Book Review: Be Still the Water (****)

I’ll tell you about my dinner tomorrow (I’ve got to download the photos) but here’s my review of the most recent read from Net Galley:

I am proud to be a Ten Reviews or More reviewer on Net Galley

I was sent this e-book, free-of-charge (yay!) by NetGalley, in return for an honest review. So, here it is:

BE STILL THE WATER

by Karen Emilson

The Net Galley synopsis says:

From the award-winning author of Where Children Run comes a smoldering tale, set in 1906 along the unspoiled shores of Lake Manitoba.

Be Still the Water brings us into the fold of the Gudmundsson family—immigrants determined to begin life anew in the Icelandic farming and fishing community of Siglunes. At the heart of the novel is dutiful Asta, the middle daughter who loves the local mill owner’s son, but the devastating secret they share drives a wedge between them, complicating their love for decades.

When Asta’s younger sister goes missing, she embarks on a quest to find her and bring her home. She tells the heartbreaking tale some seventy years later, while on her deathbed, finally discovering the truth of what happened on those fateful days that set the course for her life and the lives of everyone she loved.

Loosely inspired by area events, this is an emotional, slow-burning story of family love and sacrifice, of a secret revealed and promises broken—told in the spirit of the Icelandic Sagas.

While I might take issue with the adjective “smouldering” (please note, I’ve spelt it correctly!) I certainly wouldn’t complain about the rest of this description. I found this an interesting story, with characters that I both believed in, and engaged with. It covered both a period of history, and an area of the world, about which I knew nothing – I didn’t even know that Icelandic people settled in Canada!

The main protagonist, Asta, was a likeable character, and her struggles, together with those of her family, were well recounted. The story starts at the very end of her life, as she is preparing to die, and she wants to know what happened to her sister, who disappeared. In order to do this she “travels” back in time, and retells the story of her life. It is a life full of tragedy, secrets, hardship, but also the joy of family and community. As the telling unfolds we discover more about Asta and her history.

I did find it a little over-long, but, having said that, there was no extraneous episodes, no unnecessary descriptions. The writing was good, and (thank heavens) well-edited. I enjoyed this author’s style. I’d certainly recommend this to lovers of historical fiction, giving it four stars

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From Puffins to Peacocks

Which might be a slightly ambiguous post title, but can be explained…

I wrote earlier about my childhood reading, and my membership of the Puffin Club, a club affiliated to Puffin books, an imprint of Penguin Books publishing house, targeted at children. Peacock books were the fairly shortlived “young adult” series, a step on from Puffin books; but they made up a fair amount of my transition reading.

Titles such as Fifteen, by Beverley Cleary, a story about first love, and all the pain and joy associated with it…

This list shows the first Peacock books – just reading it through has made me go “Oh, Yes! I remember that!!” for so many books. I wonder if there’s any there that you have read and enjoyed?

After graduating to the adult library section, I started reading a lot of Mary Stewart’s romance/mysteries. I really enjoyed these – usually there was a smart, sassy female protagonist, who fell in love, often with someone a bit unsuitable, who she suspected to be the wrong doer. She could usually look after herself, but there would be a life-or-death situation at the end where she would be rescued by (or sometimes rescue) the Love of her Life. They would be set in exotic locations, and I really loved them; I read one quite recently, and although it was a bit dated, I still enjoyed it.

I didn’t really like Agatha Christie mysteries, but enjoyed other crime novels – a genre which I still enjoy today. I can’t remember any particular authors that I gravitated towards, although I do remember my aunt taking Ngaio Marsh mysteries on holiday with her: she brought them from the library (shock! horror! we were never allowed to take library books on holiday in case we lost them!) and they all had standard library issue covers in a particularly unpleasant yellow! I tried reading one, but didn’t enjoy it.

