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Sally Walker (Eastbourne, UK)
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The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests
by Sarah Waters
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

5.0 out of 5 stars Simply brilliant writing and a captivating narrative, 18 Aug. 2015
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This review is from: The Paying Guests (Paperback)
You know when you're reading an exceptional book when all you want to do is read it; your life gets in the way and you think about the characters and the events of the narrative when you’re not reading the book. This was my reading experience of The Paying Guests, the first of Sarah Waters book that I have read and because of her now known to me brilliance I feel somewhat as if hitherto I have been living enclosed in a wardrobe.

Quite simply it captivated me. At its heart is brilliant writing that vividly portrays ordinary lives that encounter extraordinary events and tells us how they handle them. The narrative pivots around Frances the now sole surviving child of her widowed mother and Lillian the wife of the young couple who come to rent the first floor of the Victorian house occupied by Frances and her mother. The level of detail that Waters provides us with is to such an extent that you are standing right behind the characters throughout if not actually inside their heads; you can almost smell the rooms. Think of Alan Bennett’s 'Talking Heads' and this gives you an idea of the degree of ordinariness that Waters conveys. This ordinariness gives us actions, feelings and emotions that we can all relate to and so the narrative is highly believable and at times has searing poignancy.

Add to this that you start off thinking you are reading one kind of story only for the narrative to twist, turn and at one point jerk and jolt into something entirely different. It starts as a vivid portrayal of post WW1 life in a part of south London as lived by a pair of lower middle class ladies who prior to the war probably thought of themselves as being firmly entrenched within the middle classes including having a live-in maid. It then turns into a love story which is a continuous thread to the end of the book. Then is introduced drama, tension and suspense which of itself creates a moral dilemma that certainly gets you thinking.

My only criticism is the final scene which seems to me a bit of a cop-out, but for goodness sake don’t make this a reason not to read this boo because you simply must!

I therefore can’t recommend this book enough.


A Place Called Winter
A Place Called Winter
Price: £4.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very good read indeed, 2 July 2015
I’m new to Patrick Gale’s writing so lucky me that I have his seventeen other books to read. Suffice to say that I am now a fan. His writing is immediate, highly accessible, work of intelligence. I constantly wanted to know what happened next and so was pulled at speed through the pages.

The characters are well drawn and credible, as is the plot, which contains many points of tension and emotion.

The story having been woven around known facts of the author’s great grandfather had greater depth to it and poignancy. It was interesting to learn about the conditions of the first settlers – homesteaders - of the Canadian prairies and something of the plight of the indigenous people.

A very good read indeed.


The White Lie
The White Lie
Price: £5.03

5.0 out of 5 stars A well written, very cleverly constructed narrative, a brain-teaser, 19 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: The White Lie (Kindle Edition)
Gillies debut novel is a triumph for many reasons. The switch-back narrative for one which takes the story from the present to any number of times in the past, back and forth, back and forth, creating as it does two central mysteries, one apparent from near the beginning and the other which emerges more slowly to take centre stage at the end, both linked by one protagonist. You are pulled through the pages, you are made to think and to keep up with the information as it is fed to you, like small pebbles thrown into water the ensuing ripples emerging and spreading – it’s no accident that I use this metaphor. You are kept guessing as to where the truth lies.

Added to this the writing style is intelligent and stirring. The characters are well drawn and believable, as is the plot.

Readers be warned this is not a book to put down and pick up a few days later. The narrative is forever changing and demands daily, really as a minimum twice daily attention. I read a passage and thought but I don’t remember reading about that, only to learn that indeed I had not.

The characters are well drawn and believable, as is the plot. Family dynamics can be mysterious and unfathomable to those outside of the clan. Subjects can easily become no-go areas and can be unspoken of for decades until an event occurs which means that finally they must be aired, which then changes the life course of each member of the family.

In short a well written, very cleverly constructed book that is something of a brain-teaser. If you like novels that make you think, you’ll like this.


