Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

Many thanks to Will at Vintage books for sending me a copy of ‘Frances and Bernard’.

Carlene Bauer has written an exceptional book which perfectly encapsulates late 1940s early 1950s American polite society. It put me in mind of a more angst ridden version of ‘The Great Gatsby’. Based on the lives of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell, ‘Frances and Bernard’ charts their relationship through imagined letters that also include missives to their respective friends Claire and Ted.

Initially, I enjoyed the structure and the often witty writing. I found the prose erudite and intelligent. However, as the text continued it often became too self-conscious for me really to enjoy this novel because of its literary and religious references. I would say I appreciated its style rather than warmed to it. As a result of O’Connor’s Catholic upbringing, Carlene Bauer has rightly conveyed considerable Catholic sentiment and guilt throughout the text but it felt intrusive and overbearing to a non-believer like me. There is, however, considerable emotion beautifully conveyed and I did have a sense of sadness and what might have been at the end.

Carlene Bauer is certainly a highly talented writer. I think ‘Frances and Bernard’ is a book to divide reader opinion. Some will love it and others find it more of a challenge. It was not for me.

Without A Trace by Lesley Pearse

Without a Trace

My thanks to http://www.lovereading.co.uk for providing this reader copy for review.

‘Without A Trace’ is Lesley Pearse at her best. When Molly Heywood finds her friend Cassie murdered, she determines to find out the truth of Cassie’s past and that of her little girl, Petal. This sets off a chain of events that take Molly away from her Somerset home of Sawbridge to a new, and possibly life threatening existence.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book as, whilst some of the plot could be deemed to be a little far-fetched at times, it has real drama and excitement. Carefully constructed, Molly’s story reveals much about the poverty of post war London and attitudes to single mothers and women in general. Indeed, Lesley Pearse explores several weighty themes in a highly accessible read, such as the effect parents like Molly’s abusive father have on their children, family relationships, love, madness and poverty. There is a real sense of thorough research and realistic setting.

The characters are well rounded and varied so that there is always someone to attract the reader. Molly’s personality gradually and realistically changes as a result of the events that befall her, making her an engaging heroine.

I think those who love sagas and also Maeve Binchy’s writing would really enjoy reading ‘Without A Trace’ and I can see it being taken on many a beach holiday this year. I found it a roller coaster ride of murder, love and intrigue.

‘Without A Trace’ is published on May 7th 2015.

The Secrets We Share by Emma Hannigan

Secrets we share

Many thanks to  Frances Gough at Headline and Bookbridgr for my copy of ‘The Secrets That We Share’.

Clara is facing old age and cancer and wants to repair the rifts in her family before it is too late. Her estranged son Max, in Los Angeles, has a daughter she’s never met whilst back in Ireland Clara’s unmarried daughter is rapidly turning to one night stands and wine in an attempt to mend a broken heart and find happiness. Each of them has at least one secret they are hiding. When Clara manages to track down her son Max it is immediately after Natalie, the grand daughter she didn’t know she had, suffers a tragedy. Natalie arrives in Ireland to recover and so this story truly begins.

I have not read any of Emma Hannigan’s novels before and so wasn’t sure what to expect. It took me a while to adjust to the American phrases within some of the dialogue, but once I did I found they helped build the characters well. Each character, from matriarchal Clara to damaged Natalie, is flawed and in need of help. Often they behave irrationally and jealously in ways we can all understand. This gives depth to them and helps the reader empathise well with them.

The plot is really fast paced with layer upon layer of secrets and revelations taking the reader through the Second World War to the present day. Clara’s past is gradually revealed through the letters that Natalie finds so that there is a real sense of time and history which is obviously well researched, partly from Emma Hannigan’s own family history. The end of the novel is satisfying and reassuring. There are important life lessons illustrated and the reader can learn a thing or two about how to live their own life through Clara’s words and responses. Big themes of secrets and forgiveness abound.

One of the elements I really enjoyed throughout the book was the detail of the food described. And who doesn’t like a book that opens with a recipe for chocolate cake?

I think readers who also love Maeve Binchy novels would thoroughly enjoy ‘The Secrets We Share’ and it would be an ideal holiday read for those who want plenty of emotion in their stories.

Chicken Feed by Minette Walters

‘Chicken Feed’ is a quick read provided by The Reading Agency for World Book Night that takes place on 23rd April and is designed to encourage reading. See @worldbooknight and facebook.com/worldbooknight. It was one of three books I received as a volunteer to give to my local University of the Third Age (U3A) group.

‘Chicken Feed’ is based on the true story of Norman Thorne who was hanged for the murder of Elsie Cameron, a disturbed young woman, in 1925. Norman maintained his innocence throughout.

Minette Walters is an established crime writer and has crafted a highly accessible narrative that would engage those not usually interested in reading. The plot is interesting and the characters convincing, although not terribly likeable!

in the spirit of World Book Night I will now be passing my copy onto someone else – and hopefully to someone who does not usually read but who might tackle an accessible book that can be read and enjoyed in a couple of hours.

