My Valentines 2017: Eight Books I Love

It’s February 14th and love is in the air! Chocolates have been lavished on Mr R and a very large lunch, which will have done nothing at all for my weight loss plans, has been lavished upon me, Mrs R, by Mr R.

But of course, he’s not the only love of my life. There are also books.

I love many books, but I thought I’d share eight that have stood out for me in the last eighteen months. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The Humans by Matt Haig

How do we look, as a race, from the outside? This great book by Matt Haig proposes some answers to this question and is alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, hilarious and profound. It tells the story of Professor Andrew Martin, found walking naked through the streets of Cambridge with a newly acquired repulsion for all things human and, well, humans.

The tale of how and why he changes his mind is guaranteed to lift your spirits and focus you on what is really important in life. A book everyone should read!

2. The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain

Intricate, twisty and emotionally compelling. Think CL Taylor meets Jodi Picoult. The story of how far parents will go to protect their child and the lies they will tell to do so – even to their other child. You can read my review, but  here’s a snippet:

‘The characterisation is excellent – to the extent that, a little unusually for a book that definitely borders on a thriller, I wanted to stay with these characters and find out what happened to them next… The ongoing tension and mystery are well-maintained and just when you think you’ve hit the twist too early, another comes along. Gripping, believable, well-written and impossible to put down.’

3. The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

This book by one of my top three favourite authors was at the top of my 2015 Christmas list, and I fangirled about it here: ‘A great story… using beautiful and well-crafted language.’ ‘An atmospheric and compelling gothic thriller – and a perfect example of a book where plot, characterisation, theme and setting are perfectly balanced and beautifully blended.’

Hopefully, my blurb will make you want to read it too: ‘Connie had an accident that nobody will talk about. Connie has no idea why she calls her father by his surname. Connie doesn’t know why she remembers a yellow ribbon she doesn’t own, tied around hair that is not hers – or why she has a vague impression that she was once loved and cared for by someone who was not her mother but is, like her mother, no longer present in her life.’

4, I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

This novel, like Cally Taylor’s below, featured in my Six Stories to Send a Shiver up your Spine, so I’ve cheekily stolen my comments from that post:

‘How does it feel for a mother to watch her 5-year-old son run into the path of a car when she’s let her attention slip for the tiniest of moments? In a split second, Jenna Gray’s world descends into a nightmare. She tries to move on, believing that her home, her town and those traumatic memories are the only things she must leave behind to disappear and start afresh. But she’s wrong…

Grief, paranoia… and then discovering that you’re not paranoid, they really are out to get you […] it’s a tense and sometimes terrifying story that’s impossible to describe without revealing spoilers. In between the ‘aaargh!’ moments, it’s also a great story about a fresh start.’

5. The Lie by CL Taylor

A thriller about a seemingly harmless and peaceful retreat and a group of seemingly harmless, peaceful friends who visit the retreat for a holiday. What could go wrong? Quite a lot – and that’s why the novel was another included in my Six Stories to Send a Shiver up your Spine  post:

‘This is a psychological thriller, but it conveys the characters’ terror and confusion so well that it becomes a borderline horror tale. It makes us ponder how well any of us can really distinguish between good and evil; how easily we can be persuaded that acting out of character and against our instincts is somehow liberating us; and how hard we find it to believe that someone we trust can do the unthinkable.

Unpredictable, twisty and satisfying – a tale about control and the inability to ever put the past behind us completely. Don’t start reading it without a few hours to put aside!’

6. The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Another story about a fresh start, this also features another beloved theme of mine – spontaneous acts that change a character’s life. Although this translation felt a little stilted at the beginning, the story of Jean Perdu, the Paris bookseller whose bookshop is not on a street but on a barge on the Seine, was soon drawing me in. As I explained in my review. ‘…it’s a bookshop with a difference, too. It’s a ‘literary apothecary’, where Jean ‘prescribes’ his customers the books they need to soothe their soul. Yet Jean can’t cure himself of his heartbreak. It takes the arrival of a new neighbour and a new friend to shake things up, setting him and his bookshop free from their moorings. Jean leaves Paris behind and sets off on a quest to Provence, where he hopes to find answers to questions that have haunted him for years.’

