Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The Good Doctor of Warsaw - Elisabeth Gifford

The Good Doctor of Warsaw? Sounds warm and cuddly doesn’t it? And then you begin to read and understand that this is book about the Holocaust. I always have admiration for a writer who tackles this difficult and emotive subject. For some reason it has fascinated me since early teens. Possibly because my younger mind could not comprehend the extent of mans’ inhumanity to man. 
So I’m what you might call well read on the subject - fiction and non fiction.

From time to time the unsung heroes of the Holocaust find their stories told. This book celebrates, if that is an acceptable word given the subject matter, the work of Dr. Janusz Korczak. A kind of Polish Dr. Barnardo, Korczak put forward some innovative thoughts with regard to children - the understanding, caring and education thereof. He also happened to be Jewish and Polish, living and working in Warsaw, running an orphanage, at the outbreak of WWII.

This book is a fictional account of Korczak and his orphaned ’children’ from May 1937 until the end of the war and liberation. The construction and the living conditions within the Warsaw ghetto palpably described. Crucial to the plot and narrative is the tale of Misha and Sophia. Misha being one of Korczak’s disciples. This could have been a dry, turgid factual account of the good doctor and all that transpired in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation but this author has very skilfully and accessibly rendered it a fiction drawn very much from the facts of the events. So much so that it becomes almost a shock to read that all these characters were real people. In the afterword Elisabeth Gifford alludes to her friendship with Misha and Sophia’s son, Roman, thought the writing of this book which offers a further stamp of authenticity to the work.

As such she has created a very readable account of some Holocaust humanity, a paradoxical term if ever there was one, but this story needs to be told. Like Schindler’s Ark informed  us there were people who cared enough to try and stand up to the oppressors. It’s not about success or failure but about bravery and humanity. About the endurance of love through the obstacles of time and war. 
If you’ve ever stood beside that monstrous single rail track running through the gatehouse at Auschwitz, Birkenau and felt that palpable chill of evil that will never leave you books like these go some way to quell it. And with events taking place in other parts of the world today stories like these need to be read and understood more than ever if we are to learn something from what has gone before. 

Enjoyment is something of a nebulous term applied to a book of this nature but for want of a better word I did enjoy this book and I’m humbled to be educated about Dr. Korczak from a book written in such an easy, accessible style.

The Perfect Stranger - Megan Miranda

I haven’t read All The Missing Girls which seemed to garner a great deal of praise but that might be to my advantage in this case as I have nothing to compare this story with. I found the book to be a compelling read, I wanted to find out what happened. It was interesting because as I progressed through the narrative I thought I had yet another flawed narrator tale, so in vogue within the thriller genre today.  I smugly thought I’d interpreted all the clues correctly and come to  - the wrong conclusion! And in my perverse way I actually enjoy that!! That a writer can wrong-foot me and wipe the smile off my face is exciting. It messes with your head in an irresistible way. There are a lot of twists and turns in this story making it hard not to give anything away but that does somewhat restrict all that I’d like to say about it. So I’ll begin with a book blurb summary -
‘Having reached a dead end in Boston failed journalist Leah needs a change. She runs into an old friend, Emmy and they move to Pennsylvania. Not long after the move a woman who resembles Leah is assaulted and Emmy disappears. Detective Kyle Donovan and Leah work together to uncover the clues surrounding  the assault and Emmy’s disappearance.’ 

I didn’t find any of the characters particularly engaging but I never got the feeling that I was supposed to. The strength of the book and the momentum it generates seems to derive from a desperation to know what happens next . This was sustained for a good three quarters of the novel but I felt a subtle shift in the dynamic as we neared the conclusion. It was almost as if for writer and reader alike the reaching of the end was an inevitability that was not particularly desired. And I suppose I found the final denouement a little confusing with the red herring hues ranging from pinks to scarlets. 

