Review: Larchfield by Polly Clark

What I thought:

This beautifully and poetically written book is set in the small town of Helensburgh, Scotland in the dual time-frame of now (Dora) and 1930 (Wystan). Dora Fielding is a newly-married poet from Oxford and moves to the rather insular town of Helensburgh for her husband Kit’s job, while pregnant with their first child. Thrown into motherhood, and newly jobless and friendless in this small town by the sea, that seems to treat newcomers with not just suspicion but utter contempt, Dora finds herself becoming so isolated that she fears she has lost all sense of her former self and struggles to work out who she really is now. However, when she learns that famous and respected poet W.H. Auden (Wystan) also used to live in Helensburgh, Dora becomes fascinated by finding out more about him.

Back in 1930, Wystan is having his own problems with being an outsider when appointed as a teacher at the school Larchfield in Helensburgh, and worse than that an English one who dresses eccentrically and attracts rumours of being a pervert (or, homosexual to you and I) which is something that Wystan himself is trying to come to terms with in an age when it was not only not acceptable but illegal. Preferring a pen and paper to racing around a rugby field, Wystan is ostracised by most of his peers and finds solace in the friendship of a dying middle-aged woman and a private affair with a local man.

It isn’t clear, other than the themes of loneliness and unacceptance and survival, how Dora and Wystan will be thrown together until about half way through the book. Forced into her own fantasy to escape the reality of bullying neighbours and her loss of any sense of who she used to be, Dora forms a friendship with Wystan that allows her to escape her stifling and frightening reality. Apparently, the author based Dora’s experience on her own, having also relocated to Helensburgh with a small baby and anti-English feeling following her around and the isolation and frustration could be clearly felt through the pages.

It was obvious to me, reading this book, that author Polly Clark is a poet as the narrative is lyrical and tender and what felt, for me, a gentle and quiet read despite the themes: loneliness mental health, courage, bullying among them. It certainly didn’t feel like a debut novel and it captivated me from the start with its strong sense of empathy and humanity.

Verdict:

Larchfield was a book I felt I wanted to savour and not attempt to read quickly due to my ever-increasing TBR pile. It was a book I looked forward to getting back to when I wasn’t reading it, not because it was a great thriller or mystery and I needed to know what was happening, but because I was happy in the company of the characters and the gorgeous prose.

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Have you read Larchfield? What did you think?

Review: The Vanishing by Sophia Tobin

vanishingWhat I thought:

I really don’t like posting negative reviews but I do feel it’s important to be honest about a book. After all,  one person’s trash is another person’s treasure and all that (not saying that this book is trash, it just didn’t work for me).

I thought I would love The Vanishing. I wanted to love it. The blurb and the reviews I had seen made it sound like it had almost been written for me: Bronte-esque (massive tick), historical (tick), set in Yorkshire (tick – I live there), not just in Yorkshire but on the bleak Yorkshire moors (massive tick), gothic (tick), mystery (tick), drama (tick). So why then did I struggle to even like this book, let alone love it?

The Vanishing started out so well. From the prologue and the first few chapters I really thought I was going to enjoy this book. It almost felt a little du Maurier – sneaking out of an inn in the dead of night, into a waiting carriage; what or who were they running from and why? Gothic and mysterious, it grabbed me and threatened not to let me go. But then it did. And not just lightly; I felt I had been unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road and was left wondering what the hell happened?

Here are my problems: Although clearly set in the past, it really could have been any time. References to bonnets and cloaks and candles obviously point to a previous time in history but I was told these things, rather than made to feel them. There was not enough imagery that enabled me to imagine the smells, sounds and atmosphere of either Yorkshire or London. I live in Yorkshire and one of my favourite places in the world is the Yorkshire moors – bleak, open, beautiful, rugged, wild. While I could certainly get a sense of place, it didn’t seep into my bones, and that’s what a really well-written book does for me: makes me believe I am right there in the thick of it.

I have read reviews that liken the writing to the Bronte sisters. Maybe that is unfair to even try to compare, as nobody can surpass the Brontes as far as I’m concerned, but even so, I really couldn’t even draw any real parallels other than the location, time period or attempt at what appeared to be trying to recreate elements of some well-known characters from their books. The characters were mostly never more than two-dimensional for me, although I did really take to Thomas Digby who was really one of the few likable characters in the book. I was constantly perplexed by Annaleigh (the protagonist) from her apparent falling in love with Marcus Twentyman, a character who had barely touched the pages at the beginning and appeared to have no redeeming qualities at all (certainly not in a brooding and aloof Mr Rochester or Mr Darcy way, but also in any way that I could fathom to cause Annaleigh to fall for him), through to her increasingly violent actions that felt more psychopath than revengeful. The other characters were never fully fleshed out enough for me either also seemed to blow hot and cold depending on which direction the author wanted to take the book at that time rather than for any discernable reason for their change in behaviour.

There were things that I liked, however, and I think it’s important to mention these: the sense of claustrophobia and isolation was palpable and I liked the brief respite that Thomas Digby and his family brought to the book. The cover is gorgeous too.