And why did I love it? ”The sense of escape – of leaving behind the trappings of normal everyday life to pursue an answer or a goal – is always one that appeals to me. I loved the dry wit and how a section of the novel is part- travelogue, with entertaining and evocative descriptions of the places and people the travellers encounter, and their life on the boat.

This book also had some subtle things to say about life, books and reading, and that scores highly with me. I grew to love the characters and could happily have stayed with them a little longer. Guilt, regret, happiness, love, loss, freedom, fresh starts and a warning against presuming that you know someone else’s reactions, feelings or motivations – and acting on those presumptions without checking you’re right.’

7. Birdbox by Josh Malerman

Yet another one from Six Stories to Send a Shiver up your Spine and definitely one of the most original books I’d read in awhile.

‘Like dystopian, post-apocalyptic weirdness? Then [this book] is the one for you – unless you’re the kind of person who can’t go upstairs to a dark bedroom after watching a horror film…

“Most people dismissed the reports on the news. But they became too frequent; they became too real. And soon it was happening to people we knew.
Then the Internet died. The televisions and radios went silent. The phones stopped ringing.
And we couldn’t look outside anymore.”

The beauty of this book is its simplicity. We never see the horror, and nor do the main characters… that are still alive. What we do feel, intensely, is the terror of people who daren’t use the sense most of us primarily rely on to orient ourselves and keep us safe – our sight. What happens to a society literally too afraid to look – yet still unaware what they’ll see when they do?

Massively gripping – and probably not a read for a week when you’re feeling stressed. It does its job too well and you live every agonisingly tense, terrifying moment along with the main character.’

8. At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

I love everything Tracy Chevalier does; this isn’t my favourite novel of hers, but would certainly rank in my top 4 – and it’s the only one of hers I’ve read in the last eighteen months. It’s also my most recent read in this selection and, unsurprisingly, I reviewed this story about James and Sadie Goodenough, who settled where their wagon got stuck – in the muddy, stagnant swamps of 1830s Ohio.

It’s a sometimes dark and brutal story about a dysfunctional family working relentlessly to tame their patch of land, buying saplings from John Appleseed to cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their land claim  and Robert, the youngest Goodenough, who escapes that life but is always drawn to trees as he wanders across the country.

But did I feel the love? I surely did!

‘This is a beautiful story; as usual, Tracy Chevalier’s impeccable research makes the time, the place and the events totally believable and fully immersive. I always revel in her wonderful use of language, but I particularly liked her use of different diction and word choice to separate James and Sophie’s characters and narratives, and it’s just part of what makes the characters so well realised and believable.

 

…There’s also the added delight, as with all of her novels, of effortlessly acquiring fascinating insights into the lives of people in the past and gaining knowledge about a host of new topics. For instance, before reading At the Edge of the Orchard I’d never heard of Calaveras Grove, where giant sequoias were first identified – and had barely heard of Johnny Appleseed before either.

Two days after I finished reading this novel, Calaveras Grove was on the news because its famous Pioneer Cabin tree had come down in a storm on the 8th of January…,I can feel my brain grow a little whenever I read a Chevalier book, and that’s a feeling I love. It’s what puts her among my top five authors.’

So that’s eight of my  best-loved books. Care to share yours? 🙂

 

The Story My Abandoned E-Books Tell

Confession 1: Sometimes I abandon a book and go back to it later.

Why? Well, it might be that I’m not in the mood for a book of that particular tone or theme. Perhaps it requires concentration or patience that I don’t have at the time. Maybe it asks questions I don’t want to answer just then, or gives answers I’m not ready for.

