Sunday, 29 June 2014

Living with Strangers by Elizabeth Ellis

Madeleine and her young daughter, Chloe, live in France above the bar where she works. One day she receives a package of letters that she sent to her brother, Josef, many years ago when he disappeared. They have come from Josef’s partner along with a letter telling her that Josef has disappeared again.

Estranged from her family Madeleine heads back to England in her quest to find out why Josef disappeared the first time and whether it’s possible that this broken family can be mended.

The narrative of this story moves across both time and place. Set in England, France and Germany the narrative changes from 1963 when Josef first disappeared to 1978 when Madeleine receives the letters. Those movements can sometimes be confusing to a reader but Elizabeth Ellis deals with this seamlessly and at no point did I find myself confused by which place or time I was in.

Madeleine is an excellent character. Full of strength she faces single motherhood alone and makes a place for herself and her child in a world that became disrupted for her by Josef’s disappearance many years previously. Through Madeleine the novel is able to address themes such as relationships, prejudice and inter-generational conflict; all issues that are not specific to the time of the novel but still exist today.

It is an interesting premise that one event leads to another whole series of related events throughout a persons life and through this book we not only see the effect that Josef’s disappearance has on Madeleine’s life but also that of the other members of the family. As the narrative closely follows Madeleine the other characters are more minor but as the novel progresses the other characters become more fleshed out and the novel begins to feel much more whole. By elaborating on the story of the minor characters the novel is moved to another dimension and feels much more complete.

When I first finished the book I was disappointed that the end was not more dramatic. However, a couple of days later I am still thinking about it and I think this was probably a deliberate ploy on the authors part as it depicts the realism of life. By which I mean, that real life events do not always conclude dramatically but rather are a series of small events that somehow stumble into becoming a form of conclusion. There are no spoilers in this paragraph but an encouragement for you to read this book and let me know your thoughts.

For a debut novel this has been well executed and shows much promise that quality writing will be flowing from the pen of Ms Ellis.

ISBN:  978 1783064069

Publisher:  Matador

Price (based on today’s price on £3.49
I read a digital copy of this so this is the price for the kindle version

Total saving so far:  £298.71

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

What Was Promised by Tobias Hill

Bernadette and Clarence Malcolm have come to Bethnal Green, London, from Jamaica with their young son. Solly and Dora Lazarus are Jews who are trying to earn a living and make a good life for themselves. Mary and Michael Lockhart have come from Birmingham and their attitudes and actions will have a deep and lasting impact on all three families. All are outsiders, all are trying to become part of this strange bomb ravaged city and all are destined to be thrown together in a strained unison as the city rebuilds itself.

This novel is set amongst the markets of London’s East End and spans a 40 year period.  It portrays a city undergoing change along with those people who are trying to assimilate into this unfamiliar world.

Now, before I even begin to tell you why, I am going to say that I love, love, love this book and it contains all the elements a good novel should have.

First, I love the setting. I grew up in the very area the book is based and, therefore, I recognized many of the landmarks and features described in this novel. In fact, I went to primary school in Columbia Road and I well remember Jones’ Dairy where my mum would send me to buy milk and where cheese and butter was sold individually cut and wrapped in little brown greaseproof packets. This familiarity certainly resonated with me and the setting drew me in very quickly.

However, whilst my personal familiarity with the setting enhanced my reading of this novel I am certain that anyone who reads this will feel a connection with the place element of this book as the area is portrayed as strongly as the characters are. It is thoroughly atmospheric and as the book is broken down into three separate times; 1948, 1968 and 1988 we can observe the changing nature of the area as the book progresses.

Additionally, I love the characters in this book. They are all well rounded and I ended up feeling like I actually knew these people and genuinely cared about what would happen to them. The author has skilfully created three sets of characters who are all completely different but whose lives are inexorably linked by events as well as the building and street that they all share. It was interesting to observe how the attitudes of the children differed to that of their parents and provided much food for thought concerning the lives of immigrants and how this affects subsequent generations.

There was nothing to dislike about this book. It has a marvellous plot, fantastic characterization and is outstanding in it’s atmosphere and setting. It focuses on themes of immigration, acceptance and aspiration and I highly recommend this book. It is intelligently written and will appeal to anyone who likes their reading material to be thought provoking, knowledgeable and skilful in its execution.

I get a real thrill when I read an author for the first time and then discover that they have a back catalogue. Mr. Hill has written five previous novels and I can’t wait to get started.

