.
I did not enjoy this as much as M.J Hyland's first novel How the Light Gets In. I found it a little slow, and felt there were undercurrents of something awful in John's past that is never explored. Although I sympathised with John, I did not feel that his character was as well constucted as that of Lou in the Hyland's debut. John's character seems somewhat autistic, yet this is never really confirmed or denied.
I was suprised that this was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, whilst How the Light Gets In was ignored.
Although I enjoyed the book, I could not really say what kept me reading and I was glad to reach the end, and move on to something else.

"Enthralling and absorbing" Observer.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter - Kim Edwards

Families have secrets they hide even from themselves...
It should have been an ordinary birth, the start of an ordinary happy family. But the night Dr David Henry delivers his wife's twins is a night that will haunt five lives forever.
For though David's son is a healthy boy, his daughter has Down's syndrome. And, in a shocking act of betrayal whose consequences only tome will reveal, he tells his wife their daughter died while secretly entrusting her care to a nurse.
As grief quietly tears apart David's family, so a little girl must make her way in the world as best she can.

I was really disappointed by the Memory Keeper's Daughter. Selected as a Richard and Judy Summer Read, and handling the subject of down's syndrome, I expected Kim Edwards to have written a poignant, sympathetic and moving novel. I certainly did not find it so. The story moves slowly, and although I realise that in the 60's and before, children with this condition were commited to nursing homes and asylums, I found it unconvincing. Dr David Henry's reasons for giving away his daughter Pheobe, were based around the fact that his own sister had a heart defect, and died prematurely, impacting on his childhood and the lives of his family. This I could just not relate to.
The bulk of the book is centred around David, his wife Nora, their son Paul and how David's act of deceit poisons the happy family they are meant to be. Paul's teenage rebellion was probably the most realistic part of the story.
I was hugely disappointed with Edwards' treatment of the subject of down's syndrome. Little is made of the struggles Caroline faces in raising Pheobe, save the fight to get her educated at mainstream school. I did however feel that her handling of the relationship between Pheobe and her boyfriend Robert was sensitive and touching.
I have a cousin with Down's syndrome, and maybe this coloured the novel for me. I would not recommend it.

A Spot of Bother - Mark Haddon

" A painful, funny, humane novel; beautifully written, addictively readable" The Times.

At fifty-seven, George is settling down to a comfortable retirement, building a shed in his garden, reading historical novels, listening to a bit of light jazz. Then Katie, his unpredictable daughter, announces that she is getting remarried, to Ray. Her family is not pleased- as her brother Jamie observes, Ray has "stranglers hands". Katie can't decide if she loves Ray, or loves the way he cares for her son Jacob, and her mother Jean is a bit put out by the way the wedding planning gets in the way of her affair with one of her husband's former colleagues. And the tidy and pleasant life Jamie has created crumbles when he fails to invite his lover, Tony to the dreaded nuptials.
Unnoticed in the uproar, George discovers a sinister lesion on his hip, and quietly begins to lose his mind.

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon, creator of the unforgettable Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is an absolute treat. I didn't think he could improve on that novel, yet he has really pulled it off. George is convinced he has cancer, but cannot talk about this fear with his family. He keeps his thoughts to himself, compounding his morbid fears, his imagination running away with him... "If he drank enough whisky he might be able to summon the courage to crash the car. There was a big stone gateway on the A16 this side of Stamford. He could hit it doing 90 m.p.h with no difficulty whatsoever. But what if his nerve failed? What if he were too drunk to control the car? What if someone pulled out of the drive? What if he killed them, paralysed himself and died of cancer in a wheelchair in prison?"
Some of George's inner musings are hilarious, such as his opinion on his homosexual son, Jamie..."He didn't have a problem with homosexuality per se. Men having sex with men. One could imagine, if one was in the business of imagining such things, that there were situations where it might happen, situations in which chaps were denied the normal outlets. Military camps. Long sea voyages. One didn't want to dwell on the plumbing but one could almost see it as a sporting activity. Latting off steam. High spirits. Handshake and a hot shower afterwards. It was the thought of men purchasing furniture together which disturbed him. Men snuggling. More disconcerting somehow, than shenanigans in public toilets."
At the start of the novel, George was really the only character I liked, (excluding Ray), yet the flawed family members all come good by the end of the novel, and though it is a happy ending it never verges on trite.
I loved the exchanges between Katie's son Jacob and the family, Haddon certainly has a talent for capturing the innocence and comedy of childhood.
I adored Ray's character, and Katie's taking him for granted annoyed me at times, yet this is merely testament to how utterly believable the characters are. I couldn't quite understand why the family were all so opposed to the wedding as I felt that Ray was without a doubt the most consistently lovely character.
I would recommend this book to anyone and eceryone. It is laugh out loud funny, in places shocking and horrifying (George taking his "lesion" into his own hands), and made me weep several times. This novel transcends it!

"Haddon's style is a readers bliss. He writes seamless prose. The words are melted into meaning...Haddon's gift is to make us look at ourselves when we think we're looking away, being entertained." Scotsman

Thursday, 7 June 2007

The Somnambulist -Jonathan Barnes

"Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it. Yet, I cannot be held wholly accountable for its failings. I have good reason for presenting ypou with so sensational and unlikely an account. It is all true."
So starts the extraordinary tale of Edward Moon, stage conjuror and detective, his silent associate The Somnabulist, The Sleeper and a devilish plot to bring the British Empire crashing down.
With a wonderfully and whooly ambigious narrator, a gallery of vividly grotesque characters and a richly evoked setting of Victorian London this is an amazingly readable literary fantasy and a brilliant debut.

