Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Half Blood Blues

Title: Half Blood Blues

Author: Esi Edugyan

Number of pages: 343

Started: 28 August 2011

Finished: 31 August 2011

Opening words:

Chip told us not to go out. Said, don't you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot - rot was cheap, see, the drink of French peasants, but it stayed like nails in you gut. Didn’t even look right, all mossy and black in the bottle. Like drinking swamp water

Plot summary:

The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero's bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there's more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero's fate was settled. Half Blood Blues weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don't tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong...

What I thought:

Half Blood Blues was an unusual look at the Nazi take over of Europe. It tells the story of some black jazz musicians who are caught up in the Nazi invasion of France. Of late there seem to have been a lot of novels that are set in two time frames. So there is the World War 2 element and the modern day looking back and coming to terms.

It was a decent read, although perhaps slightly overly long. I think having read some of the other books of the long list, it didn’t feel entirely original given that it was another tale of people coming to terms with the actions of their youth. I think reading this book independent of getting through a list would perhaps have made me feel more positive about it. It was a book that was worth reading but I felt could have been a bit tighter written.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Derby Day

Title: Derby Day

Author: D.J. Taylor

Number of pages: 404

Started: 25 August 2011

Finished: 28 August 2011

Opening words:

Sky the colour of a fish's underside; grey smoke diffusing over a thousand house-fronts; a wind moving in from the east: London.

Plot summary:

As the shadows lengthen over the June grass, all England is heading for Epsom Downs – high life and low life, society beauties and Whitechapel street girls, bookmakers and gypsies, hawkers and acrobats, punters and thieves. Whole families stream along the Surrey back-roads, towards the greatest race of the year. Hopes are high, nerves are taut, hats are tossed in the air – this is Derby Day.

For months people have been waiting and plotting for this day. Even in dark November, when the wind whistles through the foggy London courts, the alehouses and gentlemen’s clubs echo to the sound of disputed odds. In Belgrave Square old Mr Gresham is baffled by his tigerish daughter Rebecca, whose intentions he cannot fathom. In the clubs of St James’s rakish Mr Happerton plays billiards with his crony Captain Raff, while in darkest Lincolnshire sad Mr Davenant broods over his financial embarrassments and waits for his daughter’s new governess. Across the channel the veteran burglar Mr Pardew is packing his bags to return, to the consternation of the stalwart detective Captain McTurk. Everywhere money jingles and plans are laid. Uniting them all is the champion horse Tiberius, on whose performance half a dozen destinies depend.

What I thought:

This was a Victorian novel based around the Derby. Horse related books and most Victorian novels are not really my thing, and this book did nothing to change my view on that. It was partly a detective novel, and partly a tale of human relationships, but it never really came to life for me. I also thought the book could have been shorter.

That said, I think this book will hold rather more appeal to others. It just wasn’t for me.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Testament of Jessie Lamb

Title: The Testament of Jessie Lamb

Author: Jane Rogers

Number of pages: 260

Started: 23 August 2011

Finished: 24 August 2011

Opening words:

The house is very quiet now he's gone. I get up carefully without falling over and shuffle to the window. The light is partly blocked by gigantic leylandii in next door's garden. No-one lives in this row any more.

Plot summary:

Women are dying in their millions. Some blame scientists, some see the hand of God, some see human arrogance reaping the punishment it deserves. Jessie Lamb is an ordinary girl living in extraordinary times: as her world collapses, her idealism and courage drive her towards the ultimate act of heroism. If the human race is to survive, it s up to her. But is Jessie heroic? Or is she, as her father fears, impressionable, innocent, incapable of understanding where her actions will lead? Set just a month or two in the future, in a world irreparably altered by an act of biological terrorism, The Testament of Jessie Lamb explores a young woman s determination to make her life count for something, as the certainties of her childhood are ripped apart.

What I thought:

This book had great potential. I really liked the plot idea for the book and had high hopes for it. Unfortunately it didn’t live up to them.

I didn’t think the book was very well written, which is surprising given the author teaches writing. The way the book was structured – the main narrative interspersed with diary entries – actually detracted from any sense of suspense that might otherwise have built up. I also thought the plot did not develop very well and really turned into a personal story that did little to make the reader want to empathise with the main character. A clip round the ear might have been better. In many ways, I think the ideal audience for this book would be teenage girls, although a wise parent might not want them to read this!

