The Month In Books: August 2017

It’s great to be finally back in the swing of things (sort of) post baby and I actually managed to read enough books to justify a Month In Books post! I realise that most of these are fairly dark in nature, often with a bit of death and paranormal goings on thrown in for luck, which means that this list is probably more appropriate to an October pickings, but ho hum… And whilst they might not be summer beach reads, most of these books are good for being curled up under a blanket with whilst it’s gloomy outside – perfect if you’re looking for something for the next couple of months yourself.

 

The Shadowy Horses – Susanna Kearsley      ****

15715406I’d read Kearsley’s first paranormal time slip novel “The Winter Sea” back in February and enjoyed it. This is better. The novel follows archaeologist Verity Grey as she gets drawn into investigating the vanishing of the Ninth Legion in the Scottish Borders, guided by the mysterious appearances of a ghostly Roman sentinel. Kearsley manages to create a really engaging plot, which for all the spooky elements, is more plausible than that of “The Winter Sea”. The characters are interesting, there’s a dash of romance and plenty of wild landscapes to keep the locationists happy. A really enjoyable read – especially if you’ve binged out on “Outlander” and need something else to whet your appetite before Season 3 starts later this month.

 

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward     *****

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I received a copy of this book as my very first ARC (blogging milestone, made me very excited!) and I didn’t even realise until last week when I checked into Netgalley to have a look around. I’m gutted that I left it sat there for so long as it’s one of my favourite books I’ve read this year. The novel is a beautifully poetic Southern Gothic that grabs you right from the opening with a very strong sense of voice and character. The descriptions are visceral, the magic realism flawlessly woven in and the changes in character narration never jar. Everyone should read this novel. Read my full review here.

 

The Edinburgh Dead – Brian Ruckley     ***

9737151I came across this novel in Waterstone’s on Princes Street in Edinburgh this summer whilst I was looking for something to complement Kaite Walsh’s “Wages of Sin” (another cracking read btw). What sets out as a Victorian style murder mystery quickly escalates into something more sinister. Plenty of famous Edinburgh scoundrels make their appearances in this ghostly, grave robbing tale – Burke and Hare, Robert Knox and Major Thomas Weir all seek to confound our intrepid investigator. This is an enjoyable novel but not anything particularly special. It would be a good pick for a long train journey or a quick filler between more heavy literary fiction tomes.

 

Plantation – Dorothea Benton Frank     **

65401I am afraid I didn’t manage to finish this novel – it just really wasn’t my thing at all. With the arrival of bubs and a massive TBR I just can’t spend time wading through books that I’m not enjoying. This appeared to be a fairly classic style beach read – light and frothy, dealing with family drama and plenty of slightly awkwardly written romance thrown in. I was hoping for something that would give me a good sense of place for a Great Reads in Great Places post in South Carolina and regrettably this is not it.

 

 

The House Between Tides – Sarah Maine    ****

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This was a ‘cover love’ pick – I just adored the moody and atmospheric artwork. From the blurb and the isolated misty house on the front, I thought that this was going to be creepier than it turned out to be. I had an idea in my head that it was going to be more of a “The Woman In Black” style Gothic novel, and whilst it wasn’t that at all, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a very well written story that really captures the landscapes and characters of the Outer Hebrides. Read my full review here.

 

 

The Witchfinder’s Sister  – Beth Underdown     ****

31377300This book follows the witch hunts of East Anglia from the point of view of Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins’ widowed sister Alice. There is very little historical fact known about the man, although detailed records of his interrogations and the resulting executions do exist. Underdown succeeds in bringing to life a dark period in British history and creates a good sense of creeping fear as we realise what Hopkins is up to and see how his sister is gradually dragged further and further into his madness. Read my full review here.

 

 

Sealskin – Su Bristow     *****

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I loved, loved, loved this book. I’ve been on a bit of a magical realism bent of late and this was perfect. Bristow brings to life the traditional Scots / Norse legends of the Selkie women – seals who shed their skins and transform into women, and explores the impact of a stranger on a small island community. This was the first Orenda published book I’d read and if it’s an indicator of the quality and style of their authors I’ll be picking up more. Read my full review here.

