Friday, 29 January 2016

Secrets of the Singer Girls by Kate Thompson

1942 and sixteen year old Poppy Percival arrives at the gates of Trout's clothing factory in Bethnal Green, ready to begin a new life as an East End seamstress. Forced to leave her quiet countryside home, and banished to a war-ravaged London, Poppy harbours a dark secret - one that tore her away from all she knew.

By day, the East End women of Trout's play their part in the war effort, stitching bandages and repairing uniforms for troops on the front line. But Poppy's new friends at the factory are hiding some painful truths. Vera, the salt-of-the-earth forelady, has had a hard life, with scars both visible and concealed. Vera's glamorous younger sister, Daisy, has romantic notions that could get her into  trouble; while Sal. a hard working mother, worries about the safety of her two evacuated boys for good reason.

As the war throws their lives into turmoil, it will also bring the Singer Girls closer than they could ever have imagined.

This book originally appealed to me for two reasons. First, I grew up in Bethnal Green where this book is set. Secondly, I have something of a fascination for books set in the East End of London during World War Two, probably because my mother lived through it. She told me many stories during my childhood of her life during the Blitz and I think fiction set during that time has a heightened sense of realism for me because of this.

This was a nice easy read and I enjoyed it very much. It rolls along at a very readable pace and I found myself very keen to get back to it.

It deals with some very difficult themes; not only the hardships of surviving life on the home front but violence, poverty and scandal and the affect that this has on the day to day lives of the characters.

I liked the characters very much and could easily identify with them. I couldn't help but feel involved in the lives of these women and the flow of dialogue between them aided this as the author used this to allow readers a better understanding of the characters.

Most interesting to read about were the attitudes and ideas of the time and to recognise how different they were to the mental outlook of society today. Some of the situations that in today's society would barely be considered worthy of notice were considered scandalous at the time and to our modern day perspective we look back and are equally scandalized by what women had to put up with. Other behaviours were as abhorrent back then as they are today.

This is a book about bravery, friendship and love and I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in life on the home front or women's issues.

I am interested to see that Kate Thompson has another book, Secrets of the Sewing Bee, coming out this year. Also, set in Trout's factory but with different characters it promises to give us another glimpse into life in London's East End during World War Two.

ISBN: 978-1447280866

Publisher:  Pan

About the Author:

Kate is an award winning journalist with 15 years experience of working in print media. She has worked with Pick Me Up magazine amongst other publications. 

She has also worked on national newspapers, the Daily Express and Daily Mail.

Now she is a mum to two young boys and juggles her writing with school runs.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Despite their differences, Vianne and Isabelle have always been close. Younger, bolder Isabelle lives in Paris, while Vianne is content with life in the French countryside with her husband Antoine and their daughter. When the Second World War breaks out and Antoine is conscripted to fight, Isabelle is sent to the country by her father to help Vianne.

As war develops, the strength of the sisters' relationship is put to the test. With life changing, and confronted by unbelievable horrors,  Vianne and Isabelle find themselves responding in ways they never thought possible, as bravery and resistance take differing forms for each of the two sisters.

I have heard it said that the publishing world is saturated with books about World War Two and the market really does not need any more. It is a reasonable point but all the while authors can produce material of this superb quality I say "yes please".

There has been much hype about this book which frequently puts me off reading a book but this novel is fantastic and I was not disappointed in any way. Put simply, this novel is superb and is well worthy of the hype that recommends it.

All of the characters were easy to engage with, not just the two main characters who felt wonderfully real, but the more minor characters also. The dialogue was extremely believable and brought the characters to life.

It is a very detailed novel and Ms. Hannah has researched life in war torn France with accuracy. It is packed with the minutiae of life as well as more major issues and focuses the readers attention on the day to day lives of ordinary French people during the Nazi occupation.

In many ways, this book is about strengths and weaknesses and also about how the two can overlap. It is about bravery, relationships, persecution, survival and fear. But mostly, it is about love and the way in which it brings hope and can strengthen us.