I fell in love with two books about time slip/ghostly, doomed love – A Portrait of Jennie, by Robert Nathan, and Jenny Villiers, by JB Priestly. Both of these fed my adolescent need for love… I read A Portrait of Jennie again recently – while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t quite gripped in the same way…

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One book that had a profound effect on me was “In this House of Brede” by Rumer Godden. I had already come across Rumer Godden’s book “The Kitchen Madonna” in the children’s section of the library – a lovely story, in which Gregory, a nine-year-old boy, has a deep love and respect for his family’s Ukrainian maid, Marta. When he discovers that Marta is sad because she does not have an icon in the kitchen, he commits to doing something about it. He makes his own picture, using various things such as jewel-bright sweet wrappers to frame it. I moved onto reading Godden’s “The Greengage Summer” (another Peacock book) which is another book about the joy and pain of first love, but this one set in 1920s France

After this, I wanted to read other books by the same author, and found “In this House of Brede“. As Wikipedia describes it: a portrait of religious life in England that centers on Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman who leaves her comfortable life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community of contemplative nuns. It begins in 1954, as Philippa enters the monastery, Brede Abbey; continues through her solemn vows in the changing, post-Second Vatican Council environment; and ends as Philippa reluctantly accepts the call to lead a new Benedictine foundation in Japan, where she spent part of her childhood.

I think reading this book helped me to see that it was okay to have questions about God, to struggle with being a Christian. I said “Yes” to God at school, aged 17, and went along to a House church, which was in many ways a great start for my Christian life, but in other ways not so good. It was very Bible based, with every answer to every question considered to be in the Bible, God’s direct word to us, and never to be questioned…. This was not my experience, and it was not how I had been educated: I had been taught to ask questions, and my church upbringing had been more open and liberal. Being torn between two stances, this book helped me to start to form my own opinions and become stronger in my faith.

As I write this, I remember more and more books from my adolescence, that I really enjoyed…I could be writing this blog post for ever as I recall more and more!

The L-Shaped Room, by Lynne Reid Banks

Last Year’s Broken Toys

The Silver Sword by Ian Serrailer ( Maybe that was a childhood book, rather than adolescent – but an excellent read!)

Fifth Chinese Daighter by Jade Snow Wong

The Owl Service by Alan Garner…

and so the list goes on. What do you remember reading in your teenage years?

Memory loss!

Yesterday I wrote a post about my childhood reading; as the initial post had been lost through my ineptitude, I had to re-write it. Due to my decrepitude I forgot certain things that had been included in the original post, and I was reminded of them by a comment from Bev.

I talked about authors that I enjoyed reading (and that Mum had frowned upon slightly) but I forgot about some that were happily sanctioned by my parents…First and foremost, there were The Little House on the Prarie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Way, way before the TV series of the same name, I was enjoying Laura and Mary’s adventures in the pioneer community. I remember my delight when Dad bought me a box set of the books

It didn’t contain “These Happy Golden Years” but I was less interested in the series after Laura had grown up and married Almanzo. That set of books was carefully looked after and read, and re-read numerous times. They led me onto Anne of Green Gables which I also enjoyed, although I was less enamoured by Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. I think she and Pollyanna were too good for my liking.

If you’re sharp eyed you may have noticed a very important logo in the top left hand corner of both of these books – the Puffin.

 

This is the logo of the Puffin publishing group – part of the Penguin books franchise – but also the logo on the badge of The Puffin Club. This club was created by Kaye Webb, to encourage children to read more and to become involved in the joy of books. Every quarter members would receive a copy of Puffin Post, a magazine full of articles (written by children!!!) and competitions, jokes and stories.

    

I loved being a member of the Puffin Club! My older brother and sister were also members and they actually won one of the competitions – I still remember it. They had to write a story, including as many Puffin Book titles as they could. I guess that I was probably 9 or 10, my brother 12, and my sister 15 or so at the time; Judy encouraged me to enter too, but I didn’t quite have the courage to do so; I started a story, but didn’t finish it. But both Judy and Mike did, and they both won, in their age categories. They won a week’s sailing holiday, with other Puffineers, in the Forest of Dean, at Symond’s Yat. How exciting!