10 Best Books in a Blizzard

With the last blast of March winter upon those of us on the US east coast – need something to curl up with whilst you’re snowed in? Why not try some of these classic books with wintery settings…

11250053 “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

Set in Alaska in 1920, this wonderful novel follows Jack and Mabel as they struggle to survive in the harsh environment they find themselves in. After building a child out of snow who mysteriously vanishes, they are drawn into the life of Faina – a young girl who appears to have stepped from the pages of a fairytale book. But is everything what it seems to be…

This book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and has won numerous awards.

 

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“The Cider House Rules” by John Irving

Homer Wells has been brought up in an orphanage in Maine under the tutelage of Dr. Wilbur Larch. Isolated at St Cloud, he assists the doctor with caring for troubled mothers, delivering illegitimate children and taking them into the orphanage. When Homer meets a young couple who arrive seeking an illegal abortion, he finds himself wanting to explore the world beyond his upbringing.

This is a book full of heartbreak that encompasses the morality of abortion, war, love, disability and legacy.

 

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“The Tenderness of Wolves” by Stef Penney

This book is full of suspense and adventure – part historical epic, part murder mystery, it follows a disparate band of wilderness residents as they seek to follow a mysterious set of tracks in the snow that they hope will lead them to the answers to a brutal crime that has been committed. The setting brings an eerie cruelty to the novel as the characters seek missing people, fugitives and the past before the snow covers the tracks left behind for good.

The novel won the Costa Book of the Year prize.

 

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“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy

There’s no winter harsher than a Russian winter and this classic novel is considered one of the greatest works of fiction ever produced. Following the doomed and tragic love affair between Anna and Count Vronsky, this epic story reveals the hypocrisies of nineteenth century Russian society through a sweeping look at familial and romantic relationships.

Often cited as the ‘greatest book ever written,’ it explores jealousy, faith, fidelity, family, progress and passion.

 

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“Winter’s Tale” by Mark Helprin

When Peter Lake, a middle-aged Irish burglar decides to rob a house on the Upper West Side, little does he know that it will lead to love. The relationship between Lake and Beverly Penn, a free-spirited but ultimately doomed young girl is the perfect foil to that of Lake and local gang leader Pearly Soames, who sets his sights on destroying Lake. Set in a mythical, semi-Edwardian New York at the turn of the twentieth century, this novel has a mystical quality that will totally absorb you.

Heavy on the language – you need to set time aside for this one.

 

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“Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier

If epic sweeping historical fiction is your thing, you’ll love Cold Mountain. The novel follows the arduous journey of a civil war veteran, Inman, as he struggles to get home to his betrothed, Ada, who has been left behind to try and survive on her father’s farm with the help of a practical young drifter named Ruby. As their stories begin to weave back together, Inman and Ada have to confront how much has changed since Inman left – with the physical and political landscape, but also themselves.

This won the National Book Award for Fiction.

 

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“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

Granted, the snow is mainly contained to the start and end of this classic Gothic tale, but it is still one of the most evocative pieces of Victorian science fiction in print. Victor Frankenstein, exhausted and found ranting in the Arctic wilderness, retells the tale of the creation of the monster that now stalks him through the wasteland. Originally developed from a ghost story told by Mary Shelley to her friends in Geneva when she was just 18 years old.

Don’t let the fact this is a school book classic put you off.

 

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“A Breath of Snow and Ashes” by Diana Gabaldon

As the sixth book in the wildly popular Outlander series, I wouldn’t suggest diving in here without taking a look at the others. Set in 1772, Highland exile Jamie Fraser and his time travelling 20th Century wife, Clare, are commissioned to quell a growing rebellion in the American Colonies – but knowing the ultimate direction of the War of Independence, Clare and Jamie find themselves caught between knowing the future and living in the past.

This is a great romp through the 18th Century – dashing heroes, gutsy heroines and action and adventure galore.

