Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Jephte's Daughter by Naomi Ragen

Beautiful and indulged Batsheva is the sole heir of the Ha-Levi dynasty whose followers are the orthodox Hassidic community.  As such she is bound by tradition and grows up in a closed but wealthy environment in California.

Only 18 years of age, her adored father chooses a husband for her; an Hassidic scholar from Jerusalem who he is certain is the right choice to continue the Ha-Levi line.  As she moves to Jerusalem as a young bride, Batsheva thinks she has found a life of excitement and romance.  She is soon disillusioned as her husband’s view of marriage is vastly different from her own.  As she grieves for her lost dreams she continues to hope for escape from the prison that has become her life.

I have very mixed feelings about this book.  On the one hand it was an interesting portrayal of the author’s view of a strict Hassidic community whilst on the other hand, some of the characters and situations just felt completely unrealistic to me.  I don’t want to give specific examples as I don’t wish to give the plot away but suffice to say, the book seemed to have two very distinct halves.

The first part concentrates on Batsheva’s life as the indulged daughter of a wealthy business man in California.  She is portrayed as a typical American Jewish princess who is spoiled and pampered.  She is so happy and full of life, so na├»ve and innocent that to me, as a reader, it was pretty obvious that she was being set up for a fall.  As she moves to Jerusalem with her new husband it quickly becomes obvious what form that fall will take and it was clear to see that her husband was not a man of religion and Jewish law but a bully and a control freak.  At this point, the book really had something to say.

However, when we get to the second half of the book it just sort of degenerates into a very average plot line although it picks up slightly nearer to the end.  I particularly found the character of David to be completely unbelievable and there were far too many coincidences for the plot to pull together neatly for me.  Whilst, I had ravenously read the first half I was having to make a lot more effort with the second half.

Putting all of those comments to one side for the moment, I adored Naomi Ragen’s beautiful descriptions of the sights and sounds of Israel.  She is an American who now lives in Jerusalem and her passion for her surroundings is reflected in her writing.  She was certainly able to transport this humble reader to an exotic landscape and left me longing to pack my bags and visit Jerusalem at the first opportunity.

Although this review sounds rather negative I did actually enjoy most of the book and would certainly consider reading another book by this author.  I always struggle with books that portray characters as stereotypes and this bothered me quite alot when reading this.  However, parts of it were fascinating and evocative of time and place and I liked it very much for those reasons.  This was the author’s first book and I would really like to read more of her to see how she has progressed as a writer.

ISBN:  978-0312570231

Publisher:  Macmillan

Price (based on today’s price at Amazon.com):  $11.64 / £7.19
This only seems to be available in the UK from Market Place sellers but is readily available in the US.  I borrowed this copy from a friend.

Total saving so far:  £63.57

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young

It’s 1907 when young Riley Purefoy is hit by a snowball in Kensington Gardens, London and falls into an icy pond. This is the start of a strong friendship between him and Nadine Waverley, whose family are of a different class to Riley and who take control of their relationship to prevent it from developing into anything deeper.  Then in 1918, in a fit of anger, Riley enlists and goes off to fight without even saying goodbye.

Major Peter Locke also leaves his vulnerable wife, Julia, to be an officer.  However, he leaves Julia in the safe Kent countryside watched over by his capable cousin, Rose, who joins the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and nurses those casualties returned from the front at Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup.

The lives of these two men become intertwined in the trenches of France and their post-war lives are changed forever.

I was instantly drawn into this story by the intelligent prose of the Prologue which sets the scene, introduces the characters and establishes the main theme of the book right at the outset.  An explosion takes place on the battlefields of France and Louisa Young demonstrates the ripple effect of this through a series of short paragraphs illustrating the thoughts of those who hear it both in France and across the Channel.

It’s this ripple effect that I felt was one of the main themes of this book.  That the effects of war reach  much further than the soldiers themselves and extends to those whose involvement is far away from the battlefields and trenches.  Young men went to war and came back changed.  This also had significant repercussions on those left behind and reunions were not necessarily as had been hoped for, as the men who returned were not the same of those who had left.

