Amity and Sorrow

by Peggy Riley

I’ve had a week or so to collect my thoughts on this one. I needed it, to be honest!

From the cover alone, (I know, don’t judge.., etc., but I do!) I think I knew I would like Amity and Sorrow. But I knew nothing else about the plot. Luckily, it’s more than a pretty face.

It’s gripping from the opening pages: a woman named Amaranth is driving her two daughters, the title characters, through an unspecified desert; from where and to where we have no idea. They drive for days on end, crash their car and come into contact with the ‘real world’. Gradually we come to realise that they have been exiled from a very strange community indeed.

Amity and Sorrow themselves are intriguing sisters; like two sides of the same bizarre coin, fighting as much against each other as against everyone else. They’re bound by a wrist strap because ‘Sorrow runs.’ Amity has the unenviable task of keeping her sister in check. Sorrow is in a way the ‘chosen one’ of the two – everything happens to her. Their fraught relationship alone is enough to sustain the reader’s interest.

However, their mother is really the crucial character. We are treated to flashbacks to Amaranth’s past, before she became ‘first wife’ and renounced any other identity she had. These juxtapositions are jarring, and I sensed definite echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale, in the way that women are nameless and described so callously; how they seem to be used and valued solely for their fertility. Amaranth constantly reflects on how her daughters are growing up, and the notion of whether she has raised them wrong. Importantly – is it too late for them to change their world view at twelve years old?

It’s full of inspired ideas and images. Riley has created a completely involving dystopia for her characters to exist in. Placing them alongside ‘normal’ people, the farmers, gradually exposes them, and us, to the strangeness of their lives, and reveals a new modern world which they have no choice but to adjust to. The reader’s revulsion for the mysterious father/husband who has been left behind intensifies throughout the novel, to the extent that the denouement has the possibility to disappoint. Luckily, it’s as revolting and wonderful as we would hope.

On the strength of this novel, I’m so excited to read more from Peggy Riley, and indeed from Tinder Press. Both the scenario and the characters are inspired creations, and I really became so invested in their story, in their interactions and gradual shift towards a more normal way of life. The words too are exquisitely crafted and feel so fresh and sparky. I already had a few people interested in reading this from my description, so looking forward to its general release so I can see what everyone else thinks!

The Girl on the Stairs

By Louise Welsh

Jane and her partner Petra have just moved into a new flat in Petra’s native Berlin – a new start for them and their unborn baby. Left alone while Petra works, and speaking only broken German, Jane keeps herelf occupied by observing the movements of the next door neighbours, Herr Mann and his teenage daughter Anna. Convinced that Anna is in some kind of trouble, she turns detective in her determination to find answers and help her. What she finds out, and the effect on her life, may make her wish she’d stayed out of it…

I found this to be a genuinely suspensful, gripping novel. Every new revelation is a surprise to the reader as well as Jane, who acts as our guide. It’s a nicely observed study in trust, and excellently plays on the fears of good intentions being misunderstood – the scene with the police about child protection made my heart sink for Jane.

I thought it was interesting that Jane was pregnant, as this seems to imbue her with an extra vulnerability and self consciousness – as a detective she’s not exactly inconspicuous. It also seems to make her a target of other characters’ sometimes negative opinions, and this makes us warm to her more. The interplay between Petra and Jane is another highlight of the novel; they are incredibly fleshed out and seem realistic as a couple, which makes for great scenes when Jane’s paranoia sets in and makes her question their relationship.

It’s a slow burn of a read, for sure – all of the thriller elements are in here, but played out at a strolling pace. In fact the first two thirds are so clearly building up the tension that the finale has to do quite a lot to deliver. Luckily it certainly does. If you enjoy this genre, you will relish the unnerving setting that Welsh has constructed, and the well-written and rewarding revelations at the end. It’s quite a short read, and one that will stay with you. I liked it immensely.

The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This kept me up for so long last night! One of those books. Even though it’s huge, the story really gathers pace towards the last section and I felt an urgency to keep up. Or maybe I just really wanted to finish and tell you what I thought…

I was surprised that a couple of people I know had read this. It passed me by when it was released, though evidently it was very successful. Set in Barcelona in the 1940s, this is the tale of ten year old Daniel Sempere, whose live is changed one day when his father reveals the existence of a treasure trove: the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. He picks a book  – The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax – and is enraptured. The mysterious author seems to be an undiscovered genius: his books never sold well and he is unknown by the general public. But Daniel’s determination to find out more about the writer leads him into a tangled web of secrets and trouble – not least from a shadowy figure who is appearing around Barcelona trying to burn all Carax’s work.

As we follow him throughout his teenage years, Daniel’s life is consumed by the search for Carax, and unpicking his way through the obstacles thrown up by the people he meets, who seem to be preventing him finding answers. Somehow Carax has a profound effect on the path he takes, the people he meets and the person he becomes.