The Life of Thomas More
The Life of Thomas More
by Peter Ackroyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.94

5.0 out of 5 stars A detailed and vivid portrayal of Thomas Moore, that enables the reader to form their own opinion, 31 May 2015
Thomas Moore who there can be little doubt was a complex man, who I believe, having read Ackroyd’s excellent biography, (the details of Thomas Moore’s life and those of his contemporaries are vividly portrayed in a readable and reasonably academic text) was ultimately only fathomable by himself. His beloved daughter Margaret, perhaps the person he was closest to on this earth, of all of his family, was the only one who came anywhere near to developing an understanding of why he took the stance that he did for which he paid with his life.

A review of this book has criticised Ackroyd’s biography on the grounds that they did not learn of the kind of man that Moore was; they were no closer to knowing him than when they started the book because Moore was throughout a distant figure. I beg to differ. Rather, I think that Ackroyd is to be praised for not giving us his own personal conjecture as to the finer details of Moore’s personality. Ackroyd judging from his extensive bibliography has read all there is to read about Thomas Moore, and in addition, Moore’s own extensive writings and quoted conversations, so we hear Moore speaking himself. References from contemporaneous documents are referred to throughout in the language in which they were written. All of this has formed the basis of a highly detailed account of Moore’s life from the cradle to grave. From this the reader can form their own opinion as to just what sort of man Moore was.

Having read Ackroyd’s biography I judge Moore to have certainly been a deep thinker and highly intelligent. Too he was sanguine and witty, religious and deeply pious, arrogant, particular and ambitious.

Moore had three enemies, Martin Luther, Henry VIII via Thomas Cromwell, but the greatest of all I believe this biography makes clear, was Thomas Moore, himself. It is clear that he lived his life entirely under a yoke of having to perform his duty. This sense of duty he felt keenly to his father and to the Catholic church and each defined him. The former led him to high but perilous places, whilst the latter led him to agruably his finest hours, alone in his prison cell in the Tower of London. I believe, that this final largely solitary part of his life, devoting himself to God was what his true inner self had wanted to do all along.

Of those who held to their beliefs in the face of Henry VIII’s megalomania and as a consequence paid the ultimate price, Moore is probably the best known. There has to be something to admire of just such a person, who refuses to compromise their sacred values and beliefs. However, this admiration has to be balanced by Moore’s persecution of those he viewed as heretics, including sending them to their ends by burning to death in Smithfield.

Much pivotal history is to be learned from reading this biography, including the foundation of the Reformation, the Renaissance humanists and the majority of Henry VIII’s life, focusing upon his divorce from Catherine and his courtship and marriage to the fateful Anne Boleyn. I would therefore recommend this book to those with an interest in the Tudor period and in Thomas Moore in particular.


The Yorkshire Shepherdess
The Yorkshire Shepherdess
by Amanda Owen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

5.0 out of 5 stars I absolutely loved this book, 2 May 2015
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I absolutely loved this book and found it hard to put down. It represented for me a form of pure escapism because Amanda Owen lays her completely rural life so vividly before the reader. For all town dwellers it’s a chance to learn what a true rural life is like, living off animals, in this case sheep, that live on the land. Apart from the use of some modern farming machinery and the use of Land Rovers for transport, the life she is living is centuries old. We learn too much about the yearly cycle of rearing sheep. The beautiful and remote landscape that she inhabits is portrayed too. Her highly appealing down to earthness and humour is apparent throughout her memoir. This all makes for highly engaging writing that draws you in and plunges you right into the heart of the Yorkshire Dales and this young woman’s life. Really a must read, I believe it has something that will appeal to everyone.


Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found
Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found
by Cheryl Strayed
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

5.0 out of 5 stars Not hard to see why this book was a No.1 bestseller, 25 April 2015
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An extremely engaging, page turning account of a young woman’s walk along over an eleven hundred miles stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail when she was twenty six in 1995. She was under prepared for this walk and ‘Wild’ recounts the trials and tribulations that she experienced along her trek. Strayed tells us of the landscapes she walked through, the effect the daily trekking had upon her body, the people that she met and the animals and wildlife that she saw.