 

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“The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis

Is there truly a more perfect snow bound book than this children’s classic? I re-read the whole Narnia series every year and I am always in awe of how such simple, beautiful prose can evoke such a complex, magical world. Four children are swept into a magical adventure when they find a mysterious portal into a world trapped in permanent winter. Will they be able to break the spell and release Narnia from the grip of the White Witch?

Please, please, please read the book and don’t watch the movie.

 

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“Fargo” by Joel and Ethan Coen

Alright – it’s not technically a novel, it’s a screenplay – but it still ticks my boxes for a read that perfectly balances tension and humour. Pregnant policewoman Marge Gunderson finds herself investigating a murder in snowy Minnesota. Trying to maintain her professional dignity in the face of numerous quirky personalities, Marge needs to solve this quickly if she’s to get out alive…

For this one you can watch the movie!

 

So whilst the wind is blowing and the snow is snowing – try some of these, wrap up warm and put the kettle on. It’ll be over before you know it.

 

 

Great Reads in Great Places: Washington D.C.

If you want something gritty, smart and noir – head to New York. Trashy, seedy crime? L.A. But backstabbing political intrigue… There is nowhere that tops the beating heart of the US establishment – Washington D.C.

There are so many iconic locations to visit and so many books to choose from…

With only two days to cram in as much as possible there was only one book that could provide not only thrilling excitement and mystical mystery but also work as a veritable treasure map of Washington’s finest sights – Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”.

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We arrived in the capitol in the afternoon and went straight to our hotel: Phoenix Park, located in the East End district. Super easy to get to and with the option of either valet parking or a nearby garage – it was right in the heart of the action. It’s also right by Union Station if you’re coming into town by train. The hotel itself is listed as a historical building and has recently been refurbished. The rooms are small but beautifully done up – I would ask for one at the back of the building though as the rooms at the front (as ours was) are on a busy road that seems to be used as a main emergency services route…

Our first stop on the Robert Langdon tour is also the first in the book – the Capitol Building. Whilst the building itself shuts at 4:30, the final tour leaves at 3:20 and we had a mad dash to try and catch it before it left. It’s well worth taking one of these free tours, the tour guide was very entertaining and knowledgable about the building – plus this is the way you get to see the building’s full glory – the rotunda, the speaker’s office (no going in!) and the statue room. There is also a brilliant Langdonesque trick with acoustics that you need to make sure your tour guide shows you. The buildings are beautiful, you really get a sense of the lofty ideals that underpin the design. It’s also fun spotting Brown’s references as you move around the building – yes to Washington being painted as a God on the rotunda ceiling, no to the remains of the iron railings around the old eternal flame! The tour lasted an hour and this did mean that we weren’t able to get into the Library of Congress afterwards. They stop admitting people before the 5pm stated closing time – you have been warned!

Before dinner, to build up a healthy appetite of course, we walked down the National Mall and took in the Washington Monument. This was really spectacular as the sun was going down and the view back up towards the Capitol Building gorgeous. No spoilers (you need to read the book) but it was very interesting to know a bit of the Masonic history of this iconic structure. You can’t currently go up in the elevator – it’s closed indefinitely for emergency repairs… Langdon would have a conspiracy field day with that one!

Given that I chose the hotel, the restaurant was on my husband. He went with Commissary in Logan Circle – an inspired choice given how ravenous we both were by the time we got there. We headed up via the White House, a primary site in one of my other Washington reads, Brad Meltzer’s “The President’s Shadow”. Luckily for us there didn’t seem to be any mysterious buried limbs in the rose garden that particular evening… The food at Commissary is American with a twist and in very plentiful supply with friendly knowledgeable staff. They have a great gluten free menu and a brilliant deal for two starters, two mains and a dessert for $54. The Kung Pao brussel sprouts (sounds weird, I know) are incredible and might actually have been our favourite part of the meal, even my carnivorous husband thought they were delicious.

