Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Things We Keep – Sally Hepworth

Contemporary Fiction 4*s
Contemporary Fiction
4*s

The synopsis to The Things We Keep had me intrigued with a tale of a young woman, Anna Forster, struck down with early on-set dementia. It was also an opportunity to try and widen my reading in 2016, I love crime fiction but I do occasionally need a change.
Immediately on starting this novel I was pleased to see that although the subject matter is grim, the author has injected a fair amount of humour which also gave me a real sense of who Anna was, far more than a diagnosis that’s for sure.

Anna moves into an assisted-living facility where many of the residents are considerably older than she is, all except one Luke who is afflicted with frontotemporal dementia which affects his speech and language skills and the two become close.

We also meet Eve, a formerly wealthy woman who takes a job at the home as a cook and cleaner because it is one way to keep her daughter Clementine at her school. Both these characters are a delight but I particularly warmed to Clementine who at aged just seven, is forced to adapt to a whole new way of life. With a mean girl in her class needling her this is something of a struggle! This felt like an accurate portrayal of a newly single mother desperate to do her best for her young daughter but juggling this with her own change of circumstance, never better witnessed than at the school gates.

While there is a moral dilemma at the heart of the book which had me questioning my viewpoint by putting myself in to different character’s shoes, the characters are the ones who made this book for me, and not just the main ones. There are lots of touching moments from the elderly married couple who are inseparable to the old man who is grumpy and the one who saves a seat for his wife, dead for fifty years. Despite being at the end of their life, the author gives a sense of something more than a bunch of people with nothing to offer, the wisdom that they offer each other and the main protagonists was a joy to read.

I was drawn easily and effortlessly drawn into the world at Rosalind House which we get to view in the present, from when Eve joins the staff, and the year before. This device sets up the situation which underpins the moral dilemma and gives us a real sense of how fast Anna is deteriorating. In the beginning she occasionally substitutes words when she can’t remember the right one – sleeping clothes for pyjamas, by the end of the book there are more substituted words than the right ones, a clever use of language which avoids endless repetition explaining how bad things have got.

All in all this was an engaging, touching and thoughtful book which could easily have descended into a well of sadness, but instead, made every point you’d expect but often with the lightest of touches.

I’d like to thank the publishers St Martin’s Press for my copy of this book for reviewing. The Things We Keep will be published on 19 January 2016.

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 Other Half – Sarah Rayner

Contemporary Fiction 4*'s
Contemporary Fiction
4*’s

I imagine writing about adultery is more problematic than a lot of subjects due to the stance women often take on the subject.  I live on a small island and so conducting an affair in secret is very hard, one or other of the pair is always going to be seen and remarked on and at most you have a couple of days before you are being gossiped about from one end of the island to the other!  This comment, I hasten to add, isn’t from personal experience but from conversations from friends, and yes, the gossip that has reached my shell-like ears!  Now generally, I’ve found the behaviour that is taken apart and dissected by these dedicated arbitrators is reserved for the women, it appears that everyone has an opinion on the girl who is sleeping with the married man, speculation about how the wife should behave or what she may have done to drive him to commit adultery.  Far rarer is it that the man who has broken his wedding vows is treated to the same treatment, especially if it is the first time he has strayed.  So books about affairs intrigue me as I like to see how different authors approach this contentious issue.

The Other Half  starts by describing good time Chloe, an up and coming star in the world of women’s magazines who goes for a drink with her boss, James and ends up taking him to bed with her.  Chloe is trying to pitch an idea for a new magazine which is different (a concept that is long overdue in my opinion) and his contacts could be the break she needs.

Later on we get to know Maggie, the perfect wife, a well-known food writer who is well groomed and more sensible than Chloe.  James and Maggie have a six year old son Nathan and as readers we witness her humiliation at a dinner party they are hosting.  You see, although this reads far more like chick-lit than her previous novels there is a depth to the writing that I enjoy in Sarah Rayner’s books.

From these alternating views of their lives I found I was sympathetic to both women, they are different and both want more from James which to my mind perfectly replicates every affair that I have ever heard about.   Sarah Rayner has been clever allowing her readers to see James up close and personal from the beginning and not by painting him as an awful man, but depicting a situation which to my mind is realistic. While Chloe is extolling his good points we have an insight into a different side to James, a man who, like most of us, doesn’t have all the answers to explain his behaviour.

This is one of those books that I fairly rattled through, as a light read with a more solid centre, this was a familiar tale, not told so much with a twist, but maybe with a level of understanding of all the protagonists, in what is not an unfamiliar tale.  I don’t want to spoil the plot in any way but the ending was fitting, as it had to be, bearing in mind the subject matter!

I was grateful to receive a free copy of this book from St Martin’s Press ahead of the publication date of 25 March 2014 in return for my written opinion.