ISBN:  978 1408840900

Publisher:  Bloomsbury Circus

Price (based on today’s price at £11.55

Total saving so far:  £295.22

Want to buy a copy of What Was Promised? Click HERE to purchase.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope

“Women have often been hardly used by men, but perhaps no harder usage, no fiercer cruelty was ever experienced by a woman than that which fell to the lot of Josephine Murray from the hands of Earl Lovel to whom she was married in the parish church…….”

This opening line of the novel introduces perfectly the main theme of this book; that women were almost totally reliant on men in 1874 and marriage was the expected institution with which a woman could be provided with security during the period when this book was written in the late 19th century. It also raises issues of class expectation.

As the opening line states, Josephine Murray marries the Earl of Lovel and becomes the Countess.  However, the Earl later claims that he was previously married and his wife still living when their marriage took place. He, therefore, denounces her as his wife and claims their daughter illegitimate.

With help from her modest tailor friends, the Thwaites, Josephine throws all her energies into proving her title and that of her daughter, Anna. However, Anna has become secretly betrothed to Daniel Thwaite, her childhood sweetheart and Radical. When this secret betrothal becomes known Josephine goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure the marriage does not take place.

When Trollope published this story in 1874 he claimed that it was “the best novel I ever wrote!” I have not read enough of his work to be able to make a judgement on that (something that I intend to rectify) but it certainly was not well received at the time and is said to have outraged readers.

I thought this was an immensely readable and enjoyable novel. It is true to say, that it is a little predictable but I found it a fascinating account of the insecurities faced by the vast majority of women of the time. How a reliance on men and marriage were, by and large, the only acceptable route for a young woman and she was totally dependent of forming an alliance through marriage in order to secure her future.

The characters are well portrayed within the formalities concurrent with the period. However, Anna is an admirable character who shows a courage that will resonate with modern women. Her ability to stand firm in her beliefs in the face of immense opposition demonstrates a resoluteness of character that we could admire in a modern day woman let alone one constricted by the confines of Victorian society.

Parts of this novel are concerned with a legal case and the language is, therefore, a little dry in parts. Overall though, I love the lyrical quality of the prose in this novel which more than compensates. For example the opening paragraph of Chapter 37 begins:

“All December went by, and the neighbours in the houses round spent each his merry Christmas; and the snow and frost of January passed over them, and February had come and nearly gone…..”

I think anyone who enjoys classical novels, history or women’s issues will enjoy this novel. As one of Trollope’s lesser known novels, Lady Anna, is not easily found and my copy came from a charity shop years ago. It is a beautiful old orange spined Penguin and I love it. However, the good news is that Amazon have free kindle copies of this available so it seems to me that this is a win/win situation if you have a kindle. There are also several used copies of this available.

Happy reading!

ISBN:  9780140438345

Publisher: Penguin (my copy)

Price: £1.25 (this is what I paid for my second hand copy)

Total saving:  £283.67

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

A Riffian's Tune by Joseph M. Labaki

Set amidst the rural Moroccan Rif Mountains lives Jusef, a shepherd boy, whose life is dictated by tradition and superstition. However, Jusef has big dreams and is determined to move away from the life he knows to the big city to receive an education and have a different way of life.

Overcoming extreme obstacles Jusef faces a life away from all that he has known and meets many challenges in his fight for a better future.

This is an autobiographical novel - a genre that always makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. With a straightforward autobiography we get an authors version of events as he or she sees them. Possibly these might be embellished to make better reading or to allow the author to portray themselves as they wish to be seen but nonetheless, it is the authors viewpoint. With novels we, as readers, know what we are getting and acknowledge that what we are reading is the result of the author’s imagination even though some of it may be a composite of events or characters that the author has experienced or known. However, with autobiographical novels I am always left wondering where the truth finishes and when the fictional component takes over.

That said, this was an interesting read and, for me, it’s strength lay in the descriptive passages. It is very atmospheric and the sights and sounds of both city and mountain areas were very well done. Its description of Morrocan culture and the way of life are excellent.

Jusef was well portrayed as a young man who is full of courage and determination and for that we can admire him. However, there were times when I found his actions implausible and ,therefore, felt that I could not quite get a grasp on him as a character.

To be honest I thought this was a good book but not a great one. I read it whilst on holiday and it was a nice easy holiday read as it moves along at a nice pace and is written in a simple style.  However, as I have said before, reading is a very subjective matter and this is only my opinion so would encourage you to give this a try for yourself. I would love to hear what you think of it if you do.

ISBN:  978 0992648404

Publisher: Clunett Press

Price (based on today’s price at  £5.93

Total saving so far:  £282.42