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After a strong slap up Irish breakfast and some cheeky televised football (Premier League not NFL) in the hotel restaurant the next morning, we headed out with grand plans to tick off a number of our must see Washington sights. In retrospect it was a tad ambitious – at nine months pregnant I’m not as mobile as usual, but Washington is beautiful and easy to navigate so I would urge you to walk between sights if you can. Otherwise the metro is a convenient if not particularly frequent alternative option. I wanted to see the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the Smithsonian museums, specifically the Natural History Museum and the Space and Flight Museum, as well as Ford’s Theatre – I’d just finished reading Susan Higginbotham’s historical fiction novel “Hanging Mary” which follows Mary Surratt as she becomes embroiled in Lincoln’s assassination.

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The walk to Lincoln’s Memorial is quiet and reflective. You go past a number of other memorials including the WW2 stone circle and there is definitely a reverence in the air as you walk past. At this time of year the fountains across the city are drained and the iconic cherry blossom isn’t out yet, but this didn’t do anything to dim the beauty of the architecture and if anything focused you more on it. Even though it was February the sites are all still quite busy, both with tourists and runners. Set off early if you want a chance to take an uncrowded photo back up the Mall.

In the end we walked down the south side of the park and took in Jefferson’s Memorial from across the water. This one is harder to get to without a car as there isn’t really a metro stop nearby and it’s quite a walk out and round from the west end of the Mall.

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Once we made it back to the main Mall we hit the many, many museums that together make up the Smithsonian Institute. It’s very bizarre seeing how Americans have taken such a wide range of historical designs and influences from other countries throughout history when designing the city, there is not only plenty of buildings that emulate Rome and Ancient Greece, but look carefully and you’ll also find a cheeky castle nestled in amongst the art galleries. The museums are really wonderful and well worth a visit. The collections are extensive (and free!) and only a very small amount of the actual holdings are ever on display. If you’re looking for weird and old then you’ll be pleased to know you can currently see giant squid, mega dinosaur sharks and the Hope Diamond all within the walls of the Natural History Museum, as well as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 spacesuits, a lunar landing module and the Wright Brothers’ actual plane in the Space and Flight Museum. This place is a mecca for tech kids of all ages and is very impressive.

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Unfortunately we ran out of time to see Ford’s Theatre – it’s on my list for our return trip after the baby’s arrival in April. If you’ve been, let me know if it’s worth the wait!

The Great Read: “The Lost Symbol” by Dan Brown 

Dan Brown is the king of the chapter cliffhanger and this book has all his usual hallmarks – great pace and an easy read. This is another in the Robert Langdon series and follows the intrepid academic as he attempts to unravel a secret from deep within the Masonic Order to save the life of a longtime friend. The book is basically a ‘where’s where’ of Washington D.C. It hits all the big sights and makes you look at them in a new way. I always love the way that even if it’s all coincidental rubbish, he is able to fit together so many things, so perfectly, in his denouements that you feel like you’ve genuinely had something revealed to you – all the puzzle pieces, etymology, facts about art or philosophy fall into place in some magical manner. On the downside the novel is formulaic in some respects – there is always a twist, someone who is not what they seem and this is no different. Some elements of the narrative are frustrating – looking at you Director Sato – but are evidently necessary for plot development. Unfortunately this also leads to an ending that is not a particularly shocking twist but nevertheless entertaining.

Already read ‘The Lost Symbol”?

Why not try these other titles set in Washington D.C:

  • “The President’s Shadow” – Brad Meltzer
  • “Hanging Mary” – Susan Higginbotham
  • “The Silence of the Lambs” – Thomas Harris
  • “Along Came a Spider” – Robert Patterson
  • “Duplicity” – Newt Gingrich
  • “The Hunt for the Red October” – Tom Clancy
  • “Winter of the World” – Ken Follett
  • “The Winds of War” – Herman Wouk
  • “Lincoln” – Gore Vidal
  • “The President’s Daughter” – Ellen Emerson White

If you have Washington D.C. based recommendations then add them to the comments below 🙂

Top 5: Women Writers

Where to start…..