I loved it! This falls somewhere between Dickens and Sherlock Holmes and is a lot of fun. The characters are so rich and bizzare, and the narrator superb! The book's back cover is correct in its statement that it is frequently ridiculous, but its hugely entertaining ridiculousness! No explanation is given as to who the Somnabulist is, or why he is an eight foot tall mute who communicates through a blackboard. The leading character, Edward Moon, is a flawed individual, with a taste for deformed prostitutes, yet I loved him. There are a few twists and turns in the story, the eventually identification of the narrator is nothing short of genius. Barnes' imagination knows no bounds!

The Post-Birthday World - Lionel Shriver

"Shriver gives us another passionate novel...Like Sliding Doors, the tale splits into two, following the dramatic turns of each choice. Brilliant." Cosmopolitan.

It all hinges on one kiss. Whether Irina McGovern does or does not lean into a specific pair of lips one night in London will determine whether she stays with her disciplined, intellectual partner Lawrence or runs off with Ramsey, a hard-living snooker player.
Lawrence is Irina's partner of nearly ten years. The ex-husband of a former friend , Ramsey is one of those once-a-year acquaintances. Where Lawrence is supportive and devoted, Ramsey is erratic and spontaneous. Lawrence is emotionally withdrwan, Ramsey is passionate but volatile.
Using a parallel universe structure, we follow Irina's life as it unfolds under the influence of two drastically different men, colouring her relationships with family and friends, affecting her career and, most importantly, cahnging the texture of her daily life.
The story is about trade-offs. Both men in Irina's dual future are wirthy of her affection but they are also flawed. There is no perfect answer: what draws us to our mates in part is what is wrong with them.

I was disappointed with this novel, expecting great things from Lionel Shriver after the awesome "We Need To Talk About Kevin". The parallel universe theme is clever, but has been done-to-death, notably in Sliding Doors. The chapters are incredibly long, and apart from the first and last, two of each. Every detail of Irina's life is described in minute detail, and each double chapter mirrors the other very closely. Initially, I thought this a clever technique, but it quickly becomes tedious. I admit to skim reading a lot of the book, in particular the descriptions of Ramsey's snooker tournaments. Another drawback was that I didn't like many of the characters. Lawrence was a boor and Ramsey completely unconvincing, with a cringeworthy Dick Van Dyke cockney accent. I had to wonder what Irina saw in either of them.
Yet, something kept me reading, maybe the fact that the message of the novel is thought provoking..."The idea is that you don't only have one destint. ounger and younger, kids are pressed to decide what they want to do with their lives, as if everything hinges on one decision. But whichever direction you go, there are going to be upsides and downsides. You're dealing with a set of trade-offs, and not one perfect course in comparison to which all others are crap."
Very true. Indeed Irina's two lives are full of ups and downs. Ironically, she is more unhappy when she stays with Lawrence, and Lawrence is much nicer when she leaves.
Shriver's writing is a little too clever for her own good, and I feel that maybe she identifies with the intellectual Irina, to the extent that the novel could be autobiographical.
Too longwinded, and I was gald to finish this and move on.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Never The Bride - Paul Magrs

" A Gothic smash" Guardian

Brenda has come to Whitby to run a B&B in search of some peace and quiet. She and her best friend Effie like nothing better than going out for tea and keeping their eyes open for any of the mysterious goings-on in town.
And what with satanic beauty salons, more than illegal aliens, roving psychic investigators and the frankly terrifying owner of the Christmas Hotel there is no shortage of nefarious shenanigans to keep them interested.
But the oddest thing in Whitby may well be Brenda herself. With her terrible scars, her strange lack of a surname and the fact that she takes two different shoe sizes, Brenda should have known that people as, well unique as she is, just aren't destined for a quiet life.

I found Never The Bride a hugely entertaining read. Each chapter reads like a short story in itself, coming gloriously together in the final chapter to tie everything in. It is perhaps what would happen if Buffy the Vampire Slayer decided to run a B&B in Whitby in her retirement! There are many references to classic horror, Dracula, withcraft, Frankenstein and even War of the Worlds. It is given a contemporary feel by using for example a TV show on the supernatural, Manifest Yourself, with TV psychics.
It is soon made clear exactly who Brenda is, and what her secrets are. I would expect that ther will be a sequel, maybe more than one, as Brenda and Effie, at the book's close are far from finished with their Gothic adventures.

"Utterly original. I was totally charmed by Brenda's valient attemptes to create a little ordinary happiness and comfort out of the madness around her" The Times.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Fierce People - Dirk Wittenborn

"Both savage and funny" Sunday Telegraph.

Fifteen -year-old Finn Earl's mother, Liz, is a thirty-two-year-old masseuse with a taste for cocaine. When Liz's habit forces them to flee the city, they find protection under the wing of one of her clients, aging billionaire Mr Osbourne. In Vlyvalle, a golden playground for the super rich, Finn discovers a people who are stranger and more savage than any tribe in the National Geographic. Offered a new life and new friends he falls in love and grows up fast. But, on what should be the happiest night of his life, on an island in the middle of a private lake, naked and high with Osbourne's granddaughter, someone is watching him from the depths of the forest...and laughing.

