Category Archives: Review copies

All That I Am – Anna Funder – 6/10

“Hans, who was shy speaking to the English, spoke of them as they fitted his preconceptions: a nation of shopkeepers, tea drinkers, lawn clippers. But I came to see them differently. What had seemed a conformist reticence revealed itself, after a time, to be an inbred, ineffable sense of fair play. They didn’t need as many external rules as we did because they had internalised the standards of decency.”

all that i am

(from the blurb) When Hitler comes to power in 1933, a tight-knit group of friends and lovers become hunted outlaws overnight. United in their resistance to the madness and tyranny of Nazism, they must flee the country. Dora, passionate and fearless, her lover, the great playwright Ernst Toller, her younger cousin Ruth and Ruth’s husband Hans find refuge in London. Here they take breathtaking risks in order to continue their work in secret. But England is not the safe haven they think it to be, and a single, chilling act of betrayal will tear them apart.

Often a book seems driven by one of three things to me – plot, characters, or beautiful writing. This seemed a half-and-half study of plot and characters. The plot moved at inconsistent speed (and jumped around – but more on that later), but while we stayed in one place and time, particularly in the early 30s in Germany and then in the mid 30s in London, it was well-crafted and progressed. A level of tension is well-maintained without being exhausting. I didn’t see the plot twist coming at all. I was surprised when it came, who it was that was responsible, and the effects.

I already protested about the back-and-forth perspective, the way we flick from Ruth as an old woman, to Ruth as a young woman during the Nazi years, to Ernst Toller at the start of the war, and back again. I still maintain that Ernst’s story served no purpose at all – it was necessary that some of the information about Dora came through him, but that was really it.

Young Ruth was my favourite character (I suspect this is Funder’s intention); gentle and idealistic, committed and loving. I found Dora more difficult; headstrong, impetuous, strangely unconcerned with consequences. Ernst was sanctimonious and selfish, and Hans was strangely nothing. He was inspired and gregarious as a young man, but he petered out into nothingness in a new country. I loved old Ruth’s observations on Bev (her carer) – a little comic relief in the other timeline.

This is such a depressing book. So naturally I read it on holiday in Rome in the sunshine. But still. I can’t decide whether it needed heavier editing, redirecting, or whether I was never going to like something so dark.

One thing this book did teach me was the experience of living in 20s Germany. At school we only heard about the rampant inflation and needing a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a loaf of bread; this book managed to convey the joy and freedom and idealism and optimism of the early 20s. No mean feat.

Not bad, and others will enjoy it more than I. But so, so depressing.

Additional info
Copy borrowed from the Book Accumulator quite some time ago. Now finally I can return it. 
Publisher: Penguin, 363 pages (paperback)
Order All That I Amfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

My Salinger Year – Joanna Rakoff – 8/10

“Carolyn began talking about friends of hers named Joan and John, and their daughter, who had an odd name, an odd name that sounded oddly familiar to me. I’d heard her discuss Joan and John before, but now I realised, with a jolt, that she was talking about Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunn. These were Carolyn’s intimates, the people whose pedestrian travails – bathroom renovations and missed flights – she chattered about.”

my salinger yera

Joanna is a newly minted Master of a literature degree, badly in need of a job. She wheedles her way into a job assisting a literary agent – and discovers, several weeks into the job, that the agent represents J. D. Salinger. With no background in Salinger at all, she muddles along in the job and in the big city, while trying not to let leech-like boyfriend Don scupper her prospects.

Not masses happens in the course of this year – although obviously enough to fill a short book, it’s not action-packed. Which is fine; it gives Rakoff plenty of time to muse on being young and broke and working in the literary world in New York. I would happily read more of Rakoff’s writing; maybe it is easier to be funny and light-hearted and insightful when writing about one’s own life rather than making up a world, but I liked what I read. It was intelligent without being overwrought, evocative without being cluttered.

At this point in a review template, I have the prompt “characters”. Which is tricky when reviewing non-fiction. The protagonist is impossible to review, given that it’s the author! But Rakoff does a good job of moulding the people around her into characters on the page, particularly helpful office furniture Hugh, deadbeat boyfriend Don, Next Big Thing in Literary Agency Max. I liked these people (apart from Don, who sounds like a waste of space), and they were fine to spend some time in the company of.