I think the Puffin Club was a great idea, encouraging young people to become involved in reading, but also in sharing their love of reading with others; it also encouraged budding writers to try their skills. I think I owe much of my love of reading to this excellent venture…Are any of my readers ex-Puffineers? Please do let me know in the comments section!!

On books and reading… (1)

This has been in my draft posts folder for a while – I was annoyed because I’d lost half the post with a little bit of unjudicious button pressing, so I flounced off in a bit of a huff. I’ve revisited it…

It’s interesting that I have recently read two posts about reading habits and how they started. The first is over at The Homeplace Web, where the author recalls going to the library in her youth, and searching out books to keep her (I assume it’s her!) going through the week. Secondly, and purely by coincidence, I read Sue, in The Cottage at the End of the Lane as she wrote about Lucy Mangan’s book, “Bookworm”, which is on the subject of childhood reading.  Both posts are interesting, and I urge you to go over and read them.

Isn’t it a beautiful book cover?!

These posts started me thinking about my reading habits…

We always, always had books around the house. I think a lot of them were from book clubs, such as the Folio book club, as they all had similar covers. I don’t remember my parents reading much – I imagine they were too busy, as mum had a part time job as a teacher and a full time job as a housewife, and dad was a busy GP – but there were always books by their bedside. I remember the built-in bookshelves in the lounge, filled with books that I would browse and flick through if I was feeling bored:  an entire set of Winston Churchill’s memoirs, with the great man’s signature embossed on the front, and also a book about the sinking of the Titanic. I would sometimes pull this off the shelf, and look at the photos, read the tragic stories, and dream about what would have happened had I been on that ship…

We were always encouraged to read, and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t read. I think we learned using Ladybird books, as I can recall a lot of Janet and John; I also remember the pride of working my way through the reading scheme at school – each different level had a colour. The Silver book of Fairy Stories and the Gold book of Fairy Stories were the pinnacle of achievement! It was in one of these that I first read the fairy tale of The Wild Swans, by Hans Christian Anderson, which was a story that I loved! The sadness that the princess couldn’t fully transform her youngest brother, whom she loved, was so sad to me then!

Books always featured in our Christmas pillowcases – I still have two that I pored over until they were quite battered. Both were by the author Roger Lancelyn Green – “Myths from Many Lands” and “Tales of the Greeks & Trojans” I loved the illustrations, and later on, I used them a lot when I was teaching, as each story was on a double page spread, lasting between five or ten minutes to read aloud, and offering lots of food for the imagination.

Whenever we went on holiday, mum would buy us one or two new books, which we were never allowed to even open before we arrived at our destination. What a difficult choice – did I choose a book which I really wanted, or did I choose a thick book which would keep me going? It would have been unthinkable to run out of reading material! We often stayed at the appartment of a friend-of-a-friend in Geneva, and I got to know Glynn’s bookshelves very well. He had vintage editions of Doctor Doolittle’s Circus and Doctor Doolittle’s Zoo, so I knew I could always reacquaint myself with these if I ran out of books! I loved Doctor Doolittle, and went through the whole series.

There were certain authors Mum considered more “suitable” than others. Enid Blyton was frowned upon, but tolerated, as, I think she thought that any reading was better than none. My friend Val and I devoured the Famous Five books – Val had almost all of them in hard back, so I was able to borrow them. We dreamed of being child investigators, and solving mysteries, but a suburb of Liverpool didn’t seem to contain the same adult villains that Kirren Island did! I was never as enamoured by the Secret Seven, but loved the “boarding school” series: The Twins at Saint Clare’s, and Mallory Towers. I longed to go to boarding school almost as much as I longed to be an investigator!

Rather like the HomePlace Web, the library was my Saturday morning hideaway. I can still picture the layout of the place, with its beautiful parquet flooring. There were three public areas: the children’s library, the reference section, and the adult section. In the childrens section there were tables and chairs where you could sit and do homework, using the non fiction books (because you weren’t going to waste any of your precious six tickets on anything as boring as non fiction! ) and deep window sills, with hot air blowers underneath, which were a pleasure to sit on in winter! Books were arranged alphabetically by author, but sometimes the staff would arrange a special display of a particular theme, to encourage us to try new authors or subject matter.