Verdict:

I am left with a feeling that is somewhere between perplexed, disappointed and scratching my head with incomprehension. Unbelievable motives, unconvincing and clichéd characters and a feeling that I have wasted several hours of my life. Every now and then I would have a moment of hope / joy when I thought the book might just get back on track again but unfortunately those were all too infrequent and brief.

A massive disappointment for me, but hey, each to their own and there are plenty more positive reviews of this book than there are negative and anyway, no press is bad press if it gets people talking, right? I am really keen to hear what others think of this book as there seem to be largely polarised views between the lovers and haters with little in between.

Throwback Thursday: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

throwbackthursday

Throwback Thursday is a meme created by Renee at It’s Book Talk to share old favourite books rather than just the new shiny ones. This is a great idea to bring back to life some much-loved books. Please feel free to join in.

This weeks choice is taken from my 2010 review.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

esme

What I thought:

I completely fell in love with this book in the one sitting it took me to read it (because I just couldn’t put it down).

This is the story 2 young girls, Kitty and Esme, growing up in the 20’s and 30’s in first colonial India and then in Edinburgh when their parents move back home. They are sisters who share everything and love each other very much yet one is the dutiful, polite, home-maker type and the other is the slightly rebellious younger sister who wants to stay on at school rather than marry a nice boy. After a series of events (which include trying on her Mothers clothes of all things!) and a shocking incident that happens to her, Esme (the younger sister) is sent to a lunatic asylum and disowned by her own family and where she remains for the next 61 years.

In between this story told by Esme and also Kitty (whom now has Alzheimer’s) we also flit between the past and the present with Kitty’s Granddaughter, Iris, who also narrates her story. The way O’Farrell has woven the 3 women’s voices so intricately together to reveal only parts of the story at a time is just amazing and also serves to keep you turning those pages well into the night. The story is so beautifully told and the twists and surprises mean that you can’t possibly put it down even for a minute.

Verdict:

I don’t really know what I expected of this book, but I certainly wasn’t prepared to be so blown away by it.  I really do highly recommend this book and hope you enjoy as much as I did.

Update to original review:

Being a massive advocate and fund-raiser for mental health issues, this story is even more shocking to me now. The reasons that people were locked up in asylums in years gone by is horrifying. Thank god that things are changing for the better now (and still need to change radically). I could do (and might do) a whole post on its own about this at some point so watch this space…

Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

gustavWhat I thought:

I am still trying to collect my thoughts on this book. I don’t actually give star ratings on my blog, as I have often found that after reflecting on a book for a few days (even weeks or months) my view changes (some become books that I have forgotten so easily, and others that I didn’t initially think were utterly fantastic can refuse to let me go and I find myself thinking about them long after the last page was turned). So, now to my point: while reading this book, I could easily have awarded anywhere between 2.5 and 5 stars depending on which point in the book I was at. A quandary indeed.

The Gustav Sonata is set in Switzerland and spans 60 years, starting in the years after WW2. Split into 3 parts (like a sonata) it follows first two young boys, Gustav and Anton (one Christian, one Jewish), and their blossoming friendship, then going back 10 years the book takes on Gustav’s parents relationship and we discover the reasons for Gustav’s mother’s aloofness towards her son, and finally, we are taken a long way forward in time to when the boys are grown up.

Gustav’s story is one of loneliness and longing. A dead father and a distant mother, with whom he spends his life trying to make love him, and his need to please everyone around him, usually for nothing in return, is incredibly sad. I had a profound sense of Gustav’s isolation and yearning for acceptance. I particularly liked the second part, however, which focused on Gustav’s parents and his father’s part in saving Jews, which his mother Emilie blames his death on. This gave me more of an insight into Switzerland’s part (or non-part) in the war, and one I would like to know a lot more about. As a country, it may not have been involved, but its people still lived in fear of being dragged into it and its repercussions have reverberated since.

I’m not sure how I would sum this book up if I’m honest. There were themes of war, friendship, love, mental health, homosexuality, extra-marital affairs, loneliness and hope. It was harrowing but never sentimental.  It was, ultimately I believe, a story of the issues of identity and its consequences.

Verdict:

I loved this book and was moved by it, and yet there were parts that left me strangely cold. The boys, as adults, seemed hardly to have matured at all which is a shame and in terms of character development, I didn’t feel there really was any. Or perhaps that was the point? The blurb talks about the book being about friendship but I found it very one-sided, and never really felt the friendship in maybe the way I was intended to. That said, I would still highly recommend this book: Rose Tremain is a fantastic writer.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

 

Review: Sealskin by Su Bristow

SealSkin-Vis-3.jpgWhat I thought:

Have you ever read a book where, when you turn the final page, you are simultaneously enraptured, enchanted and bereft at having to leave the characters right there on the page and carry on without them? This is that book.

Inspired by the legend of Selkies (seals who can transform into people) and set in a small fishing village in Scotland, this is a book about love, redemption and an awakening, all with a sprinkling of magic. Donald is a young man who is always on the outside, preferring his own company to being among those who mock him and one day, while out on the seas, he is involved in something that will change the course of his life forever. The act is shocking and unexpected but it is a talented writer who can lead you gently in Donald’s footsteps as he learns to atone himself and allow the reader to begin to forgive him as he begins to forgive himself.