This was yet another instalment in my recent New York themed reading and watching – as I mentioned in my post on the subject, I loved the frequent references to a little bit of New York I spent some time in recently (and I was most amused to find the quoted reference to Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking which I read immediately before this!). I know it was set 20 years ago, but apart from the technophobic set-up in the office, I hardly noticed this at all. I suppose not knowing what Brooklyn rents are these days probably helped, that the figures given didn’t age the book!

Well worth the quick read, whether you’ve read Salinger or not, just as a fun “a year in the life” story. If you’ve read Salinger, possibly more interesting?

Additional info
Copy from publisher through NetGalley (which I have not used in a while!)
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 273 pages
Order My Salinger Yearfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

How It All Began – Penelope Lively – 8/10

“But time does not end, and stories march in step with time. Equally, chaos theory does not assume an ending; the ripple effect goes on, and on. These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course.”

How it all began

When Charlotte is mugged in the street one day and breaks her hip, a chain of events is set off for a much wider group of people. Her daughter Rose has to cancel a day’s work. Rose’s boss Henry goes to Manchester to give a lecture without his notes. Henry’s niece Marion cancels a date and thus reveals the affair to her lover’s wife. All because a delinquent wanted Charlotte’s cash.

Lively writes a good book. I loved Moon Tiger, quite enjoyed Heatwave (which I don’t seem to have reviewed); were I to sit down and consume her entire oeuvre, I’m confident I would enjoy it. She strikes the balance between clever writing, interesting characters, and just enough plot progression to keep things going. The plot only really exists to make the characters do things, and in fact the plot movements are only really as the result of a passage of time rather than the result of actions or events.

The cast of characters is appropriately limited so that we feel we know each of them well, without getting them mixed up with each other. It is clever to have multiple perspectives but linked characters so that the transitions from one narrator to another are not as jarring or frustrating as such transitions often are.

It’s not a demanding book to read – and this is a huge part of why I like authors like Mitchell, Patchett, Lively; you notice the quality of the writing only when there is a showy sentence. Apart from the odd “look at me, I’m good with words” sentence (like the one below), the text is not too dense, but concise and clever. It’s only 230 pages long, and I would happily have read another 100 pages, but on the other hand, it felt complete without being overcooked.

“That evanescent, pervasive, slippery internal landscape known to no one else, that vast accretion of data on which you depend – without it you would not be yourself. Impossible to share, and no one else could share it anyway.”

Something I noticed in How It All Began and hadn’t noticed in her other works was the occasional breaking of the fourth wall – every now and again (and pleasingly infrequently) the narrative moves from the consciousness of one of the characters out to an omniscient third party style narrator who is very conscious of the reader. The quote I selected above is just one such example. I couldn’t decide whether these added to or detracted from the book; they broke up the flow in a slightly irritating way, but the writing is so good and these little bits are sufficiently valuable to the book, that I didn’t really mind.

If you’ve enjoyed anything else by Lively, you’ll like this.

Additional info
Copy bought at Strand Bookstore in New York on a recent visit. 
Publisher: Penguin, 229 pages (paperback)
Order How It All Beganfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

Can Anybody Help Me – Sinead Crowley – 7/10

“With consciousness came distress. Her eyes flickered open and met his. but her thirst was greater than her feat and she moved her hand feebly on the blanket, her fingers flickering in the direction of the bedside locker.”

Can anybody help me FINAL

(adapted from Goodreads) Struggling with a new baby in a new city with a new husband, Yvonne turns to an online support group for help and support. When one of her new friends goes offline, Yvonne is concerned but dismisses her fears. She doesn’t know the woman, after all. But when the body of a young woman with striking similarities to Yvonne’s missing friend is found, Yvonne realises that they’re all in terrifying danger. Can she persuade Sergeant Claire Boyle, herself about to go on maternity leave, to take her fears seriously?