First thing to note about this novel – it’s trying to be a lot of things. Ruiz Zafon encompasses just about every genre of fiction that you could possibly be looking for:  it’s a mystery, several different romances, a crime thriller and a historical novel. It’s so bloody clever, and I don’t mean that in a mocking way. Genuinely innovative and deft in the way it dips between plotlines and angles. It also changes perspectives regularly, and a secondary character will jump in to tell some of what they know: this really keeps the reader on their toes.

So too, does the sheer amount of characters: there’s so many that at times it’s hard to keep up, and the reader has a fair job to do separating them in their mind, especially the ones with similar names. Daniel is wonderfully drawn, somehow as sympathetic at eighteen as at ten. Some of his allies are also inspired characters – particularly Fermin, a tramp who Daniel and his father ‘rescue’ from the streets to work in their bookshop. Their nemesis Fumero, the chief of police, is a worthy villain, more so because he seems to have no guiding morals, and shows up at every turn to thwart each new development.

The lead role, though, is taken by the setting, post-war Barcelona. The place and the events are inextricable – this book is Barcelona, and the depiction of the city is raw, loving but brutally honest. I picked this up having just returned from a holiday there, it being one of my favourite places,  and found it fascinating to be able to visualise the steps Daniel is taking, to know where the bookshop is and imagine where everyone lives. The dark tone of the novel is well served by Zafon’s rich evocation of his home city and its seedy corners and alleyways.

Mainly, The Shadow of the Wind is a book about a book, quite literally, but also one about literature in general, and how in the face or civil war, and tyranny, the only peace to be found is in the havens of books and bookshops. Equally, it recognises their power, and the symbolism and meaning of what it is to burn a book, I don’t think will ever subside. All of this, plus the multitude of genres and the epic quality and length, make this novel worth reading.

The Post-Birthday World

by Lionel Shriver

Last year, I read We Need to Talk About Kevin, and was very enthusiastic about it if you remember my post on it. It got me interested in reading something else by Lionel Shriver. Well a few months ago I found, in Oxfam Books in Wimbledon, The Post-Birthday World, and decide to give it a bash. I’ve been conciously saving it up as it’s pretty hefty and, knowing Shriver’s style, will undoubtedly require my undivided attention.

Totally right! Firstly, it’s a confusing title that doesn’t make any sense until you start reading. The protagonist is Irina McGovern, a Russian-American woman living in Borough with her long-term partner Lawrence, and the story begins in the mid-1990s. The title refers to the couple’s tradition of going on with a mutual friend every year on his birthday. Ramsey Acton is a snooker player, and quite a famous one, we are told. One year, Irina has to go without Lawrence and finds herself contemplating whether to give into temptation and kiss Ramsey.

This is where the premise comes in. In one reality, Irina gives into this urge, in the other she doesn’t. Very quickly the dual narratives veer off in wildly different directions. Shriver presents us with both options, essentially writing each chapter twice.

It’s the sort of narrative so inventive that it actually makes me want to sit down and write (whilst equally making me certain that I could never plot something so well as this.) I had so much fun reading this. I was fairly lost for the first 50 or so pages (definitely read the blurb, it’s actually quite helpful in this respect!) After a few double chapters, I was completely on board with the structure, and following each story thread avidly.

There were occasional moments which didn’t work for me. A few times there was a line or scene which mirrored the previous chapter in an ironic way (i.e, instead of one character saying this, another says it, for a different reason.) It felt contrived and detracted from the otherwise absorbing story. Other small parts felt almost self congratulatory:

‘for a moment the distance between them seemed so great that this might have been the first awkward platonic reunion after a harrowing breakup.’ Which JUST happened in the alternate reality. Geddit? Of course you do, you’re not an idiot. A little more subtlety would have been welcome.

I feel mean spirited pointing this out; I don’t want to detract from the fact that this book is insanely clever. The dialogue zips along, and the depiction of a long-term relationship is expertly drawn, along with the general mundanity of life that Shriver brings across incredibly well. The final wrap up is also rather fantastic, Shriver does something very impressive which is worth all the 400+ pages.

In summary, do read The Post-Birthday World if you come across it anywhere. In fact if you are someone I know in real life, I’ll give you my copy! It requires a certain commitment to the idea, but ultimately it’s very rewarding, and something a bit different.

The Hand that First Held Mine

by Maggie O’Farrell

In the Sixties, a newly graduated young woman named Alexandra Sinclair leaves Devon for the bright lights of London, after a chance encounter with a stranger  sets the course of the rest of her life.

In the present day, a young couple, Elina and Ted, are struggling to cope following the birth of their new baby. Elina is exhausted, but she is equally worried about her husband and his state of mind, since he started having his memory ‘episodes’ again…

Annoyingly, I think that might be all I can tell you about the plot without giving things away. At first (and indeed for at least the first half of the novel) there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the two stories that are being told. The intricate wrapping of each story gradually unravels and reveals some stark and unexpected truths – who knows who, who used to be who, who is lying. It’s a clever decision of the author’s to use present and past narratives, and she picks the times she leaves them to hop back and forth absolutely perfectly.