But it’s a sufficiently complex psychological thriller that will delight fans of Megan Miranda and gain her a few new ones along the way.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Sunflowers in February - Phyllida Shrimpton

I desperately wanted to love this book. I feared it might be a cathartic work for some poor soul, the writer herself maybe and I can’t argue with the value of that. But I did struggle. 

The target audience is the YA sector and there’s much to resonate with them in terms of popular culture and contemporary vernacular. I think this book is unique in addressing such a theme for such an audience. When the theme is mortality I think you run a juxtaposed gauntlet of bravery, risk and possibly foolhardiness. I was reminded of Mitch Albom’s For One More Day dealing with a dead soul returning to the earthly plane. I was also fleetingly reminded of the opening sequences of the film American Beauty where Lester Burnham speaks to us from the spiritual plane much as Lily does in the opening sequences of this book demonstrating that death has consequences for all. 

It’s a debut work with many of the hallmarks of a writer beginning her career and journey with words. So some of the writing is patchy and doesn’t know where it’s going. But other parts show some promise and a real sense of the dramatic. And I was moved to tears at the conclusion. 

I suppose that in general attitudes towards death are sombre and serious, deep and dark so attempts at humour in the story seems somewhat disrespectful which made it a hard read. But that’s maybe a generation thing? Perhaps the YA audience do not feel that way about death? And attitudes towards afterlife and spiritualism can meet with some scepticism so the book does a great job of bridging that gap between acceptance of such things and disbelief. 

There is no doubt it was an unusual read with much to commend it, a lot of emotion and lots to think about and whilst I enjoyed a great deal about it I wasn’t as blown away as I wanted to be.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Wages of Sin - Kaite Welsh

I have a new best friend and her name is Sarah Gilchrist. Originally from London she’s living in Edinburgh studying to be a doctor. She’s feisty, intelligent, caring, a little quick to jump to conclusions sometimes but she possesses a dignity and integrity that many would do well to emulate. But, believe me, living in Edinburgh in 1892 she needs all of those qualities and more besides to deal with the prejudices and hostilities she encounters from those around her. You’re wondering if I’ve lost it aren’t you? I said she was my new best friend? But she’s living in Edinburgh in 1892?! Well, I’m a Reader, sorry, but there it is and if the character in a book leaps off the page at me and into my life there is nothing I can do. It doesn’t always happen but when it does, wow, it really does. 

I blame the writer. Why did she have to create such a damn good character? But not only that, she's gone and constructed a really good story too. With a twist I never saw coming. You just cannot expect me not to respond in the way I have to this book. I read it in two days flat resenting all interruptions and previous commitments. 

It’s historical fiction primarily I guess but there’s a liberal dose of feminism too. Sometimes when I read historical fiction I question the authenticity of some research and I have been known to nit pick when something isn’t quite accurate but the story and plot were so tight here and I become so involved that I really can’t comment on how credible the research is because I didn’t notice any anomalies ! If I was to nit pick there were a couple of occasions where the vernacular seemed more 21st century than 19th but I’m not going to nit pick. 

There’s a palpable atmosphere here so acute you can almost hear the rustle of Sarah’s dresses as she sneaks about Edinburgh’s more dubious environs.  You can commiserate with her on the confines of her contemporary society for as well as a murder story there is a commentary on the role and place of women in the Victorian world. And if I’ve focused solely on Sarah I’m doing the author an injustice for the other characters are well defined and believable.

Sometimes when you have get hold of a book you particularly enjoy there is that curious paradox of wanting to read on to the end and find out what happens but there is also regret that it’s over because you want more. I did a little bit of googling and found that the wonderful Kaite Welsh has another Sarah Gilchrist mystery in the pipeline! The Unquiet Heart. And my heart will be unquiet until I get my hands on a copy!

Monday, 22 January 2018

Last Christmas in Paris - Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

When I received this as a maverick choice from Nudge Books my expectations were low. I thought it might be a left over from the festive period, a fluffy, cuddly, tinselly chick lit tale maybe, that nobody else wanted. But it has proved to be a most moving and engrossing read. 

