Monday, 24 February 2014

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

Peter Faber is a soldier on the Eastern Front.  Desperate for some leave he marries Katharina Spinell who he has never met. However, this marriage of convenience means that Peter will get honeymoon leave and in the event of his death, Katharina will receive his pension.

What neither Peter or Katharina had anticipated when they agreed to this marriage of convenience is the strong attraction that they would have for one another.  When Peter returns to the Eastern front to fight it is the thought of Katharina waiting for him in Berlin that helps him to survive the horrors of war.

Back in Berlin, encouraged by her overbearing parents, Katharina is successfully ingratiating her way into the Nazi party regime. However, the repercussions that this will have when Germany is no longer the winning party in war has huge implications for both Katharina and Peter.

I have been on a really good reading run recently and have read some truly excellent books.  This novel is no exception and is an extremely well constructed novel which deals with some very difficult subjects focussing around the Second World War.

Consequently, this is not a comfortable read.  There were parts that I found very difficult to read and I physically cringed at parts of this as it is horribly violent in its descriptions.

However, it is rich in dialogue and whilst I did not particularly warm to any of the characters the dialogue brings them to life in a very realistic way.  The novel is written without sentimentality and presents war and it’s accompanying issues in a bold and realistic manner through the dialogue and thoughts of the characters.

Ms. Magee is a very skilled writer as this novel is saturated in atmosphere within the two settings of the novel.  It is partly set with Katharina in Berlin and partly with Peter as he approaches Stalingrad.  What fascinated me was how attitudes and fortunes altered for these people when the situation moved from expected victory to defeat.  This was realistically and sympathetically written and made for absorbing reading.

I highly recommend this novel.  Yes, it is brutal in it’s honesty about wartime but it is actually easy to read as the narration is very tightly packed and every word conveys a message.  I think it is enormously skilful to be able to take such a difficult subject area and yet craft it in a way that makes reading about it so engaging.

This has much to commend it and is remarkable for a debut novel as it is written with such maturity and sophistication.  I think that Audrey Magee is an author we will be hearing a lot more of in the future.

ISBN:  978 1782391029

Publisher:  Atlantic Books

Price (based on todays price as  £9.09

Total saving so far:  £200.59

Monday, 17 February 2014

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

Pretty girls disappear in Mexico.  Ladydi’s mother cuts her hair, blackens her teeth and makes her look ugly before digging a hole in the ground for her daughter to hide in.

Once the word is out that there is a pretty girl around the men in the black SUV’s come and take her away. None of the girls ever return, except for Paula, who came back a year after she was stolen away.  Paula is the prettiest of them all and she came back with a baby bottle in her hand and a tattoo of a snake encircling her waist.

Nobody wants to be stolen like Paula was and Ladydi doesn’t really understand what it’s all about but in time she will learn.  In the meantime she must stay ugly and hide in the hole her mother dug so she doesn’t get stolen away too.

This novel deals with some difficult issues.  Every year in Mexico women go missing, stolen by drug cartels to be used as prostitutes or slave labour. Jennifer Clements has based her novel on the lives of these women and she unflinchingly faces this issue head on.

However, whilst this novel makes the reader look at the harsh realities facing these women Ms. Clements writes intelligently and sensitively ensuring that this was a book that had me completely hooked.  She skilfully humanises real life victims through her portrayal of her characters whom she has created with a detailed realism. Whilst we experience the hardships facing the women and girls of this community they are never self pitying and are always brutally honest.

The prose is impeccable and not a word is wasted.  The subject matter ensures that this is not a comfortable book to read. The author packs a hard punch in this novel but does so whilst gently guiding her readers through it so that the subject matter never becomes overwhelming.  She is a very skilled writer and I am convinced that this is a book that will be being discussed amongst readers and critics long after the publication date.

I shall certainly be re-reading it at some point as it has so much to offer.  A book rich in humanity and insight, powerful and thought provoking and that is also beautifully written deserves a place on everybody’s bookshelf and I would strongly encourage you to read this.

ISBN:  978 1781090176

Publishers:  Hogarth

Priced:  (Based on today’s price for kindle on  £6.02
I read a free kindle version of this.