Monday, 22 August 2011

On Canaan's Side

Title: On Canaan’s Side

Author: Sebastian Barry

Number of pages:

Started: 20 August 2011

Finished: 22 August 2011

Opening words:

Bill is gone.

What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking?

It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.

When I was four I owned a porcelain doll given me by a strange agency. My mother’s sister, who lived down in Wicklow, had kept it from her own childhood and that of her sister, and gave it to me as a sort of keepsake of my mother. At four such a doll may be precious for other reasons, not least her beauty. I can still see the painted face, calm and oriental, and the blue silk dress she wore. My father much to my puzzlement was worried by such a gift. It troubled him in a way I had no means to understand. He said it was too much for a little girl, even though the same little girl he himself loved with a complete worship.

One Sunday about a year after I was first given it, I insisted on bringing it to mass with me, despite the long and detailed protestations of my father, who was religious in the sense he hoped there was an afterlife. He bet all his heart on that. Somehow a doll was not a fitting mass-goer in his estimation.

Read the first chapter here

You can find a video here of the author reading an extract: here

Plot summary:

Narrated by Lilly Bere, On Canaan’s Side opens as she mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. The story then goes back to the moment she was forced to flee Dublin, at the end of the First World War, and follows her life through into the new world of America, a world filled with both hope and danger.

At once epic and intimate, Lilly’s narrative unfurls as she tries to make sense of the sorrows and troubles of her life and of the people whose lives she has touched. Spanning nearly seven decades, it is a novel of memory, war, family-ties and love, which once again displays Sebastian Barry's exquisite prose and gift for storytelling.

What I thought:

On Canaan’s Side was the story of Lilly Bere from birth through to her death. It started in Ireland and ended in the United State’s – Canaan’s Side. I was not overly enamoured with the Irish parts of this tale, but preferred the parts set in America. This was certainly quite a depressing tale, with the major theme running through it being death. It starts with the death of Lilly’s grandson, which was the latest in a lifetime of deaths.

The book was well written, but never truly engaged me.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

A Cupboard Full of Coats

Title: A Cupboard Full of Coats

Author: Yvvette Edwards

Number of pages: 260

Started: 18 August 2011

Finished: 20 August 2011

Opening words:

It was early spring when Lemon arrived, while the crocuses in the front garden were flowering and before the daffodil buds had opened, the Friday evening of a long, slow February, and I had expected when I opened the front door to find an energy salesperson standing there, or a charity worker selling badges, or any one of a thousand random insignificant people whose existence meant nothing to me or my world.

He just knocked, that was all, knocked the front door and waited, like he’d just come back with the paper from the corner shop, and the fourteen years since he’d last stood there, the fourteen years since the night I’d killed my mother, hadn’t really happened at all.

Read the first chapter here

Plot summary:

It's been fourteen years since Jinx's mother was brutally stabbed to death in their home in East London. Fourteen years for Jinx to become accustomed to the huge weight of guilt and anger that has destroyed her life. Fourteen years to nurture an impossible shame. Out of nowhere, Lemon arrives on her doorstep. An old friend of her mother's, he wants to revisit the events leading to that terrible night, and Jinx sees the opportunity to confess, finally, her hand in the violence. But Lemon has his own secrets to share, and over the course of one weekend they strip away the layers of the past to lay bare a story full of jealousy and tragic betrayal. Narrated with a distinct and fiery spice, Jinx and Lemon must find their own paths to redemption in this stunning debut novel.

What I thought:

This was another first novel on the Booker long list, but was much more accomplished than the previous one I read “Snowdrops”.

This was a sad and well written tale of a woman coming to terms with the violent death of her mother many years before, over the period of one weekend. It was a good exploration of how we perceive events and deal with guilt and live our lives following tragic events. It could have been a depressing tale, but, perhaps surprisingly, wasn’t. Instead it was an engaging tale that was told in a mature way.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Sense of an Ending

Title: The Sense of an Ending

Author: Julian Barnes

Number of pages: 150

Started: 17 August 2011

Finished: 18 August 2011

Opening words:

I remember, in no particular order:
-- a shiny inner wrist;
-- steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
-- gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
-- a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
-- another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
-- bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.

