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Monday, 13 August 2018

Review: Hetty's Farmhouse Bakery, Cathy Bramley

Hetty is a farmer's wife up in Cumbria, but she longs for more than that. Both she and her husband put their lives on hold when Dan's father suddenly died and Dan wanted to take up the farm with Hetty by his side.

Over a decade later, and they're still at it, yet Hetty yearns for more, prompted by her daughter, Poppy, declaring the Aunt Naomi (Hetty's sister in law) is her inspiration.

It is actually Naomi who provides Hetty with the chance she's always wanted. On the pretext of having no pies for the farm shop's open day, Naomi persuades Hetty firstly to bake pies that could become own-brand produce for the shop, and then to enter it into a regional competition. Hetty's pie wins, so then gets invited to a national competition, Britain's Best Bites.

Hetty is thrilled but terrified in equal measure. The thought of becoming an entrepreneur while being a mum and a farmer's wife - particularly when the farmer is not being hugely supportive at first - is overwhelming, but she decides to take the opportunity while she can.

There are a whole range of fantastic characters in the book, from Hetty's best friend Anna, to the extended family beyond the farm. They all bring their own interesting backstories that play into the main plot without hijacking it, and there are plenty of twists along the way.

If you're a fan of Jojo Moyes authors like her, I would definitely recommend this book.

Review: Secrets of the Lighthouse, Santa Montefiore.

I love Santa Montefiore's books, particularly when I just want to read something lovely, with a gripping plot that I know will ultimately have romance and a happy ending.

Ellen Trawton, the main character, runs away to Ireland. She wants to get away from her stuffy, aristocratic London life, particularly one that will see her get married in five months. Her mother, who is very secretive about her past, kept letters from her sister that Ellen ultimately discovers and uses them to track down a family who she never knew existed.

She tells everyone she is in Ireland for space and to write a novel, but she is hiding more than that, which her Aunt Peg eventually discovers. However, Ellen isn't the only one holding secrets. The whole of the town seem to be, in different ways.

Not least Connor Macausland, a man whose wife, Caitlin, tragically died at the lighthouse five years previously. Ellen is quickly drawn to him and they start up a quiet relationship, worried about reactions from people in the town, some of whom think that Connor murdered his wife.

Some of the opposition comes from Caitlin herself, who appears in this novel from beyond the grave. She keeps watch over Connor and her chilren, and becomes intensely jealous when Connor and Caitlin start dating. Though she can't affect the material world as much as she wants to, her actions lead to Ellen's mother discovering her in Ireland, which has (at first) destructive repercussions.

Santa Monterfiore's descriptions of Ireland are intensely beautiful, and I adored the place she was building almost as much as the characters themselves. There was such depth and warm - and plenty of romance - in this story that made me sad to end it, although the conclusion was so lovely I'm glad i did. This is definitely one for a fan of a happy ending. 

Review: The Crane Wife, Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness brings his magical and elegiac flair to this novel. George, one of the character's main protagonists, wakes up in the middle of the night hearing a strange sound. He runs down to his garden and finds a crane with a wounded wing. He tends to the crane and. while a profound experience, puts the matter to one side.

George owns a print shop and, on a whim during idle hours, starts making cuttings of different models from old books. One day, a woman called Kumiko calls into the shop and George is immediately drawn to her. She shows George her own art, made from feathers and stuck on tiles, showing different scenes. She begins to add George's cuttings to her artwork and anyone who sees them pleads to buy them with a frenzied desperation.

George, and his daughter Amanda (whom eventually meets Kumiko), know there is something strange and almost magical about Kumiko but they don't know what. Kumiko is extraordinarily reserved with what she reveals about herself, which frustrates and intrigues them in equal measure.

The main story is inter-spliced with the narrative of the tiles that Kumiko is creating, about a crane and a volcano who are both in love and utterly loathe each other, and their relationship affects and impacts the earth in the most powerful and destructive of ways.

The story, which I would put into the genre of magical realism, is a well-crafted, and minutely managed tale. Though nothing much 'happens' per se, the story is alluring and compelling, with the way the characters interact with each other and the dynamics of their relationships with they have to work through in sometimes painful and confusing ways. Not least of all, Amanda, who seems to push away everyone she loves (apart from her son) while being completely confused and frustrated about why she does this.

It was a very enjoyable read, and certainly something a bit different if you're looking for a fresh new story.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Review: Tinfoil Sky, Cyndi Sand-Eveland

The novel opens with Cecily urging Mel to get together her things and leave - as soon as possible. Craig, Cecily's abusive, soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, leaves the house after an argument leaving a small window of time for Cecily and Mel to leave. 

Cecily announces that they are going home to Mel's grandparents' house - something that Mel doesn't want to hope too hard is true, but imagines how wonderful it would be to finally settle somewhere. However, Cecily's grandmother refuses to accommodate them and Cecily and Mel are left living in their Pinto car and relying on the generosity of the soup kitchen. However, when Cecily is arrested and jailed for shoplifting, Mel has no choice but to live with her grandmother, who is as angry about the situation as Mel is sad. 