I read this book in one day, I literally could not put it down! I bought it from a charity shop thinking the back cover looked interesting, but the synopsis (above) does in no way do it justice.
The firece people are a tribe, the Yanomamo studied by Finn's famous anthropologist father, whom he has never met. Wittenborn cleverly draws parallels between the rich in Vlyvalle and this savage tribe. "In the wilds of New Jersey I had found a tribe as strange, cruel and unlovable as the Yanomamo,"comments Finn.
However many of the characters are strangely likable, the village cop, Gates I liked from the start, as does Finn, when on the journey to their new home his mother, withdrawing from drugs, is ill in the car, "It wasn't the words, it was the way he folded up his cop jacket to make a pillow for her head".
I also liked Jilly, Maya, Osbourne and even Bryce, though it becomes increasingly difficult to know who to trust, who is lying and who is telling the truth. Despite the fact that these rich people buy everyone and everything they need, there are some really likable characters, especially Osbourne who I found an absolute delight.
The book gathers pace and is almost heartstoppingly suspenseful as the reader wonders what will become of Finn's love-life, and who has perpetrated the violent acts described.
The characters are so real that the novel reads like a film and I have since discovered that a film has been made starring Diane Lane as Liz.
The bond between Liz and Finn is incredibly moving and despite their differences they are each others most treasured person. I kept having to remind myself of Finn's age, 15 having his 16th birthday half way through the story, having a son of a similar age myself. It is difficult to remember that the trials and tribulations suffered by this age group can be every bit as devastating and difficult as those suffered by the "grown ups". "It's weird when you're sixteen years old and want to feel young again."
Do yourself a favour and read this book. It's superb.

"Powerful...blows away the hypocrisies of the American dream" Daily Mirror.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Little Face - Sophie Hannah

"High quality stuff" Literary Review.

Her husband David was supposed to be looking after their two-week-old daughter. But when Alice Fancourt walks into the nursery, her terrifying ordeal begins- for Alice insists the baby in the cot is a stranger she's never seen before.
With an increasingly hostile and menacing David swearing she must either be mad or lying, how can Alice make the polise believe her before it's too late.
A chilling psychological thriller about the lengths to which a mother will go to save her child, Little Face is impossible to put down; a stunning novel from a hugely talented author.

I very much enjoyed this novel. It is sinister, dark and keeps the reader guessing throughout. I had about five different theories as I was reading, each of which turned out to be wrong! The scenes of David's abuse of Alice were chilling and very realistic and gave me goosepimples. Vivienne is certainly a mother-in-law from hell, but a memorable character.
Sophie Hannah uses a clever style of writing, shifting perspectives between Hannah, Simon, the detective determined to believe her, and Charlie, his sergeant.
I confess to be slightly disappointed at the end, but in part this was due to the fact that I could not not have been more wrong!

"Her novels sparkle" Independent.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

How The Light Gets In - M.J. Hyland

"Expect to be blown away" Guardian.

Lou Connor, a gifted unhappy sixteen year old, is desparate to escape her life of poverty in Sydney. When she is offered a place as an exchange student at a school in America it seems as if her dreams will be fulfilled...
How The Light Gets In is an acutley observed story of adolescence, shot through with spiky humour. In Lou Connor M.J. Hyland has created a larger than life heroine who captures the reader with her vivacity and vulnerability, from hopeful beginning to unexpected, haunting end.

I couldn't put this book down! I loved Lou from the first page, and so identified with her mixed up teenage angst, desparate to fit in, yet determined on the other hand to do her own thing. In this way, Lou creates her own problems, drinking to mask her fears and insecurities, and staying out late partying. Most of the adult characters disapprove of her, but she entrances the young males around her, many of which seem to fall in love with her. I seriously disliked her host parents, particularly Margaret, who seems uptight and self-satisfied, and has no idea how to relate to Lou.
M. J. Hyland has really captured the essence of teenage years, and Lou's bewilderment at how some girls ( like host sister Bridget) seem not to feel crippling insecurity and self-consciousness was familiar to me.
The only part I found slightly disappointing was the ending, which I found a little silly. However, in my opinion, the strength of the rest of the novel, lets Hyland get away with this.
I look forward to reading her latest novel, Carry Me Down. Watch this space.

"Hyland excels at atmosphere...she brings the long-forgotten teenage sensation of drowning in life's uncomprehended complexities horribly alive" The Times.

The Book Of Lost Things - John Connolly

High in his attic bedroom, twelve year old David mourns the loss of his mother. He is angry and he is alone, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have started to whisper to him in the darkness, and as he takes refuge in the myths and fairytales so beloved to his dead mother he finds that the real world and the fantasy world have begun to meld. The Crooked Man has come, with his mocking smile and his enigmatic words: "Welcome, your majesty. All hail the new king."
And as war rages across Europe, David is violently propelled into a land that is both a construct of his imagination yet frighteningly real, a strange reflection of his own world composed of myths and stories, populated by wolves and worse-than-wolves, and ruled over by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a mysterious book....
The Book of Lost Things.

I adored this novel. It is a truly modern fairy story, dark, frequently violent and very witty. The contemporary take on age-old favourite fairy tales makes for both amusing and interesting reading, including a fat unpleasant Snow White and her communist dwarf companions. By using famous fairy tales and giving them a modern sting in the tale, Connolly has created an exciting, macabre Brothers Grimm type story that takes the reader through a rollercaoster of emotions.
I loved the way John Connolly deals with the issues surrounding step-families and the rivalry, anger, and even hatred that children can feel at being thrown into a new family. I felt that this was hugely clever, especially considering the incidences of evil step parents in so many of our beloved fairy tales.
The novel is surely an adult read, its violence and references to matters of a sexual nature (including homosexuality and bestiality!) would make it unsuitable for younger readers, although for teenagers it would make a thrilling read. I'm sure my teenage son would love it (if he can ever be bovvered to read a book again!)
I loved David, and symapthised with him, especially at the start of the book, as he describes the rituals he believed may keep his mother alive, clearly a manifestaion of obssessive compulsive disorder (which Connolly himself suffered with as a teen).
The ending is very moving and I was sad to finish such a pure delight of a book!