When I sat down to think about how I would choose my five favourite female authors, in honour of International Women’s Day, I felt completely overwhelmed. Most of my books seem to be written by women… It’s like my hands instinctively reach for female writers in the bookstore; perhaps it’s because the genres of novels I particularly like, historical fiction for example, seem to also attract a higher proportion of writers of the female persuasion? Maybe I feel a deeper connection to characters written from the female gaze? Perhaps I just like the covers more…

What I realised though was moving over the Atlantic forced me to dramatically scale down the size and scope of my bookshelves. I had already subconsciously done my editing – what had I chosen to take with me in the one box of books I had agreed with my husband I would ship?

 

  1. JK Rowling – who doesn’t love this woman?! She’s smart, empathetic and whip crack funny in that slightly brutal way that makes you wince and laugh at the same time. I adore her writing, not just Harry Potter (obviously), but also the Robert Galbraith crime books. You don’t even notice that you’re reading half the time, you’re just swept along. Plus she’s an Exeter University alumni (same as moi) and lived in Edinburgh near where I grew up – so I’m basically half a step away from being her…. right…?!
  2. Emily Brontë – I have always been obsessed with “Wuthering Heights”. I love how wonderful and awful Heathcliff and Cathy are. The characters and settings are harsh and complex, nothing here is glossed over or sugarcoated and it’s marvellous. The copy I brought wth me is a gorgeous leather bound edition bought for me by my husband for my birthday when we first started dating – the boy knows me well!
  3. Philippa Gregory – This woman is prolific and it’s a good job because I tend to whizz through her books in one sitting. The Queen of Historical Fiction, she brings far off settings and time periods to life with great description and really well drawn characters. There’s always plenty of action, mystery and romance to keep you entertained and she nearly always has a strong female protagonist you can get behind.
  4. Nora Ephron – It’s like talking to your best friend – but wiser and funnier. She’s so impressive partly because she’s also so multi-talented: writer, journalist, screenwriter and film director rolled into one. I adore the way she writes about so many things that are pertinent to women’s lives in a way that is both devastatingly, heartbreakingly astute and also so lightly worn that you can find humour in even the darkest of topics.
  5. Lian Hearn aka Gillian Rubinstein – I blame my sister for getting me into the “Tales of the Otori” YA fiction series; I was obsessed. Set in feudal Japan, these books are choc full of heroes, villains, escapes, magic and slightly dubious morality… which adds up to a pretty potent mixture. In fact, this and the Harry Potter books are the only ones I have actually set out to purposefully buy, first day out, in hardback. Just brilliant.

 

Who are your favourite female writers??

Review: “Revenants: The Odyssey Home”

Author: Scott Kauffman

Kindle Edition: 275 pages

Publisher: Moonshine Cove Publishing, LLC

Release Date: 23 December 2015

Author Requested Review

3 STARS

This book was always going to have an epic hill to climb as a re-telling of Homer’s “The Odyssey”. By its very nature it was going to have to be expansive both in time and location, not to mention language and structure – all very problematic for an author… There are some elements of this that Scott Kauffman has really nailed and, as to be expected, others that slip through his grasp. In light of this, I am completely torn with this book.

A grief-stricken candy-striper serving in a VA hospital following her brother’s death in Vietnam struggles to return home an anonymous veteran of the Great War against the skullduggery of a congressman who not only controls the hospital as part of his small-town fiefdom but knows the name of her veteran. A name if revealed would end his political ambitions and his fifty-year marriage. In its retelling of Odysseus’ journey, Revenants casts a flickering candle upon the charon toll exacted not only from the families of those who fail to return home but of those who do.

The bulk of this historical, coming-of-age novel deals with the story of Betsy, a teenage girl who is recruited to serve as a volunteer nurse during the summer holidays after her brother is killed in Vietnam. Whilst at the VA hospital, she learns of a mysterious patient in the attic and becomes embroiled in attempting to discover his identity.To be honest, it’s here on this smaller stage – one summer, in a small mid-west town, that Kauffman produces some of his best writing. I really enjoyed the mystery element of the book – it had pace and you definitely felt drawn into wanting to solve the puzzle. Kauffman, through the narrative voice, creates genuine sympathy for Betsy here, and you are able to watch her mature and deal with her grief as the story develops, much more so than the first person ‘Betsy’ moments at the start and end.