Briefly it’s a First World War epistolary that details the war on several levels primary through the letters of Tom and Evie. There is their personal story through all the years of the war. And there is both social and political commentary on the war. To convey all this through a series of correspondences is impressive to say the least. The research is thorough and authentic which one might demand from a work of historical fiction but that doesn’t mean one gets it! But we sure do here and it’s done in such an effortless way. I suspect the letter structure of the novel allows this ease to impose itself on the reader and draw them into the tale. The bulk of the novel is through the letters but there are a few conventional narrative passages that act as a link between the letters and an exposition of situations beyond the war that the letters don’t convey. 

I also admired how the characters developed through the letters in a sustained manner which I feel somehow must be harder to do than writing a straightforward narrative. Cleverly we see how these people grow and develop because of and in spite of the war. What is also noteworthy is how the writers seems to have got into the heads of people living through those troubled years and written and conveyed their lives and emotions so convincingly. 

You know that in a war story there has to be some heart breaking moments which could easily descend into over sentiment in a fictional work but that never happens here. There is a realism that doesn’t shy away from the atrocities of war and how people gritted their teeth and ‘got on with it’. There were certain events that seemed predictable while reading but maybe inevitable is a better word? Thematically the story covers love, loss, heartache, grief, fear.

Interesting too, is the co-authorship of the book. When you read you smugly think you have it sorted! One person ‘did’ the letters the other person did the ‘other bits’!! But when you get to the Afterwords you realise that was not the case at all!! I loved reading the joy expressed at each writer’s anticipation of what the other had written.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, all the more because I wasn’t expecting to and although subdued and chastened by much of the subject matter there was some upliftment and satisfaction from the conclusion.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Anything is Possible - Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout’s book My Name is Lucy Barton was long listed for the Man Booker prize in 2016. Although aware of the book I haven’t read it. But I was intrigued as I began Ms. Strout’s latest novel to meet Lucy Barton!! For she appears as a character in Anything is Possible proving beyond a doubt that anything is indeed possible! 

This book is deceptive. On one hand it is an elegant collection of beautifully crafted short stories populated with some quirky, damaged people. Stroud’s prose is descriptively detailed and her characterisations are perceptive and empathic. But as you delve deeper into these stories you realise they are all interconnected. with characters from one story popping up, sometimes just by name, in another. It is fascinating and makes for compelling reading as you strive to make the connections clear in your head. But you don’t have to, Each story works perfectly well as a standalone tale.
And as desperate and lonely as many of these characters are. the novel seems to see something almost beautiful in their states. It is a quite perplexing paradox that can totally engage the reader. Small town America, yes, but a collection of people who could be from any small town in the world, types we may all have come across to some degree in our lives. And this book makes you look at people differently, hopefully with a wider understanding.

I was briefly reminded of Carson McCullers for I felt Ms. Strout has a similar ability to delve into the very heart of a person and understand their raison d’ĂȘtre. Whatever quirks, hurts, faults, shortcomings or flaws a character may have it is somehow rendered acceptable and comprehensible by this writer.
I had few expectations of this book other than that undefinable, call it hunch or readers instinct maybe that this was a book or substance. It is. I mentioned earlier that I hadn’t read My Name is Lucy Barton but by heck I’m going to.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Crimson and Bone - Marina Fiorato

This is the first of Marina Fiorato’s books that I have read and I was suitably entertained by her writing. This was an easy to read book, historical in its basis and veering towards romance and almost thriller. Set initially in Victorian London with a protracted stay in Florence and a couple of eventful visits to Venice there was a flavour of the gothic about this tale of revenge and obsession. 

The authenticity of historical fiction depends upon the quality of research  and whilst I noticed a couple of anomalies that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story overall and I see no reason to detail them here. The story flows pleasingly enough and it was one of those novels where the reader is encouraged almost to predict outcomes and make assumptions that are not necessarily so. We are handed many clues but it is up to the reader to use them wisely! 