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Promise Me- Harlan Coben

"Harlan Coben always has a good tale to tell, and he knows how to present it with elegance, pace and loads of tension" Guardian.

At 2.17 a.mMyron Bolitar's mobile phone rings. It's Aimee Biel, a frightened teenager who has called the one adult who had promised to help her if she ever got into trouble. Myron collects Aimee from a cold street corner but she persuades him not to take her home, but to drop her off at an unknown address in the suburbs. And, with a final wave from a darkened porch, Aimee disappears into the night....
Driven by guilt, and the desparation of her family, Myron is determined to find Aimee- whatever the cost. But he doesn't realise just how far people will go to protect the ones they love.

This was my first Harlan Coben novel and therefore, until I read the author's note at the end, I did not realise that Myron was a regular Coben character. Although I enjoyed it and read it in practically one sitting, I would not say that I'd be in a hurry to read the others in the series. I just found the level of violence in the suburbs slightly unbelievable and many of the characters, especially Win, just got on my nerves. The ending, I felt was a little trite for my taste, everything tying in together in that way, but I shan't give anything away. Myron, a failed basketball star/ private detective/ sports agent to the stars was a little corny in comparison to some leading characters of crime writers.
The plot did keep me turning the pages, the short chapters certainly helped with this. Overall the novel just wasn't satisfying enough for me.

"A book to read in one gulp" Telegraph.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

A Stain On The Silence- Andrew Taylor

“One of Britain’s best crime writers of psychological suspense.” The Times.

The last person Jmes wants to meet again is Lily. But now she’s dying of cancer, and he is wholly unprepared for what she has to tell him. Twenty four years ago, she gave birth to a daughter- and James is the girl’s father.
James was just a teenager when he and Lily- stepmother of his best friend Carlo- had their brief affair. Practically part of the family, he would spend his summer holidays at their sprawling house in Chipping Weston, lapping up the breathtaking freedom and excitement. Though perhaps there was too much freedom and too much excitement- because those days came to a terrible end. An end that James has been trying to forget ever since.
Yet Lily has one more secret to reveal. Their daughter is now a wanted woman. She’s on the run for murder. Soon James is compelled to reach back into the past and discover the bitter fruits of his and Lily’s unfortunate union…

Andrew Taylor, author of the bestselling The American Boy is fast becoming one of my favourite crime writers. A Stain On The Silence jumps from past to present, gradually revealing long held secrets and deceptions, keeping the reader gripped and desperate to discover what happens next. Although James, the main character is a bit spineless and rather wet, I soon sympathised with his plight. There is an element of never knowing who is lying and who is telling the truth, and the reader shares James’ confusion. His friend Carlo is a dark and menacing character whom I would like to have seen more of. Lily is a puzzle, is she good or evil? Unfortunately we never really find out. The ending is a shocker, I was not expecting it to conclude this way, with no conclusion! What did happen to felicity? A sequel in the future? I certainly hope so. I still have a lot of questions. I wait with baited breath.
Taylor’s novels The American Boy (A Richard and Judy Book Club selection) and the Office of the Dead both won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Daggers. Taylor has also been shortlisted for numerous award including the prestigious CWA Gold Dagger.

"there is plenty to engage the reader in the roller-coaster plot that twists and turns until the very last page" Big Issue.

Restless- William Boyd

“Boyd is a first-rate storyteller and this is a first-rate story…An utterly absorbing page-turner” The Times.

It is 1939. Eva Delectorskaya is a beautiful 28-year-old Russian émigrée living in Paris. As war breaks out she is recruited for the British Secret Service by Lucas Romer, a mysterious Englishman, and under his tutelage she learns to become the perfect spy, to mask her emotions and trust no one, including those she loves most. Since the war, Eva has carefully rebuilt her life as a typically English wife and mother. But once a spy, always a spy. Now she must complete one final assignment, and this time Eva can’t do it alone: she needs her daughter’s help.

I literally could not put this novel down. Spy novels are not usually my thing, and I bought it only because it was featured in Richard and Judy’s Book Club.
The story jumps between past and present, each chapter telling us a little more of Eva’s secrets, which we learn alongside her daughter Ruth. In this way, there are two heroines, both immensely likable. The plot is full of twists and turns, drawing the reader deeply into its intrigue. I was quickly absorbed by the world of spying and like Eva, trusted no one and suspected everybody!
One disappointment for me was that promising subplots involving a student of Ruth’s and the uncle of her son came to nothing.
I loved the ending however, and intend to read more William Boyd.
This novel was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2006.

"Restless is enormously readable in every respect: a confident, intelligent, ambitious novel" Guardian.

Clay- David Almond.

“strange, miraculous, beautiful” The Times.

There’s a stranger in town – Stephen Rose. He’s got waxy skin, haunting eyes, a sickly smell. No parents. No friends. He’s come to live with Crazy Mary. There are many tales and rumours about him. One thing’s certain: there’s magic in the weird creatures he makes with clay.
Should Davie and Geordie keep away? Or should they get close? Could Stephen be an ally in their bitter struggle against monstrous Mouldy and his gang?

