Category Archives: Book reviews

Readathon – Hour 1 – Opening Survey

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?

I’m in Nottingham, in the UK.  It’s reasonably bright (you know, for Britain) but quite blustery!

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?

the eleventh letter

The Eleventh Letter by Tom Tomaszewski

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?

A difficult one, but I’m looking forward to getting stuck into some chocolate chip shortbread cookies later 🙂

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!

I’m Jo, and I’ve been blogging for a little over two years, but I’ve always been an avid reader, even as a child.  I like to read a variety of different types of novel, but I do particularly like dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?

This is my third readathon, and I think I need to factor in more regular breaks and a bit of time to get up and move around during the event.  I’ve said it before, but I’m really not very good at following my own advice!

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4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4 3 2 1

I love novels that look at what might have happened had this happened instead of that, or if a different decision had been made, and so I was instantly intrigued when Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 appeared on the long list for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

On March 3, 1947, in the maternity ward of Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the one and only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson, is born. From that single beginning, Ferguson’s life will take four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four Fergusons made of the same genetic material, four boys who are the same boy, will go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives. Family fortunes diverge. Loves and friendships and intellectual passions contrast. Chapter by chapter, the rotating narratives evolve into an elaborate dance of inner worlds enfolded within the outer forces of history as, one by one, the intimate plot of each Ferguson’s story rushes on across the tumultuous and fractured terrain of mid twentieth-century America. A boy grows up-again and again and again.

As inventive and dexterously constructed as anything Paul Auster has ever written 4 3 2 1 is an unforgettable tour de force, the crowning work of this masterful writer’s extraordinary career.

Structurally, 4 3 2 1 is surprisingly (deceptively) straightforward.  The first chapter (1.0) gives you the background on Ferguson’s family, focusing mainly on his grandparents and parents, how they met, when they married, etc.  From there, chapters 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4 cover the four different versions of Ferguson’s childhood, before moving on in 2.1, 2.2, etc.  It’s worth knowing that the x.1 chapters always feature the same version of Ferguson, and this should have made it easier to keep track of which one was which, I still had to remind myself what had happened to each in the previous chapter.  To add to the confusion, some characters appear in multiple versions of Ferguson’s life, and in varying capacities – his girlfriend in one version might be his cousin in another, for example, and because of the similarities, it is easy to get the tales mixed up.

The first chapters in the novel (the 1.x chapters) are quite similar, and cover his life as a small child.  Those chapters all end quite differently, however, and set the tone for what comes next in his life as these four paths begin to diverge, and by the end of the novel, the four Fergusons find themselves in quite different places and / or circumstances.  I would struggle to pick out a preferred narrative of the four however – I found them all to be entertaining and engaging in their own way.  Some are happier than others, but each Ferguson goes through his own highs and lows at different times.

Going into this novel, I was expecting it to cover a longer span of Ferguson’s life.  Having finished it, I understand why it doesn’t, but I was a little surprised that it spent so much time on his late teens, and ends with Ferguson in his twenties.  A lot happens to Ferguson (all the Fergusons) in that time, and it uses the momentous (and often calamitous) events as a backdrop to his story – those moments that you’ll always remember where you were when IT happened.

The danger with this kind of novel is that it becomes repetitive, and I did feel that I was covering familiar ground at times.  There is a nice little twist at the end, however, which I didn’t see coming, and overall, I really enjoyed this novel.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

the underground railroad

The Underground Railroad is one of those books that I’ve been wanting to read since it’s publication in 2016, but sadly never quite got around to until my book group chose to read it in September.  Given all the hype surrounding it, I was wondering whether it would live up to my expectations, and I think that I was a surprised to enjoy it as much as I did.

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.

The Underground Railroad isn’t a new story, and there are plenty of novels covering slavery, the horrors faced on the plantations, and what came of those who dared to run.  But whilst it’s not new, it doesn’t make it any less important, and slavery, its abolition in the mid-nineteenth century and what came after had far reaching affects that can still be felt today.  I personally felt that this was one of the better examples of a novel tackling this difficult subject, and I particularly loved that the “underground railroad” – a term used to denote the covert movement of slaves and those that helped them – became a physical entity in the novel.

Whitehead’s portrayal of plantations and the lives of slaves comes across as being incredibly accurate, and Whitehead successfully captures the horror of how they lived and how they were treated.

A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.

One element that I thought that Whitehead did particularly well was in avoiding trivialising what happens to Cora.  Much of it is expected, both by the reader and by Cora herself, and so it would be extremely easy to not dwell on it, and to have Cora accept her circumstances and move on.  Except that, expected or not, it would have a lasting effect on a person, and without labouring the point, Whitehead portrays this extremely well.  Similarly, I thought that there were subtle elements to the novel that showcased what life was like – for example, the way in which Ridgeway referring to those he rounded up as “it” rather than he or she.  I found this to be subtle yet shocking when I picked up on it, and felt angry at the dehumanisation of these individuals.

