Flu Reviews

I’m not really writing a review on flu but if I was I’d probably write this – ‘drags on forever with no end in sight’, ‘has turned my legs to jelly’ and ‘not recommended in the slightest!’ Thankfully I won’t be writing these sorts of comments about the two books I’m reviewing. One of them I finished just as the flu was kicking in and the other helped me through last week when all I could do was lie on my bed.

‘In Her Wake’ by Amanda Jennings, published by Orenda Books, has been getting rave reviews. Am I going to add to that? Of course I am. I have deliberately not read any of the other reviews so any duplication is pure coincidence. I read Amanda Jennings first book, ‘Sworn Secret’ last year. The thing that impressed me most about that particular book was her ability to write convincing relationships between grieving people. She touches again on grief as the book starts with the death of Bella’s mother. A much loved mother, an incredibly close relationship between mother and daughter almost to the point of suffocation. Bella’s not sure how to deal with this grief and her distant father and her controlling husband don’t seem able to help. After the funeral, her father attempts to reach out to her but something is stopping him. The following day, Bella finds that her father has committed suicide and has left her the most devastating note – Bella is not Bella and her parents were not her parents. She had been abducted as a small child and raised in cloistered seclusion. Faced with this incredible news, Bella sets out to find her real family and find out who she really is.

‘In Her Wake’ is beautifully written with lush descriptions of Cornwall. The author’s love for the place is clear and I particularly enjoyed the Cornish words she ‘dropped’ into the story. Bella’s husband, David, is both credible and disturbing as he seeks to control her. But the best part for me is Bella and all her complexities. To discover that your whole life is a lie and that you can’t trust the very people who you thought were there to protect you. To be adopted is one thing, to be abducted is something else entirely. I don’t want to give away too much but ultimately this book is about love overcoming destruction and devastation; of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Just even thinking about it stirs emotion in me! ‘In Her Wake’, unsurprisingly, gets 5 stars from me. A stunning read.

 

Helping me through the fog of flu, once my three day headache had cleared, was ‘No Longer Safe’ by AJ Waines. This is the third book I’ve read by Alison and so I found it easy to slip into the story. I related to the main protagonist, Alice Flemming, very well. I too struggled (and still do on occasions) with low self esteem and being incredibly shy. Thankfully at university I found good friends, unlike Alice who found Karen. Totally beguiled by her, Alice thought that Karen was her saviour and her one true friend. It was never like that for Karen. They lost touch for six years and then, out of the blue, Karen contacts Alice, inviting her on holiday to a remote cottage in Scotland. Her heart captivated once more, Alice readily agrees and is thrilled that she won’t just be seeing Karen but also Karen’s new baby, Melanie. Alice thinks it will be like old times. But when two other ‘friends’ from university turn up, it’s the start of a downward spiral for Alice that doesn’t stop until it descends into hell.

AJ Waines writes such believable characters and we don’t just hear from Alice but from Karen as well. Karen needs Alice to serve a purpose but this time it’s a little more serious than stealing an exam paper. I won’t give any spoilers but this book has the most surprising twist which I hadn’t guessed at all. And that’s all down to AJ Waines’ skill as a writer. It’s another five stars and I’m very much looking forward to Alison’s new series coming soon – ‘Inside The Whispers’.

 

I’m now reading ‘The Lie’ by CL Taylor so will review that book soon. I’m hopefully off to CSI Portsmouth (flu permitting) this coming weekend so I may have some interesting things to tell you next week!

(For more information on today’s authors  go to amandajennings.co.uk and to ajwaines.co.uk)

 

 

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What the Dickens!

 I have a confession to make: I’ve never read a whole Dickens novel. I think I’ve tried. I seem to remember starting ‘A Tale in Two Cities’ but I didn’t get very far. Certainly I’ve seen films, TV programmes and even a musical in the West End but not read the books. In fact, I’ve not felt the need to – until now.