David Almond, author of Skellig and winner of Whitbread, Smarties and Carnegie Awards, has created a dark, thickly plotted story of a modern day Frankenstein. He cleverly interweaves questions of faith, of good and evil, with the trails and tribulations of adolescence.
The hero, Davie is a sympathetic character, and Stephen is chilling and dark.
I loved the way that the characters whom Davie is afraid of, Mouldy, Crazy Mary and Stephen have their own tales of hardship explaining the way they are. The book provokes thought, if we can believe in the existence of God and goodness, is it not necessary to consider evil also? And if God exists, why not monsters and so many other unbelievable, unexplainable things?
This novel is children’s fiction, but could easily appeal to adults and was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

"A haunting and compelling novel" The Guardian.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Richard and Judy's Book Club

Many of the reviewed books are also recommended reads from Richard and Judy's Book Club or Summer Reads.
These include:
The Interpretation of Murder- Jed Rubenfeld. Book Club 2007
This Book Will save Your Life- A.M. Holmes. Book Club 2007
The Testament of Gideon Mack- James Robertson. Book Club 2007
The Girls - Lori Lansens. Book Club 2007
Getting Rid of Mathew - Jane Fallon. Summer Read 2007
The Memory Keeper's Daughter - Kim Edwards Summer Read 2007
Love In The Present Tense - Catherine Ryan Hyde. Book Club 2007
The House at Riverton - Kate Morton. Summer Read 2007
Restless- Willaim Boyd. Book Club 2007
The Other Side of the Bridge - Mary Lawson Summer Read 2007
The Boy in the Striped Payjamas - John Boyne. Children's fiction choice
The American Boy- Andrew Taylor. Book Club 2005

A Swift Pure Cry- Siobhan Dowd

"Beautifully written and deeply moving" Guardian.

Life has been hard for Shell since the death of her Mam. her Dad has given up work and turned his back on reality, leaving Shell to care for her brother and sister. When she can, she spends time with her best friend Bridie and the charming, persuasive Declan, sharing cigarettes and irreverent jokes.
Shell is drawn to the kindness of Father Rose, a young priest, but soon finds herself the centre of an escalating scandal that rocks the small Irish community to its foundations.

Siobhan Dowd has, in her debut novel, written a haunting tale which will appeal to both adults and younger readers. Shell, the heroine, is a delight and an inspiration. Her life is a drudge, and she sorely misses her Mam, yet she soldiers on, looking after Jimmy and Trix, her younger brother and sister, and the relationship between the three is incredibly moving. Her father has been little help to Shell, yet the reader begins to sympathise with him, and his plight, realising that he is a vulnerable and fallible man. The novel really captures smalltown life in Cork, and the prose and dialogue are lilting and lyrical. Although the novel is full of loss, it has at its heart a sense of hope, and an ending which did make me cry.
It is currently shortlisted for the Children's Books Ireland/Bisto Book of the Year Award and the Sheffield Children's Book Award and longlisted for the 2007 Carnegie Medal.

"Written with a fluent, lyrical sprightliness, this poignant novel invests tragic events with humanity and even, in places, humour" The Times.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Love In The Present Tense- Catherine Ryan Hyde

"A remarkable story of the magic of love" Daily Express.

Mitch is a 25-year-old with commitment issues. Leonard is a five-year-old kid with asthma and vision problems, who captivates everyone he meets. Pearl is Leonard's teenage mother, who's trying to hide a violent secret from her past. Life has given Pearl every reason to mistrust people, but circumstances force her to trust her neighbour, Mitch. Then one day, with a heart full of agony, Pearl drops Leonard off with Mitch and never returns. Pearl, Leonard and Mitch each have a story to tell and as their lives unfold, profound questions arise about the nature of love and family. How do you go on loving someone who isn't there? With Leonard's absolute conviction in 'forever love' always present, Leonard and Mitch grow up side by side and piece together the layered truths and fictions of their almost magical lives. The answers are heartbreaking, but ultimately triumphant.

I read this book as it was selected for Richard and Judy's Book Club, novels I have yet to be disappointed by. The author, Catherine Ryan Hyde, I was suprised to discover is also the author of Pay It Forward an enchanting film (starring Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment) and an even better novel.
The book is riveting from the first page. Beginning the story is Pearl, a neglected and lonely child, hungry for love. "So much of how it was started when that cop got out and came up to me. But I didn't know all this when it first happened. I didn't know there would ever be a Leonard, or that this man would be his father, or that anybody would have to die.
The reader knows Pearl's story, yet Mitch and Leonard are clueless, and throughout the book Leonard tries to find his mother. Despite the fact that she is not around, her son believes Pearl is always with him, and his concept of "forever love" is a sweet one.
I did feel that in places the book was a little twee and sacharine, but the story is a beautiful one, and so I can overlook this.

Eye Contact- Cammie McGovern

"Compulsively addictive...heartbreaking" Daily Telegraph.

For nine years Adam has been the centre of his mother Cara's world. And, she thinks, she has been the centre of his. Until the day he disappears. When he is found in the woods behind his school, beside the body of a little girl whom Cara has never heard of , it feels as if her world has been torn apart. As Adam locks himself in silence, unable to tell his mother what he has seen, Cara's desperation to discover the truth becomes fiercer and more urgent than ever. A heartrending, haunting story of the tangled bond between a mother and her child, Eye Contact grips the mind as it engages the heart.