This felt quite slow to get going (despite the nearly first-page murder), as two apparently separate storylines took their time to intermingle. Once we did get going though, there was no stopping our twisty-turny plot. Relatively straightforward to children of the internet age, some of it might be confusing to older readers. I loved it.Writing? So standard, so good, right? for a police procedural? I’ve got nothing to say on the writing – nothing exceptional, but certainly nothing that got in the way or in any way detracts from the book.

As I always do, I really like the lead police character in this one; and of course she’s a single-minded five-months-pregnant go-getter determined to absolutely get this bad guy right now. Yvonne came across as a bit pathetic, but on the whole totally believable and rounded. I was unconvinced by Eamonn as a character – he seems overly charming, too nice. But for me the most skilful bit of character-building was the online chat – Yvonne’s character chatted online in a manner that fitted her offline personality, and the other online voices were easily distinguishable and well-built up.

My knowledge of Dublin is zero (never having been), and Crowley sets the scene well with the run-down estate, the dingy pub, the pleasant terrace houses, the surety of rain at an Irish funeral. There’s a smattering of Irish dialect to make absolutely sure that you know you’re in Ireland – I didn’t mind it, and I imagine it makes the dialogue more authentic. It certainly doesn’t get in the way.

And I most definitely did not see the identity of the bad guy coming. I had a couple of indications in that general direction, but it was a huge surprise to me when it was revealed. A quick, thrilling read, and a slightly scary look into online forums (fora?) and life.

Additional info
Copy from publisher through NetGalley (which I have not used in a while!)
Publisher: Quercus Books, 400 pages
Order Can Anybody Help Me?from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Divorce Papers – Susan Rieger – 8/10

the divorce papers

“Divorcing clients harbour murderous thoughts, they just have better impulse control than your regular clients.”

When Mia Mather Meiklejohn is served divorce papers in a humiliating scene at her favourite restaurant, she quickly turns to her father’s preferred lawyers to represent her. The day she wants to meet, the firm’s divorce lawyers are all out of the office and Anne Sophie Diehl, a top criminal associate lawyer, takes the deposition, having been promised she’ll have to do nothing more. Mia likes Sophie and insists she stays on the case. Can Sophie get to grips with civil law fast enough to get Mia a good settlement – and before office politics drive her totally crazy?

I love an epistolatory novel. 84 Charing Cross Road, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen are some of my favourite books. Letters and depositions/meeting notes permit lots of dialogue to shine through, while characters who might (like me) prefer the written form are permitted to flourish through their own writing.

Rieger has written a set of solid, interesting characters here. Sophie is great – I recognise a certain amount of that young professional striving to impress while occasionally being pushed well outside of her comfort zone. Trying to keep her personal life on an even keel, with the help of a best friend in a totally unrelated job, while she puts in crazy hours at the office. I love her stream of consciousness memos. Mia is a great wronged wife – amusingly angry, witty, badly behaved in a highly entertaining way. Sophie’s family and friends provide a non-legal support cast who through her life into relief, as does her mentor David. Of the bit-part characters, I particularly liked Jane, the eleven-year-old “minor issue” of the dissolving marriage, and Bruce, her inordinately rich doting grandfather. Both are delicately written while funny and honest.

New Salem might as well be Rich Everyville. I don’t know where it is (outside New York, apparently), but it just seems to have a lot of rich people and their lawyers. Fine. Rieger gets away without bothering much with setting, as everything is documented rather than described. In terms of plot development it feels a bit slow – Rieger could have edited 50-100 pages out of this but I don’t mind. This is the kind of light reading you don’t really want to end. If it had been 800 pages with more turns, that would have been fine. As it is, there’s a bit of development just often enough to keep you interested, and the private life intercessions help to keep the sense of time progressing.

It’s not the Next Great American novel, but I loved this. The test for me of whether I’m into a book is whether I read it when I’m not on public transport – and this one I even thought about taking to bed to read. It’s easy to read (some of the extracts of the Narragansett Legal Code are not so legible) and funny. You care about the characters just enough to be engrossed but able to leave them behind.

Definitely recommended as a light and easy read any time there’s a Tube strike on.