Kauffman’s use of Homer’s non-linear narrative and shifts in perspective can  make it  hard to follow at times though, and it often doesn’t endear you to the characters, especially Betsy, at the start of the novel. It is worth pushing through though. The main bulk of this story about the effect of war on not only soldiers, but their loved ones, is very touching and has some really beautiful and unexpected poetic description.

Overall I found myself really drawn into the story after getting through the first few chapters. It’s certainly worth  persevering with this novel, it is extremely detailed in its research – so much so that as a Brit I had to look up several references to US pop-culture! And you get a strong sense of the characters and the worlds they inhabit. This is a solid bet if you are looking for something that explores the aftermath of war more than a war itself and whilst there are plenty of nods to “The Odyssey”, particularly in the repeated imagery and themes of homecoming and fate, it has its own charm.

Thanks to Scott Kauffman for making a copy of this novel available to me for review.

The Month in Books: February 2017

I’ve been up against it this month – I started my TBR list quite late, and it’s a short month. I know… excuses excuses! Still, I’ve got six books to feedback to you on and there’s a little bit of something for everyone…

AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie        *****

imgresI loved this. The book follows Ifemelu and Obinze, childhood sweethearts, who try to pursue new lives away from their home in Lagos, Nigeria. For me, this was a perfect coming together of author and reader in terms of timing, I felt it really spoke to me. It was great to see it up all around the subway too and I voted  for it as part of #OneBookNY. The characterisation was really sensitive and I thought the descriptions and emotions were astutely drawn. The novel itself is quite slow paced but that didn’t matter; I felt like it was just unfolding gradually as the characters adapted to their new lives. A totally relevant read given the current political climate in the US. See full post.

The Thin ManDashiell Hammett       ***

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A classic murder mystery. I liked the pithy style and slick art deco settings – but was distracted by everyone getting drunk all the time! It’s hard to really rate it though when you’ve been raised on Wodehouse. It’s a classy book but felt more like style over substance.

 

Hanging MarySusan Higginbotham     ***

25620676I love historical fiction but found this quite slow. The novel tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth from the point of view of Mary Surratt, a co-conspirator who became the first woman to be hanged by the United States, and her lodger, Nora. I must admit I didn’t really bond with the characters which made it hard to care about the outcome and whilst it really picked up pace in the second half, it was a little late by then. The settings are carefully researched and it’s great to have important historical events told by a female protagonist – although this does often mean that key action has to be missed and it is hard to maintain the level of tension when the really exciting bits happen ‘off-stage’ as it were. Unfortunately I also found the historical tone of the first person not entirely convincing, but his might just be me – I get a real bee in my bonnet about first person narration that doesn’t ring true!

Girl At WarSara Nović     *****

imgresThis was a brilliant book. Set during and after the Balkans war in the 1990s, it follows a young Croatian girl, Ana Jurić, who’s life has been shaped by the break up of Yugoslavia; an era and location that I haven’t seen many books about. It deals with the impact of war in an uncompromising manner combined with beautiful, poetic writing. The structure of the book is cleverly done, revealing Ana’s attempts at getting to grips with her past gradually and drawing you in. I was genuinely shocked and emotional at times reading this, despite the almost detached tone. This is another book that is great to read if you’re looking for something that is politically relevant in terms of international relations, the role of the UN peacekeepers, genocide and asylum. It’s also really interesting as Nović is a deaf author – the book is beautifully observed.

The Winter SeaSusanna Kearsley       ***

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This was a recommendation from another book blogger – A Wee Reader (check her out here) and I’m so pleased I took it up. I really enjoyed this despite some shortcomings. See full review.