I was completely engrossed by this book and highly recommend it to everyone. It is a heartbreaking novel and a cup of tea and box of tissues will be needed to get through it. However, it is extremely thought provoking and I could see myself giving this book a second read at some point (there are very few books that I consider worth a second read.)

ISBN: 978-1447283072

Publisher: Pan

About the Author:

Kristin Hannah is the New York Times bestselling author of twenty-one novels, including the blockbuster Firefly Lane, Night Road and Home Front. She is a former lawyer turned writer and is the mother of one son. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii with her husband.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone, a priceless Indian diamond which had been brought to England as spoils of war, is given to Rachel Verrinder on her eighteenth birthday. That very night, the stone is stolen. 

Suspicion then falls on a hunchbacked housemaid, on Rachel's cousin Franklin Blake, on a troupe of mysterious Indian jugglers, and on Rachel herself.

The phlegmatic Sergeant Cuff is called in, and with the help of Betteredge, the Robinson Crusoe-reading loquacious steward, the mystery of the missing stone is ingeniously solved.

When I read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins I loved it. In fact, it is up there with my all time favourite books. Consequently, I think I perhaps expected too much from this book as The Woman in White was a very hard act to follow.

This is a multi narrative account with the story being told by various characters. Now, I often find that this enhances a book for me as I like to read the story from different points of view. However, with this book it created a problem for me basically because I could not find much differentiation between the voices.

I liked some of the characters though; particularly those of Gabriel Betteredge, a long standing servant in the Verrinder household and the aptly named, Seargeant Cuff who is called in to investigate the missing diamond. Of all the characters telling the story, these were the only two which I could engage with and who stood out slightly from the other narratives due to their respective loves of Robinson Crusoe and the growing of roses.

Well, here is a case of our old friend 'subjectivity' rearing his head again because I know some people who have raved about this book. Have any of you read this? If so, then please let me know what you thought of it. If you haven't read, it then do give it a go and let me know what you thought.

ISBN: 978-1853260445

Publisher: Wordsworth Classics

Price: £1.99

About the Author:

Wilkie Collins was born on 8 January 1824 and died on 23 September 1889.
In those 65 years he wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, at least 14 plays, and more than 100 non-fiction pieces.

A close friend of Charles Dickens from their meeting in March 1851 until Dickens's death in June 1870, Collins was one of the best known, best loved, and, for a time, best paid of Victorian fiction writers. But after his death, his reputation declined as Dickens's bloomed. 

Now, Collins is being given more critical and popular attention than he has for fifty years. Most of his books are in print - and all are now in e-text - he is studied widely, and new film, television and radio versions of some of his books have been made. All his known letters have been published. And new book length studies of his work or life appear frequently. But there is still much to be discovered about this superstar of Victorian fiction.

Friday, 8 January 2016

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

She is the missing girl. But she doesn't know she's lost.
Carmel Wakeford becomes separated from her mother at a local children's festival, and is found by a man who claims to be her estranged grandfather. He tells her that her mother has had an accident and that she is to live with him for now. As days become weeks with her new family, 8-year-old Carmel realises that this man believes she has a special gift...
While her mother desperately tries to find her, Carmel embarks on an extraordinary journey, one that will make her question who she is - and who she might become.

This is a splendidly well thought out novel and was a fantastic read.

While I was reading this I could not help but be reminded of real life abduction cases i.e. Ben Needham, Madeleine McCan and many other lower profile cases of missing children. I think this made the story all the more real and relevant and, as a mother myself, my heart ached for the desperation felt by Carmel's mother Beth, as she lived through this nightmare.

What I thought was really clever about this book was the way the chapters alternated between Beth and Carmel which gave the novel two distinct voices throughout and allowed the reader to empathise with both characters.

What was uppermost in my mind whilst reading this book was whether Beth and Carmel would be reunited in the end. Now, as you all know, my reviews never contain spoilers, so suffice to say that I was kept guessing to the very end. I shall say no more!

