Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2018, Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

This is Not a Novel – Jennifer Johnston #20BooksofSummer

Contemporary Fiction

This is a novel and one that I think falls under the heading ‘literary novel’ with its symbolism and eloquent prose.

The story is mainly split between the 1970s with visits to World War I. Imogen Bailey’s brother Johnny is a champion swimmer. Their father is hoping that he will make the Olympic squad but maybe this is his dream and not Johnny’s. One day fifteen year old Johnny goes missing in the water in County Cork, no further sighting is ever made but Imogen never quite believes he drowned.

She therefore decides to write to Johnny, not as a story but as a way to sift through her memories and back them up with family documents; letters, school reports and diaries, hence the title of the book with premise that the result will be:

“a hopeful message sent out into the world, like a piece of paper in a bottle dropped into the sea”

Following Johnny’s disappearance Imogen stops speaking and is sent to a private hospital to recover. The real cause of her lack of voice is one strand of this fascinating story. The others concern Johnny’s disappearance and the links to the past with another family member sent to fight for his country.

Considering this is a fairly slim novel it is commendable that the writer has managed to condense a whole century of one family into its pages with no obvious bumps as she hurtles backwards and forwards giving the feeling of the natural echoes that her narrator finds in the trunk of old papers.

There are some absolutely fascinating characters within the book from Mathilde the housekeeper who converts religion as a way of fitting into country life following her move to Ireland after the war whose story sits next to that of the young German Bruno who makes such an impact on Johnny and Imogen. The stories of their trips to the cinema seemingly benign made this reader wince at the parts that both the youngsters were oblivious to.

This is a story told in layers, far more than is immediately apparent when reading the novel itself. I like and greatly admire authors who can allow you to read and enjoy but then give you the additional pleasure of uncovering some of the themes on reflection after that last page is turned. The trick of writing something that is seemingly uncomplicated but having hidden depths of course works well in conjunction of the narrator being absolutely convinced in the seemingly impossible, after all Johnny disappeared from the family some thirty years previously. A narrator unable to accept the inevitable after that length of time gives some doubt to her own memories whilst there can be no doubt in the written evidence provided.

Like so many other Irish writers the distinctiveness of the place of their birth is never far from the surface. The reader is well aware of Ireland’s ‘neutrality’ at the time of war so far in the distant past the bitterness of one mother for her son being sent needlessly to fight in the War has a different ‘flavour’ to those set in other parts of the UK. As with everything else in this novel though, the Irish hand is employed with a subtlety that is unusual.

This is Not a Novel is my fourteenth read in my 20 Books for Summer 2018 Challenge Yes, I declare that I resoundingly failed at this challenge this year!!

First Published UK: 2002
Publisher: Headline Review
No of Pages: 224
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2018, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads, Mount TBR 2018

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson #20BooksofSummer

Contemporary Fiction


What a delightful book, well-written, engaging and most importantly one that made me think and is without doubt one of my favourite reads of this year.

Ursula Todd was born on a snowy night in 1910 in England, a country which is on the edge of the huge change we know will follow. In the first version of Ursula’s life, she doesn’t make it through and dies before she takes her very first breath. but this is not the end, we get another version where Ursula lives. This unusual structure gives us so many versions of Ursula’s life, or lives, and boy when she’s not dying in various different ways, she does know how to live!

“Yes, Mrs Todd, a bonny bouncing baby girl.” Sylvie thought Dr Fellows might be over-egging the pudding with his alliteration. He was not one for bonhomie at the best of times. The health of his patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him.”

Ursula is just my type of character, down to earth, funny in a ‘quiet’ way.

He was born a politician.
No, Ursula thought, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become.”

Even at the worst of times Ursula is never a moaner despite having echoes in her life of those times she has fallen into the black hole of death. As the reader of her life we understand what those echoes are memories of even if Ursula just has a vague feeling of unease.

“Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn’t even begin to solve.”

Despite the unusual structure and the many deaths this book is a reflection of life for a child born into what could be viewed as idyllic family. A house called Fox Corner, a mother and father who love and laugh, siblings and opportunities for a life ahead. Of course there is also war on the horizon, not once but twice, the loves and losses and relationships with parents, siblings and friends which will wax and wane. In short Ursula’s life is a full one.

The setting for Ursula’s childhood is Buckinghamshire and even here we see progression from a a house which was once Ursula’s world, in the countryside will not remain that way for the duration of the story, or of course in this case stories. This is a book about how life never stands still. There is one character in particular who I loved but became far less sympathetically drawn as life progresses, where another more flamboyant one becomes softened by the turns her life takes. This quality of growing the characters, especially when their scenes are not set in chronological order is just one element of how exceptional Kate Atkinson’s writing is.

Ursula’s life during World War II is portrayed in vivid scenes, no reader will be able to forget the technicolour images that these imprint on your mind. In one of her lives Ursula lives in Berlin, so we also get to see the challenges how her counterpart in Germany faced too. The period set during the war, both in London and Germany made the book a special read, but on reflection it is the contrast between the cosy life at Fox Corner and the horror that she witnesses at this time of her life which makes the book feel so real. These contrasting scenes, as we follow Ursula as she faces hardships as well as happiness is what makes this book such a rich read.