Amy Snow by Tracy Rees

Amy Snow

Many thanks to Hannah Robinson at Quercus books for providing a copy of Amy Snow by Tracy Rees in return for and honest review. Amy Snow was published on 9th April 2015 and became a Richard and Judy Best Seller. Amy Snow is available for purchase here and from Quercus.

Amy Snow

Amy Snow

Abandoned on a bank of snow as a baby, Amy is taken in at nearby Hatville Court. But the masters and servants of the grand estate prove cold and unwelcoming. Amy’s only friend and ally is the sparkling young heiress Aurelia Vennaway. So when Aurelia tragically dies young, Amy is devastated. But Aurelia leaves Amy one last gift. A bundle of letters with a coded key. A treasure hunt that only Amy can follow. A life-changing discovery awaits . . . if only she can unlock the secret.

Amy Snow is so named after being found in the snow as a baby by wealthy heiress Aurelia Vennaway. Aurelia’s stubborn persistence forces her parents to take in this foundling as long as they do not have to encounter her. When Aurelia dies as a young woman, Amy is ejected from the house and so begins a letter based treasure hunt set for Amy by Aurelia.

‘Amy Snow’ is a thoroughly deserving winner of the first ‘Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller’.

My Review of Amy Snow

From the first word of the Prologue to the final word off the Epilogue this book holds the reader’s attention. As I read it I thought what a fabulous BBC period drama series it would make. Short chapters race along and there are mini cliffhangers and twists and turns in Amy’s journeys that have been so well constructed and written that it is as if you are travelling with her as you read. I really appreciated the variety of construction with a range of sentence lengths that fit the different situations perfectly.

One of the great strengths of this novel is the creation of character. None is perfect, from Amy and Aurelia to Mrs Riverthorpe and Lady Vennaway, which makes them totally realistic and appealing. Amy herself is often stubborn or naive and frequently behaves in a manner with which I could fully empathise.

There is also subtle humour underlying the narrative, and the use of the first person with entirely realistic dialogue and memory makes Amy’s story vibrant and engaging like listening to that of an old friend.

I really enjoyed ‘Amy Snow’. It was intelligently and vividly written, well researched and realistic whilst managing to be a real page turner. Lovers of historical fiction must read this as soon as possible.

Jakob’s Colours by Lindsay Hawdon

Jakob

I can’t thank enough Kerry Hood at Hodder, Bookbridgr and Lindsay Hawdon for providing a review copy of this wonderful, wonderful book.

I can hardly bring myself to produce a blog post about ‘Jakob’s Colours’ by Lindsay Hawdon as I feel anything I write will only besmirch the memory of having read it. None of my words can conjure up the emotional experience of reading this book.

The narrative concerns 8 year old Jakob’s fight for survival and is based around the Second World War treatment of Roma people. It spans back into the past to give the reader a full understanding of Jakob’s heritage through the childhood lives of his parents, Lor and Yavy. We see that ‘We live in a time of angels and devils, but not a single one of us is either’ as Hawdon explores great cruelty and great kindness in her writing.

Meticulously researched, I found this novel highly effective and deeply affecting. Not a single syllable seemed out of place as the beauty of colour and description drew me in to the story. I could feel, for example, the tenderness of Lor’s caress of Jakob’s face, and the sense of loss running throughout was almost too much to bear. The writing is sophisticated and totally convincing. The prose is beautiful on many levels, from the visual imagery of colours, through Lor and Jakob’s allegorical story telling to the exploration of humanity. Reading ‘Jakob’s Colours’ has made me look at the colours of life with a renewed perspective.

‘Jakob’s Colours’ is by far the most emotional and incredible book I’ve read this year and, truthfully, it may be the best book I’ve ever read. I cannot praise it highly enough.

The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

I am hugely indebted to Frances Gough at Headline, Bookbridgr and Tinderpress for allowing me to read and review this incredible text.

Snow Kimono

It has taken me several days to read ‘The Snow Kimono’ because Mark Henshaw’s writing is so beguiling, intricate and multi-layered I needed to keep stopping to reflect on what I’d read.

Set initially in Paris in 1989, but weaving across the past of Japan and Algiers too, the story concerns newly retired Inspector Jovert who encounters the enigmatic Tadashi Omura in their apartment block. The two talk together and Omuru reveals a tale of the exceptional Katsuo Ikeda and the women in his life.

I found the plot a little like gathering smoke. It kept slipping from me and leading me astray so that the final fifty pages or so gave me the same revelations and shocks as they give to Jovert. The style is totally hypnotic. Looking back, whilst writing this review, I can see the hints and connections that I missed at first. This is one of the skills of Henshaw. His themes of truth, betrayal and deception are woven so successfully into the narrative that the reader is forced to consider their own perception of memory and truth.

What completely drew me in was the poetic, mesmerising language. I found some of it so beautiful I felt it could have been set out as poetry. Each of the senses is indulged by reading this book, from ‘the tock, tock, tock of a water clock’ to the ‘fat padded toes of a lizard’.

To be honest, ‘The Snow Kimono’ is not an easy read. Written with sublime care and attention to detail, it deserves the same attention in its reading. It won’t be for everyone, but I thought it was well worth the wait of its creation.