I’m never a one for spoilers so I hope this isn’t considered one but I did find it almost amusing that the names of several characters  seem to derive from the suspects and victims in the Jack the Ripper case - Annie Stride, Mary Jane, Francis Maybrick Gill - I thought it was my imagination at first but these surely aren’t coincidental names? Annie imposes herself as the character with the most substance. Francis is unnerving but how could you fail not to love a character whose Italian moniker is ‘l’uomo arcobaleno’ ?

I enjoyed the Pre-Raphaelite art theme in this book and the descriptions were vivid enough to imagine how the canvases must have looked upon completion. The discourses on colour and pigments were fascinating. The novel is colourful and the writing style lent itself to these themes. It would seem that the writer is an art lover as well as a history lover. But there are several allusions to the contemporary cultural arts of the age - Dante, Dumas, Verdi almost attempting to present this as an intellectual work which it isn’t. 

It’s a very dark tale with an undercurrent of danger and uncertainty, competently written with an economy of language that doesn’t skimp on the necessary but doesn’t overload on the waffle. I won’t say that I’ll immediately rush to read another of Ms. Fiorato’s books but she’s done herself no disservice with this compelling fiction.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Hotel on Shadow Lake - Daniela Tully

This novel is a debut work from an erstwhile film producer. Not surprisingly there are some visual elements to the story and it has many of the hallmarks of a debut novel encompassing what I always like to call debut novel exuberance syndrome. Starting the book I was both tantalised and confused in equal measure; the blurb references Maya and her grandmother with no mention of lakes, hotels and shadows. The prologue of no more than a paragraph introduces us to Maya. But the main commencement of the book acquaints us with Martha. And this, what I would call ‘patchiness’ for want of a better word, pervades the whole book. There is a dual narrative between Maya and Martha but that was interspersed with other letters, diaries and stories all fundamental to the plot  but their inclusion rendered the narrative overall as a little staccato. Gosh, I sound like I’m being overly critical aren’t I? I would prefer to call it being honest though because I celebrate and appreciate the debut novel. 

I enjoyed the story very much and where the book demonstrated the strength and potential of its writer was in the straightforward passages of narration and story telling. Initially there seemed to be a tentative feel to her words almost as if she couldn’t quite believe she was writing a novel. The passages where Ms. Tully really gets into her stride allows the words, the plot and the characters to flow with ease and there were sections of the story that were quite unputdownable and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened. Events did seem a little tangled at times and I did get a bit lost with some of the family members.

One could compartmentalise it as historical fiction and applaud the research but it is also a human tale of standing up for beliefs, overcoming obstacles and persisting in the search for truth. There’s a mystery to be solved with some complexities that aren’t always convincing. And there’s some pleasing word pictures painted that might hint of some celluloid promise for the future.

With this one book under her belt I’m sure Daniela Tully can look forward to developing and progressing as a writer and hopefully offering her readers further entertainment. My thanks to Nudge Books and  Legend Press for an uncorrected proof copy.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Crimes of the Father - Thomas Keneally

I remember going to see the film Spotlight and wondering how such a subject could make for an entertaining movie. But it does, for it is compelling viewing and allows the factual storyline to evolve without anything gratuitous forcing it along. I had the same feeling when I began Thomas Keneally’s latest work. I ended up feeling that Keneally, too, has produced a compelling book without resorting to shock tactics to get his point across. Not that the story itself is unshocking, it is, it’s theme not unfamiliar it’s sad to say. But you know that in the hands of such a respected story teller as Keneally it will be worth reading no matter how disturbing. 

This is a powerful fiction set in Keneally’s home city of Sydney and deals bluntly with the celibacy and child abuse of and by Catholic clergy. The central protagonist Father Frank Docherty is a likeable, though slightly maverick priest who becomes caught up in several cases perpetrated by the same abuser who is the brother of a close friend. He is a flawed character by his own admission but all the more real for it. One of the good guys.