Additional information:

Copy kindly provided by the publisher in return for an honest review. Publisher: Crown Publishing USA, 461 hardback pages
Order The Divorce Papersfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting


The Bedlam Detective – Stephen Gallagher – 6/10

“The names of the house always charmed her. They hadn’t when she’d lived here, but they charmed her whenever she returned. Prospect Place. St Cuthbert’s. Puffin. St Elmo’s. Evangeline was a city dweller now, a grown woman, and these names were her childhood.”

bedlam

Two country girls have been found brutally murdered, not far from the estate of Sir Owain Lancaster, who returned alone some years ago from a disastrous trip to the Amazon. Sebastian Becker is sent to investigate, wondering if Sir Owain needs treatment in the infamous hospital above his office – Bedlam…

Becker is a solid everyman sort of detective, sympathetic without being ingratiating, persistent without being omniscient. Some home troubles make him a slightly more rounded character but not all that much time is devoted to making him an interesting person – he is the vehicle for the story. On the other hand there is a huge amount of time and paper devoted to the tale of Sir Owain’s misadventures in the Amazon – we have his diary as well as the observations of those around him so his is really the most rounded character in the book. Which begs the question – why bother with the London side-story and the murder of the girls? If the author just wanted to tell the tale of Sir Owain’s (literally incredible) visit to South America, why not just tell it by itself?

As with all these historical endeavours, one wonders how authentic it is. Would Sebastian’s autistic son really have fared so well in 19th century London? Is the life portrayed in Bethlehem Hospital accurate (or even close to accurate)? The London of the book felt quite sanitised, compared to the bleakness of country living. There’s an assortment of bit parts which are cleverly and amusingly put together – I particularly liked Becker’s family and the country plod who is supposed to assist Becker in his investigations.

I felt that towards the end, the author was in a bit deep with the plot/stories he had constructed and it needed to be wrapped up – the episode at the country hall has heavy touches of deus ex machina to it. As I look at the slim book beside me (it’s only just over 300 pages), more and more threads of plot come back to me and it’s surprising to consider they were all included in the same novel!

Overall, an enjoyable enough mystery; a bit dark for what I’m used to, and if you don’t mind the heavy-handed wrapping up, you should find it pretty gripping.

Additional information:

Copy kindly sent by the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Broadway Paperbacks, 305 paperback pages 
Order The Bedlam Detectivefrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The River of No Return – Bee Ridgway – 5/10

“Julia sat beside her gradfather’s bed, holding his hand. The fifth Earl of Darchester was dying.”

river of no return

To call this plot convoluted is an understatement. Lord Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown, cheats death on a battlefield in Spain in 1812 by jumping nearly two hundred years into the future. He accustoms himself to life as a New York socialite and cheese farm patron, until the Guild demands their pound of flesh and sends him to confront his 19th century past. Meanwhile, when the ancient Earl of Darchester dies leaving his teenage granddaughter estate-less, and the evil cousin turns up to take over things, well… it gets messier.

It’s been a while since I read this, and the difficulty I am having in remembering anything about it belies the enjoyment of reading it. Or perhaps that’s exactly it – it’s frothier than The Time Traveller’s Wife, with a less random mechanism of time travel, and a much larger world construct which makes considerably less sense. In essence it is a love story with one protagonist struggling across the centuries and an epoch-old conflict to find the other. There is an abundance of amusing note-taking on current and past cultures, particularly class and gender structures.

But in the end, nothing is resolved, and the characters are boilerplate romance standards – she is beautiful and independent but hamstrung by the conventions of the time, he is handsome and dashing and sensitive etc.

It was only as I googled for a picture of the cover to insert into this review that I discovered that the title of the book is the name of a Western film starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe. I assume that the allusion is intentional, but I cannot figure out why.

Borrow, read on a plane, leave on the plane.

Copy kindly provided by LoveReading.co.uk and the publisher in return for an honest review, so long ago that I have given up ever reviewing it for LoveReading.
Publisher: Penguin, 546 pages (hardback).
Order The River of No Returnfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 698 other followers