I might be looking to be entertained and uplifted, while the book wants to pick apart my life and give me a microscope with which to study the pieces.

Confession 2: On rare occasions, I abandon a book permanently because something makes me cringe to the extent that I can’t carry on with it.
These abandonment issues can affect all books I buy, not just ebooks, but ebooks are a little different. I have to be in the mood for reading on my Kindle – and sometimes I’m simply not. Despite its handy blue light filter that makes the experience easier on the eyes and melatonin levels, I still get just plain sick of staring at screens sometimes, or aware that I’ve spent too long doing so already. This means books languish for longer on my Kindle than on my paperback TBR pile.

And there are more of them because ebooks are cheaper to buy, meaning I take more chances. Ebooks give me the chance to try out authors who are new to me, putting (usually) more money in those authors’ pockets than a PLR payment would  – without committing me to a £6-£10 spend on a paperback I’m not already besotted with. Perhaps this makes them more likely abandonment candidates.

You might surmise that because they’re cheaper to buy, ebooks are easier to abandon aanyway I’m not sure this is true for me, though. I’m not keen on abandoning any book. It seems such a waste!

So what made me abandon the books currently started on my Kindle but not finished?

Book A: My first purchase of a book from a well-respected author who gives and writes writing advice (in fact, I bought more than one on a special deal).

Problem: In the very first scene in the very first book, there was head-hopping. We’re in the heroine’s head, she meets a guy, she walks away and suddenly we’re in the guy’s head. Aaaargh!

Will I go back to it? I’ll probably give it another go when I’m at a loose end, bookwise. So many people I know praise this author’s work; can they all be wrong? But boy, do I hate head-hopping – and it was a big disappointment coming from someone who advises others on writing! And it made me think – where was the editor? Napping?!

Book B: My second purchase from this author. I’d enjoyed their first book well enough, although there were a couple of points where my editor’s fingers twitched. I thought I’d give this far earlier work, from a different genre, I try.

Problem: Too much of everything too quickly. Too many characters introduced at once, many of whom seemed too similar to quickly establish a unique place in your head. Too much hard to follow dialogue, too much backstory delivered in awkward dollops. I also didn’t warm to the main characters and struggled to find them realistic.

Will I go back to it? No. I might be missing out and I’ll certainly be trying another book by this author, but as for this one, my gut feeling is that life’s too short, and good books too numerous, to bother.

In the meantime, I had a bit of a Kindle splurge back in November when my husband’s op was due and another one post-Christmas when there were many bargains to be had. This is the result: the top two rows on my Kindle, as shown here. None abandoned so far!

I’ve already read the excellent Nightbird (Alice Hoffman) and The Secrets Between Sisters (Annie Lyons), which I’ll try and review very soon. I’m looking forward to reading the rest. They either won me over with their blurb, attracted my attention in an article or are by authors whose books I’ve read and enjoyed before (Alex Walters and Jane Holland). Roll on half-term!

Pulp Fiction: Are Big Name Authors Being Pulped At Your Library?

Last week, on my way out of the library, I stopped as I always do at the book sale display.

“Take whatever you want, even if you’re not sure!” called the lovely librarian, Ann. “Don’t worry about the prices on the sign – you’re a regular and we’re going to pulp them at the end of the week, anyway.”

How naive am I. I looked at the bookcase in front of me, full of not just those one-hit wonders and library oddities but also big name authors. And then I looked at Ann. “Pulped?”  I squawked.

“Yes.” Ann walked over to me. “I know it seems a shame, but we can’t get rid of them fast enough; we’ve got so many books. If we send them to be pulped, they give us money by weight, so at least the library makes some money.”

These were the books I rescued from pulping, having emptied my purse and left behind several well-known titles because I’d read them already:

 

Can you believe it? Erica James? Sarah Morgan? Freya North? Harriet Evans? Sophie Kinsella?

