Monthly Archives: August 2015

Great opening paragraph 76… ‘Jack Maggs’ #amwriting #FirstPara

Peter Carey“It was a Saturday night when the man with the red waistcoat arrived in London. It was, to be precise, six of the clock on the fifteenth of April in the year of 1837 that those hooded eyes looked out the window of the Dover coach and beheld, in the bright aura of gas light, a golden bull and an overgrown mouth opening to devour him – the sign of his inn, the Golden Ox.”
‘Jack Maggs’ by Peter Carey 

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
Sea Glass’ by Anita Shreve 
Such a Long Journey’ by Rohinton Mistry 
Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte 

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Book review: Did You Ever Have a Family

bill cleggEveryone by now must know the premise of this novel by New York literary agent Bill Clegg. A vacation home explodes, a family is wiped out. This is the story of those who remain, of grief, of memories and regret, of resentments and prejudice.

This is a very affecting novel, it feels almost voyeuristic, invading the privacy of those who are grieving. It is clear that Bill Clegg writes from the heart, from his own experience, not only of grief but of the Connecticut landscape, the setting, and the secondary theme of drug use. This novel is a study of how ordinary life can be torn apart by tragedy, so mind-blowing that the irrelevance of real life must stop. But daily life doesn’t stop, not really, day follows night, as June discovers as she drives from east to west coast.

This is one of those books I will buy as hardback. I want to keep it, and re-read it often.
To read more about how Bill Clegg writes, click here.

If you like Did You Ever Have a Family, try this:-
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
If I Knew You were Going to be this Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel

‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ by Bill Clegg [UK: Jonathan Cape] Buy now

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Book review: The Killing Lessons

Saul BlackThis intense thriller by Saul Black opens with a murder particularly tough to read because it features a woman and her two children at an isolated farmhouse. Why is it so horrible? The three are vulnerable, the countryside seems threatening, the snowy landscape is forbidding, and there seems no escape.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I enjoyed the story and the efficient writing, I disliked the scenes of violence and skipped past them. The two killers are cold, ceaseless, unforgiving and unstoppable.

There are three story strands: the killers and their psychological battle for power; the daughter Nell, who flees and takes shelter; and the homicide detective Valerie Hart, troubled, alone, regretting a broken relationship [don’t all detectives these days?].

This book is more than its violence, more interesting are the predicament of Nell, and Valerie’s reaction to the appearance of her ex-lover. All three story strands are about trust: betraying it, losing it, and learning to trust again.

If you like The Killing Lessons, try:-
Wolf by Mo Hayder
Eeny Meeny by MJ Arlidge
Wilderness by Campbell Hart

‘The Killing Lessons’ by Saul Black [UK: Orion] Buy now

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Book review: The House at the Edge of the World

Julia RochesterThe premise of this book by Julia Rochester is great. One night, on his way home from the pub, Morwenna and Corwen’s father stops to pee over the cliff edge. And falls. Their lives are never the same again.

The house of the title is the Venton family home on the Devon coastline, and this book is imbued with the history of this family, woven together with real family stories, family myths of things that may have happened, and coastal history. The twins’ grandfather, Matthew, is something of a recluse, working on the family history and painting an enormous map of the local area. Cameos of local places, people and events are featured on the map. Again and again, as the twins grow up [they are 18 when the story starts] they each run away to different places. Finally events draw them back to their childhood home, their grandfather and his map, as if drawn by a magnet and still wondering what really happened to their father.

I grew up by the seaside, and the town where they live is drawn so clearly the memories flooded back: the beach huts, the seagulls, the cliff top paths, the dropped ice cream cones. Morwenna and Corwen are difficult characters to connect to, but fascinating, and I was drawn into their stories. For the first half of the book, I wasn’t sure where it was going, but then the narrative speeded up and I couldn’t put it down. I had a faint idea of what may happen, but was surprised by the ending which is something that [at the beginning] I thought would never occur. The writing is atmospheric, the details about Morwenna’s book binding were mesmerising. The author doesn’t shy away from writing about the dark thoughts that real people think but don’t admit to, and this adds depth to an intriguing ‘what if’ story. If you like your characters to be ‘nice’, don’t read this.

A fascinating and unusual story.
For more about Julia Rochester, click here for her website.