What did I love most about this book? Everything. Really, just everything. There was almost a childlike wonder to reading this book; a fairytale that bewitched and enchanted. It is the sort of story that I would want someone to read to me while tucked up under a blanket with a hot chocolate. That’s how it made me feel. I miss it now it’s over. I miss them.

Haunting and evocative with such fluid prose, this is a book of beauty and magic. I fell in love: with the landscape, the cast of characters and with the awakening of a whole village. I was there in the pages. I tasted the salt on my lips, I felt the wind whip through my hair, I felt the bitter cold of rain-soaked clothes and I felt the freedom of running through the grass with abandon.

Verdict:

This book is special.  January is not yet over and I already know that Sealskin will be in my Top 10 books for 2017. I will be recommending this book to everyone I know. And I will read it again. And again.

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NB/ Thank you to Orenda Books for a copy of this wonderful book which I chose to read and review honestly.

The Classics Club

5 years to read the classics

A blog I love (and only discovered a few months ago) called A Room of One’s Own has decided to start a Classics Club and I am LOVING this idea!

The rules are pretty flexible but basically you have to list 50 or 75 or 100 classic books that you want to read in the next 5 years (these can be changed at any time – which is great for me ‘cos I am fickle ;)) and you have 5 years to read them. There are so many classics that I really want to read and I am loving the timeframe as it means I don’t have to panic-read them all this year (or fall off the wagon as I don’t think it will be do-able).

Jillian (A Room of One’s Own) has also set up a private group on Goodreads for all those who are joining in the Classics Club to share links and posts and reviews etc.

So after much thought and deliberation, here is my (initial) list of books I want to read. I have gone for sixty as that equals one per month for the next 5 years which I think should be more than do-able.

 

 

  1700’s (4)

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

 

 

  1800’s (31)

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

The Beth Book by Sarah Grand

Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac

Germinal by Emile Zola

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

The Odd Women by George Gissing

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott

Heidi by Johanna Spyri

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope

Can you Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

Armadale by Wilkie Collins

Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Persuasion by Jane Austen

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Esther Waters by George Moore

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

Complete Short Fiction by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde

 

 

  1900’s (25)

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E M Forster

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

The Mad Ache by Francoise Sagan

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

The Distance Between Us by Dorothy Whipple

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Justine by Lawrence Durrell

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

Daniel Martin by John Fowles

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

  Will you be joining us?

  Any of the ones above an absolute mus-read-right-now?

A Bookish Tour of Paris (Part 1)

Pain au chocolat for breakfast! YUM!

Ooh là là…

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was going to Paris for 4 days as  present for my 40th birthday (last year): I’m back now after having had the most fantastic time and wanted to share with you some of my trip as there are so many lovely bookish landmarks in Paris:

Mr Whisperer and I stayed in a gorgeous little Parisien appartment in Bastille right next to a patiserie where we got pain au chocolats and croissants each morning to go with our coffee overlooking  a little courtyard. Although we were only a couple of minutes walk from the metro we decided to spend our few days there cycling round Paris instead. Cycling is THE ONLY way to see Paris! You get to see all the bits you don’t travelling by metro and places that you would never have time to see all on foot. It was so easy to get around and we came across places we wouldn’t normally have this way. To top it all it was so much fun!

The first day we went on an organised cycle tour with Bike About Tours which took us to places more off the beaten track (rather than the big well known sites that we can all get to on our own). I can highly recommend this company if you go to Paris.

 

 

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

The first place we stopped on the tour was the Jewish memorial in Le Marais which I was really keen to see as I had read Sarah’s Key only last year. This is part of The Roundup and we stopped at a boys school where 400 Jewish children were forceably taken and sent to the camps.

Amber our tour guide next to the wall of names of those who had helped hide or save Jewish people in France in WW2

I really enjoyed Sarah’s Key (particulalry the historical part of the story) as I hadn’t heard of The Roundup before then. I also watched the film that came out at the end of last year which I can highly recommend too.

 

  Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

The next part of the tour took us to Victor Hugo’s house which is part of Places des Voges. It was once a royal residence and is now split into homes which hardly ever come onto the market (apart from one about 6 years ago for 25.5 million Euros!). We didn’t actually go into the house (although you can) but it was exciting for me to see the author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (neither of which I have read yet although both are on my radar).

Victor Hugo's house

 

  The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

We then went on to an area of Paris called Les Halles which used to host the biggest and oldest market in Paris. The market is the setting for Zola’s book The Belly of Paris. It doesn’t exist in the same place anymore (in fact it is now just a busy junction with shops and fast food places) but what I did find interesting is the poison shop that still remains all these years later. The market was rife with the pitter-patter of tiny paws so there was a shop selling rat poison right next to the market which still has the stuffed bodies of rats from 1925 hanging in the window.

 

Cute!!

 

  Keep a lookout for the next stops on the bookish tour of Paris – coming soon 🙂