Some libraries, like ours, always have a small bookcase of books and back issue magazines for sale; others have a huge sale every so often. There are hardbacks, paperbacks, fiction and non-fiction, and it’s a great way to catch up with favorite mags too. If you’re a writer, it’s a great way to do some reasonably-priced research on potential magazine markets, as recommended here by Simon Whaley.

I urge you to get down to your local library and make sure you scoop up some bargains, saving them from a pulpy fate. You may not be helping the authors, but you will be helping the library. I’m betting the 50p our library charges per paperback is more than they get for its weight and it seems criminal for these books to be pulped!

I’m off for a read 🙂

 

 

 

Putting Down Roots: Book Review of At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

A Christmas present – in hardback, no less. The first of my Christmas books to be devoured.

About the Author

Tracy Chevalier 
Abridged from her site:
Tracy Chevalier was born in October 1962 and grew up in Washington, DC, moving to England after graduating with a BA in English from Oberlin College (Ohio). For several years she worked as a reference book editor while writing short stories in her spare time. In 1993 she resigned to do an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia (Norwich, England). Afterwards, she juggled freelance editing with writing until eventually, she was able to write full-time.

She lives in London with her English husband and son. She has written 8 novels, including The Last Runaway and Remarkable Creatures, and edited 2 short story collections. Her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, sold 5 million copies worldwide and was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. Apart from writing, she’s curated three shows in art galleries/museums.

Her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, sold 5 million copies worldwide and was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. Apart from writing, she’s curated three shows in art galleries/museums.

She writes novels longhand, typing what she’s written into the computer at the end of each day. She prefers blue ink, and uses disposable fountain pens. She has a desk in her study but usually, she writes on the living room sofa.

About the Book

From the author’s website:

James and Sadie Goodenough have settled where their wagon got stuck – in the muddy, stagnant swamps of 1830s Ohio. They and their children work relentlessly to tame their patch of land, buying saplings from a local tree man known as John Appleseed so they can cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their claim on the property. But the orchard they plant sows the seeds of a long battle. James loves the apples, reminders of an easier life back in Connecticut; while Sadie prefers the applejack they make, an alcoholic refuge from brutal frontier life.

Fifteen years later, the youngest Goodenough, Robert, is wandering through Gold Rush California. Restless and haunted by the broken family he left behind, he has made his way alone across the country.

In the redwood and giant sequoia groves, he finds some solace, collecting seeds for a naturalist who sells plants from the New World to the gardeners of England. But you can run only so far, even in America, and when Robert’s past makes an unexpected appearance he must decide whether to strike out again or stake his own claim to a home at last.

What I liked:

This is a beautiful story; as usual, Tracy Chevalier’s impeccable research makes the time, the place and the events totally believable and fully immersive. I always revel in her wonderful use of language, but I particularly liked her use of different diction and word choice to separate James and Sophie’s characters and narratives, and it’s just part of what makes the characters so well realised and believable.

Although the story is in a historical timeframe, we recognise those characters as people we could encounter today. The optimism of James and his constant striving to make life and his orchard in the Swamp successful; the bitterness and pessimism of Sadie, who is the creator of most of her troubles but blames everyone else but herself for them; and Robert’s restless search for a life that’s right for him – somewhere to put down roots.

And yes, putting down roots is just part of the apple and tree metaphor that Tracy so cleverly weaves through this novel. She doesn’t hit us over the head with it, yet the parallels are obvious. Saplings sail back to England from the US, carefully packaged by William Lobb; not all survive the journey and not all go on to thrive in a different climate and soil, but some do, echoing the pioneering adventures of both this period of US history and the personal story of the Goodenoughs. The story also suggests, very subtly, that perhaps putting down roots is not always to do with where we are but who we are with, and that sometimes the grafting of one thing onto another can make something special – and greater than the sum of its part.