Mel has had no security in her life but soon finds some in her local library. She is there every day (the novel takes place during summer break) and soon, her grandmother thaws. Mel's hope for a real home begins to come true again, piece by piece, and the only thing that is needed for Cecily to be released. 

Mel is a very stoic and solid-seeming character for a twelve year old whose life has known nothing but upheaval. It's sad that she has accepted this as the way of life, "Cecily likes change", and even more so that she accepted it's the way it would always be. She's shy and unsure of her own worth until external, solid characters tell her she is important. She is supported by a good community of characters in the novel. Conflict in the novel presents itself in the chaos of her life circumstances, rather than a traditional bully or villain, but as a reader your heart aches for her no less than it would for a character facing a more traditional kind of conflict. 

Though it is narrated by a twelve year old, the frankness and straightforward nature of the writing makes it seem more mature. Description is sparing, as the focus of the writing is, if not in dialogue, more about Mel's reaction to her surroundings and those of the people with whom she interacts. It is a good balance, though, and just enough description is given of the town for the reader to fill in the rest. 

The novel itself is just about a couple of hundred pages, though it does a lot in it. It is enjoyable, saddening, and moving, and an insightful glimpse into how important it is for children to have stable homes. I would highly recommend this book. 

Hiatus

After my last review in August last year, (The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas), I decided to take some time out from the blog. I wanted to devote more time to my own writing and this blog was an easy way of procrastinating from that! I have missed it, though, not least to share my thoughts on some cracking reads but also missing a way of keeping track of what I have read!

Below I'll list some books I've read over the past year that I would also recommend. 

Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy by Laini Taylor (fantasy, top end of YA/New Adult crossover)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Web of Darkness by Bali Rai
Still Me by Jojo Moyes
The Peacock Emporium by Jojo Moyes
Anybody Out There? by Marian Keyes
Sea of Lost Love by Santa Montefiore
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Butter by Erin Jade Lange
Dead Ends by Erin Jade Lange
The Break by Marian Keyes

I'm sure there have been more but those are the ones I can remember!

Monday, 14 August 2017

Review: The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr is an inhabitant of two worlds. One world is the poor neighbourhood in which she grew up. The other is the private, predominantly white (she is one of only two black students), high school that she attends. For her, the two worlds means acting as two different Starrs, even in front of her close friends and (white) boyfriend, for fear of misunderstanding and ridicule.

After witnessing her friend, Khalil, being shot dead by a police officer in a seemingly unnecessary traffic stop, Starr has to make some tough decisions. Will she give witness? Will she use her voice to speak up against the authorities or stay silent as there's no way Khalil would ever get justice?

Angie Thomas' writing is powerful, authentic, and hard-hitting, from the description of the neighbourhood in which Starr lives, to the murky waters of navigating high school as a person of colour. There are some very tough passages in it which brilliantly encapsulate the struggle people of colour face when trying to get justice.

There are some bright spots, though. Two of my favourite characters are Starr's parents. They are down to earth, warm, funny, and aware of how lucky they are at this point in life. None of their children are directly involved in gangs; Starr's dad owns a store, and Starr's mum has a steady, secure job at the local clinic. Considering Starr's dad spent some time in prison going down for someone else, they are doing okay for themselves. Reading about their family dynamic - the complexity and frustration and their love - is one of the most sincere and compelling parts of this story.

Angie Thomas tells this story incredibly well, but it feels so raw because you can see it on the news, particularly in America. In fact, we pretty much have seen this story on the news, time and time again. It exhorts us to stand up for those who have been oppressed. For those of us who are privileged to check it and to use it for those whose voices are trying to be quashed. It's as much a call for justice as being a damn good story.

Review: Island of Secrets, Patricia Wilson

London-born Angelika, known in the story as Angie, decides to travel to Crete to find her mother's family before she gets married. Her mother has always been unwilling - to the point of terrified - to talk about what happened in her past. Angie tries to coax her grandmother into talking about it. 

She does, but starts the story a lot further back than Angie would like. Instead of just finding out about her mother, she finds out about the Nazi brutalities and massacres in Crete, a little known but hugely impacting event in the Second World War. Angie hears of her grandmother's loss in her son, Petro, and her fight to keep her two other sons alive. 

The story flits between past and present quite regularly, which can be quite a welcome breather for the reader. The more Angie learns about Crete, the more bound she feels there but also guilty about her mother who had not returned to the country since she left as a teenager. 

Bountiful and lush description abound along with great characters and gripping plot twists. The juxtaposition of the picturesque, tourist-trap Cretan idea with the horrors of its past are quite jarring. The more of these stories we find out about, the more we realise that the Nazis left behind more tragic histories than just the concentration and death camps. 

Though this story is a work of fiction it is based on true stories of real life Cretans, which makes Patricia Wilson's story telling even more powerful and spellbinding.