 

 

 

Fever 1793 Laurie Halse Anderson       ***

781110This is a historical YA book that’s really well researched but I didn’t love it. Set during the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793, it’s the classic coming-of-age story of Mattie Cook. It will appeal more to girls than boys I suspect – there’s lots about mother – daughter relationships and society’s expectations of women… the need to be a ‘good’ girl. With my teacher hat on it could open some interesting discussions with younger readers, there’s lots of Mattie’s inner monologue that seeks to put her down and how she moves past that, learning self reliance and dealing with loss. I also hated the front cover design – it looks like someone has coloured it in with a neon yellow highlighter…. Full review to come as part of a Great Read Great Place post in Philadelphia.

My March TBR list is still under construction so let me know if you think there’s something I should add 🙂

Review: “The Winter Sea” by Susanna Kearsley

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Paperback: 544 pages

Publisher: Sourcebooks, Inc.

Release Date: 1 December 2010

4 STARS

This book popped up as a recommendation by The Wee Reader in her 2016 round up and I couldn’t resist. I enjoyed plowing through all the Outlander books last year and was looking for something that might fill the little homesick hole in my life since I moved to New York.

History has all but forgotten…

In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown.

Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write.

But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth—the ultimate betrayal—that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her…

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Slains Castle Aberdeenshire

There is some really beautiful description in The Winter Sea. The sense of place is evocative and Kearsley has a knack for seamlessly switching between the modern day and historic voices of the characters. In fact, Carrie’s narration is less ‘self-conscious’ than Diana Gabaldon’s Claire Fraser and I found that I was less aware of ‘reading a construction’ with this book – the narrative flowed well and didn’t jar in the way that Claire’s voice occasionally can. I found the characters to be well fleshed out and likeable in the main and I was pleased that whilst there was a bit of romance, this didn’t dominate.

This book is often classed as a ‘time travel’ novel, but this is slightly misleading. It is more that there are two parallel plot lines that are interwoven. This allows Kearsley to use meta-text to explore not only the events of the past, but also the writing process of her central character. Whilst slightly unexpected, I kept expecting the narratives to meet at some point as per a more traditional time travel arc, it was engaging.

On the downside, Kearsley is overly fond of repeated metaphors, especially when describing the cliffs and ‘winter sea’ of the title. My inner teacher was itching to take out a red pen and circle them – find something new! There is also some difficulty in having a central narrator who, by necessity of social and historical norms, is required to be absent from key bits of action. This only became an issue later in the book, but was frustrating and meant that Kearsley had to get around some awkward changes in narrative voice and time, dropping the pace somewhat.

Overall this was a really fun read, not particularly taxing, but one where you definitely want to pick it up as soon as you get home. If you’re looking for something in the Gabaldon oeuvre or set in the Highlands, then this is a good bet.

Great Reads in Great Places: Providence, Rhode Island

I’m a sucker for wandering around old streets, visiting stately homes and sitting out with a good book and a great view to enjoy my coffee. But where to get this in a country that glorifies the new, the shiny, the current?

I fell in love with New England without ever actually visiting. Instagram is awash with gorgeous images of colonial clapboard houses, delicious seafood platters and LL Bean boots surrounded with enough snow and plaid to make a lumberjack blush. I was left with the impression that there is something rather magical and quaint about these northern states and as an émigré of Old England, I was curious to see how history was conserved and presented in the land of the free and home of the ‘what?! It’s 50 years old?! Tear it down and build something new!’ Part of me was secretly hoping that I would be able to find a little something of the wild and beautiful places described in Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series and Sara Donati’s ‘Wilderness’ books on the way – obviously with 21st century luxuries like plumbing though!

Given that I can’t actually get on a plane without a doctor’s note now, being eight and a half months pregnant, one of our main criteria was that we should be able to road trip there in a decent amount of time from our Brooklyn apartment. Where was within a four hour drive of New York and could be ‘done’ in a weekend?

We plotted a route that would take us up the coast as far as Providence, Rhode Island, where we would spend the night, and would enable us to stop off and take in some typically New England sights.

The main book I’d be taking with me on this trip was Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper”. Set in fictional Upper Darby, Rhode Island, the book follows the story of 13 year old Anna who sues her parents for medical emancipation after she is expected to donate a kidney to her sister who is suffering from leukaemia.