There’s also the added delight, as with all of her novels, of effortlessly acquiring fascinating insights into the lives of people in the past and gaining knowledge about a host of new topics. For instance, before reading At the Edge of the Orchard I’d never heard of Calaveras Grove, where giant sequoias were first identified – and had barely heard of Johnny Appleseed before either.

Two days after I finished reading this novel, Calaveras Grove was on the news because its famous Pioneer Cabin tree had come down in a storm on the 8th of January, and I also began reading Alice Hoffman’s Nightbird – which has many references to a family orchard growing Pink apples, started by seeds acquired from Johnny Appleseed. I can feel my brain grow a little whenever I read a Chevalier book, and that’s a feeling I love. It’s what puts her among my top five authors.

What I Didn’t Like

Nothing. My only criticism would be that compared to her other novels, there were fewer dramatic moments; rather than tell Robert’s sister’s story in letters, later on, I would have been inclined to mirror the joint narration of James and Sadie at the beginning and interweave Robert’s sister’s narrative with his in close third person would have added more tension. Catching up in retrospect, with her suffering and adventures glossed over and reduced to veiled brief references, means the middle of the book is not as tense and pacey as it could be.

 

Merry Christmas to Me: My Present Books

Surprise. surprise: the majority of items on my Christmas list this year were books (8 out of 10, in case you’re interested – the other two items were a face cream and Transcendence on Blu-Ray). I was lucky enough to get 7 of my 8 book wishes granted thanks to my husband, my son and my mum.

My Mum bought me the latest Tracey Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard,  a book about a dysfunctional pioneering family settled in an Ohio swamp, plus a Kate Mosse that I was missing from my collection, Eskimo Kissing, a story about adopted twins. They were the only fiction books on my list. and they’re by my two

Kate Mosse and Tracey Chevalier are my two favourite authors, both brilliant at not only characterisation and plot but also immersive settings, meticulous research and beautiful language. I confess I’ve already read At the Edge of the Orchard. I finished it within ten days of Christmas, so a review will be following shortly.

My husband bought me my long-coveted paperback edition of Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note: Correspondence Worthy of a Wider Audience.  I love letters and adored Simon Garfield’s To the Letter: A Curious History of Correspondence – I was lucky enough to go to my first Letters Live event in the autumn of 2016 and I’m determined it won’t be my last.

 

 

 

He also bought me two new books about writing: Susie Kearley’s The Little Book of Freelance Writing: Writing ideas, opportunities, inspiration and success stories,  which I’m sure will be just as useful and inspiring as her Freelance Writing: Aim Higher, Earn More, which I already have, and From Story Idea to Reader by Patsy Collins and Rosemary J Kind.

Finally, he added to my Stephen Fry titles with Paperweight,  a collection of Fry’s articles, columns and essays. I love Stephen’s Fry’s writing – it never fails to be insightful and witty.

My son bought me the third volume of Michael Palin’s diaries, Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-1998.  I’m looking forward to reading this latest volume, not only because diaries are right up there with letters on my literary love list, but also because I’ve read the previous tw0 – and Michael Palin’s writing is simultaneously humorous, fascinating and touching.

I can’t wait to read more of my Christmas books, but as I have books stacking up on Kindle too (far too many New Year bargains!)  and two books that need to go back to the library shortly, I’ll be following a strict regime of interweaving those with the rest of these lovely new titles.

What books did you get for Christmas? 🙂

Six Stories to Send A Shiver Up Your Spine

hiding-woman

If you’re suffering from Halloween withdrawal symptoms, why not spend the rest of the month indulging your spooky ‘n spiritual side with some thrillers and spookers.
Arm yourself with a cuddle blanket and decide which one of these six chilling reads you’ll try first…

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

bird-boxLike dystopian, post-apocalyptic weirdness? Then the book that’s top of my list is the one for you – unless you’re the kind of person who can’t go upstairs to a dark bedroom after watching a horror film…

‘Most people dismissed the reports on the news. But they became too frequent; they became too real. And soon it was happening to people we knew.
Then the Internet died. The televisions and radios went silent. The phones stopped ringing.
And we couldn’t look outside anymore.’