But interwoven throughout this journal of her physical journey is the deeper and more profound emotional journey that she underwent. The use of the word ‘journey’ is often inappropriately and over-used, but I believe it is entirely fitting here. Strayed tells us the story of her young life, heavily dominated by her relationship with her mother who tragically died of cancer when Strayed was only twenty -two. It is about her coming to terms with her loss and finally leaving her grief behind on the trail, which enabled her to then start to live her life to the full and create her own family.

At no point did I find this self-indulgent as perhaps it could so easily have become. Rather, Strayed courageously tells it exactly as it was. She does not seek to over analyse her emotions nor to intellectualise them and this is refreshing and all to the good. She lays her feelings and experiences bare with no censorship and because of this she comes across as a very real person, somebody that you can relate to. There are passages which are intensely moving.

I can quite understand why this was a no.1 bestseller. I therefore heartily recommend it.


Longitude
Longitude
by Dava Sobel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars An inspiring heart-warming and human story, 11 April 2015
This review is from: Longitude (Paperback)
A simply and engagingly told account of the race to find a means of measuring longitude and thereby save thousands of sailors lives. Lives which were being lost because mariners simply did not know with a sufficient degree of accuarcy where they were in the ocean. Such was the importance of solving this problem, that literally a king’s ransom was offered as the prize to the person who could produce an accurate longitude measuring device. Eventually it would be King George III who would intercede to bring about John Harrison’s success.

Naturally John Harrison takes centre stage in this book, but first his work is set within its historical context. Sobel sets out the impact that not being able to measure longitude had had upon mariners, by citing a few examples of shipwrecks and disastrous sea voyages. She also recounts man’s historical attempts to measure longitude. You’ll learn something of the development of science, in particular in the astronomical and time-keeping fields.

Ultimately this is a story of a ‘David’ fighting a ‘Goliath’, the non-academic, meticulous craftsman eventually winning over the academic snobs, after spending a lifetime trying to succeed. This makes for an inspiring heart-warming and human story about the adherence to perfectionism and tenacity in the face of adversity.


Conscientious Objectors of the Second World War: Refusing to Fight
Conscientious Objectors of the Second World War: Refusing to Fight
by Ann Kramer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Highly informative, 9 April 2015
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Ann Kramer’s book has supplied me with a lot of valuable information about what happened to conscientious objectors during WW2.

Topics covered include:

- The growing inter-war peace movement.
- The basis of conscription, including relevant legislation that introduced conscription prior to WW2.
- The process of registering to become a conscientious objector.
- What happened to people who did nothing at all and did not make an application to register to become a conscientious objector.
- The tribunal process where would be conscientious objectors stated their case in person before a panel and at which a decision was made as to whether they could be registered as conscientious objectors.
- The options open to the panel.
- The differing strength of objectors’ feelings ranging from absolutists to those prepared to enter the non-combatant corps of the army.
- Numerous first hand accounts of the varying experiences of conscientious objectors, including those who had nothing to do with the system at all, absolutists, members of non-combatant corps and those imprisoned and court martialled.
- The work undertaken by and the working conditions of conscientious objectors.
- The discrimination and abuse that they experienced during and after the war.
- What happened to conscientious objectors after WW2, how they picked up their lives again.
- What lasting differences they made to our society, the peace movement and how we view wars now.

These topics are written about in a very straightforward and direct manner, that is easy to follow and digest.

There are numerous black and white photographs.

I heartily recommend this book to you.


Former People: The Destruction of the Russian Aristocracy
Former People: The Destruction of the Russian Aristocracy
by Douglas Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Epic in scope and detail, 8 Mar. 2015
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This book is epic in its scope and detail. It breaks new ground: it is the first book written about what happened to the aristocrats and nobility in Russia post revolution. Douglas Smith tells us what befell some of them intelligently, sympathetically and engagingly. He has concentrated on the experiences of two Russian families in particular: the Golitsyns and the Sheremetevs, but also peppers throughout his accounts of these families with details of what happened to some related and un-related families and individuals. All lost practically everything, and they had a lot to lose. Interestingly, many at some stage in their fall from immense wealth, lives lived in luxury and with great formality and often idleness and a great deal of ennui, agreed that the way the system was before, always cambered in their favour, was unjust and could not go on. Some even found that their lives were enriched by the experience. However, in the main the experiences were cataclysmic and devastating. Some no matter how bad things got steadfastly refused to leave Russia their motherland, whilst others saw the writing on the wall and fled to various ‘safe ports’ in the west.