This is also a story of love and of the class distinctions which existed prior to World War I.  It was interesting to read the reactions of both families to Riley trying to ‘better’ himself.  For me, it also raised questions as to whether the war changed attitudes to class?

This was much more than a book about war and love as it was thought provoking and informative.  The descriptions of the pioneering work being carried out at the Queens Hospital in Sidcup inspired me to find out more about it.  Any novel that makes me stop, think and research further has a lot to offer.  I’ve read quite a lot of novels set around World War I and in my opinion, this is one of the best.

ISBN:  9780007361441

Publisher:  Harper

Price (based on today’s price at Amazon):  £ 3.86
I already had this book on my shelves

Total saving so far:  £56.38

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The World is a Wedding by Wendy Jones

Wilfred Price, purveyor of superior funerals, has lived in Narberth, five miles from the Pembrokeshire coast, all of his life.  It is 1926 and Wilfred now lives there with his father and new wife and the prospect of fatherhood is looming.  As Wilfred prepares himself for this life changing event in his own unique style, the past continues to haunt him.

Following his brief and annulled marriage to Grace, she has fled to London in order to escape her past but she has taken with her a secret which will not be left behind.

Last year I read The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals which I thoroughly enjoyed and this is an equally wonderful sequel.  However, I would recommend reading the prequel first.  Although, this would probably work as a stand alone book, prior knowledge of the characters and their background vastly enhances the reading of this one.

I have fallen in love with Wilfred.  As a character he is no Mr Darcy, but he is kind, generous and sweet natured and I would challenge anyone to read this book and not be somewhat smitten with him.

Wendy Jones has a good grasp of what a novel needs.  This is an amusing and affectionate story told whilst tackling some important and difficult themes and the author has the ability to present them through a light hearted prose without trivialising them.

She also places the novel very well in it’s period through Grace’s involvement with the Suffragette movement and the attitudes and perceptions that Grace was forced to encounter.  It’s a lovely little time piece which places the reader squarely into a 1920’s Welsh village recovering from WWI.

This book is set to become an indulgence read for me.  You know, the kind of thing that you return to time and again when you want a bit of comfort time.  Picture the scene; the busyness of the week has finally passed, a pot of tea is brewing and I’m in my pyjamas.  Now I can just sink into my sofa and indulge myself with this lovely book.  And it’s one I intend to indulge myself in again as it is such a delightful read that I know I will want to return to it along with it’s prequel.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to spoil themselves a little.  So, get the teapot warming, kick off your shoes and sit back and indulge yourself in the world of Wilfred Price.

ISBN:   978-1-78033-379-3

Publisher:  Corsair

Price (based on today’s price on Amazon):  £8.76
This was a review copy sent to me by the publisher.

Total saving so far:  £52.52

Monday, 11 November 2013

Scapegallows by Carol Birch

Margaret Catchpole was born in Suffolk in the late 1700’s where smuggling was rife and life itself was dangerous.  She is a decent hard-working girl;  a loyal servant in a respectable and wealthy family. However, Margaret is also friends with criminals and her duplicitous life will ultimately lead to her downfall.  For Margaret is eventually arrested and sentenced to death on two occasions before being reprieved and transported to Australia.

This is a fascinating fictional account of the real life Margaret Catchpole who was transported to Australia for theft and escaping from Ipswich Gaol.  There she made a life for herself before she died there in 1819.

Carol Birch has clearly researched this book very carefully and I admire this is an author.  However, it is her story telling skills which make this book such a worthwhile read.  There are times when the narrative gently unfolds like a 19th century classic.  It’s descriptive, atmospheric and detailed.  At other times, it’s an exciting action packed adventure story which kept me up late turning the pages.

The story focuses largely on Margaret’s life in Suffolk and the friendships and relationships that she formed during her life there and which are integral to the story in demonstrating how she came to progress from being a respectable girl to cavorting with criminals and her eventual sentences of execution and transportation.

I enjoyed this narrative of her life before imprisonment.  Margaret was a very likeable character and the author has done a good job in making her a well rounded character through investing the time to enable the reader to get to know Margaret and her world.