Our first stop was in Connecticut. Mystic is famous for its pizza and its seaport and neither disappointed. The town itself is small and nestled on the coast, consisting of a busy (even in February) Main Street complete with cafés, artisan shops promoting local craftspeople and rather ingeniously, its very own Mystic Psychic!

Lunch was, obviously, at Mystic Pizza – the restaurant made famous by the eponymous 1988 Julia Roberts film. It proved to be a lovely slice of Americana; friendly staff and tasty deep pan pizza were the order of the day. They even have a decent range of gluten free options which was something we weren’t necessarily expecting outside of New York.

Our last stop in Mystic was the outdoor museum at Mystic Seaport. We arrived quite late in the afternoon and managed to get half price tickets as well – something to think about if you’re like us and tend to whizz around museums! In amongst the tall ships and whaling boats on display is also a fully restored whaling village. This was the best part of the museum for me. The attention to detail is second to none and the staff on hand to talk you through are extremely knowledgable. The actors in costume were a nice touch! I imagine that this gets very busy in the Summer months, but we really felt like we didn’t miss much coming in the off season.

Providence would be our main base for the weekend. We were staying at the Renaissance Downtown Providence – a lovely, if corporate feeling, hotel that overlooks the Rhode Island State House. Our concierge recommended Hemenway’s restaurant as a taste of New England for dinner. This raw bar and seafood specialty restaurant was extremely busy and definitely needs to be booked in advance. There’s a brilliant range of dishes on offer including classic chowder, oysters and lobster served in a myriad of imaginative and delicious ways.

The next morning we decided to walk around the Brown University campus and see Benefit Street, the main historic district. I was able to set up camp in these gorgeous surroundings and catch up on my Great Read.

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Jodi Picoult’s novel has a tendency to divide readers. Lauded by many, others find her style contrived and lightweight in nature. There is no doubt that this book is uneven in terms of how well each of the narrative voices are fleshed out, but in the main Picoult has done a good job of crafting separate rhythms and perspectives. The story is shamelessly emotional and uses a variety of metaphoric devices to ensure that you are in no doubt about the differing directions the characters are pulled in. It’s not a particularly subtle book, but it is eminently readable and, as a soon to be mother, certainly made me question what I might do if I found myself in Sara Fitzgerald’s awful situation. I enjoyed the pace of this novel and felt that it was easy to get swept along with the journeys these characters take.

On our way back to Brooklyn we decided to stop in Newport and see the harbour and mansions that snake around the lower coast. I loved the rows of immaculate clapboard houses that lead onto upmarket Thames Street. It was strange to see plaques on the houses detailing date of construction and the original owner; some of the buildings were only 30 years older than our cottage in London! There was much about this little coastal town that reminded me of Padstow and Rock in Cornwall – a plethora of restaurants serving the day’s fresh catch and plenty of places to indulge in some serious retail therapy, especially if you have a thing for nautical home decor.

Standing proud on the cliff edge at the eastern tip is The Breakers – the grandest of the mansions around Bellevue Avenue, and former home of the Vanderbilt railroad family. This glorious Gatsbyesque monument to wealth and luxury has fabulous views of the rugged New England coastline and is full of carefully restored and preserved furniture from the house’s golden age in the late 19th / early 20th century. The audio tour is comprehensive and gives you a couple of hours to explore the main rooms.

Overall this was a really good mini road trip and we definitely felt that we were able to fit enough into the two days to give us a flavour of New England. I can’t wait to come back!

Already read ‘My Sister’s Keeper’?

Why not try these other titles set in Connecticut and Rhode Island:

  • ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ – John Updike
  • ‘Summer by the Sea’ – Susan Wiggs
  • ‘Theophilius North’ – Thornton Wilder
  • ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • ‘The Stepford Wives’ – Ira Levin
  • ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ – Mark Twain
  • ‘Revolutionary Road’ – Richard Yates
  • ‘The Great Gatsby’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald (not set in New England but reading this whilst walking around The Breakers is a perfect combo!)

If you have Rhode Island or Connecticut based recommendations then add them to the comments below 🙂