I also liked the characterisation in the novel.  Cora is a particularly strong and bright individual, and is always wary of becoming too lax, even (particularly) when things seem to be going well.  For entirely different reasons, I also thought that Ridgeway was brilliantly portrayed.  Ridgeway chases Cora with a persistence bordering on obsession, likely because her mother was the one slave that escaped him when she ran years before.  Yet he also comes across as being somewhat atypical, and whilst unpleasant, his multi-faceted character is an interesting one.

The Underground Railroad does jump around in time a little, but I felt that this was well done, and offered a sense of suspense and unease at what may be coming next.  And it’s not all doom and gloom – there is an element of hope offered.  This is a brilliantly written novel that is easy to read despite some of the subject matter, and it’s one that will stay me for a long time to come.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Blog Tour: Death in the Stars by Frances Brody

Death in the Stars - Cover

Today I’m delighted to share with you my review of Death in the Stars, the ninth outing for private investigator Kate Shackleton.

Yorkshire, 1927. Eclipse fever grips the nation, and when beloved theatre star Selina Fellini approaches trusted sleuth Kate Shackleton to accompany her to a viewing party at Giggleswick School Chapel, Kate suspects an ulterior motive.

During the eclipse, Selina’s friend and co-star Billy Moffatt disappears and is later found dead in the chapel grounds. Kate can’t help but dig deeper and soon learns that two other members of the theatre troupe died in similarly mysterious circumstances in the past year. With the help of Jim Sykes and Mrs Sugden, Kate sets about investigating the deaths – and whether there is a murderer in the company.

When Selina’s elusive husband Jarrod, injured in the war and subject to violent mood swings, comes back on the scene, Kate begins to imagine something far deadlier at play, and wonders just who will be next to pay the ultimate price for fame…

As I’ve mentioned, Death in the Stars is the ninth book in the Kate Shackleton Mysteries, featuring the wonderful Kate and her small team comprised of Mrs Sugden and former police officer Jim Sykes, but you don’t need to have read the whole series to appreciate this one.  I’ve only read the previous novel, Death at the Seaside, and I don’t feel that this puts the reader at a disadvantage at all.

I have to admit that I did prefer this novel to the previous one.  In Death at the Seaside, I felt that Kate, who was on holiday at the time, wasn’t fully invested in the case, which she (almost literally) stumbled across.  Here, Kate and her team are involved from the beginning, and I felt that this novel had more investigative work involved in order to solve the mystery which made it a more interesting tale.

I really like Kate as a character, and I’m sure that her chosen profession would have been somewhat frowned upon in the 1920s.  Interestingly, Brody chooses not to explore this element in the novel (it may be covered in earlier novels in the series), which was something I was quite grateful for.  Whilst this might have given the novel a more real setting, not everything has to comment upon the social standards of the time, and this allows the reader to focus on the crime and spotting the clues before the big reveal at the end.

Death in the Stars depicts a fascinating mystery with multiple clues, suspects and red herrings thrown in along the way.  I did work out the “whodunnit”, but I of course kept reading to make sure that I was correct!  A wonderful “cosy crime” novel with an excellent main character.

Death in the Stars is published today by Piatkus – many thanks to Clara Diaz at Little, Brown Book Group for providing a copy for review, and for inviting me to join the blog tour.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Make sure you check out the other stops on the blog tour!

Blog Tour Poster

About the Author:Frances Brody Oct17

Frances Brody is the author of the Kate Shackleton mysteries, as well as many stories and plays for BBC Radio, scripts for television and four sagas, one of which won the HarperCollins Elizabeth Elgin Award. Her stage plays have been toured by several theatre companies and produced at Manchester Library Theatre, the Gate and Nottingham Playhouse, and Jehad was nominated for a Time Out Award.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

exit west

My third book from this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  This was a title that I hadn’t heard of until its Booker longlisting, and one that I was instantly intrigued by.

Nadia and Saeed are two ordinary young people, attempting to do an extraordinary thing – to fall in love – in a world turned upside down. Theirs will be a love story but also a story about how we live now and how we might live tomorrow, of a world in crisis and two human beings travelling through it.

Civil war has come to the city which Nadia and Saeed call home. Before long they will need to leave their motherland behind – when the streets are no longer useable and the unknown is safer than the known. They will join the great outpouring of people fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world…

Exit West opens in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war.  Things seem relatively normal at first, with our two protagonists meeting for coffee, an evening meal, and going through the initial steps of establishing a new relationship.  Things do soon take a downward turn as the war begins in earnest, however, and particularly when the internet and their mobile phones are cut off, making communication increasingly difficult, and causing a great deal of concern over the safety of each other, their families etc..

Nadia and Saeed are initially unable to leave their homeland, until they begin the hear rumours of doors appearing – doors that will take them to other countries and away from their war-torn homes.  Through this element of magical realism, Hamid portrays the issues facing migrants as well as those who, willingly or otherwise, take them in.  Whilst this is extremely relevant to today’s world, I personally felt that the treatment of the refugees and the feelings of those who live in the places that they’ve migrated to was a little over-simplified.  This is very much the style of Exit West, however, which adopts a sparse narrative style throughout.

