Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

This book was recommended to me by my cousin as it is about quilting and I loved it. It is set in 1850 and about Honor Bright who leaves England for America to accompany her sister Grace, who is to marry Adam Cox,  who had emigrated earlier. They are Quakers and although she is excited to be starting a new life, the sea journey leaves her exhausted from sea sickness. Then when they arrive tragedy strikes and her sister is stuck down with yellow fever and dies. Honor is alone in a strange land and has to rely on her sister’s intended husband.
But it all does not fare well for her. She makes her way to the small settlement of Oberlin to join Adam Cox and his recently bereaved sister-in-law Abigail. It becomes clear to Honor that she is not truly welcomed by Abigail, and that Adam Cox finds the situation both awkward and difficult to deal with. Honor marries a local man, Jack Haymaker and goes to live with him and his family.

Honor finds a true friend in milliner Belle, although her slave-catcher brother Donovan is not such an ally and displays a unhealthy amount of interest in this quiet and modest Quaker girl. Through her friendship with Belle, Honor soon finds herself involved with the Underground Railroad - a network of people who were sympathetic to runaway slaves who were trying to find freedom in North America or Canada.. The Fugitive Slave Act had been passed and it was illegal to assist a runaway slave, there were heavy penalties to be paid if caught. Quakers were anti-slavery and wanted to assist the runaways, but their moral dilemma was that to do so would be to break the laws of the land. The Haymaker family forbid Honor to assist the runaways, and this is the start of the breakdown in their relationship. Throughout these times, Honor finds some comfort in her quilt-making, she is a fine seamstress and putting together these small pieces of material bring her some peace and make memories for her.

This is not a fast-moving story by any means, it is gently drawn out and each character is formed steadily. Honor, although the lead character, is not the most interesting, she can sometimes appear holier-than-thou and often is portrayed as appearing superior to those around her. Belle, the milliner, on the other hand is a strong, feisty character, a woman who is colourful and interesting with firm principles and morals. Belle's slave-catcher brother Donovan is something of an enigma - on the one hand he is a cruel man, and every now and again, he shows a little vulnerability.

But I thoroughly enjoyed it and couldn't wait to pick it up each day.

I shall read something else by this author, perhaps her most famous, 'Girl with a Pearl Earing'

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Under a Blood Red Sky by Kate Furnivall

In 2013 I  read 75 books!!

Kate Furnivall is a new author to me and so I started reading this book with some trepidations, but I loved it And even better she has written lots more so that pleases me no end. I see a year ahead with loads of good books to read

This was a tale of romance, magic and struggle against tyranny, set in Russia in the mid-1930s. Sofia and Anna have both been imprisoned in a Siberian Labour camp: Anna for her aristocratic background, Sofia for being the daughter of a priest and the niece of a farmer who did too well and thus incurred the State's suspicion. Early in their acquaintance, Anna saves Sofia's life and Sofia vows to do the same for her if needed. So when Anna becomes seriously ill with tuberculosis, Sofia decides to do what seems impossible - to escape the labour camp, and find the one person she believes can bring Anna back to health: Vassily, Anna's childhood sweetheart, who she last saw the day that her father and his parents were shot by the Bolsheviks, many years before. Being blessed with incredible good luck, Sofia escapes the camp and survives a long tramp with virtually no food, until she reaches the small village of Tivil, where she has been tipped off that Vassily is living under an assumed name. She is taken in by a gypsy, Rafik, who has the extraordinary gift of being able to influence people's thoughts and hypnotize them into doing his bidding, and who trusts her from the start. Settled in Rafik's home, Sofia begins to search for Vassily. And thus begins a complicated tale of treachery, mistaken identity, betrayal, true love and magic.

All credit to Furnival, she can tell a 'rattling good yarn', and keep her reader's interest going from start to finish. There was also some interesting material about life in Russia under the Communists . But I wondered if Furnival softened some of the horrors of the Stalinist regime. However, it's not a book that I found bore thinking about too much - if one did try to read it with much concentration, or pondered much on the plot, it began to seem very implausible. For example, if Anna was dying of tuberculosis at the start of the novel, how did she survive for so long (and manage to carry on working, and at one point have strength to attack and kill someone)? If Sofia had been starving in Siberia for so long, would everyone really have been taken aback by her beauty and composure? Why wasn't Sofia more frightened, after all she'd been through? Why did she and Mikhail fall so quickly in love? Why did Mikhail suddenly become so swashbuckling? What was Fomenko actually up to? And I felt that Rafik the hypnotizing gypsy tended to turn up in the nick of time rather too often, and that the supernatural elements in the novel seemed to sit slightly uneasily with the rest - I know that superstition and belief in magic are very much part of Russian folk culture, but it was rather clumsily handled here, particularly the material about 'the magic stone' But in spite of these short comings it was a good read and I liked it a lot, so much so that I am now reading another book by her, this time set in Malaya.