It’s easy to get attached to these characters. Lexie, in particular, is a beguiling creation: ahead of her time, independent, and strong despite what life throws at her. Elina is a wonderful portrait of a woman completely out of her depth in her new role as a parent, although not as much, as it turns out, as her husband. It’s amazing that the main characters manage to remain sympathetic throughout the passage of time.

Names are hugely important in this novel, and often it’s the misnaming or shrouding of a name that hides the truth. It’s really compelling material that gives the reader some work to do. I did figure it out towards the end, but the novel completely had me all the way through.

I hugely enjoyed The Hand that First Held Mine. I think I was expecting something about romantic love, but it’s far more about people in general, about families, connections, and memories. Beautiful, and really intelligent, Maggie O’Farrell has written a winner here. I recommend this highly.

The Thread

by Victoria Hislop

Sorry for the huge delay with this latest review. Life, blah blah, bad blogger.

I don’t read a huge amount of historical fiction so was fairly unsure of how much The Thread would appeal to me. In fact I was so transfixed, it didn’t take me long to read at all.  This is the first book I’ve read by Victoria Hislop and it definitely won’t be the last.

The prologue is set in modern day Thessaloniki, Greece. An elderly couple tell their grandson, for the first time, the real story of this beautiful, old, proud city. As we first encounter it in 1917, its Christian, Jewish and Muslim families are living side-by-side in harmony, and the book charts the ensuing changes and countless hardships of its residents, from a catastrophic fire, to a civil war and a world war.

The protagonist is Katerina Sarafoglou, who as a young girl is transported to Thessaloniki from Asia Minor, finding herself separated from her mother and lost in a foreign city. She and her new family end up on what could be the world’s friendliest street, Irini Street. As she grows and becomes an accomplished seamstress, she sees the full spectrum of life in the city: making clothes for the richest residents, developing strong bonds with her teachers, her friends and her surrogate family. She is invaluable, and maybe this makes her the running ‘thread’ of the novel. As we already know from the prologue what the outcome is for her and for another of the characters, you would think this would detract from the enjoyment of the narrative, but it really doesn’t.

The young children – Katerina and her friends Maria and Sofia, Elias and Dimitri – grow so organically and naturally throughout the narrative that it’s hardly noticeable when they are suddenly thirty rather than five. This is an incredible achievement of the writing. However sometimes it did feel as though things were moving too quickly, and I wanted the action to just pause for a moment longer, rather than move on a couple of years again.

It all fits together so perfectly, about 40 years of rich history bookended by the sweet prologue and epilogue of 2007. The ending couple of chapters are so full of moments of clarity, harking back to the very beginning, that’s it’s genuinely a treat to be a part of. Rarely have I felt so rewarded as a reader.

Hislop paints Thessaloniki as an almost magical place, unwavering and unbreakable. The city too could be the ‘thread’ of the title, the tie that connects the past and the present. I’d really urge you to read The Thread and get swept up in this place. Katerina and Dimitri never want to leave, and you won’t either.

The Forgotten Waltz

by Anne Enright

I think reading this was a bit of an attempt at worthiness by me. I haven’t read Anne Enright before, but I knew she had won the Booker for The Gathering a few years ago (is it any good?) This seemed like a snappy read but something that I expected to be well written. Forget the ‘worthy’ thing, that doesn’t make me sound very good!

The Forgotten Waltz is the story of an extra-marital affair conducted in modern day Ireland, between Gina and Sean. Gina is our narrator, Sean is the handsome older man, married with a daughter. So far, so standard. The intrigue is more in the way that we are told the story. On their first meeting, Gina tells the reader what has happened and is about to happen, painting a scene with the components so that we are there too – ‘He is about to turn around – but he does not know this yet.’ We hear how the affair begins and progresses, but always with the inflection of Gina’s current mindset. She wants to rewrite the events to fit how they should have played out – for example, if you ask her now, she will say she loved Sean at first sight. This device is, for me, in equal parts frustrating and involving.

Much of the narrative really centres around Sean’s daughter Evie. She affects her father in such a way that Gina has some trouble accepting that he will never be as in love with her as he is with his daughter. Gina wonders if the two of them have affected the girl’s life with their affair, from the moment she walked in on a kiss at New Year. We are never sure if Gina feels guilt or a mere idle interest at this possibility.

Sean is not particularly loveable, but then neither is Gina. Even Evie is a midly irritating presence. The characters are not really the point. The essence of the novel lies in the craft of the phrasings, in the slow-reveal narrative.

I didn’t love it, but I don’t think it’s really possible to love this book, it’s so detatched. Admirably written, but I struggled to find anything to cling on to.