This last isn't something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed.

We live in time -- it holds us and moulds us -- but I've never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing -- until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

I'm not very interested in my schooldays, and don't feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began, so I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can't be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That's the best I can manage.

Plot summary:

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.

What I thought:

This book is marketed as a “short novel”, and that it was at a mere 150 pages. In order for a book to be eligible for the Bookers it must be a novel, rather than a novella, so presumably the publishers were looking to ensure that there was no doubt on this issue – although I am not entirely sure what the difference is between a “short novel” and a “novella”.

The story was told by its unreliable narrator, Tony. It started in his school days with the friendships he made at his single-sex school, through to some forty years later when he has to re-evaluate things of the past.

This was a well written book and it was an engaging and intriguing tale. It was an interesting, and at times amusing consideration of things of the past for the narrator to try and understand some events unfolding in the present. The book had a sense of mystery about it and wove together a plot that moved between the distant past and the present, and did it very well.

A good read, despite its brevity.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie

Title: Jamrach’s Menagerie

Author: Carol Birch

Number of pages: 348

Started: 11 August 2011

Finished: 16 August 2011

Opening words:

I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.

Plot summary:

Jaffy Brown is running through the squalid London backstreets when he comes face to face with the escaped circus animal. His young life is transformed by the encounter. Plucked from the jaws of death by Mr Jamrach - explorer, entrepreneur and collector of the world's strangest creatures - the two strike up a friendship. Before he knows it, Jaffy finds himself on board a ship bound for the South Seas. His job is to be the keeper of the animal they hope to find and bring back alive. So begins an extraordinary voyage. Jaffy's journey - if he survives it - will push faith, love and friendship to their utmost limits. Brilliantly written and utterly spellbinding, Carol Birch's epic novel brings alive the smells, sights and flavours of the nineteenth century, from the docks of London to the storms of the South Seas. This is a great salty historical adventure, and a fascinating exploration of our relationship to the natural world and the wilderness it contains.

What I thought:

This was an interesting tale. It was the third Booker that I read and my favourite so far. It was set in Victorian London and at sea, and told the tale of a boy’s life, starting from his encounter with a tiger on a London street. I thought the book was well written and, whilst a little gory at times, it had a good plot – from trying to capture a “dragon” to being stranded at sea with little hope of rescue. I am not sure this is the sort of book I would normally read, and is one that I might glance at and then move on. So, for me, this is why reading things like the Booker list, can be a good thing. Was it good enough to be a Booker winner? I’m not sure, but it was certainly a good read.

There are a couple of things that I found strange about it though. First, the opening words – “I was born twice.” Those are also the opening words to “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides. Obviously there are only a finite number of words and combination of words in the English language, but I found it curious that it started the same way.

Second, is that hasn’t there been another book with a tiger and a tale of being stranded at sea, which itself won the Booker – Life of Pi by Yann Martel? Although in “Jamrach’s” case, there was no cross-over between the tiger and being adrift at sea. I didn’t think the stories were the same, I just found it unusual to have some notably similar aspects to the plot.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Far To Go

Title: Far to Go

Author: Alison Pick

Number of pages: 288

Started: 8 August 2011

Finished: 11 August 2011

Opening words:

The train will never arrive.

It winds into forever: shiny red cars, black cars, cattle cars, one after another. A red caboose and a Princess Elizabeth engine. The livestock cars, loosely linked, like the vertebrae of some long reptile’s spine. It reaches forward into the unknowable future, destined to move perpetually ahead, but with no destination in mind.

From the sky it looks inconsequential, a worm burrowing into the ground. And all the tiny people aboard look insignificant too: the postal workers and pastry chefs. The others and children.

The little ones.


I saw your face for the first time in a dream. It was so clear and true that meeting you in the flesh, decades later, somehow paled against it. You trembled against your own ideal. A child in both eras. Here and there. Then and now.

Read an Extract here

Plot summary:

FAR TO GO is a powerful and profoundly moving story about one family's epic journey to flee the Nazi occupation of their homeland in 1939, and above all to save the life of a six-year-old boy.