This is not the first tale of a good woman who comes to grief for the love of a man and I don’t suppose it will be the last but Margaret’s story has been written with empathy and understanding as well as objectivity and the author had been able to write this with both attributes side by side which make for a realistic fictionalised retelling of the story of Margaret Catchpole.

If you like historical fiction or books based on real life characters then I recommend this book.

ISBN:  978-1-84408-391-6

Published by:  Virago

Price (based on today's cost at Amazon.co.uk):   £7.19
I borrowed this book from my local library.

Total saved so far:  £43.76

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The Clippie Girls by Margaret Dickinson

Set in Sheffield in 1939, the book opens with the family huddled around their Bakelite wireless listening to Chamberlain declaring war.  The story focuses on three generations of women (Grace, Mary, Peggy, Rose and Myrtle), all living in the same house and who have to pull together through the hardships of wartime Britain.  The war affords the women new employment opportunities which would not have been possible before and thus, Mary, Peggy and Rose all become conductresses, also known as clippies, on the trams.

In December 1940 Sheffield experienced an onslaught of bombing and the author cleverly uses this real life event around which to set her story.  The tram on which Peggy is working is caught up in a bomb blast; the consequences of which are life changing and will alter the relationship between the whole family. Although she is injured herself, Peggy’s priority is to ensure the safety of her passengers.  She is aided by a good looking soldier and a relationship quickly forms between the two.  When he is posted abroad, the level headed Peggy, who everyone looks up to, discovers that she is pregnant.

The relationship between the three sisters, their mother and their matriarchal grandmother are excellently portrayed and I felt like I actually knew these people.  The dialogue is well executed and through which the attitudes of the time are well illustrated.  I whizzed through this in a couple of days as I was so involved with the characters and the story.

I have previously read a handful of family sagas but I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say it is my usual kind of thing.  However, my sister was a clippie on the London Transport buses during the 1970’s so this book caught my eye.  Eight years my senior she was my role model in all things and as her ‘little sister’ I used to get to sit on the bus for the entire route watching my glamorous big sister in her smart uniform doling out tickets from the ticket machine that was attached to her waist.  So, when I saw this book some time ago I couldn’t resist buying it for no other reason than the happy memories it invoked.

I‘m very glad that I did purchase this book for although  the storyline was a little predictable at times, it was a quick, easy read with a feel good factor at the end and was a very nice way to spend a wet and windy weekend.   Anyone who enjoys a family saga will enjoy this book.

ISBN:  978-0330544313

Publisher:  Pan

Price:  £3.85 (based on today's price at Amazon.co.uk)
This was a book I previously owned.

Total saving so far:    £36.57

Friday, 1 November 2013

For the Sake of Elena by Elizabeth George

Elena Weaver, a student at St Stephen’s College, Cambridge was beautiful, vivacious and accomplished.  That is until she was bludgeoned to death whilst out jogging one foggy morning along the banks of the River Cam.

Called to Cambridge from Scotland Yard, Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers are called in to investigate.

I read the first of the Inspector Lynley books, A Great Deliverance, about three years ago and I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it.  Consequently, I have accumulated a few others since then that have been gathering dust on my shelf , including this one, just waiting for me to turn my attention to them.
I’d forgotten just how good the characters are.  In fact it is Elizabeth George’s characterization skills which make her books so compelling.  I found myself flitting between liking and loathing some of the characters involved in the investigation.  It takes great skill as a writer to make characters as thought provoking as this. I've read many novels of this genre over the years and so many contain characters that fall into the good guy/bad guy method of characterisation.

Here, Elizabeth George gives us something far deeper in terms of both plot and character.  Her writing is intelligent and her plots are intricate. The partnership between the suave, public school educated, Inspector Lynley and his down to earth, Sergeant Havers is just wonderful.  The glimpses into their private lives, alongside the investigation makes them very real characters and my heart ached for the situation that Barbara Havers found herself in with her mother.

This is more than a simple whodunnit.  It deals with themes of love and loss and the living up to the expectations of others.  An excellent read and one that I would highly recommend.

ISBN:  978-1444738308

Published by:  Hodder Paperbacks

Price:  £5.75
This book was one that I previously owned.

Total saving so far:  £32.72