I had six library tickets, rather like these

Each book would have a label inside, with a pocket and a card with the title & author on. When you took the book out of the library, the book card would be put inside your library ticket (which you can see is like a little pocket), the label inside the book would be stamped with the date you had to bring it back by (usually in 3 weeks), and the library ticket placed in some sort of filing system. On returning the book, the assistant would riffle through the filing system to find the ticket with the card inside. The card would be returned to inside the book, and your own ticket returned to you.

Every Saturday I would get my six allocated books from the library, go home, and lie on my bed, reading as though it was going out of fashion. I had usually finished all six books by Sunday evening, so would be reduced to re-reading old favourites from the shelves in my bedroom. I had three shelves, each about a metre long, screwed to the wall above my bed, each one loaded with paperbacks.

After Enid Blyton, I advanced to lots of historical novels, particularly enjoying Rosemary Sutcliffe. I remember loving her books “Brother Dusty Feet” and “The Armourer’s House” with their illustrations by C. Walter Hodges. These stories swept me away to another time and place – together with books by Geoffrey Trease and Henry Treece, again historical novels set in Tudor or Roman times.

As I grew older tastes changed slightly, and I found the young adult (or “teenage” as it was called then!) choices at the library less appealing. They were also rather thin on the ground. One book that has stuck in my mind is one called “Sugar Mouse” by John Branfield.

It is about a girl with diabetes, and her dog. She is trying to come to terms with her illness and realises that her dog has many of the symptoms of diabetes. Instead of taking the dog to the vet, she tests the dog’s blood and discovers the dog does have diabetes. Instead of taking the dog to the vet at this point, she starts giving the dog shots of her own insulin… I don’t know why I remember this book more than any other, as I’m not diabetic, nor did I know anyone diabetic as I was growing up, but for some reason this book, and its cover, has stuck firmly in my mind…

As there were few teenage orientated books on offer at the library, I graduated on to the adult section round about 14 or 15. Instead of turning left into the children’s room, I turned right into the adult section…bigger, with so much more choice…More about that another time.

 

Book Review (again…sorry!): Ten Days One Guernsey Summer (***)

I am proud to be a Ten Reviews or More reviewer on Net Galley

I was sent this e-book, free-of-charge (yay!) by NetGalley, in return for an honest review. So, here it is:

The Net Galley synopsis reads thus:

This is the story of a family living on the Channel Island of Guernsey, faced with the potential of invasion by the forces of Nazi Germany during June 1940. Based on a true story, this is how they faced up to the decisions that needed to be made during the last few days before the occupation of the British Channel Islands.

We also follow the story of a German bomber pilot, and the actions he was involved in during the same period and how his life and actions impacted on that Guernsey family during 10 Days one Guernsey Summer. This is a story of love and compassion in the face of extreme adversity.

A must read for anyone interested in this period of history, 10 Days One Guernsey Summer is a story that will warm your heart and bring you to tears. Prepare to live those days and experience what it was like to face a period when decisions had to be made without anyone knowing where those decisions might lead.

I really, really wanted to enjoy this book – it was written by the grandson of the main characters, it involves a period of history that I find interesting, set in a place about which I know very little. The reviewers on Net Galley gave it five stars almost unanimously, with very flattering write-ups. I was looking forward to a story that hooked me from the first pages, that would “grab your heart and not let go until you can breathe a sigh of relief at the last page” (as one reviewer wrote.)

I think you can probably tell that there is a big “but” coming….

BUT…

I’m afraid that I found the story, and the telling of it, incredibly pedestrian. There was not a lot to hold my interest, just a slightly tedious recounting of everyday life (albeit during a momentous time in history) wherein the protagonists go to work, come home, discuss options, make decisions…but not much else happens until the day before the invasion of the island by the Nazi army.

