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

The Nightingale – Kristen Hannah

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

Following on from the memoir, A Fifty Year Silence, coincidentally my next read was also set during the Second World War, and in France and I don’t think I’ve read a more heart-rending tale, be warned if you choose this book do make sure you have a handy stash of hankies because each time I thought it couldn’t possible wring any more emotion from me, it did just that!

As the book opens in 1995 an elderly widow in Oregon is sent an invitation to attend a ceremony in France for those who helped during the war. Interspersed throughout the book we get insights into this woman’s emotions as she remembers those days.
Vianne and her sister Isabelle are separated by a number of years and experiences as little Isabelle was only four when their beloved Maman died and their father, left traumatised by the first World War sent them away unable and seemingly unwilling to look after his daughters. Vianne fell in love with the man who would become her husband, Antoine but Isabelle felt the rejection keenly and became increasingly rebellious. And then came the war, and the Nazis swiftly followed by curfews, hunger and blackouts.

Isabelle is keen to do something worthwhile and joins the resistance fighters whilst Vianne has one of the rooms in her house occupied by a Nazi soldier. As a mother her first and only priority is her young daughter Sophie but as the war continues and those she cares about in her home town are carted away the line between right and wrong becomes blurred.

With a bit of imagination it is possible to recreate the long queues for food, to paint a picture of the increasingly emancipated French, harder I think to create the moral dilemmas that these people faced daily. To fight against the occupying forces or to collude with them to ensure the smallest of favours for those you love? Well I have to say Kristen Hannah manages this feat by setting the scene incrementally, as they would have happened in life so that while I could see Isabelle fighting for freedom, I could also anticipate that her actions would have consequences for those who she loved and those who loved her and while some of the town railed against the merest hint of favouritism, how in these circumstances, nothing stays the same for long.

At 450 pages long this is one of those tales that seemingly has a whole country’s history packed into it, there is not a page wasted which doesn’t tell us something about what the reality of those long years of war was like, for all sections of society. It is easy to think that those left behind in an occupied country simply had to keep their eyes down and get on but that is forgetting that they didn’t know it was going to end one day, they may have hoped but living took up all of their energy. This isn’t a book that hides the awfulness, there are scenes in concentration camps which are painful to read but no less symbolic is the draping of the town in Nazi flags, the enforcement of the wearing of the yellow stars for the Jewish population or the betrayal of their own police in rooting out those who disobeyed the Nazi rule. I learnt so more about the French Resistance Movement and the corresponding life lived by the French living under German rule from this book, with the underlying research strong but not overpoweringly forced into the storyline.

As the book progressed so did the development of the sister’s characters as we saw how they acted when put under pressure, how the impulsive Isabelle considered her actions more carefully and the cautious Vianne carried out acts that at the beginning you wouldn’t have imagined possible for this traditional French housewife. Kristen Hannah doesn’t just create two stunning protagonists she creates a whole network of believable characters from the damaged father to the friends, the other resistance fighters and the general townsfolk who are all drawn as people who you can believe in.

With a fitting finale there is little not to admire in this book, a testament to human character of a lesson that few of us are all bad, or all good and not everything turns out how you would wish, the strongest people are those who try to live a good life, even in the most awful of circumstance.

I’d like to say a big thank the publishers St Martin’s Press who allowed me to read a copy of this book which was published on 29 January 2015 in return for my honest opinion.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Long Fall – Julia Crouch

Psychological Thriller 4*'s
Psychological Thriller
4*’s

If you are looking for the perfect holiday read then this may just be it. Julia Crouch takes her readers on a journey to the island of Ikaria, taking in France and Athens on the way and the descriptions of the adventure Emma James is embarking on is extremely evocative especially with an adults perspective of what lone travelling can mean when everything you need has to be carted from one grotty hostel to the next. Set in 1981 Emma James is travelling alone, full of the bravado that only a sheltered eighteen year old can possess, especially when that young girl is determined to leave the northern town of Ripon behind, along with her boring parents and have an adventure before going to University with a tale to tell. Sadly the trip isn’t quite what she dreamed of and the events are set to change her life forever.

In the present Kate is the ‘Face of Kindness’ having set up a charity to help young girls in Africa, a charity born out of despair following the death of her young daughter Martha. Having conquered her fear of flying to visit a newly opened school she is back at home with her hedge fund manager husband Mark and teenage daughter Tilly. When Tilly announces she wants to go travelling Kate’s tenuous grip on normality begins to unravel but worse is still to come, a bit of her past comes bounding back into her life and choices must be made.

