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.


Six Stories to Send A Shiver Up Your Spine


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


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


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: The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain


silent sisterA library borrow. 🙂

About the Author (abridged version of her official bio):

Diane Chamberlain is the  bestselling author of 24 novels including Necessary Lies, The Silent Sister, The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, and TheKeeper of the Light Trilogy. Diane likes to write complex stories about relationships of all kinds with strong elements of mystery and intrigue. Her background in psychology has given her a keen interest in understanding the way people tick, as well as the background necessary to create her realistic characters.

Diane was born and raised in New Jersey and also lived for many years in San Diego, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in clinical social work from San Diego State University and northern Virginia, where she also ran a private psychotherapy practice specialising in adolescents. While she worked in hospitals in San Diego and Washington, D.C. she began writing on the side. Her first book, Private Relations, was published in 1989 and earned the RITA award for Best Single Title Contemporary Novel.

Diane now lives in North Carolina with her partner, photographer John Pagliuca, and her sheltie, Cole. She has three stepdaughters, two sons-in-law, and four grandchildren. 

About the Book:

Riley MacPherson has spent her entire life believing that her older sister Lisa, a brilliant violinist, committed suicide as a teenager.  Now, over twenty years later, her father has passed away and she’s back in New Bern, North Carolina to clear out his house, reforge a bond with her brother – and to discover that nothing from that last twenty years is quite what it seems…

As Riley works to uncover the truth, her discoveries will put into question everything she thought she knew about her family. What will she do with her newfound reality?

What I liked:

Everything. I was only sorry I hadn’t come across her before! 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 backstory is handled really well, as much of it is revealed to the main character, Riley, as the plot twists and turns; and any other necessary exposition is well-woven into the narrative. The settings are atmospheric and used to enhance the story, with descriptions never lasting so long that you find yourself skipping down the page. 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.

What I wasn’t so keen on:

Absolutely nothing.


Book Review: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult Leaving Time

A library borrow 🙂

About the author (from official bio):

Jodi Picoult is the author of twenty-four internationally bestselling novels, including My Sister’s Keeper,  and The Storyteller. She has also co-written two YA books with her daughter Samantha van Leer.

She studied creative writing with Mary Morris at Princeton, and had two short stories published in Seventeen magazine while still a student. Realism – and a profound desire to be able to pay the rent – led her to a series of different jobs after graduation, and she worked as a Wall Street technical writer, a copywriter, a textbook editor and an 8th grade English teacher before entering Harvard to pursue a master’s in education. She married Tim Van Leer, whom she had known at Princeton, and it was while she was pregnant with her first child that she wrote her first novel, Songs of the Humpback Whale.

Four of her books have been made into TV movies and My Sister’s Keeper was a cinema release. She has received numerous awards and now lives in New Hampshire with her husband, three children and a menagerie of animals.

About the book:

Jenna Metcalf was with her mother, Alice, the night she disappeared, but she remembers nothing about it – and nor does her father, as far as she can tell. He is in an asylum and unable to help her understand what happened. Now, Jenna lives with her grandmother, who finds it too painful to talk about what happened, and the world of the elephant sanctuary where she was raised is just a memory.

Ten years on, Jenna is the only one who still seems to care; to wonder and worry, trying to fit the pieces together. With  no family to help her, she must get some unlikely helpers on-side in the shape of a washed-up psychic, Serenity, and the police officer who has done all he can to put the night of Jenna’s mother’s disappearance behind him.

What I liked:

I loved the way the story alternates between the viewpoints of Alice, Jenna, Serenity and Virgil, and merged the lessons learned about elephants, memory, loss and grieving into the story that surrounds these characters. As with all the Jodi Picoult books I’ve read, the story is clever, although the pace is a little slow to start with. However, the tension is maintained and the language is understatedly elegant.

Every main character had a strongly individual voice and I became completely engrossed in the story of each of them, hoping passionately for a happy outcome for them all. The information about elephants was fascinating and integral to the plot points (although see below).

And finally… the twist. It made me stop, go back a little and read on again, just to make sure I’d understood. It’s not a massively original idea, but I didn’t expect it in this story – or in any JP novel; I thought I knew exactly what I was getting in terms of the book’s quest, so it was a surprise.

What I wasn’t so keen on:

Not much, although Virgil was a little stereotypical as the ‘damaged cop’ who drinks too much and has let himself go, and there were one or two points where the book felt a teensy bit too preachy and intense on the subject of elephants and how they’re treated, particularly in the first half of the book. I think the editor needed to be a little more zealous here.