Pavel and Anneliese Bauer are affluent, secular Jews, whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of the German forces in Czechoslovakia. Desperate to avoid deportation, the Bauers flee to Prague with their six-year-old son, Pepik, and his beloved nanny, Marta. When the family try to flee without her to Paris, Marta betrays them to her Nazi boyfriend. But it is through Marta's determination that Pepik secures a place on a Kindertransport, though he never sees his parents or Marta again.

Inspired by Alison Pick's own grandparents who fled their native Czechoslovakia for Canada during the Second World War, FAR TO GO is a deeply personal and emotionally harrowing novel.

What I thought:

This was the second of the Booker longlist that I read. The book was about a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia at the time of Hitler’s invasion in 1939. It was the tale of a well to do Jewish family, who didn’t even really think of themselves as Jewish, and how they had to come to terms with the reality of their faith/ race, their nation being invaded, and the realities of their lives and livelihood being under threat.

The novel was inspired by the author’s family. Her relatives were caught in a similar scenario and faced the same fate as many of the characters in the book. It was an interesting view on history, but I felt that this novel only really engaged me when the kindertransport dilemma came into play (i.e. whether to pay for their son to be sent by train to safety in Britain). From this point onwards, I felt that the book came far more to life. The characters seemed more real and the plot took on more of a life. Until then, whilst the plot and scenarios were interesting, it lacked a certain something. I wondered whether this was partly because the book was in part of way of telling a true story in fictional form and that this meant that some of the story-telling elements were missing earlier on. I was also not sure about the way the book was concluded. The final chapter was, in essence, a summing up of all that had happened. I wasn’t convinced by this need to tie up all the loose ends. But, again, I suspect this was in part because the book was based on real family events, and perhaps the author’s need to tell as much of their story as she could.

I think the idea behind this book was good, and that the latter part of it was more engaging, but that it lacked somewhere in its delivery. Nonetheless, it was a sad tale and I can understand why the author wanted to make sure that it was told.

Monday, 8 August 2011


Title: Snowdrops

Author: AD Miller

Number of pages: 288

Started: 4 August 2011

Finished: 8 August 2011

Opening words:

I smelled it before I saw it. There was a crowd of people standing around on the pavement and in the road, most of them policemen, some talking on mobile phones, some smoking, some looking, some looking away. From the way I came, they were blocking my view, and at first I thought that with all the uniforms it must be a traffic accident or maybe an immigration bust. Then I caught the smell. It was a smell like the kind you come home to if you forget to put your rubbish out before you go on holiday—ripe but acidic, strong enough to block out the normal summer aromas of beer and revolution. It was the smell that had given it away.

From about ten metres away, I saw the foot. Just one, as if its owner was stepping very slowly out of a limousine. I can still see the foot now. It was wearing a cheap black slip-on shoe, and above the shoe there was a stretch of grey sock, then a glimpse of greenish flesh. The cold had kept it fresh, they told me. They didn’t know how long it had been there. Maybe all winter, one of the policemen speculated. They’d used a hammer, he said, or possibly a brick. Not a good job, he said. He asked me if I wanted to see the rest of it. I said no, thank you. I’d already seen and learned more than I needed to during that last winter.

You’re always saying that I never talk about my time in Moscow or about why I left. You’re right, I’ve always made excuses, and soon you’ll understand why. But you’ve gone on asking me, and for some reason lately I keep thinking about it—I can’t stop myself. Perhaps it’s because we’re only three months away from “the big day,” and that somehow seems a sort of reckoning. I feel like I need to tell someone about Russia, even if it hurts. Also that probably you should know, since we’re going to make these promises to each other, and maybe even keep them. I think you have a right to know all of it. I thought it would be easier if I wrote it down. You won’t have to make an effort to put a brave face on things, and I won’t have to watch you.

You can find the whole book here

Plot summary:

Snowdrops is an intensely riveting psychological drama that unfolds over the course of one Moscow winter, as a young Englishman's moral compass is spun by the seductive opportunities revealed to him by a new Russia: a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical dachas and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets - and corpses - come to light only when the deep snows start to thaw...

Snowdrops is a chilling story of love and moral freefall: of the corruption, by a corrupt society, of a corruptible young man. It is taut, intense and has a momentum as irresistible to the reader as the moral danger that first enchants, then threatens to overwhelm, its narrator.