I love books that flip backwards and forwards through time particularly when the past is in the form of journal entries, and this one has the added distinction of the past being set during a trip where the life’s normal boundaries are different. I felt I was there with Emma, drinking at the tavern, sleeping on the roof and meeting new people feeling that she was following in the footsteps of her favourite writers. The spell was only momentarily broken when modern phrases crept into the journal that weren’t exactly authentic to the time it was set in, but I was able to forgive this and favour instead, the fast-moving plot and maternal feelings I felt for the young Emma, alone and unsure in a foreign land.

To enjoy this book you do have to leave some logic behind especially in relation to some of Kate’s decisions and I have to admit I guessed most of the outcome but I wasn’t quite sure enough that it spoilt my enjoyment of this fast-paced and disturbing book.

I was delighted to receive a free copy of this book from the publishers Headline ahead of the publication date of 19 June 2014 as I have read all this author’s previous novels.

Cuckoo – Psychological thriller set in the domestic setting. Polly comes to stay with Rose and her family and doesn’t seem to want to leave but not before strange things start happening.

Every Vow You Break – I wasn’t as convinced by this story with its setting New York. Marcus and Laura decide that a break will hep their marriage so travel with him while he works on a play.

Tarnished – An outstanding read which I was absorbed and repulsed by in equal measure. Read my review here

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

Her – Harriet Lane

Psychological Thriller  5*'s
Psychological Thriller
5*’s

This intriguing and well-constructed thriller starts when Nina recognises Emma on a street near her London home more than twenty years since she last saw her. As the reader you can’t help but wonder why Nina is so obsessed with Emma especially as Emma doesn’t appear to recognise her at all when they first meet. What connects these two women and why Nina wants to insert herself into her life is the crux of the whole book.

We have Nina and her poised life as an artist, mother of the teenage Sophie and partner to the almost detached Charles provides a stark contrast with Emma the mother of two-year old Christopher mired in domesticity wondering where her ‘true’ self has gone since marriage and motherhood. Emma is clearly overwhelmed, pregnant and frazzled when Nina inserts herself into her life and with precision finds the weak spots in Emma’s life and exploits them with precise cruelty. The casual way she hurts Emma while pretending to be her friend is in many ways more shocking than any open hostility could ever be.

Harriet Lane cleverly tells the story from both women’s viewpoints by overlapping the narrative thereby dragging the story back to a specific point before moving it forward from the differing perspectives as Nina and Emma narrate alternate chapters.

The writing is understated, and all the more chilling because of it but the prose still manages to conjure up scenes in London and France without ever seeming mired in detail. This style of writing is what made me fall in love with Harriet Lane’s debut novel Alys Always which was published in December 2012 and like those in Alys Always , the characters are set firmly within the middle-classes. Like her debut it is the off-hand way that the details are imparted makes me feel like I was watching Emma almost as avidly as Nina, but unlike Nina, I dreaded the finale.

This is a relatively short book with 235 pages of intrigue, frankly bizarre behaviour and undisclosed secrets from the past, well until the end which says just enough to allow the reader time to reflect.

I received a copy of this book which is due to be published on 6 June 2014 from Amazon Vine in return for my honest opinion. My opinion, is this one is worth getting hold of!

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The September Garden – Catherine Law

Historical Fiction 4*'s
Historical Fiction
4*’s

I won a signed copy of this book from a Goodreads Giveaway which was an excellent Christmas present as I rarely win anything.  Even better despite early misgivings about the depth of the characters this turned out to be a really good read.

Blurb

Set in London during the Blitz, in occupied France, and among the rolling Chiltern hills, this is the story of two cousins thrown together by the outbreak of war. Nell and Sylvie grow up quickly during the early days of rationing, blackouts, and the arrival of RAF planes in the skies. But even as the war rages on around them, the competition and jealousy between the cousins battles on – especially in romance.
When the girls fall in love with the same man, he is spared having to choose between them as the war pulls them all apart and changes the course of their lives, with devastating consequences. For Nell, the only place she can ever find solace is inside the September Garden, her father’s walled sanctuary. It is here that she decides to hide her most dreadful secret . . .

The September Garden is the patch of ground that Nell’s father has turned into a beautiful autumn haven, full of wonderful blooming flowers. Nell’s father fought, but never really recovered from the First World War and it is at the advent of the second is where this book begins.