If you like this, try:-
‘Elizabeth is Missing’ by Emma Healey
‘Kings and Queens’ by Terry Tyler
‘The Ballroom’ by Anna Hope

‘The House at the Edge of the World’ by Julia Rochester [UK: Viking]

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Book review: The Black Tower

PD JamesA sinister mystery this by PD James, partly location, and partly the feeling that Dalgliesh is not operating at the full capacity of his deductive powers. He has been ill and goes to Dorset to convalesce, to visit an elderly friend. His love and energy for detecting are muted, there are hints he may not continue.

On arrival in Dorset he finds his friend, Father Baddeley has died. Dalgliesh is inevitably drawn into the daily life at Toynton Hall, the care home at which the Father was chaplain. All is not as it seems. Baddeley’s was not the first death. But Dalgliesh looks at clues and is unusually reticent, unmotivated, tired.

This is an intricate story set in a strange community with overtones of religious fervour, financial difficulties, disabilities not clearly explained, relationships tangled, past stories and resentments lurking beneath the surface.

I am re-reading PD James in order and with this, the fifth in the series, she seems to be getting into the rhythm which those familiar with the last of the Dalgliesh books will recognise. Dalgliesh is oddly denuded in this book, giving us an insight into his character we have not have seen before, we see beneath the professional face: he has been ill, is tired, less patient, and the mask of his profession sometimes slips. Fascinating, a hint of the detective into which he will evolve in the later books.

Read my reviews of the previous four Dalgliesh mysteries:-
Cover Her Face #1
A Mind to Murder #2
Unnatural Causes #3
Shroud for a Nightingale #4

If you like crime fiction, try these:-
‘Eeny Meeny’ by MJ Arlidge
‘Wilderness’ by Campbell Hart
‘Dead Simple’ by Peter James

‘The Black Tower’ by PD James, Adam Dalgliesh #5 [UK: Faber] Buy now

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Book review: The Invasion of the Tearling

Erika JohansenThe action from book one of this trilogy by Erika Johansen continues straight on page one, so read the first book before you open this one. At the end of The Queen of the Tearling, the neighbouring countries Tearling and Mort were on the verge of war. But author Johansen throws in a curve ball, Queen Kelsea is having visions, of a woman called Lily in what looks very like 21st century New York, with a twist. So, is this where we learn the Tearling’s Pre-Crossing history, things hinted at in book one? Yes, and no.

I was left with unanswered questions – is Kelsea related to Lily? Who is Jonathan Tearling? Was there more than one ship to cross the ocean, and cross from where to where? This has left me ready, now, to read book three. I will have to wait.

Kelsea is not just having visions of Lily, but of moments in history such as the sinking of a Crossing vessel and the drowning of its passengers. And she seems able to hurt the evil and heal the sick. Is it magic, or the power of her sapphires? And where did they come from? Is it the sapphires doing the magic, or is she channelling her own magic through the jewels?

Kelsea is no longer a teenager girl, she is the Queen and must handle power while learning to be a woman and a leader. How should she wield her power, and who can she trust?

Meanwhile, the Mort army advances.

Read my review of The Queen of the Tearling, the first in Erika Johansen’s three-book series, here.

No word yet on the title or publication date for the third and final instalment.

If you like The Invasion of the Tearling, try:-
The Ship by Antonia Honeywell
In Ark by Lisa Devaney
‘Divergent’ by Veronica Roth

‘The Invasion of the Tearling’ by Erika Johansen, Tearling #2 [UK: Bantam Press] Buy now

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Book review: A Little Life

a little life by hanua yanagihara 4-6-15

This book by Hanya Yanagihara made me cry and I feel inadequate to describe it. It opens with two friends – Jude and Willem – moving into a tiny apartment in New York. They are at the beginning of their careers and A Little Life is their story and that of their two friends Malcolm and JB. A lawyer, an actor, an artist and an architect.

The spine of the book is Jude’s life, his horrific childhood makes him the man he is though his friends know nothing of his early years. Yanagihara stretches out the telling of Jude’s secrets for the whole of the book – and it is a long book – to the point where my imagination went into overdrive. Gradually, we learn what he is hiding. I felt sympathy for Jude, but also irritation, impatience and admiration. This is an epic book full of love, pain, honesty, concealment and brutality.

Sometimes the brutality will shock you, it did me, although the worst of it is not expressed on the page – like the most effective of dramatic murders, it happens off stage and is left to the reader’s imagination. There is art and theatre and New York life, but mostly the novel is about the four men, their highs and lows, wins and losses, laughter and squabbles, in at times small daily detail; backed up by a sterling cast of supporters [Harold the law professor; Andy, the doctor; Lucien, the lawyer; Richard, the neighbour and artist]. Not many women, though I did not feel the absence.