I adored this book. The description on the back cover in no way describes the intesity and complexity of this novel. At it's heart is a clever, twisting whodunnit murder mystery, yet it is so much more than this. Moving through different narrators, we meet not only autistic Adam, but also the charming Morgan, who, like Cara, is determined to solve the mystery for his own strangely logical reasons. If Mark Haddon gave us an insight into the autistic mind with his The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-time, this novel goes further, exploring how a child with what is loosely termed special needs, interacts with the world, and the effect this has others, particularly the mother. The theme is constant throughout the book, with the mothers' of Kevin, Amelia, Morgan and Chris, as well as Cara. The question faced by every mother, irrespective of a child's disabilty, of when to protect and when to let go is confronted throughout the book. Cara's meeting with Olivia, the murdered Amelia's mother left me literally sobbing. Amelia too was on the autistic spectrum, and the similarities and differences between the two unlikely friends is devastatingly moving.
The complexities of high-school are bewildering enough without being on the autism spectrum, and McGovern demonstrates this with insight and clarity. The issue of bullying, central to the novel is dealt with candidly, the cruelties children infict upon each other presented unflinchingly.

"Grasps the complex, often cruel hierachies of childhood" Lionel Shriver, author of We Need To Talk About Kevin.

I loved the sub-plots in the novel, the skeletons in the closet involving Cara's childhood friends, Kevin and Suzette, and the deaths of Cara's parents. Cara and Suzette's reunion gave me goosepimples! I felt completley drawn in to the private world of each significant character, and read slowly, not wanting to miss a single detail. I shall be recommending this stunning novel to everyone I know.
In an author's note at the back of the book, Cammie McGovern, the mother of a nine year old autistic son, tells us what moved her to write this book:
"...I wanted to write a hopeful book- one that reaffirms what I have come to believe: that even in the presence of a devastating disorder like autism, happiness, joy, success, love and even friendships are still possible. That for my son and the countless other children coming of age with this mysterious, isolating condition, there is a place in the world for them and an important role that they will play."

"Nobody who knows an autistic cjild could fail to be moved by this fantastic thriller...Wise and moving, as well as gripping" the Times.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-time- Mark Haddon.

"Outstanding...A stunningly good read" Independent.

Christopher Boone is 15 and has Asperger's Syndrome.He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings. He likes lists, patterns and the truth. he hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the end of the road on his own, but when he finds a neighbour's dog murdered, he sets out on a terrifying journey which will turn his whole world upside down.

I did not know very much about Asperger's Syndrome before picking up this highly lauded novel, but feel that Christopher's character gives a stunning insight into this condition. I enjoyed the inclusion of maths problems, maps and diagrams, contributing to the exploration of an autistic mind.
It is easy to sympathise with Christopher, his naivety and logic is by turn heartbreakingly sad, and hilariously funny. I felt outraged on his behalf when the truth about his mother is revealed, but certainly not pity. It is clear from Christopher's observations about his parents that he does not grasp the havoc his condition has wreaked in the lives of his parents and this innocence makes the story all the more moving. Throughout the book, Haddon uses dramatic irony whereby the reader has more understanding of situations and events than the narrator himself. Christopher's inability to understand social interaction and to respond to social cues makes for some memorable deadpan comedy.
"I also said I cared about dogs because they were faithful and honest, and some dogs were cleverer and more interesting than some people. Steve, for example, who comes to school on Thursdays, needs help to eat his food and could not even fetch a stick. Siobhan asked me not to say this to Steve's mother."

The title of this amazing novel is a quotation of a remark made by Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short story, "Silver Blaze". Christopher's obssession with both this detective and the truth leads him on a quest, piecing together the jigsaw of lies and deceit surrounding his family. This book will appeal to both adults and children alike, and should in every school library. It won the Whitbread Novel of the Year (now called the Costa Book Awards), the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the South Bank Show Book Award, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Christopher tells us, "This will not be a funny book. I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them."
He is wrong, the book is laugh out loud funny, but also moving delightful and extremely memorable.

"Superbly realised... A funny as well as a sad book" Guardian.

Monday, 19 March 2007

A Million Little Pieces- James Frey

"Utterly compulsive" Observer.

Aged just 23, James Frey had destroyed his body and his mind almost beyond repair. When he enters a rehabilitation centre to try to reclaim his life, he has to fight to determine what future, if any, he has.
I literally could not put this down and believed it to be the best rehab memoir I had ever read. I was moved to tears by Frey's story, and was fascinated by the other troubled yet colourful characters. I was left feeling desparate to know what happens next and could not wait to read the sequal, "My Friend Leonard". I demanded that practically everyone I know read it. I confess to being horribly disappointed when the truth of Frey's embellishments was revealed. Throughout the book, Frey's apparent honesty and candour made him a lovable anti-hero, yet we now know that some of the events in the book never took place. This knowledge somewhat colours my review of this "memoir".
I liked the style of writing Frey uses, choosing not to use quotation marks to denote conversation, and often the writing mirrors the confusion and chaos Frey faces. I applauded his rejection of the AA principle of being powerless over an addiction and loved Frey's rebelliousness in finding his own way in recovery from his addictions.
This book was selected for Oprah's Book Club in September 2005, and when the controversy over Frey's embellishments was made public he appeared on her show to defend himself. He admitted that the same "demons" that had made him turn to alcohol and drugs had also driven him to fabricate crucial portions of his "memoir"; it first having been shopped as being a fiction novel but declined by many, including Random House itself.
Despite all the controversy, A Million Little Pieces is a wonderful, heartbreaking and moving story about triumph over addiction, the nature of frienship, family love and the strength of human spirit. Well worth a read.

"Harrowing, poetic and rather magnificent" FHM.

