Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

And the Birds Kept on Singing – Simon Bourke

Contemporary Fiction
4*s

Manchester 1984 seventeen year old Sinéad McLoughlin is in Manchester, staying with a relative about to give birth. The plan is to hand the child over for adoption and return home to Dooncurra, a small town in the southeast of Ireland and carry on with her life as if nothing had happened. Of course there is the small matter of hiding the details from her parents Patricia and Noel, after all being pregnant at seventeen is not the done thing even in 1984 where she comes from, but she’ll cross that bridge when she comes to it.

Sinéad gives birth to her son, and in one version she carries out her plan, the baby being handed to infertile Margaret and Malcolm Philliskirks believing that this is the best future she can offer her son, in another she names her son Seán, and keeps him.

I enjoy a good ‘sliding-doors’ novel and there are few greater decision points in life than whether or not to keep your son or hand him over for adoption so this is one with the stakes already raised sky high.

In one version we follow Seán, through life, eventually growing up in the same town that Sinéad fled. The consequences of her decision reverberating through the family and her son’s life from thereon in. In the other version Margaret and Malcolm are thrilled to be a family but the exited beginnings don’t guarantee a happy-eve-after for them or their son with all the normal events that can effect any family reverberating through the Philliskirks’ life too.

Ultimately this is a coming of age story, or rather two stories. On the one hand Seán could be seen as a product of his beginnings, an Irish boy surrounded by what felt to be an authentic look at life in a small town through the nineties, on the other Jonathan, who grew up in England a boy who has to come to terms with being adopted.

For a ‘sliding-doors’ story to work the two paths have to diverge to ensure the reader follows without too much confusion and of course those characters and events that appear, however infrequently in both stories, need to be consistent. Simon Bourke handles the problems that could trip-up the unwary novelist with ease. This is an author who is skilled at characterisation and in particular, Seán’s story is incredibly powerful giving rise to a real understanding of who this boy is, how he thinks and critically how he reacts. Jonathan’s story is told slightly more remotely but ultimately is no less powerful for that.

Be warned, this is at times a heart-breaking story and unusually for my reading, the teenage scenes being told by a man about a man can be quite difficult to read. There is swearing, drugs and sex with plenty of forays into a teenage boy’s imagination which lend a very sharp edge to the storytelling. This is also a book that made me shed some tears, although at other times it had me smiling at the relationships between siblings, parents and their children, and friendships. There are all manner of interactions without exception giving the reader that feeling of reality which can be hard to pull off, especially in a wide cast of characters.

An enlightening look at a fairly recent past told with a range of emotions and spell-binding for the force of the characters, And the Birds Kept on Singing is one powerful debut novel.

And the Birds kept on Singing is my nineth book I’ve read for my Mount TBR Challenge 2018 having been purchased in August 2017 so I gain another third of a book token! That’s three books earned!

 

First Published UK: 2017
Publisher: CreateSace Independent Publishing Platform
No of Pages: 596
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

An Awfully Big Adventure – Beryl Bainbridge #20booksofsummer

Book 2

An Awfully Big Adventure
Classic Fiction 5*s

Unfortunately I am away during Annabel’s from Annabel’s House of Books  reading week for Beryl Bainbridge: Reading Beryl but after falling in love with this author’s writing through Harriet Said, I put one on my 20 Books of Summer 2016! list.

An Awfully Big Adventure is set in 1950s Liverpool, a landscape still filled with rations and other post-war deprivations and the theatre. What a mix for this coming of age novel through less than rose-tinted glasses. It is therefore no surprise that Bainbridge chose to borrow her title from the classic play by J.M Barrie, Peter Pan where Peter has a throw-away line:

‘To die would be an awfully big adventure.’

With the title borrowed from a story about a boy who doesn’t want to grow the protagonist, Stella of Bainbridge’s creation is sixteen, far from grown up, yet with her first job as a stage hand in the theatre thrust amongst grown-up lives, a world she struggles to understand.

The setting is brilliant, the boarding house (and its occupants) is easily pictured amongst the bomb scarred streets and the lodgers who bear their own scars from the war. It was Stella’s Uncle Vernon who first proposed working at the Playhouse. Here is a man who champions her to the hilt while she, as is so often the attitude of girls this age, is embarrassed by absolutely everything about him. Despite the way he brags to his boss he is also worried and exasperated by her:

“Debating anything with the girl was a lost cause. She constantly played to the gallery. No one was denying she could have had a better start in life, but then she wasn’t unique in that respect and it was no excuse for wringing the last drop of drama out of the smallest incident.”