Tony Jordan has done what Alistair Sim, Michael Caine & the Muppets and Lionel Bart couldn’t achieve. After watching Dickensian, I now want to read Dickens.

As it’s been half term, I’ve had to find things for the children to do and high on my list was to visit the Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, London. Although my youngest is too little to watch the programme, the older two have been watching it with fascination (apart from when anyone kisses). So, with some persuasion, we all headed off up to London. The first thing that struck me was Doughty Street itself and the surrounding roads. They are beautifully still in character, as though you were walking onto a set itself. The museum is very much in keeping with Victorian times with wallpaper, carpet and even lighting to match the era. To see Dickens actual desk and chair and know that he sat there to write was something that thrilled me as a writer. I’m not sure if it thrilled my children as much but they certainly got a sense of what it was like.

It was interesting too to find out that he kept his childhood poverty hidden so well that the public only knew two years after his death. He wrote from experience of debtors’ prison and childhood labour. Social justice was clearly important to him and I wonder if he were alive today, what would he write about? Homelessness, food banks, refugees, poverty – have things really changed so much since the 19th century?

The highlight for me at the museum though was seeing the costumes from Dickensian. From Mrs Gamp and Mrs Bumble to Miss Havisham and Honoria Barbary – the costumes are stunning. There’s a wonderful painting in Dickens’ study called Dickens Dream and it has a lot of his characters in it, coming out of their stories and standing together. Tony Jordan said that this painting was great inspiration for him and showed that the characters could stand on their own two feet. This shows how good Dickens’ characterisation was, that they could be removed from their plotlines but still be instantly recognisable. And this is what Tony Jordan has done, and in my opinion, done with magnificence. Having seen pictures and video of how the set came to be and what the actors thought of it themselves (Anton Lesser as Fagin said that when he saw the set he knew he had to up his game), what has been achieved his truly remarkable and surely there has to be a second series.

If I have one criticism then it’s the BBC’s scheduling for this programme. It has been erratic and now, just as it seems to have finally settled into a Thursday/Friday slot, the finale is on Sunday 21st Feb at 6.25. Quite frankly, Dickensian deserved better. And if there isn’t a BAFTA nomination for Sophie Rundle as Honoria Barbary, then something is really wrong. From frivolous young woman to tragic heroine, Sophie Rundle has given, to my mind, the outstanding performance of the series. And that’s high praise indeed when you consider how wonderful Stephen Rea has been as Inspector Bucket. Of course, if there is a spin off, then it should be Inspector Bucket, Mr Venus and Madame Snuggles as a new crime solving team. Now, I bet that’s not a plot that Charles Dickens had considered!

 

 

A God In Ruins – A review

Let me start out by saying that Kate Atkinson is one of my writing heroes. I love the way that she twists her plots and just when you think you’ve worked it all out, there’s another twist, sometimes on the last page. Her Jackson Brodie novels are my favourites (unsurprisingly given the crime genre) but ‘Life After Life’ runs an extremely close second. Wait a minute, you say, this review is for ‘A God In Ruins’. Yes, indeed it is but you can’t review the latter without looking at the former first. In fact, I would say that in order to understand ‘A God In Ruins’, you have to read ‘Life After Life’ first.

‘Life After Life’ is, as the title suggests, the recurring lives of Ursula Todd. Ursula appears to be stuck in a cyclical journey of birth, death and rebirth. But unlike reincarnation, it is her own life that she continually returns to, apparently learning from her previous mistakes. She doesn’t actually remember each life but there’s a whisper or sixth sense that tells her to take or not take a certain path. It is the most brilliant book and it was a struggle to put it down. I marvelled too at the plotting of the story (how did she do it?!) and it’s one of those novels that I think will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Atkinson considers ‘A God in Ruins’ as a companion book, more than a mere sequel to ‘Life After Life’. In the author notes she explains that she wanted to write a book about World War Two, focusing on the areas that fascinated her the most – the Blitz and the bombing campaign of Germany. She explores the Blitz through Ursula’s eyes but it was apparent to her that there was too much material for just one book. So she explores the bombing campaign through Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy, a pilot in Bomber Command.

