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!)

 

 

My Library Picks for October

library-books-23rd-oct-2016

Although I still have a few books left from my last library haul, I had to return some yesterday – and there was the Quick Pick table with some appealing new titles on it… and the cold dark winter days and nights stretching ahead…

So what made me pick these 6 gems? My criteria for books changes all the time, depending on my mood and what’s going on; a while ago I was reading every thriller I could lay my hands on, but lately I’ve been veering more towards historicals and lighter reads. I also have different criteria for books I borrow rather than commit to purchasing – partly because I very, very rarely buy myself a physical book. I normally produce a long wish list on birthdays and at Christmas time!

Currently, I’m after a mix of:

  • lighter reads that must have something about them that appeals; interesting location, sub-plot, an author whose work I already enjoy. I like romcoms, but there has to be something extra about one that catches my attention, as it’s a genre that’s bursting at the seams. I wouldn;t know where to start, otherwise!
  • stories with a bit more depth; I choose them because I think I’m going to learn something about myself or perhaps a place, career, lifestyle or a period in history.
  • books that don’t fit either of these categories, but there’s just a feature that grabs me. It could be the cover, the language used in the blurb or an intriguing idea.

What I’m not in the mood for at the moment is anything too tense, dark or heavy. So with all this in mind, I perused the Quick Pick table…

First, I scooped up A Christmas Cracker by Trisha Ashley. Life’s been a bit stressful lately and it seems set to continue what way for a while, so Christmas is the last thing on my mind – and I’m a long way from feeling any pre-festive excitement.

Life’s been a bit stressful lately and it seems set to continue what way for a while, so Christmas is the last thing on my mind – and I’m a long way from feeling any pre-festive excitement. I’m hoping that when I’m in the right frame of mind, this might help me get in the mood. I’m not there yet, but I’m hoping I will be in a few weeks’ time. I’ve not read a Trisha Ashley yet, but there’s much talk of how brilliant her books are, so a no-brainer!

The Book of Lost and Found by Lucy Foley

I’ve heard positive mutterings about this book – and it’s got book in the title! Put book, bookshop, diary or letter in the title and you have me at, well, the cover. I read the blurb, though, just to make sure it met my criteria. It mentioned foreign locations (Corsica and Paris), two different time periods – one within my lifetime and one pre-WW2 – and had a family mystery at its core. I was convinced.

Next, I picked Cecelia Ahern’s The Year I Met You.

I’ve read a few of Cecelia’s books already and they’re a great mix of soul-searching, wisdom, humor and compulsive plotting. The characters are so well-drawn and realistic that they could be people who have always cropped up in my life. What’s not to love.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

I felt almost guilty for picking this up; it would probably have gone on my Christmas list this year and nearly did last year, but the list was getting too long! However, if it blows my socks off and I think I’m likely to read it again, I’ll still want to own a copy.

A foreign location, a historical period I’m fond of, the intriguing notion of a doll’s house whose inhabitants and happenings are somehow related to real life people and events… how I’ve left it so long to read it, I don’t know.

I was done with the Quick Pick table at this point; most of the other books that appealed to me were ones I’d ready already! So I went hunting for a new Diane Chamberlain on the fiction shelves because I’ve read two of hers now and I’m addicted. Like Jodi Picoult, she likes to punch you in the chest with life’s big questions and issues while assuring you that you can survive them.

Secret Lives by Diane Chamberlain

In the interests of fairness, I have to tell you this was the only Diane Chamberlain book in our tiny-but-perfectly-formed library that I hadn’t read. However, the main character is trying to discover more about her dead mother, who was an author – and she enlists the help of an archaeologist. See those wonderful purple words there? Love ’em. Love reading about ’em. Even wrote a novel about an archaeologist once (who had a dead mother too, strangely). If I didn’t have dodgy knees, I could well have been tempted to be an archaeologist.

It was nearly time to leave the library with my 5 book haul, but to do that I had to pass – oh, woe! – the sale trolley. Although this week it’s mainly full of children’s books, there was a smattering of adult fiction too, including…

Cecelia Ahern, The Time of My Life

Are you taking your life for granted? Lucy Silchester is. She’s busied herself with other stuff: friends’ lives, work issues, her deteriorating car, that kind of thing. But she’s stuck in a rut – and deluding everyone. Only Lucy knows the real truth.

Time for a wake-up call – a meeting with life. And life turns out to be a kindly, rather run-down man in an old suit, who is determined to bring about change.