Vernon’s wife Lily is a more shadowy figure, forever at the edge of Stella’s life although towards the end of the book she ponders that:

‘it was unjust of her to disregard those thumb-sucking years in which Lily had held her close’

But away from the prying eyes and ears of Uncle Vernon and Lily, Stella visits the phone boxes around the theatre to ring her mother. The reader hears Stella reporting to her mother, but we only get to know that mother says ‘the usual things’

So it’s fair to say Stella is typical of her age, no more so when she develops a crush on the handsome director Meredith Potter, who at first pays her some attention but this is soon diverted by others. Ever the mimic Stella tries out a number of personas on him to try to recapture his interest, but it seems that her love is to go unrequited. In parallels to the play they are putting on at the Liverpool Playhouse when Stella arrive, one that Stella pronounces simplistically the plot is all about people loving someone who is in love with someone else, perfectly sums up the cast. There is much to love in the book as a whole, the symmetry being one of the biggest pleasures for me. The set-up at the beginning of the book which only becomes clear at the very end, is an example of the excellent structure that resounds throughout.

Although this reads a little more like a series of vignettes at first, the linking only truly becoming apparent at the end, individually as well as together each of these is vivid and simply fascinating. Fairly early on I realised that what is blatantly obvious to the reader has completely passed Stella by, and so only the sternest heart can’t overlook her slightly odd manner and have a little sympathy for the poor girl! But when she decides to make Meredith jealous, she sets in chain a sequence of events that slowly becomes apparent, making for a sublime ending.

I am now a firm Beryl Bainbridge fan, I love the darkness, the cleverness, the period details and the sardonic humour. Luckily, I have another title waiting to read on my bookshelf. I simply can’t believe it took me quite so long to discover such this national treasure.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Moon Field – Judith Allnatt

Historical Fiction 5*'s
Historical Fiction
5*’s

George is just eighteen years old, lives with his parents and his younger siblings Ted and Lilly when he first met Violet during his deliveries as a postman. Violet was out for a walk taking photos as an escape from her duties, mainly being a companion to her sick mother The difference in their lives couldn’t be greater but George was bowled over by her beauty decides to give her one of the watercolours he has painted. Unknown to George as he hurried along to meet Violet the post he has to deliver to her that day her sparks a chain reaction that will change both their lives forever.

George goes off to war with a small group of friends and is soon dispatched to the front. Under the watchful eye of Edmund the young lads suffer the wet and the cold, the terror of the bombs and the seemingly futile push to stop the Germans advance into France.

Judith Allnatt does not sugar coat any of the horror of the war. This book eloquently shows what a generation of young men endured. There are descriptions of dead bodies left sinking in the mud and those who suffered with their injuries with no one to rescue them from the battlefield. I really feel that this book made me understand the true nature of this war, far from the statistics of non-fiction, this story about how George and his friends suffered and found their own way of coping and in doing so tells the stories of the men in an accessible, yet hard-hitting way. Despite the realities that were suffered, this is a story and a neatly plotted one at that, there are few enough characters that the author added layers to their personality over the course of the book which meant that as a reader I truly cared about so many of the fictional lives shared.

This is a fantastic book to read in the anniversary year of World War I.

This book will be published on 16 January 2013 by The Borough Press. I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine in return for this honest review.

The Moon Field

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

A Funeral for an Owl – Jane Davis

Contemporary Fiction 5*'s
Contemporary Fiction
5*’s

Everything changes for Jim the day he finds a pair of binoculars and picks them up. Kneeling on the back of the sofa looking out over the lamplight night from his London council flat he spots a barn owl. Using his trusty bird book for reference he begins to learn the Latin names for the birds that he spots down by the railway tracks. At the beginning of the summer holidays in 1992 Jim meets a girl near his favourite bird watching spot and the whole course of his life changes.

Set in London this story spans twenty years as the older Jim, now a teacher, reflects on his younger self to help Shamayal, but is Jim’s story strong and relevant enough to overcome the culture of the streets today?

Jane’s writing drew me in from the very first page with a school playground fight that certainly seemed only too real and believable. This fight would have consequences to all involved as Jim overstepped his boundary as a teacher to try to help Shamayal. The fact that Jim and Shamayal are both missing important people in their lives makes a deep impression on the way they act, as well as strongly influencing their hopes and dreams. Jane is one of those writers that make you really believe the story you are being told; the descriptions of places meant that I felt I was by the railway tracks, in the high-rise flat or in the school playground witnessing a fight, a true gift.

At times I found the story is heart-breaking, at others touching as the wonderful characters took up residence in my heart especially my favourite secondary character Bins. At times I was able to sympathise with each of characters, at others I wanted to shout at them but at no time did I stop caring about any of them. This to me is the true measure of a good read!

The eBook is available now and the paperback is due out on 1 December 2013 A Funeral for an Owl
I got to know Jane when she commented on one of my earliest reviews on Amazon for her award winning book Half-truths & White Lies – click on the cover to see my review
Half-truths and White Lies

It was her historical novel I Stopped Time: A Historical Novel that cemented the fact that she was now a must-read author. I loved this book so much as it tells a story using photographs.

Click on the cover to read my review.

I stopped time

Jane’s third book These Fragile Things  is set in the 1980’s which made for some fantastic nostalgia of my teenage years!
These Fragile Things

If you haven’t already done so please read the interview Jane Davis kindly gave me to celebrate the publication of A Funeral for an Owl.  Alternatively you can contact her using the following links

Website: where she posts interesting articles and interviews with authors
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