I suspect there will be people out there who don’t like the ending of this book, feeling it’s much less grounded in normal human lives than a usual Picoult wrap-up (I can’t explain in more detail without spoilers!). I thought it was clever, though, and found it believable in the context of a belief system I don’t believe in – i.e. it’s no different, for me, than reading a book in which a character is healed by their belief in Christianity. Just because I don’t believe that can happen, doesn’t mean I can’t read a book in which it supposedly does.

Overall, for me, a big fat winner! 🙂


Book Review: The Taxidermist’s daughter by Kate Mosse

I’ve read all of Kate Mosse’s fiction (with the exception of Eskimo Kissing). I borrowed Crucifix Lane  from the library years ago, yet didn’t put two and two together when I was hooked by the blurb of Labyrinth. It was only when I was describing Crucifix Lane to someone, desperately trying to remember its author and title, that I did a web search for its plot points – and discovered the book I was remembering was by Kate Mosse (and yes, I’ve learnt my lesson and now write down everything I read!).

And because I’ve read all of them and loved every one, naturally her latest novel, The Taxidermist’s Daughter, was at the top of my Christmas list.

By Patryk Korzeniecki (Patrol110) via Wikimedia Commons

The Taxidermist’s Daughter is not a timeslip novel; it is set in the village of Fishbourne in Surrey, in 1812. Its story is not told by any of the characters involved in the event that is central to the book.

And yet... it kind of is a timeslip novel. The chief narrator, Connie, does slip through time now and then; but rather than slipping into the life of a person in the past, as she might do if she were a character in Kate’s Languedoc Trilogy, she slips into her own past – a past she can barely remember.

Because 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.

She also doesn’t understand why her father is tormented and retreats into the bottle, and why he gathers with other men in the graveyard at night. Why is she being watched, and is the dead girl washed up near the bottom of her garden just a coincidence? What surely can’t be a coincidence is that when her father goes missing, Dr.Woolston, the father of her new friend Harry, goes missing too – after signing an erroneous death certificate for the dead girl in Connie’s garden.

It’s this loss of memory and bewilderment at the strange events taking place in the present that make Connie the perfect narrator of the story. We begin to put the pieces together as Connie does, although we have the advantage of brief, enigmatic glimpses into the lives of other characters that help us begin to guess at the truth before she does.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a story of guilt, revenge, loyalty, love, loss and long-kept secrets. From the start, it reminded me of a Dickens novel; the vividly depicted  marches and graveyard, the revelation of an old secret, people not being where or whom we expect them to be, and the names of characters and places that resonate so strongly with their role in the story. Could Crowther have had any other name, as he watches and waits for his moment? Could Blackthorn House have been called anything else? I think not. Connie’s father certainly has a metaphorical thorn in his side and yet, like Connie, we spend our time hoping, as the layers are pulled back and we get closer to the kernel of truth, that we’re being misdirected and her father is innocent of any wrongdoing.

In an interview in the Guardian in 2014, Mosse said she no longer wrote literary fiction: “I realised that I should have listened to myself sooner. My skill is storytelling, not literary fiction.”

Much as I hate to disagree with someone whose work I admire so much, I think she’s wrong. I’m not keen on the literary distinction anyway, but it’s possible to tell a great story while using beautiful and well-crafted language to do so. I know this because Kate does it so well – and she has done it again with this novel. The gothic, foreboding tone is set right from the start by her opening paragraph:

Midnight. in the graveyard of the church of St Peter and St Mary, men gather in silence on the edge of the drowned marshes.
Watching. Waiting.

Her blending of description with narrative is masterful, too, setting the scene simply and vividly:

The rain strikes the black umbrellas and cloth caps of the farm workers and dairymen and blacksmiths. Dripping down between neck and collar, skin and cloth. No one speaks.

Literary devices? Hmm, I’d say she can use a few. I’ll let you pick out the assortment contained in just this paragraph – and we’re still only on the first page:

It is a custom that has long since fallen away in most parts of Sussex, but not here. Not here, where the saltwater estuary flows put to the sea. Not here, in the shadow of the Old Salt Mill and the burnt-out remains of Farhill’s Mill, its rotting timbers revealed at low tide. Here, the old superstitions still hold sway.

The drama of the final scenes, the wildness of the weather, the isolation of the village and Blackthorn House, and the bittersweet twist when the truth is revealed, make this 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. I won’t say effortlessly blended, because this kind of excellence requires a great deal of effort – effort that, thankfully, Kate Mosse seems willing and very capable of putting in.

Fabulous! 9/10