Kate Atkinson doesn’t make it easy for herself, we have a whole cast of characters that have to keep up with the many deaths that befall Ursula too… even down to the dog who is drawn in detailed perfection to delight the reader. I said in my opening paragraph that it made me think, it did. As we all profound reads we all take our own experiences into the book and this reflection on life gave me an opportunity to look at my own life in a slightly different way.

“Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.”

I was alternately delighted and amazed by this book, so if like me, you somehow didn’t get around to reading this book when it was published, I recommend you do so now. I’m off to buy A God in Ruins which features Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, a would-be  poet.

Life After Life was my fifth read in my 20 Books for Summer 2018 Challenge; a sumptuous read that means that Ursula and those wonderfully drawn characters that accompany her through her lives are now part of my life too.

First Published UK: 2013
Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books
No of Pages: 544
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US



Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2018, Book Review, Books I have read

Seven Days in May – Kim Izzo #20BooksofSummer

Historical Fiction


The title Seven Days in May refers to the time that Brooke, Sydney and Edward spent on their fated journey from New York to Liverpool aboard the Lusitania, before it was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915.

Even before we step aboard the luxury line we have a high society wedding in the offing. Edward Thorpe-Tracey, an impoverished owner of a fine estate is to marry Brooke Sinclair who has inherited a fortune from her father. Edward is hoping that the marriage will save the estate and provide a solid future for his disabled sister when he takes on the title Lord Northbrook. Brooke and her younger sister Sydney are dissimilar in many ways and Sydney is in disgrace having been arrested for her suffragette activities. Of course this has to be kept firmly under wraps so not to frighten the groom-to-be.

In a separate storyline we are in England, in Room 40 where codes are cracked and German dispatches are passed up the chain of control. Isabel Nelson has recently joined Room 40 on the helpful reference from her previous employer. She’s worked hard at evening classes to learn secretarial skills and is thrilled to be in the company of the other men and women undertaking such secret work; this young woman with a past feels like she’s making a difference to the war effort.

This is a book that promises a great deal and it certainly made for an interesting read, particularly as the author was moved to write the story having heard the stories of her Great Grandfather’s survival against the odds, of the sinking of the Lusitania as a boy. The story of the ship, the clothes and the taciturn captain all had an authenticity about them but the romantic tales that moved so many other readers fell a bit flat for me. Perhaps, despite all appearances, I am too romantic in that I never quite fully bought in that Brooke’s freedom and money in exchange for a title was the sum of this young woman’s ambition. Nor could I quite buy the fact that young Isabel Nelson was taken under the collective wings of the code-breakers and taught in such a short space of time how to not only transcribe them, but have time on the side to plot ship’s passages and run messages up to the head of the Admiralty himself, Winston Churchill.

For me the most moving scenes were of the tragedy itself. Here the writing really came alive with the scenes on the ship, and in the water having a feeling of authenticity that I had doubted earlier in the book. It was at this point the key characters fully came to life and behaved in a much more realistic fashion too. On balance, despite my reservations about the likelihood of Isabel’s talents being given an outlet so early on, and at that time in history, I preferred the storyline set in Room 40. I find the work carried out here fascinating and of course its origins gave rise to the work carried out at Bletchley Park during the next war, something which has become much better known over recent years. This area of interest was more to my taste than the one between the sisters and the impoverished Lord although I did enjoy meeting some of the hapless travellers on board as well as getting a sense of the safety measures taken given that even before they set sail there was some indication of the intention of the Germans.

Seven Days in May made for an interesting start to my 20 Books of Summer 2018 reading challenge and one that definitely gave me a deeper knowledge of this act which motivated the US to join forces against the Germans in WWI.

First Published UK: 25 April 2017
Publisher: HarperCollins
No of Pages: 362
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in 20 Books of Summer 2015!, Book Review, Books I have read

Rutherford Park – Elizabeth Cooke

Historical Fiction 4*s
Historical Fiction

This historical novel set when England was right on the brink of World War I has far more depth than I initially expected, there are the expected emotional moments, but more than that, it is a book that looks at the lives of women at different levels of the social scale.

Rutherford Park is the stately pile that is the home to William and Octavia Cavendish and their three children Harry, Louisa and Charlotte and of course their entourage of servants. As the book opens on Christmas Eve 1913, we meet Emily Maitland, a shy young girl from the nearby mill town who is laying fires early in the morning a sharp insight into the world of a young servant girl of this era, but Emily has a bigger worry than carrying out her chores this cold day.

Meanwhile Octavia is expecting the house guests including a woman she has feared for the entire span of her marriage, a distant cousin of William’s the alluring Helene. It isn’t only the servants who have to abide by the rules of the house though – Octavia feels that her life is similar to that of a bird in a gilded cage, she is bored and feels her character has been stifled by living in the big house. She feels that she is looked down upon by her peers and servants because her money, money which was needed to keep the house going, is comes from the wool mills she approaches the new year with a yearning to do something more than escort the beautiful and outgoing Louisa as she embarks on the season.