I was more interested by the non-familial story, that of the German bomber pilot. This story held a little more jeopardy, and it was interesting to read “the other side”. Bernhard was a sympathetic character, an ordinary German, who was doing a job that he had to do, in as “moral” a way possible. He tried to avoid killing defenceless civilians, he acknowledged the bravery of his opponents, he wrote to his family and girlfriend, keeping the worst of the war from them. He was a likeable character, but we didn’t get much insight into his psyche: it was more a straightforward description of his actions: what he did rather than why he did it, or what he thought about it

And I think this was my problem with the telling of this story: it read very much like an account of actions, without much going beyond this. There was very little dialogue, very little descriptive writing, very little observation about motivation and character. So much so, that by the end I didn’t really care what happened to any of them, let alone being moved to tears, as one reviewer promised. Yes, I learned about how people went about their every day life on Guernsey in early 1940; I found out a little about the tomato growing and export business on the island; I even discovered information about the food that was eaten…but I had no sense of getting under the skin of the characters.

As readers of my reviews will know, I also find myself getting irritated by bad punctuation and poor writing, and there were examples of both in this book. When I was teaching 9 and 10 year olds, I refused to allow them to use the adjective “nice” – I explained that this was lazy writing, and always pushed them to find another adjective that told me more about the thing they were describing. The author uses “nice” too many times for my liking, and, I’m afraid, not many other adjectives.

He also thanks his proof reader – quite frankly, I wouldn’t be thanking someone who has such a poor understanding of the use of apostrophes. They were used in a very random fashion: frequently used for plurals (which is wrong. Example “The three K’s climbed into the plane”), sometimes used for the third person singular neutral possessive (which is wrong. Example: It’s wings shone in the sunlight), sometimes NOT used to denote a missing letter ( which is wrong: “Its a lovely day today” ) It’s this lazy editing that really annoys me, and I seem to find it so frequently! I’m sorry, regular readers, that you get subjected to my rants about it so often!

I’m not sure if it is an editing, or a proof reading, or an e-reader problem but there were also rather too many occasions when the spacing of words was incorrect, with words broken in the middle, or running into the next word with no space between them. Only a small matter, but a tad irritating.

I’m sorry to sound so down on this book, as it is obviously a subject close to the author’s heart. At the end of the book he talks about his love of Guernsey, of his grandparents and his family; he tells us how he has lived and worked on the island for all his life, and describes his childhood experiences. I really wanted to like this book, and maybe that’s why I gave it three stars – because finally, the author’s love for the subject shone through. In my opinion, it isn’t well written, but at least I knew that there was a passion in the writing, that the people meant something to the author, even if, sadly, I ended up not being terribly interested in what happened to them.

Nazi troops march through St Peter Port, Guernsey

A view of St Peter Port today


	

Book Review: The Map of Us (*** and a half)

I am proud to be a Ten Reviews or More reviewer on Net Galley

I was sent this e-book, free-of-charge (yay!) by NetGalley, in return for an honest review. So, here it is:

THE MAP OF US by Jules Preston

The description on Net Galley was interesting: Violet North is wonderfully inconvenient. Abandoned by her family and lost in an imagined world of moors and adventure, her life changes in the space of just 37 words exchanged with a stranger at her front door.

Decades later, Daniel Bearing has inherited his father’s multi-million pound business, and is utterly lost. He has no idea who he is or where his life is headed.

When Violet’s granddaughter’s marriage falls apart, Tilly, always adept with numbers, compiles a detailed statistical report to pinpoint why. But the Compatibility Index Tilly creates has unforeseen consequences for everyone in her world.

Tilly and Daniel share a secret too. 10.37am, April 22nd.
Soon, a complex web of secrets and lies is exposed and an adventure begins with a blue typewriter…

and what convinced me to choose this book was the tagline: “One of the most original and charming books you will ever read, this is a must read for all those who love Eleanor Oliphant and The Keeper of Lost Things

While I haven’t read “Eleanor Oliphant” I have read “The Keeper…” and I did enjoy it, so I thought I would give this a try. I was glad I did, although I do have a few reservations.