Total saving:  £191.50

Thursday, 13 February 2014

The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

Georgy Jachmenev is the sixteen year old son of a peasant farmer in a small village in Russia.  In 1915, a senior member of the Romanov family is passing through the village and Georgy single handedly prevents an assassination attempt.

This single act changes the course of Georgy’s life forever as he is hailed a hero and taken to St. Petersburg to work as a bodyguard to Alexei Romanov, the only son and heir of Tsar Nicholas II.  He becomes privy to all that occurs in the Winter Palace and comes face to face with the secrets of the household.

Aged eighty Georgy lives in London with his beloved wife, Zoya, who lies ill in a London hospital. He is now a retired librarian struggling to come to terms with the illness of his wife. They both are haunted by their memories of so long ago and repercussions of the fate of the Romanov household remain with them still.

The narrative of this novel alternates between the past and the present and it was this collusion between times that kept me completely enthralled by this book until the two finally meet at the end.   It is part love story, part tragedy and part historical fiction and these three elements came together seamlessly in this book.

It is a fairly quick read whilst having lots of content.  John Boyne has obviously done his research thoroughly giving the book enough detail that enabled me to almost feel that I was part of the Romanov court myself. He is an excellent writer who has the ability to make his readers feel part of the narrative. Further more, he always appears to write with such ease. I am certain that much blood, sweat and tears went into writing this novel but when a writer can pull off work of this quality which reads so easily this establishes them as an excellent author and skilled storyteller in my opinion.

I loved the character of Georgy, both as a young and an old man . He is completely endearing and I liked being able to follow him from his youth right through to his later years and to see how his character developed.  The author clearly gets right under the skin of his characters and makes them utterly believable.

I like John Boyne’s novels very much. I have previously read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Stay Where You Are and Then Leave and I intend to read more of his work.

Coincidentally, I read a novel centred around the Romanovs at the end of last year; Last Romanov by Dora Levy Mossanen so I can not help but compare a little. Both novels approach the subject in completely different ways; Mossannen's version has a much more mystical thread running through it whereas this is much more romantic. Both are well worth reading.

ISBN:   978 0552775410

Publisher:  Black Swan

Price (based on today’s price at  £5.59
I have had this book on my shelf for a long time.

Total saving so far:   £185.48

Monday, 10 February 2014

Tales from the Underworld by Hans Fallada

Before I begin to say anything about this book I must say that I love the works of Hans Fallada. Alone in Berlin remains one of the best books I have ever read so I was delighted to see this collection of short stories by him. In all he wrote approximately 90 short stories during his writing career and this is a wonderful selection of them all written between 1925 and 1946, only three months prior to his death.

The stories are presented chronologically which adds an interesting dimension to the collection as I could see how Fallada developed as a writer as the stories progressed.  He clearly drew on his own knowledge of life in Germany and many of the stories reflect his own experiences.

Fallada, whose real name was Rudolf Ditzen, spent much of his life in prison, psychiatric hospitals and was addicted to morphine and these experiences enabled him to write these stories with a very dark clarity of observation.  These are not the imaginings of a writer but a reflection of the different times and aspects of his own life.

Admittedly, I am not a great lover of short stories and was drawn to this collection solely because I am a fan of the author.  I always feel frustrated with short stories because just as I am getting drawn into a story it is all over. Of course, that is just my opinion and I know many people really enjoy their fiction in this format.

That said, this collection is well worth reading.  They vary in length and my personal preference was for the longer ones.  Some are very short and  felt more like a sketch of a story that he planned to expound later.

All of the stories are concerned with life’s struggles.  They all focus around the lower echelons of society and illustrate the difficulties of life for those living in Germany during this difficult period of war and depression.  Stories of addiction and petty crime make these stories as relevant today as they were at the time.

I enjoyed reading these stories very much and I hope that you do too.  Please let me know your thoughts.

ISBN:  978-0141392851

Publisher:  Penguin Classics

Price (based on Today’s price at Amazon) :  £11.99 for the kindle version

Savings so far:  £179.89

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young

Lizzie Prain is an ordinary fifty-something housewife.  She lives in a cottage in the woods with her husband, Jacob, is isolated, has no friends and one day murders her husband by hitting him over the back of the head with a shovel.  She then dismembers him, puts him in neat packages in the freezer and then thinks up a myriad of ingenious ways in which to cook and eat him!