The story centres around Nell and her cousin Sylvie who lives in France, the two cousins a year apart in age but a mile apart in attitude share an uneasy relationship which only intensifies when Sylvie has to stay in England when the war breaks out.

At first I was unsure about this book. I thought the characters were simply outlines at the beginning but as the book commences and the two girls face up to life in wartime Buckinghamshire they soon become filled in. Alongside the cousin’s story we have the tale of life in France, shown to us through the eyes of Sylvie’s maid, Adele. What looks from the cover to be a fluffy romantic book, is anything so although there is a romance, Catherine Law does not spare us the details of life in either country with some truly horrifying events befalling each of the young characters. The young Nell doesn’t simply shrug off an air-raid with the insouciance of so many books, no stiff upper lip and her feeling of sheer terror leaps off the page and the details of life in France as the Germans began their occupation in France were often brutal but never left me feeling they were anything but true.

A well-researched novel that makes me truly grateful that I didn’t have to live through those terrible times. Published by Allison & Busby on 15 November 2013 I’d recommend this anyone who is interested in a realistic
interpretation of life in England & France during the Second World War.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Bad Mother – Isabelle Grey

Women's Fiction 3*'s
Women’s Fiction
3*’s

Bad mother or bad decision?

I’d been looking forward to reading the Bad Mother as I’d found Isabelle Grey’s debut novel, Out of Sight really enjoyable, but unfortunately, although interesting in places, this book didn’t quite deliver.

Tessa owns and runs a B&B which she inherited from her maternal Grandmother Averil along with a dolls house that has always been kept for show. Tessa is already going through a hard time following the gradual separation from her husband Sam whilst coping with two teenage children, Mitch and Lauren, when a family secret is revealed that causes Tessa to question who she is.

The story is intriguing and it raises a number of good points about how we define who we are but far too many of these simply do not come to a satisfactory conclusion. I also had problems with the characterisation in this book; Mitch the seventeen year old son simply did not strike me as a credible character, him describing what he was doing and why meant that I always felt one step removed from his thoughts along with being convinced that’s not how boys of that age think! The main theme of this book is mothering; with distracted, addicted and absent mothers featuring the key to the whole story is Averil’s mothering. As a reader, and a mother, I was left pondering can one decision make you a bad mother?

I left the book wondering what comes next as there were a number of loose ends, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as that is what life is like sometimes.

Read my review of Out of Sight from Goodreads below:

Out of SightOut of Sight by Isabelle Grey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Isabelle Grey’s first book drew me in from the first page, and even better, continued to do so until the last page. The story starts in 2005 with Patrick’s parents visiting him, his wife and son. Patrick’s mother is an anxious woman and the description of her behaviour hits the mark exactly, the tensions that spread to those in her orbit were so accurately described it was painful to read.

In 2011 a woman in France meets Patrice and falls completely in love with him. Again the emotions of all involved are completely believable so that I really felt I got to know the characters. The pace of this book is perfect.

Fantastic writing with the right amount of intrigue I’m looking forward to Isabelle Grey’s next novel The Bad Mother.

View all my reviews

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

The Girl You Left Behind – Jojo Moyes

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

The Girl You Left Behind is a book of two parts; the first details life in a small town, Peronne in France, for Sophie Lefèvre. The year is 1915 and Sophie’s artist husband has gone to fight in the First World War and Peronne is soon occupied by the Germans.

I was instantly drawn into Sophie’s life during occupation where Jojo Moyes adroitly captures the reality of a life where neighbours and friends can quickly turn from shared endeavours to outdo their occupiers to becoming suspicious of each other when rumours abound in a life full of fear and hunger. Sophie’s husband Edouard painted a picture of her which hangs in their hotel and it is this painting that links Sophie and Liv, the girl left behind in the second part.

Liv Hanson was bought the painting for her wedding by her husband. Liv’s present day story is no less captivating than Sophie’s. Liv meets Paul whose job is tor return lost or stolen works of art to their rightful owners and battle commences to find out the truth about the painting, and Sophie.

Jojo Moyes writes a really good story with so many truths contained within it. As the homeless lady Fran says to Liv `Imagine….. What you lose just trying to hang onto a few bits.’ A wonderful story. One of those rare books that simultaneously I wanted to know the ending but didn’t want the end to come.