Naturally though, Kate Atkinson doesn’t stick with a conventional timeline and Teddy’s life is explored in different time periods with episodes from before the war, during and after, interweaving together. There are also sections that are seen from others’ viewpoints – Nancy, his wife; Viola, his daughter; Sunny, his grandson and Bertie, his granddaughter.

I have to confess that I didn’t find A God In Ruins as compelling as Life After Life. I preferred having Teddy as the narrator although the chapter from Sunny’s viewpoint had me in tears and I would have liked to know more about him. Sadly, I can’t say the same about his mother, Viola, who is truly vile. But there is a lovely section where I suspect Atkinson is doing a little self-mocking:

‘She [Viola] wished she had asked him about his war when he was still compos mentis. She might have been able to use his memories as the basis of a novel. One that everyone would respect. People always took war novels seriously.’

And that’s what I love about Kate Atkinson. She never takes herself too seriously. She’s not pretentious. There is always humour shot through her books. And of course, just when I thought that this would be a four star book for me, she pulled it out of the bag, right at the very end, with, in her own words, ‘a bit of trickery.’

So, in conclusion, ‘A God In Ruins’ gets five stars from me. I have no idea what Kate Atkinson is working on next but I do hope it’s another Jackson Brodie novel. Go on Kate, just for me.

Dark Brilliance at Chelsea Physic Garden

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Well, today I have the task of trying to write a blog post while the builders dig up part of our garden to build a new conservatory. It will be lovely in the long run but it’s a little bit noisy at the moment! Still, the pneumatic drill has stopped for a few minutes so I want to take the opportunity to tell you about an event I went to last night at Chelsea Physic Garden (the photo is from a visit to Chelsea a couple of weeks ago to see the snowdrops).

It’s full title was Dark Brilliance: Agatha Christie, poisonous plants and murder mysteries. It was a panel of four authors – Daniel Pembrey (who chaired), Helen Smith, Dr Kathryn Harkup and Rebecca Chance. Right from the beginning, their knowledge and expertise on Agatha Christie was clear and made me realise how little Christie I’ve actually read! One of the points that they put across was that sometimes TV adaptations and films don’t capture the sheer brilliance of Christie’s writing. Although they all agreed that the BBC’s version of ‘And Then There Were None’ was extremely good, it did miss some of the nuances of the book (and clearly added a few – was there a ‘towel’ in the original?!).

Christie is the author most renowned for using poison as a murder weapon and indeed appeared to be her weapon of choice. She did in fact train as an apothecary’s assistant during World War One and continued this work for a while afterwards. In her book, ‘A is for Arsenic’, Kathryn Harkup tells us that Agatha Christie volunteered at a hospital dispensary during World War Two, which kept her knowledge up to date. She certainly knew her stuff and Kathryn Harkup, as a scientist, expounds on this knowledge by looking in detail at 14 of the poisons Christie used (she used many more than this). So, if you’re interested in the science behind Agatha Christie’s poisons, then ‘A is for Arsenic’ is most definitely for you! And for the aesthetics among you, it has the most wonderful Art Deco cover!

Daniel Pembrey, Helen Smith and Rebecca Chance are crime writers and they spoke of how Christie influenced them as authors. One of the things they particularly liked about her was that she didn’t cheat her readers. The clues are always there, possibly hiding in the background but there nonetheless.

Despite the seriousness of the topic, there were a lot of laughs too. As Kathryn Harkup pointed out, everything is a poison if taken in the wrong quantity – even water. About seven litres would be enough to kill but as Kathryn said, your victim might notice!

So, if this has whet your appetite for reading Agatha Christie then some of the panel’s favourites were Endless Night, And Then There Were None, Five Little Pigs and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Happy reading!