Running through the book is a sense of smouldering anger at the guilty clergy and their spurious attempts to justify their behaviour. Also the Church’s manner of dealing with it. The damage done to victims is heartbreaking and as you might expect from Keneally there is no soft pedalling, he tells it like it is. The book is better for it.  I am not of the Catholic faith but I imagine this will resonate very strongly with those who are. 

But this is the tip of the iceberg surely; this story is set in Australia, Spotlight was set on the east coast of the USA. Miles inbetween.  Books like these are very important, especially one as well written as this, for they insist we do not sweep such unpleasantness under the carpet nor forget what has and is going on. And to quote Santayana ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

If you’re looking for a fluffy, cosy little read steer well clear of this book but if you wish to experience a brave fiction that tackles an uncomfortable subject head on, then read on. People who win Booker prizes deserve to be listened to.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Origin - Dan Brown

Dan Brown has his critics and his writing style has oft been criticised from a linguistic point of view at the very least. In fact there are those who condemn him as a downright bad writer. However his books sell. So all those who condemn his writing, would they also condemn his readers for buying and enjoying his books? I don’t care!! I do enjoy his books. Plot holes, implausibilities, inaccuracies of research, contrivances, yep, all there if you wanna look but if you just wanna lose yourself in a rollicking good yarn it’s an easy accessible read. And I’m sure Mr. Brown is sobbing all the way to the bank.

Origin is his most recent work and features the indubitable Mr. Robert ‘Mickey Mouse Watch’ Langdon. Does this guy ever age!!?? All the Brown hallmarks are here, conspiracies and twists and another female accomplice. This time the story is a vehicle that airs the eternal debate between science and religion and  attempts to come up with a plausible theory as to our origins and our future. It’s fast paced and the reader moves along eager to find out what happens next. And Brown doesn’t disappoint. What you think you’ve figured out isn’t so and what you thought couldn’t be turns out to be so. 

If you’ve enjoyed the Langdon series up to now I doubt you’ll be disappointed with this. Its formulaic, yes,  but if you’re happy with Brown’s formula you’ll be happy with this. 

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather Morris

Having recently read both Affinity Konar’s Mischling and Elisabeth Gifford’s The Good Doctor of Warsaw I was prompted to observe the increase in the number of fictional works about the Holocaust and to affirm my admiration for the bravery of writers prepared to tackle such a powerful and emotional subject. And here is another from Heather Morris who has used her friendship with Lale Solokov and his son to create a moving, readable fiction of real life events. It is one thing to create a fiction on factually based research but this novel is elevated by the writer’s personal interest and friendship with the protagonist of this story, Holocaust survivor Lale Solokov. I believe that shines through in the writing. 

It’s a wonderful story and the redemption is uplifting. it isn’t often you can come away from a Holocaust work having cried and smiled. And because it’s a true story those emotions burn fiercely. It would be easy to sum this book up as just being another book about Auschwitz and the Holocaust but it is more. It is about Love. optimism, the human spirit, endurance and determination. I get the impression that wherever and whatever befell Lale he would have endured. The book demonstrates the respect and kindness he showed everyone in spite of the appalling circumstances in which he found himself. 

But please don’t get me wrong, there are no punches pulled here, no sugar coating. No watering down of the brutality and atrocities perpetrated. The descriptions of Mengele are chilling. But what I found very important  here too was Lale’s relationship with Victor and Yuri which I think helps emphasise the fact that there were German people who were not sympathetic to the Reich and could find ways of metaphorically sticking two fingers up at the Nazis. 

The numeric tattoos are almost synonymous with our perception of the inmates of Auschwitz. I have read a great deal of material about the holocaust and visited the camps at Auschwitz. But prior to reading this book it had never struck me so forcibly that someone did that job. Someone tattooed those poor souls and for some reason I had always imagined it to to be an SS officer or Nazi administrator.  Somehow I found that very moving. 

At the end of the book are some photos of Lale and Gita, his wife and co protagonist in this amazing tale. There is also an afterword by their son Gary. They round things up beautifully and upraise this tale even more. It’s the first book I finished in 2018 and I can’t think of a better book to start the year with.