The beauty of this book is its simplicity. We never see the horror, and nor do the main characters… that are still alive. What we do feel, intensely, is the terror of people who daren’t use the sense most of us primarily rely on to orient ourselves and keep us safe – our sight. What happens to a society literally too afraid to look – yet still unaware what they’ll see when they do?

Massively gripping – and probably not a read for a week when you’re feeling stressed. It does its job too well and you live every agonisingly tense, terrifying moment along with the main character.

The Lie by Cally Taylor

the-lieThis is a psychological thriller, but it conveys the characters’ terror and confusion so well that it becomes a borderline horror tale.

It makes us ponder how well any of us can really distinguish between good and evil; how easily we can be persuaded that acting out of character and against our instincts is somehow liberating us; and how hard we find it to believe that someone we trust can do the unthinkable.

Unpredictable, twisty and satisfying – a tale about control and the inability to ever put the past behind us completely. Don’t start reading it without a few hours to put aside!

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

the-winter-ghostsBeautifully written, as are all of Kate Mosse’s novels, this tale of a grief-stricken young man driving through the French Pyrenees to ease his pain and clear his mind is intriguing and atmospheric.

Set between the world wars, it follows Freddie as he spins off the road and stumbles across a small, friendly  village – and a young woman who understands his pain. Yet when he wakes up after a village party, nobody remembers the young woman and everything seems changed. In trying to discover the answer to the mystery and track down the woman, he manages to work through his pain -and hers – and find new meaning in his life.

While not horrific, it’s a spooky read that will haunt you long after you’ve finished it (no pun intended).

Girl Number One by Jane Holland

girl-number-onegripping thriller in which the main character is forced to question everything she sees and everything she trusts – as do we. Unfortunately, so do the police, who aren’t impressed to be called out to retrieve a dead body in the woods, only to find nothing there -and no evidence that there ever has been.

Eleanor must convince them of what she saw, but are they right? Was this sight – and her other paranoid suspicions – merely the result of the grief and trauma she suffered when she witnessed the murder of her mother?

A great read, although occasionally you may find yourself wondering why Eleanor spends so much time with those she suspects.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

Evacuatthe-distant-hoursed from London as a thirteen-year-old girl, Edie’s mother is the chosen evacuee of the mysterious Juniper Blythe, who takes her to live at Millderhurst Castle with the Blythe family. Fifty years later, Edie too is drawn to Milderhurst where the eccentric Blythe sisters are still unmarried and living together in the crumbling castle, including Juniper, whose abandonment by her fiancé in 1941 apparently plunged her into madness.

Inside the decaying castle, Edie begins to unravel her mother’s past, and through time hops, so do we. But which clues are red herrings, and which sister knows – and is prepared to tell – the real truth?

Many reviewers have said this book is far too long and I’ll agree that some scenes could have been combined or deleted to make the book tighter, but I still found its twists, turns and atmosphere compelling. It’s an eerie, tragic story that makes for an entertaining but disturbing read, asking how far we might go to protect our family and keep them near.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

i-let-you-go

How does it feel for a mother to watch her 5-year-old son run into the path of a car when she’s let her attention slip for the tiniest of moments? In a split second, Jenna Gray’s world descends into a nightmare.

She tries to move on, believing that her home, her town and those traumatic memories are the only things she must leave behind to disappear and start afresh. But she’s wrong…

Grief, paranoia… and then discovering that you’re not paranoid, they really are out to get you. This novel belongs to the thriller rather than horror category, but it’s a tense and sometimes terrifying story that’s impossible to describe without revealing spoilers. In between the ‘aaargh!’ moments, it’s also a great story about a fresh start.

scared-manHave you read any of these already – or been inspired to do so by this post? Tell me what you thought of them (and share your own recommendations!)