A-ha! A book about someone stuck in a rut. Haven’t I told you before how much I love books about fresh starts and dramatic life changes? And haven’t I just told you I love Cecelia Ahern?
Out came a 50p and reader, I married it. Bought it. I mean bought it.

That’s me sorted for a while on the book front. Expect some book reviews shortly! 🙂

Book Review: Ivy Lane by Cathy Bramley

ivy-lane

Another Quick Pick from the library.

About the Author

From her site:

Cathy is the author of the best-selling romantic comedies Ivy Lane, Appleby Farm, Conditional Love, Wickham Hall and The Plumberry School Of Comfort Food. She lives in a small Nottinghamshire village with her family and Pearl, the Cockerpoo.

Her recent career as a full-time writer of light-hearted romantic fiction has come as somewhat of a lovely surprise after spending eighteen years running her own marketing agency. However, she has always been an avid reader, hiding her book under the duvet and reading by torchlight. Never without a book on the go, she now thinks she may have found her dream job! She loves to hear from her readers.

www.CathyBramley.co.uk
Facebook.com/CathyBramleyAuthor
twitter.com/CathyBramley

About the Book

From the book blurb:

From spring to summer, autumn to winter, a lot can happen in a single year . . .

Tilly Parker needs a fresh start, fresh air and a fresh attitude if she is ever to leave the past behind and move on with her life. As she seeks out peace and quiet in a new town, taking on a plot at Ivy Lane allotments seems like the perfect solution. But the friendly Ivy Lane community has other ideas and gradually draw Tilly into their cosy, comforting world of planting seedlings, organizing bake sales and planning seasonal parties.

As the seasons pass, will Tilly learn to stop hiding amongst the sweetpeas and let people back into her life – and her heart?

A charming and romantic story certain to make you smile – perfect for fans of Carole Matthews, Trisha Ashley and Katie Fforde.

What I liked:

While Ivy Lane has many great comedy moments, it also has a deeper, darker plot strand, and for a long time, we’re left unsure as to the exact nature of the trauma that Tilly’s left behind her. These two contrasting tones help to make the story more realistic – like the Queen song says, into every life, a little rain must fall – and allows it to tug on the heartstrings. And yes, I even had a snivel at one point.

As I may have mentioned before, I’m a sucker for a story about new starts, so this tale of Tilly’s allotment and how it reflects her attempt to rebuild her life while simultaneously hiding from it is a winner for me. I also liked the fact that there was a sense of closure for the characters; I wasn’t haunted by worries about what had happened to X or Y. The supporting cast are well drawn, likeable characters, with one exception….

What I Didn’t Like

Charlie. He’s my only gripe. There were just a couple of points when the behaviour of this potential love interest didn’t seem quite consistent, but I can’t say any more without spoilers.

Overall: A very enjoyable read. I’ll be looking out for more of Cathy’s titles.

Book Review: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

the-little-paris-bookshop

 

A library borrow from the Quick Pick section.

About The Author 
(abridged from her author bio on her site)

Born 1973 in Bielefeld, Germany, Nina George is a prize-winning, bestselling author and freelance journalist who has published 26 books (novels, mysteries and non-fiction) , over 100 short stories and more than 600 columns. In 2011, she established the “JA zum Urheberrecht” (YES on Author’s Rights) initiative, which supports the rights of authors and artists, and in August 2014, initiated the protest in Germany (www.fairer-buchmarkt.de) in which over 2000 German-speaking authors joined her to protest against Amazon’s ban of books from Hachette/Bonnier.

In 2013, her first bestselling book, ‘Das Lavendelzimmer’ (The Little Paris Bookshop), was translated into 30 languages and sold more than 800,000 copies. Today, Nina George sits on the board of the Three Seas Writers’ and Translators’ Council (TSWTC) and is the official advisor on authors’ rights for German PEN. She also teaches writing and coaches professional authors.

www.nina-george.com

About the Book

Jean Perdu is a Paris bookseller with a difference; his bookshop is not on a street but on a barge on the Seine, and 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.

What I Liked:

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.

What I Didn’t Like:

It was a little slow at the beginning and rather hard-going; I hadn’t noticed it was a translation, but within the first few pages I strongly suspected that was the case and checked! There are a few odd and quite stilted phrases, particularly in the first few chapters, and these early chapters could have done with a sharper edit to quickly establish the situation and get on with the story. It’s worth sticking with it, though. 🙂