The story moves forward chronologically, with darts into the past as Jude remembers. It is about abuse, cruelty and pain, so harsh that you wonder how a person could survive. The answer, is love.

If you like A Little Life, try:-
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
If I Knew You Were going to be This Beautiful by Judy Chicurel

‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara [UK: Picador] Buy now

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A poem to read in the bath… ‘Oxfam’

I read this glimpse at the detritus of life and I am standing in my local Oxfam shop. Another great offering from Carol Ann Duffy.



Because of copyright restrictions I am unable to reproduce the poem in full, but please search it out in an anthology or at your local library.

A silvery, pale-blue satin tie, freshwater in sunlight, 50p.
Charlotte Rhead, hand-painted oval bowl, circa 1930, perfect
for apples , pears, oranges a child’s hand takes without
a second thought, £80. Rows of boots marking time, £4.
Shoes like history lessons, £1.99. That jug, 30p, to fill with milk.”

A reminder that in today’s world of excess, one person’s cast-offs can be another person’s treasure.

For Carol Ann Duffy’s website, click here.
Click here for Sheer Poetry, an online poetry resource, by the poets themselves, for all poetry lovers from general readers to schoolchildren.
Why did Duffy write a poem about a charity shop, click here to read a story from The Mirror explaining why.

Carol Ann Duffy


‘The Bees’ by Carol Ann Duffy [UK: Picador] 

Read these other excerpts and find a new poet to love:-
‘On Turning Ten’ by Billy Collins
‘Elegy of a Common Soldier’ by Dennis B Wilson
‘Alone’ by Dea Parkin

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Favourite Lines from Favourite Books: Swallows and Amazons

page - swallows and amazons 27-7-15“I should have been sorry to lose the old box, because it’s been with me all over the world. And I should have lost the book I’ve been writing all summer in spite of the efforts of Nancy and Peggy to make any writing impossible. Never any of you start writing books. It isn’t worth it. This summer has been harder work for me than all the thirty years of knocking up and down that went before it. And if those scoundrels had got away with the box I could never have done it again.”

Captain Flint, on the return of his manuscript Mixed Moss [excerpt from Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome]

To see why my old copy of Swallows and Amazons [below] is important to me, click hereSwallows and Amazons - book cover 13-3-14

Swallows and Amazons


‘Swallows and Amazons’ by Arthur Ransome [UK: Vintage Children’s Classics] Buy now

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Book review: Casting Off

Elizabeth Jane HowardJuly 1945. Hugh Cazalet, after the death of his wife Sybil, now suffers another loss as Miss Pearson, his secretary for 23 years, resigns. But the end of the European war is in sight. By the end of Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard, it is 1947, the war is over and there have been more engagements, marriages and divorces, births and deaths.

The title refers not just to ending relationships, but to letting go of war-time life. This is more complicated than anticipated. Longing for something for so long, does not make it easy to live through when it happens. Change is challenging. Post-war life is not all it is expected to be, in some ways it is harder.  Though the privations of rationing continue, often harsher than during the war itself, possibilities for new life unfold like a flower in bloom. But there are no easy answers.

The three cousins are grown-up– Polly, Louise and Clary now face life as young adults, their idealism tainted by the sadness and disappointments of war. But there are surprises in store for Clary, while the Cazalet brothers must make a business decision which affects the financial future of the whole family. Can they still afford the Sussex home, the anchor for the family throughout the war, and home to The Duchy and The Brig? And where will this extended war-time family now live, separated from one another?

Expecting happiness after the end of the war, ordinary life disappoints as the trials and disappointments continue. Louise’s friend Stella explains: “… when anyone becomes more than a certain amount unhappy they get cut off. They don’t feel any comfort or concern or affection that comes from other people – all of that simply disappears inside some bottomless pit and when people realize that, they stop trying to be affectionate or comforting. Would you like some grey coffee, or some pink-brown tea?”

Howard’s characters are so clearly drawn that they became real people for me, while I read these books. They feel like real friends. That is a huge achievement for any novelist.

Read my reviews of the first three books in The Cazalet Chronicles:-
The Light Years
Marking Time
‘Casting Off’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Cazalet Chronicles #4 [UK: Pan] Buy now

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