The American Boy- Andrew Taylor

"A wonderful book, richly composed and beautifully written, an enthralling read from start to finish" The Times.

England 1819: Thomas Shield, a new master at a school just outside London, is tutor to an American boy and the boy's sensitive best friend, Charles Frant. Drawn to Frant's beautiful, unhappy mother, Thomas becomes caught up in her family's twisted intrigues. Then a brutal crime is commited, with consequences that threaten to destroy Thomas and all that he has come to hold dear. Despite his efforts, Shield is caught up in a deadly tangle of sex, money, murder and lies- a tangle that grips him tighter even as he tries to escape from it. And what of the strange American child at the heart of these macabre events- what is the secret of the boy named Edgar Allen Poe?

I Have for the last 2 years, been picking this book up at the library, only to replace it on the shelf, believing that it was not my kind of read. How wrong I was! The prose is masterful and put me in mind of Dickens, evoking a compelling portrait of early 1800's London society, with all it's corruption. Edgar Allen Poe's character is peripheral, yet his role in the story is central to the events that unfold. The characters are extremely vivid, epsecially the villainous Carswell, and Shield, as the narrator has the readers sympathy and respect. I liked the short chapters, most of which ended with mini cliff-hangers, making it impossible not to read on. Both the immaculate attention to historical detail, and the twists of plot make for a deeply satisfying read, and that the ending allows the reader to draw their own conclusions enhances rather than detracts from the finished work.
Andrew Taylor's novel, "The Office of The Dead" won The CWA Historical Dagger for Fiction and featured in Richard and Judy's Book Club, 2005. I will definitely be reading more Andrew Taylor.

"A most artful and delightful book, that will both amuse and chill" Daily Telegraph.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian- Marina Lewycka

"Mad and hilarious" Daily Telegraph.

"Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukranian divorcee. He was 84, and she was 36. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside."
Sisters Vera and Nadezhda must put aside a lifetime of feuding to save their emigre engineer father from voluptuous gold-digger Valentina. With her proclivity for green satin underwear and boil-in-the-bag cuisine, she will stop at nothing in her pursuit for Western wealth.

This book was laugh out loud funny and it's characters an absolute triumph! The use of the language spoken by many of the characters-half English, half Ukranian- really brought them to life. Lewycka brings humour to the struggles of immigration, but really captures a sense of these difficulties without seeming flippant. For me, some of the less likable characters, Vera, and Valentina for example are made vulnerable and human leading you to empathise with their take on the world. Despite the humour of the book, there is a darker theme, the past adversities suffered by the older generations. An evocative portrait of early twentieth century Soviet Union emerges, and is an education and a delight to read. This novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Bollinger Everyman Prize for Comic Fiction.

"Thought provoking, uproariously funny, a comic feast." Economist

Thin- Grace Bowman

"Powerfully written, beautifully articulated, gripping" Independent on Sunday.

"If I share a secret with you, do you promise to tell everyone?"
Grace Bowman lived a perfectly ordinary life as a pretty, popular teenager until one day, aged eighteen, she went on a diet- and didn't stop. Then couldn't stop. Her weight plummeted to less than six stone. Starving herself had become an addiction.
A poignant account of surviving the urge to self-destruct, and growing into a shape of her own, Thin exposes the secrets and dispels the myths that surround anorexia nervosa. An extraordinary account of one young woman's courage to face up to her illness, it is also an inspirational story that reaches out to others lost in the wilderness- those still suffering and those who just want to understand.
I loved this book. I have read many memoirs of those, suffering and recovering from eating disorders and this is the most honest and insightful that I have come across. It seems that as well as trying to explain to others, Bowman herself is trying to make some sense of her journey to hell and back again. It is a rare and brave account of the workings of the eating disordered mind, one which sufferers and carers alike will identify with. Especially effective is Bowman's use of the inner voice, the anorexic voice that drives her. She deviates from a straightforwrd narrative with play extracts, and medical fact which I found very innovative. Her work shows huge amounts of self-awareness, but unlike other memoirs of this kind, never descends into self-pity.
Everyone should read this book.

"Bowman describes her descent into anorexia with clinical skill; if you heven't understood it before, you will now...brave, revealing and shocking." William Leith, Guardian.

The Testament of Gideon Mack- James Robertson

"Superb" The Times.

"If the devil didn't exist, would man have to invent him?"
For Gideon Mack, faithless minister, unfaithful husband and troubled soul, the existence of God, let alone the Devil, is no more credible than that of ghosts or fairies. Until the day he falls into a gorge and is rescued by someone who might just be Satan himself. Mack's testament - a compelling blend of memoir, legend, history and, quite probably, madness - recounts one man's emotional crisis, disappearance, resurrection and death. It also transports you into an utterly mesmerising exploration of the very nature of belief.
Initially, I was disappointed in this book. I found the descriptions of the Scottish Highlands and the church, a little tedious and was impatient to get to Gideon's alleged meeting with the devil. This does not occur until about the last quarter of the book. However, the narrative of Gideon's childhood and the history of how he formed his ideas began to enthrall me. The characters all seemed very real and often I felt as though I was living these events with them. There were very many beautifully written, moving and exciting scenes. By the time I reached the end I was savouring every word.
This novel is another Richard and Judy's Book Club page turner and was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2006.

"Fascinating, extraordinary, strange, rich" Sunday Telegraph.

Monday, 12 March 2007

The Five People You Meet In Heaven- Mitch Albom

"This book is a gift to the soul" Amy Tan.