The characters, the atmosphere and the plot was all wonderfully well executed being believable, intriguing and compelling.

Once again, I am amazed that this is a debut novel and not at all surprised that it was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award 2015. This is a novel of great skill and Ms Hamer is definitely one to watch.

ISBN: 978-0571313266

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Price (on Paperback £5.59 - Kindle £4.19

About the Author

Kate grew up Pembrokeshire and has had a passion for books since being a small child.  She has written stories ever since she could hold a pencil. She studied art in university then worked in television for over ten years - mostly on documentaries, much of which involved using her writing skills. She studied creative writing at Aberystwyth University and won a prize there for the 'best beginning to a novel' - the book that went on to be 'The Girl in the Red Coat.'

She won the Rhys Davies short story prize in 2011 and the winning story was read out on Radio 4.

Kate currently lives in Cardiff with her husband and Mimi the cat. 

In respect of those parents and children for whom child abduction is a reality:

Monday, 4 January 2016

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

Hercule Poirot's quiet supper is interrupted when a young woman confides to him that she is about to be murdered. She is terrified, but begs Poirot not to find and punish her killer. Once she is dead, she insists, justice will have been done.

Later that night, Poirot learns that three guests at the fashionable Bloxham Hotel have been murdered, a cufflink placed in each one's mouth. While Poirot struggles to connect the bizarre pieces of the puzzle, the murderer prepares a hotel bedroom for a fourth victim.

I am very fond of classic literature and tend to approach books that recreate a classic character with some trepidation. 

I read a goodly number of Agatha Christie novels when I was in my late teens. Clearly, that was more years ago than I care to mention, so I can not quite recall her exact writing style. Therefore, I approached this book more on it's own merit rather than as a direct comparison of Agatha Christie and I think Ms Hannah  has pulled it off quite  well.

One thing I do remember about reading Agatha Christie and that is that they were rather formulaic and once I had read a few of her stories I was generally able to work out 'who dunnit' at a fairly early point. However, I think Ms Hannah used far more twists and turns and kept me guessing pretty much until the inevitable reveal scene so typical of Poirot.

However, I was disappointed that I was not able to reengage with Inspector Japp, Hastings and his flawless secretary, Miss Lemon. Instead we are introduced to a  policeman friend of Poirot's, Mr Catchpool of Scotland Yard who I can only describe as rather wishy washy.

So, did I enjoy my reacquaintance with  Poirot? Yes, I did. The plot was much more involved than the original Christie's ever were but I felt that Ms Hannah had hit the mark in aiming this at a 21st century reading audience.

In addition, it has left me wanting more and I think I shall be revisiting my not-so misspent youth and re-reading some of the Agatha Christie novels I read in my teens. Whatsmore, I won't have cassette tapes, acne and the Bay City Rollers to distract me this time!

ISBN: 9780007547449

Publisher: Harper Collins

Price (based on Amazon): Paperback £3.85 - Kindle £1.49

About the Author:

Sophie has also published five collections of poetry. Her fifth, Pessimism for Beginners, was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Award. Her poetry is studied at GCSE, A-level and degree level across the UK. From 1997 to 1999 she was Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge, and between 1999 and 2001 she was a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford. 

Sophie Hannah is an internationally bestselling writer of psychological crime fiction, published in 27 countries. In 2013, her latest novel, The Carrier, won the Crime Thriller of the Year Award at the Specsavers National Book Awards. Two of Sophie’s crime novels, The Point of Rescue and The Other Half Lives, have been adapted for television and appeared on ITV1 under the series title Case Sensitive in 2011 and 2012. In 2004, Sophie won first prize in the Daphne Du Maurier Festival Short Story Competition for her suspense story The Octopus Nest, which is now published in her first collection of short stories, The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets. 

She is forty-one and lives with her husband and children in Cambridge, where she is a Fellow Commoner at Lucy Cavendish College. She is currently working on a new challenge for the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famous detective.