What I thought:

This was the first book I read from the 2011 Booker shortlist. Whilst the title might suggest a gentle novel about the countryside, this book was actually about corruption in Russia – “snowdrops” being bodies that appear from under the snow when the spring thaw sets in.

The book was written as a confessional letter to the narrator’s fiancée to clear his conscience before their forthcoming wedding. I think for me, this is where the flaws began to emerge. On a few levels, I found that approach unconvincing. First, the confessional was written in a way that didn’t ring true to me. When conversations were relayed, they were written as direct speech, rather than reported speech and that didn’t sit well with me. That might sound like a minor point, but it made the way the book was written seem contrived. Not least illustrated by the narrator relaying verbatim conversations, some of which were in Russian and then adding in brackets, for his fiancées benefit, the English translation. I just didn’t find it convincing. I also felt that there were details added (about travelling on the metro etc) that were there to show the author’s knowledge of all things Russian rather than to actually enhance the plot. If the narrator had been a journalist or similar, I might have believed that he had a more “painting the picture” style, but he was a lawyer and the detail just felt superfluous.

Second, I didn’t believe that the narrator would have conveyed the amount of information that he did. Whilst he might have wanted to be as honest as possible, would he really have wanted to tell his fiancée about the detail of having sex with his Russian girlfriend for the first time, including the detail of her sister watching. There is confessional and there is confessional.

So, what about the plot itself? This was based around corruption in Russia and the narrator’s role in a deal that went very sour. The premise was reasonable, and the story touched on how easily we can get caught up in things, perhaps blinded by our infatuation by someone and our desire to please or impress them. But I found the plot a bit light. I have read other reviews and a number of people found the plot very gripping and a real page-turner, but for me it felt like it lacked a certain something to make it convincing or gripping.

I feel as though I am judging this book very harshly. I think in part my view is coloured by this book being shortlisted for a major prize, and I therefore expected something more. It wasn’t a bad book, but it just wasn’t one that seemed to offer anything particularly special

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Of Human Bondage

Title: Of Human Bondage

Author: W Somerset Maugham

Number of pages: 700

Started: 24 July 2011

Finished: 4 August 2011

Opening words:

THE DAY broke grey and dull. The clouds hung heavily, and there was a rawness in the air that suggested snow. A woman servant came into a room in which a child was sleeping and drew the curtains. She glanced mechanically at the house opposite, a stucco house with a portico, and went to the child's bed.

'Wake up, Philip,' she said.

She pulled down the bed-clothes, took him in her arms, and carried him downstairs. He was only half awake.

'Your mother wants you,' she said.

She opened the door of a room on the floor below and took the child over to a bed in which a woman was lying. It was his mother. She stretched out her arms, and the child nestled by her side. He did not ask why he had been awakened. The woman kissed his eyes, and with thin, small hands felt the warm body through his white flannel nightgown. She pressed him closer to herself. 'Are you sleepy, darling?' she said.

Her voice was so weak that it seemed to come already from a great distance. The child did not answer, but smiled comfortably. He was very happy in the large, warm bed, with those soft arms about him. He tried to make himself smaller still as he cuddled against his mother, and he kissed her sleepily. In a moment he closed his eyes and was fast asleep. The doctor came forward and stood by the bedside.

'Oh, don't take him away yet,' she moaned.

Plot summary:

Of Human Bondage is the first and most autobiographical of Maugham’s masterpieces. It is the story of Philip Carey, an orphan eager for life, love and adventure. After a few months studying in Heidelberg, and a brief spell in Paris as would-be artist, Philip settles in London to train as a doctor.
And that is where he meets Mildred, the loud but irresistible waitress with whom he plunges into a formative, tortured and masochistic affair which very nearly ruins him.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book when I first started to read it. However, by page 250 I was trying to decide if I did actually like it. I ploughed on though and was pleased that I did because making the effort to read this book was worth it. It was a sad book in many ways, and one of bad decisions and missed opportunities.

At times you wanted to shake Philip and tell him not to walk away – and yet at other points that he should walk away and not look back. It was a view of life, and the mistakes we all often make told through the life of one person. A good book that I am glad I persevered with.