Eddie is a grizzled war veteran fixing rides at a seaside fairground. His days are all the same, a mix of lonleliness, regret and sadness. On his 83rd birthday he dies in a tragic accident, trying to save a little girl. As he takes his final breath he feels 2 small hands reach out for him, and then nothing. He awakens in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is in fact a place where your earthly life is explained to you by five people you have met. As the story builds towards it's stunning conclusion, Eddie desparately seeks to discover whether his last earthly act was a success.
A beautiful book that moved me to tears. The novel tackles the age old question of "why are we here?" Eddie is a lovable character, with whom the reader feels a strong bond. An achingly moving and inspirational thought provoking story that will stay with you long after the last page. It is now the most successful hardcover first novel ever, selling 8 million copies worldwide.

"Sincere. . . . A book with the genuine power to stir and comfort its readers." New York Times

We Need To Talk About Kevin- Lionel Shriver

"Few novels leave you gasping at the final paragraph as if the breath had been knocked from your body. Such is the impact of We Need To Talk About Kevin" The Bookseller.

"A child needs your love most when he deserves it least" - Erma Bombeck.

Shortly before his 16th birthday, Kevin Khatchadourian kills seven of his fellow high-school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher. He is visited in prison by his mother Eva, who, in a series of letters to her husband, narrates her account of Kevin's upbringing. Was Kevin just born bad, or were there other factors contributing to this tragedy? This "whydunnit" novel presents a harrowing study of the nature/nurture debate.
Although the subject matter is of a Columbine type high-school massacre, the main theme of the book is Eva's relationship with her son, tackling the sensitive, almost taboo, proposition that mothers can be unmoved by, and even dislike, their own children.
This book, the winner of the Orange Prize For Fiction 2005, had a profound effect on me, and I would rate it as one of the best books I have ever read. This novel makes for some harrowing reading and almost unbearable suspense.Lionel Shriver's prose is intelligent, observant and very brave, which is made all the more phenomenal by the fact that she has no children herself.
The book leaves the reader with more questions than answers, and provokes debate. A classic book-group read that will haunt long after it is finished.

"Forces the reader to confront assumptions about love and parenting, about how and why we apportion blame, about crime and punishment, forgiveness and redemption" Independent.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas- John Boyne.

"A small wonder of a book... A particular historical moment, one that cannot be told too often" Guardian.

The front inside flap of the hardcover edition of this novel reads as follows: "The story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is very difficult to describe. Usually we give clues about the book on the jacket, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about............".
I think I would have preferred not to have read the deatil on the back cover of the paperback edition.I agree and will not give away too much detail of this heartbreakingly beautiful story.
Nine year old Bruno cannot understand why he has been uprooted from his lavish Berlin home to live in a desolate area where there is nothing to do and no-one to play with. And who are all the people on the other side of the huge fence who all wear the same outfit of striped pyjamas and caps? One day, whilst exploring, Bruno meets Schmuel, a boy in striped pyjamas who lives on the other side of the fence. The two become friends with heartbreaking consequences.
I literally could not put this book down. Bruno's character, his innocence and childlike take on things were an absolute delight. The lightness of the prose is in sharp contrast to the horrors of war that are at it's heart. In some ways, the writing is reminiscent of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and is equally good, if not better.
A truly brave and deeply moving novel.

"A powerful and emotionally-charged piece of literature" Yorkshire Evening Post.

This Book Will Save Your Life- A.M Holmes

"Very funny and engaging....packed with unexpected pleasure" Guardian.

Richard Novak, L.A stocks and shares trader, is having a mid-life crisis. Following an episode of excruciating pain, he winds up in the emergency room to realise that he has cut out of his life, everybody other than those he pays. As his emotional thaw begins, he encounters bizarre situations and characters and turns into something of a hero. he befriends, Anhil, a doughnut shop owner, Cynthia, a woman crying in the produce section of a store, and Nic, a reclusive writing genius. At the same time, he repairs his relationship with his teenage son, whom he left after his divorce. This aspect of the novel makes for some very poignant reading.
Some of the events in the book are pretty unbeliveable, and I did find myself wondering why Richard was so nice! Despite this the book is a real gem, and the characters endearing and colourful.
Another Richard and Judy Book Club winner!

"Funny, peculiar, heartening, this book might not change your life, but it could radically enhance a few days of it" Financial Times.

The Interpretation of Murder- Jed Rubenfeld

"Spectacular...fiendishly clever" Guardian.

On the same morning that Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung arrive in Manhattan to deliver a series of lectures, a debutante is found bound and strangled in her Broadway penthouse appartment. The following day, beautiful heiress Nora Acton is discovered tied to a chandelier at her parents home. Nora is unable to speak, and has no memory of her trauma. Freud and his American protege Stratham Younger are called upon to psychoanalyse Nora in order to help her regain her memory and to uncover the murderer's identity. The ensuing mystery is a real page turner, exploring Freud's ideas and the heated resistance to them combined with a beautiful evocation of New York in the early 1900's. Although Freud's visit to America was successful, it is widely believed that he suffered some form of trauma there, blaming the country for some of his pre-existing ailments. Rubenfeld has skillfully combined fact and fiction, producing an exciting crime novel with attention to historic detail. The whodunnit element of the story is fastly paced and keeps you guessing.
Another Richard and Judy's Book Club classic.
I loved the analysis of Hamlet and Freud's Oedipus complex, as well as the based on fact squabbles between the two psychologists. The author's note at the end of the novel clarifies which parts of the book are historical fact, and which are complete fiction as well as explaining any adjustments he made.

"Rubenfeld writes intriguing mystery" Sunday Telegraph