Monday, 9 December 2013

And The Moutains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Having thoroughly enjoyed Hosseini's former books - The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns - I harboured the suspicion that he could not pull it off again. Oh what little faith I had, 'And The Mountains Echoed' is an excellent book and I am confident that readers will not be disappointed.

Set mainly in Afghanistan, the story starts with a poor farming family, barely able to feed themselves. The father's brother-in-law works for a rich couple who are unable to have children themselves. In exchange for his daughter, they will offer money so that the father is able to feed the rest of his family. He succumbs to this temptation and so starts the interweaving of the different generations and to the finale leading to a family reunion.

Hosseini has the ability keep the reader's attention - although in some ways it might have been helpful to have a `cast list' - but I made my own for fear of losing someone on the way! Both at the beginning and throughout the book the reader is introduced to many different people and it was not always easy to know/remember who they were and how they were related. I do fear that part of this difficulty was created by me - I was so enjoying the book and wanting to know what happened next, that I fear I rushed some sections.

Towards the end of the book, a new character is introduced, the son of a warlord who suddenly realises that the village is frightened of his father and his power rather than admiring him as he built schools and clinics for the local villagers. And his son discovers the truth, his father stole the land and was a drug baron - how could he live with that truth? I would have liked to see this developed - perhaps another book? But it is a moving vignette and deserved a few more pages

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

                     What would you do if you found a letter from your husband to you, but with the note to say only to be opened after his death?  Cecelia is in their loft looking for a piece of the ‘Berlin Wall’ for her daughter who wants to delve into this!! (I thought that was a bit ridiculous!)

She is immediately intrigued and when she speaks to her husband who is away on a business trip and mentions it, he is obviously uncomfortable and asks her not to open it.. she has already put it safe and unopened. Her suspicions that it is something quite serious are alerted as he arrives home three days early from his trip. She doesn’t give him the letter but says she has just put it back although she hasn’t. And it is left, but when she hears him in the loft after they have gone to bed and he thinks she is asleep, she knows he is desperate to find it. Of course then she opens it and her life is turned upside down by the contents Also central to the story are Tess O'Leary, whose marriage has just broken up, and Rachel Crowley who is still grieving the loss of her only daughter after 28 years. It is necessary to  mention Tess and Rachel as I did wonder at the start whether I was reading a different book to what I thought I had purchased, but it soon becomes apparent that they are linked; they just don't realise it at the start of the story.

You can really feel for the characters throughout the story - Cecelia who does not know what to do for the best when it comes to John-Paul's letter, Tess who is trying to come to terms with her own husband's revelation and Rachel who is still angry at the circumstances of her daughter's death. There is someone to relate to. The story does a good job of creating suspense and making you feel sympathetic towards the main characters. I will admit that I had suspected the twist (as in, it was one of a few possibilities I had considered once I was getting into the story), but it did not make it any less shocking and the twist is established about halfway through so there are plenty of things happening before the story's climax.

A great read which only took a few days to read and was extremely difficult to put down.

After the Fall by Charity Norman

        The opening lines are of Finn falling from the balcony, his little body disappearing into the dark and then the thud as he hit the ground. Beautifully described giving the reader the full impact of the fall; quite startling.

 The McNamara family consists of Martha and her husband Kit, Martha's daughter Sacha and the twins Finn and Charlie. From the outside they look like the perfect family; Sacha is a talented musician, clever and popular at school. The twins are cute bundles of energy and life. Martha, an occupational therapist is close to her family and in love with the handsome and charming Kit. But scratch the surface and the picture isn't quite so sunny; Kit has recently lost his well paid job and the family is under pressure as he tries to face his demons. As crisis hits, the family seek a new beginning in New Zealand but although their new life might seem like paradise, the tensions soon begin to grow again.

Martha wanted the best for her family hence the move from England to New Zealand. But not it seems for Sacha her 16 year old daughter who dislikes the move, where they live and her school, a typical difficult teenager. Kit is an artist and the move is to help his career.

We don’t know how and why Finn fell and Martha’s explanation that he sleep walks doesn’t ring true and nor does it to the Drs in the hospital. The story has many twists and turns. The rail on the balcony was too high for Finn to just fall. The true story doesn’t come out till right at the end. 