The author has obviously, sometimes too obviously, done her research and there are plenty of authentic references to clothing, political views and expectations of this time, however at times, especially near the beginning of the story I felt that modern perceptions were heavily imposed on the characters thoughts rather than them being displayed in their actions. As the book progressed with its many secrets and dramas, the characters held their own as the paced picked up.

This is a book told through multiple viewpoints which gave a rounded picture of the goings on at Rutherford Park with the timelines overlapping at some points to give extra depth. The downside of this was sometimes it was hard to follow who was who until the plot had progressed and the characters became far more distinct.

I enjoyed this sumptuous tale and it was pleasing that it covered men with some real emotions, this wasn’t a female only cast, dealing with woman’s issues, no-one escapes the drama in this book! If you like a happily-ever-after, this may not be the book for you although since this book was first published in 2013 I am pleased to see that we have the opportunity to find out more, and maybe tie-up some of the loose ends by reading The Wild Flowers and I am going to have to buy a copy to find out exactly what life has in store for this family who has faced more challenges than they could ever have imagined.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

One Last Dance – Judith Lennox

Historical Saga 4*'s
Historical Saga

I had forgotten how enjoyable a well-written saga can be, that feeling of enormous satisfaction of following a family through their ups and downs, or more usually, downs and further downs, spanning decades isn’t replicated in the same way in any other type of genre and in One Last Dance I felt I’d travelled on a journey with Esme starting at the time of World War I and continuing to the 1970’s.

In 1974 Esme decides she wants her 75 birthday party to be held at Rosindell a somewhat diminished grand house which belongs to the Reddaway family and while we witness a scene where her daughter is somewhat perturbed at this choice of venue the story then switches back to 1917 when Devlin Reddaway visits England while on leave. The story that follows has all the normal components of love, jealousy, secrets and lies that you’d expect from the genre and pleasingly well-executed. The pace is measured and despite there being, as you’d imagine over such a time-span, quite an array of characters, these are well-defined so that there is no confusion. Judith Lennox has created some great characters, which develop well over the course of the book without ever losing their central characteristics thereby allowing the reader to sympathise or react in horror at the actions they choose to take.

The key protagonists are Esme and her elder, more beautiful sister, Camilla and Devlin Reddaway with the relationship between them being central to the story although as the book progresses we get to know the younger generations and understand their lives in context of the past.  Much of the setting is the wonderfully described Rosindell, which Devlin’s father had failed to maintain and the house he is determined to restore to its former glory, but there are other settings that Judith Lennox brings to life as far apart as London during World War II and San Francisco in the 1960’s where another house is built by one of Devlin’s children.

The earlier part of the book concentrates on a close time-span depicting the events that will haunt the family for decades to come while later on the sections depict wider ranging dates which avoids slowing down the pace and better still these sections add further nuance and complexity to the story avoiding the feeling that they are included for filling purposes.  In fact every one of the 500 plus pages adds a little to the story either in way of place, character or plot.

This is a gentle nostalgic story with enough action to keep the reader engaged with fantastic descriptions of both time and place that add to the richness of this read.

I’d like to thank Bookbridgr along with the publishers Headline Review for allowing me to read a copy of this book which was published in paperback on 11 September 2014.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle – Kirsty Wark

Contemporary Fiction 4*'s
Contemporary Fiction

I’ll answer the most popular question first; Can Kirsty Wark write? The answer is yes, The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle is well-written, has unusual but believable characters that include a passionate gardener, a Buddhist monk and a Duchess. The pace of this book, while leisurely, doesn’t feel as if it has been deliberately slowed down with unnecessary details.

Undoubtedly aimed at a female audience, the tale told is unusual where spinster Elizabeth Pringle leaves her home, Holmlea in Lamlash on the Isle of Arran, to a woman who asked her to contact her if she were ever to sell it. The letter was written some thirty years previously and Anna, the writer, is now suffering from dementia so her daughter Martha accepts the legacy on her behalf.

Elizabeth’s story begins at the start of World War I where the Isle of Arran had the judgement of the media for only sending one man to the front although they did load 80 horses to help with the war effort. This isn’t just the story about Elizabeth though, we also learn about her mother Izzy and her best friend the Duchess of Montrose.
This is a story told alternatively by Elizabeth, in the form of a memoir, and through Martha’s eyes in the present. I have to admit I preferred Elizabeth’s story of a long-life tinged with regrets and sadness to Martha’s contemporary struggle which contained the ubiquitous bad relationship, fraught relationship with her younger sister as well as her mother’s pressing illness. For me, Martha’s life sorted itself out a little too neatly for my liking with a string of instant friendships to help smooth the path for Martha to spend her time re-furbishing her new home and discover the truth about Elizabeth’s life.

The setting of the Isle of Arran was an inspired choice and I could easily picture this beautiful setting, more so when accompanied by descriptions of the sometimes harsh weather and sometimes small town claustrophobic feel.
An easy light read which has an almost soothing feel to it this books looks at the lives of ‘ordinary’ women and their ‘ordinary’ lives in a memorable setting.

Lamlash, Isle of Arran
Lamlash, Isle of Arran

I received a copy of this book from Amazon Vine in return for this honest review.