She is also compiling an instruction manual on how one is likely to feel in these circumstances and this runs concurrently through the story in bullet point form.

I must confess that the first couple of chapters of this book had me feeling rather nauseous as it details Lizzie beginning the cooking and consumption of her husband in detail and I almost gave up reading at that point.  Lizzie appeared a very callous and cold hearted woman, not to mention one with cannibalistic tendencies and I wasn't at all convinced that this was the book for me.

However, something interesting happened to me whilst I was reading this.  Lizzie's character and circumstances began to emerge and I found myself unexpectedly warming to her.  Obviously, I did not approve of her actions but I came to see her as a repressed woman whose bizarre behaviour was a consequence of her situation. I had to continually remind myself that she was a cannibal with a culinary imagination and that I definitely should NOT like this character under any circumstances!

There were times when I could empathise with her loneliness.  In her simple instruction manual she writes:
“Put the dogs bed in your bedroom if you feel lonely.”  Out of context this sounds insignificant but within context begins to enable the reader to see that Lizzie has spent most of her life friendless, criticised and alone.

This is a dark and macabre novel and is totally different to anything I have ever read before.  I would not recommend this to vegetarians, and believe me, reading this is enough to convince the reader that vegetarianism is the way forward. However, if you like your fiction to be edgy but subtle, you have a strong stomach and you want to read something completely out of the ordinary then this is the book for you.

That said, I still have mixed feelings about this novel and I think readers will either love it or hate it.  What I would say is that it brought up an array of emotions for me because I felt uncomfortable that I liked a character who had committed such a heinous crime. I am certain I shall still be thinking about this book for a long time to come which I guess is the sign of a good novel.

I would love to hear your thoughts if any of you read it so please leave a comment.

ISBN:  978 1472209351

Publisher:  Tinder Press

Price (based on todays price at  £4.35
I read the kindle version of this.

Total saved so far:   £167.90

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Crooked Maid by Dan Vyleta

Set in Vienna in 1948 the local citizens are adjusting to their new lives amidst the chaos of a post war city.

Anna is returning to the marriage she fled nine years previously after discovering her husbands infidelity.  She has been informed that he is now returning to Vienna following release from a prisoner of war camp and is on her way to meet him; perhaps, even to rekindle their marriage.

On the journey Anna meets Robert, an 18 year old boy on his way home to his step-father's sickbed.  As he and Anna become acquainted they come to discover that their paths will cross many times in war torn Vienna as they both face their own dilemmas in this unrecognizable city.

This is an outstanding book and I enjoyed reading every page.  The twists and turns in the story were always unexpected and Mr. Vyleta is clearly one step ahead of his reader at every turn.  Whenever I thought I had guessed what was happening another plot twist would emerge to prove me wrong.

The prose is tightly packed and I found myself thinking about this book even when I wasn’t reading it, which is always the sign of a good book.  At no point would I have called this an exciting read but it certainly has a page turning quality that called me back to it time and time again.  It is intelligently written and the author has a keen perception of both the time and place of this novel.  It is extremely atmospheric and I felt a part of the narrative.

The characters are all extremely interesting albeit not very likeable.  They are all uniquely flawed and nobody jumps out as an obvious protagonist but I rather think that is the point of this book.  All the characters are thrown together in this post war struggle and are trying to find their way in a city that is unknown to them following the war.  They have not returned to the city they left but to a city that has been ravaged by war and everything and everyone is altered by it.

It is quietly macabre in parts whilst not being gruesome.  It is never gratuitous and is always essential to the intricate plot.  

Dan Vyleta is clearly a great storyteller and writes with intelligent clarity.  This is the first book of his that I have read and have since learned that this is a sequel to The Quiet Twin.  However, not reading that first has in no way impaired my enjoyment of this as a stand alone novel.  I would love to go back and read the prequel now and genuinely hope to read more books by this author in the future.

ISBN:  978 1408827833

Publisher:  Bloomsbury

Price (based on today’s price at  £8.31

Total saved so far:  £163.55