It is written in very short chapters, with slightly bizarre titles, such as “More Sofa” (it makes sense within the story) or “64.726%” – some chapters are written in almost free-form poetry, others from different points of view, and with a definite style, depending on the subject/narrator. Each character’s story is woven together neatly, and the whole book is a pleasure to read. However, other reviewers found the writing style quite difficult to get along with, and even gave up reading the book.

In my opinion, the characters were engaging, and well delinated, and the story moved along briskly. While the writing was “different”, I didn’t find it put me off too much. I particularly enjoyed the chapters telling Violet’s story, and the characters described therein; Dog appealed most of all.

My reservations are two-fold – although the first is not so much about the book as the publicity. Billing anything as “The most uplifting and unmissable feel good novel of the year!” is possibly dangerous, as it sets the reader’s expectations almost unattainably high. I have read other books equally (or more) uplifting this year, although I’m not denying that this was a satisfying (although partially very predictable) read.

My second reservation is that at times I felt that the author was almost trying too hard to be quirky. There were times when I felt he was raising his eyebrow archly and saying “Aren’t I clever?” I guess that more and more novels have to have something to make them stand out from the crowd, but with this I just felt slightly put on edge by the knowing eccentricity of the way the story was told.

Don’t let this put you off: if you enjoy stories with “something different” about them, then I would recommend it. It’s not as good as the equally quirky “A Year of Marvellous Ways” which I loved but it is still a very enjoyable book. I have given it three-and-a-half stars (losing half a star for being “arch”) but for Net Galley, who don’t give half stars, I’m rounding it UP to 4 stars.

Book Review: Good Harbor (****)

This wasn’t sent by Net Galley. It’s a proper book – and one that I’ve had for several years, and have read several times.

Even though I know the story well, I still enjoy reading this book. I pulled it off the shelf as I was looking for something to read last night, as I wasn’t sure where my Kindle was. As always, I was drawn into the story, and found that I couldn’t put it down, finishing it off this afternoon. OK, I have the excuse of fatigue to mean that I can sit around reading for a good part of the day, but I still enjoyed this.

The Good Reads description says: Good Harbor is the long stretch of Cape Ann beach where two women friends walk and talk, sharing their personal histories and learning life’s lessons from each other. Kathleen Levine, a longtime resident of Gloucester, Massachusetts, is maternal and steady, a devoted children’s librarian, a convert to Judaism, and mother to two grown sons. When her serene life is thrown into turmoil by a diagnosis of breast cancer at fifty-nine, painful past secrets emerge and she desperately needs a friend. Forty-two-year-old Joyce Tabachnik is a sharp-witted freelance writer who is also at a fragile point in her life. She’s come to Gloucester to follow her literary aspirations, but realizes that her husband and young daughter are becoming increasingly distant. Together, Kathleen and Joyce forge a once-in-a-lifetime bond and help each other to confront scars left by old emotional wounds.

It’s interesting that this is the first time I’ve read it since I had trhe diagnosis of breast cancer, as one of the main characters is in recovery, just as I am; she is going through radiotherapy, and it was fascinating to compare Kathleen’s reactions and emotions regarding her cancer to my own – some very similar, some very different. All the characters – even minor ones – are well delineated, and are believable; they are multi-faceted and behave in ways that are consistent with what we know about them.

It’s an interesting study of friendship, and made me consider – and be grateful for – my women friends. I don’t have the close friendship that Kathleen and Joyce forge, but it brought home to me how important friends are. It also looks at how religion plays a part in family life, and at how misunderstandings that arise out of tragedy can have long lasting effects on relationships.

I found this – as always – a deeply satisfying book to read. Especially as there are none of the glaring grammatical or literary errors that I find in so many of the Net Galley books that I review!

Four well deserved stars.

This is a picture of the “real” Good Harbor beach