This book raises the question of how far would a mother go to protect her family. This book had so many facets and would be a good read for reading groups, as there is so much to discuss ranging through topics of substance abuse and dependency, emigration and its impacts, parenting choices and the pursuit of a dream lifestyle.  
I would certainly recommend this..  I couldn’t out it down and sat up into the early hours reading. 
It was the second book I have read by Charity Norman and she is now on my list of favourite authors. I loved it so much that I left  a message on the FB page and she answered! Wa-hooo!!

Other books read by Charity Norman:- Freeing Grace; The Son in Law.

A Song for jenny by Julie Nicholson

In 2012 I read 67 books plus the  Bible and various other sewing, quilting and gardening books..

This is one of the first books I read in 2013 and what a book!

`A Song for Jenny ` is a mother's account of her life for five weeks and six days - from a beautiful summer’s  morning until her daughter Jenny’s funeral.
It started with a phone call, interrupting her holiday in the family holiday home on Anglesey, from her other daughter to say that Jenny wasn’t answering her phone and that there had been some explosions in London that morning.
At first they all held the hope that Jenny was busy at work and couldn’t answer her phone. But her boyfriend could get her on the phone either and her office reported that she hadn’t arrived. Julie and the family found out four days after that morning, that suicide bombers had taken the life of Julie's daughter. 51 other innocent people also lost their lives and many were injured and maimed on that summer morning July 8th in 2005 
The book is so descriptive and beautifully written, that I could have been standing in Julie's shoes looking out of the window that morning watching the birds and remembering family holidays gone by; but then, of course, she takes us with her into the waiting, the hope, despair, the anger, the disbelief and the guilt for being so focused on the one child who had gone. Julie's description of the pain and longing is heart wrenching to read but with equal skill brings Jenny to life on the page; this beautiful and vivacious daughter. Even though the account concludes with Jenny's funeral, the reader knows that Julie must have Jenny very securely in her heart to have written this and that gives us hope.
That a mother can survive the loss of her daughter in such terrible circumstances and go on to write such a moving account of the experience is an inspiration to us all.
Once I started reading this book I couldn’t put it down and there were many times when my eyes filled with tears. Even though you know the outcome, I recommend that this book is worth reading, because until you do you can never understand or realise the actual effects that these dreadful acts have on those who remain behind after a loved one is taken so suddenly

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Sea of Tranquility by Katya Millay

Every now and then I come across a book that is fat full of words! I know all books have words but these full of words books, as I call them delve right into the characters thoughts and we have an insight into them that doesn't always happen in other books. The Sea of Tranquility is one of these.

It is  told through a dual narrative of Nastya and Josh, the two main characters of this story. At the beginning of the story, Nastya is just registering at new school; she is an elective mute and thoroughout the book the reason why she is like this slowly becomes apparent.
She delibrately choses to wear very short skirts, low revealing tops and high heels and black goth makeup. It's as though she is saying, you can look at me but I don't care.

Even though Nastya doesn't talk, it doesn't stop her from gaining the attention of Drew, one of the really popular guys at school. He doesn't ever take no for an answer and when they go to a party together and she gets very drunk, Drew drops her off at his friend Josh's house. Previous to this, Josh and Nastya had a moment in the school court yard, just looking at each other, but they don't know each other. After Josh looks after her, the pair end up with a very strange kind of relationship. Josh loves to build things and is often found in his garage, making something or other out of wood. Seemingly fascinated, Nastya turns up nearly every night, sitting on the side and watching him work, without a word. She arrives there the first time after almost getting lost late at night when she was out running, something she feels she has to do to rid herself of the horrors in her mind.
I absolutely loved both Drew and Josh. As the second narrator, we get to know Josh very well. Unlike Nastya, whose problems are kept under wraps, Josh's life is not such a mystery. Josh is emancipated due to his whole family being dead. He lives on his own and has problems with letting people get too close to him. However, Josh was an absolute sweetheart and he made my heart melt a little bit. Even though he is lovely, Josh still speaks out about certain things and isn't afraid to speak out to  poeple, especially Nastya. It was also interesting to see both the relationship he and Nastya had with Drew and also how they were so different.

I would never have guessed that this was a debut novel. Katja Millay's writing, and her story, is absolutely stunning. I can't remember the last time I read such an amazingly beautiful book that I just couldn't put down. Not only are Millay's characters so interesting and deep, but the story is addictive. I wanted to know the story behind Nastya and her problems. I loved watching Nastya and Josh trust each other more and more with every passing day. I couldn't help but love the secondary characters, who are such a big part of this book.It's not until the last part that we find out where Nastya's Sea Of Tranquility is, I won't say here as I don't want to spoil it for you.
As this is a young adult story it is  not the sort of book I would normally read but I wouldn't have missed reading this book, the depth of characterisation was amazing and I loved Josh!