Whilst the story focuses upon Nadia and Saeed for the most part, there were also little vignettes depicting unnamed characters completely unrelated to the main storyline.  I wasn’t convinced that these sections (there aren’t many, and they are brief) added much to the novel, other than perhaps showing that life, elsewhere, was continuing, and I found them to be a little distracting.

I loved the sound of this novel, but unfortunately found it to be not quite to my taste.  I like the premise, but I felt that this was an exercise in style over substance.  That said, the Booker does like novels that experiment with structure and style, and so this may go on to win the prize, although I’m not convinced that it should.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

lincoln in the bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo is the second novel I’ve read from this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist, and one that I was intrigued by when it was first published earlier this year.

The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional – Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?

Lincoln in the Bardo is told from multiple perspectives, and whilst this in itself isn’t unusual, the structure Saunders has chosen is an original one, with each sentence / paragraph etc. clearly marked as to who is speaking (something akin to a play), and with characters often finishing one another’s statements.  This may sound confusing and a little disjointed, but once I was into the rhythm and the structure of the narrative, I barely noticed it, and I found that the unique style worked very well.

Additionally, for the sections not focused upon the cemetery, where much of the narrative takes place, the writing is depicted as being from various reports, articles and books about the time.  I did look up a few of these, and found them to be fictional, (as far as I could tell from Google!), although they do sound very much like official records – I can’t say whether they are all figments of Saunders’ imagination, but the ones I looked up did seem to be, and I thought them cleverly done.

Of the multitude of characters, there are some voices that are used more frequently, with more time taken over their backstories.  I found that each one had a distinct voice, and that there was little risk of confusion as to who was speaking at any given time (even without the labelling to say who was speaking).  The characters we hear from are all languishing in the Bardo, which is something like a Tibetan purgatory, these characters being unwilling or unable to accept their condition, even referring to their coffins as “sick boxes”, rather than using terminology more indicative of where they are.  These are people who can move on, yet choose not to, perhaps delaying their judgement:

We are shades, immaterial, and since that judgement pertains to what we did (or did not do) in that previous (material) realm, correction is now forever beyond our means. Our work there is finished; we only await payment.

This is a quick and rewarding read if you’re able to look past the slightly odd structure, which I imagine might grate on some readers, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this went on to win this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

history of wolves

History of Wolves, the debut novel from Emily Fridlund, has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and is a novel that I liked the sound of as soon as the longlist was announced, and that I bought straightaway.

Fourteen-year-old Linda lives with her parents in an ex-commune beside a lake in the beautiful, austere backwoods of northern Minnesota. The other girls at school call Linda ‘Freak’, or ‘Commie’. Her parents mostly leave her to her own devices, whilst the other inhabitants have grown up and moved on.

So when the perfect family – mother, father and their little boy, Paul – move into the cabin across the lake, Linda insinuates her way into their orbit. She begins to babysit Paul and feels welcome, that she finally has a place to belong.

Yet something isn’t right. Drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand, Linda must make a choice. But how can a girl with no real knowledge of the world understand what the consequences will be?

Linda, or Madeleine, is a fascinating character who comes across as being naïve in some ways, yet wise beyond her years in others.  As you might expect from someone who is 14 years old, she is still developing, both physically but also in terms of her personality, and whilst she puts across a front of being comfortable in her own skin, it’s clear that she’s incredibly lonely, and this becomes one of the main themes of the novel.  She lives in relative isolation, her journey from school to home is both long and would be considered somewhat arduous to many, involving several miles of walking if she has to stay late at school for any reason, and she has no friends, being considered something of a freak by her classmates.

It therefore comes as no surprise that she tries to ingratiate herself in the lives of the Gardners when they move in across the lake from her own shack (to call it a house would be stretching things a little), and she soon becomes babysitter to their four-year-old son, Paul.  At the same time, she gets a new history teacher at her school, and she desires his attention as well, in all the wrong ways.

It’s clear from the beginning of the novel that there is a tragic element to the plot, and whilst the what isn’t surprising, the why is a little more shocking, although all too plausible.  Somewhat unusually, the tragedy comes at around the mid-way point of the novel, and I found that I enjoyed the novel more up to this point.  The first half focuses almost solely on Linda as a 14-year-old and her experiences with Paul and the Gardners and the build up to this event that the reader is expecting from the outset.  From the midway point, it jumps around in time more,  and includes insights into Linda’s adult life.  Whilst I can see why it was done like this, I personally didn’t enjoy the second half quite as much, and I found the first half to be much more gripping.  That said, the second half gives insight into the trial and what actually happened – events that Linda didn’t fully understand at the time, and so it is necessary if only to resolve the event for the reader.

I really enjoyed History of Wolves, although I’m not entirely convinced that it will go on to win this year’s Booker.  It won’t be to everyone’s taste, particularly because of a somewhat odd final chapter, and I did feel that some themes were raised and then not fully explored (although it’s possible that I’ve missed the bigger picture) but Fridlund’s writing is beautiful, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