Smith’s book must be the result of a profound amount of research, the length of the bibliography bears testimony to this. Of course and necessarily, the account of what happened to the upper layers of Russian society after October 1917 is interwoven with an account of the course of the revolution, the build up to it, the events that comprised it, its main actors and protagonists and what happened afterwards. You might think that the worst crimes against the Russian nobility were committed during and soon after the revolution, but in fact they continued for decades, most intensively under Stalin.

So in short this is not only the history of two Russian noble families and others but of Russia itself during the first half of the C20th. No mean feat to pull off, but Douglas Smith certainly does. I believe it will be a reference book for future historians for a long time to come, it is that good. Please don’t be put off my referring to it as a reference book because this is a good read, the pages will quickly turn as you become engrossed in the events that unfold before your eyes. You will quickly develop incredulity at the cruelty that men can exert on their fellow man, his wife and children. There is more than one moving story, but one in particular that is indeed heart searing.

I have learnt such a lot by reading this book and feel much less ignorant about Russia and its revolution. It has stimulated in me the desire to learn so much more.

This book definitely goes into my ‘a must read’ category.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 23, 2015 6:47 AM BST


Fathers and Sons. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds (Penguin Classics. no. L147.)
Fathers and Sons. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds (Penguin Classics. no. L147.)
by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev
Edition: Unknown Binding

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece, 12 Feb. 2015
By comparison with practically any of Tolstoy’s literature, (a contemporary of Turgenev) Fathers and Sons is wafer thin at just 237 pages. But my oh my, what a masterpiece it is, on a par, in my opinion, with the writing of the much better known and fated Tolstoy. Turgenev similarly gets into the heads of his characters and lays bare their innermost thoughts. He paints his characters, their actions, the buildings and landscapes through which they pass in depth and fine detail, to the extent that you feel as if you are diving into mid-C19th Russia.

Based upon my reading of Fathers and Sons I do not understand why Turgenev is somewhat overlooked. Be this as it may, Fathers and Sons, is dense with meaning and observations of human feelings and frailties.

At the time that Fathers and Sons was published in 1862, it was ground breaking because running throughout it is the propounding of Nihilism. The book’s main protagonist Bazarov is the vehicle used to put forward the central tenets of Nihilism. He says it like it is and brings most human emotions down to their base level and exposes the real motivation behind people’s actions. He speaks completely uncensored and whilst he is often hurtful, at the same time there is a searing honesty, integrity and even a purity to his character. One can’t help but feel that if we communicated with one another a bit more like Bazarov there would be far less misunderstanding and resulting unhappiness from much of human communication.

Another theme at the heart of this book is the universal one that has forever and will forever sweep down the ages, of young men, (people) reaching a certain age and looking at their parents with something akin to disdain and pity in their firm belief that they know so much more than their begetters. Corollary to this is the parental emotion, so beautifully and finely portrayed by Turgenev, of adoration and a longing for the presence of the offspring, who is fast disappearing into their own created adult life. There is thus much pathos in Fathers and Sons.

Key is that Turgenev was Russian and the narrative is set in Russia in 1861. So Bazarov, is if you like, delivering a message from the future, a Boshevik future: a future in which Romanticism has been annihilated.

1861 was the year in which the serfs gained their emancipation and so a reading of this work gives one a brilliant snapshot of Russian life at one of the pivotal moments in Russian history. It also lays bare the great divide between the have and the have-nots at that time in Russian society.

I highly recommend this book, you’ll enjoy the brilliance of the Turgenev’s writing and it will get you thinking.


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