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Reviews Written by
Sally Walker (Eastbourne, UK)

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The Secret Garden (Vintage Children's Classics)
The Secret Garden (Vintage Children's Classics)
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.24

5.0 out of 5 stars A lovely way to escape the trials of the modern world, 19 Jan. 2016
I have literally had this book on my bookshelf for in excess of thirty years and on a whim decided to start reading it – what a treasure. Although it is a child’s book there is much for an adult reader to enjoy. Not least because you can put down your adult thoughts & feelings that are stimulated by coping with living and working in our modern world. Instead the reader is transported back to a different period of time when life was lived at a slower pace – this book was published in 1911, so just pre-WW1 and all of its horrors. I therefore found this book to be something of a stress buster.

The secret garden that has been neglected for ten years provides a much needed sanctuary for two of the main characters of the book: Mary and Colin. Both are ten years old and therefore born at the time that the garden was locked up; both by the time they have lived out their first decade of life, are in desperate need of love. Mary it is who first discovers the garden and she begins to bring the garden back to life, at first alone but quickly she is joined by Dickon, the younger brother of a maid who works in the manor in whose grounds the secret garden is situated. He is something of an animal charmer, deeply connected to nature and although himself also ten years old, plays something of a parental role to Mary and later Colin, the son of the owner of the manor. Both Mary and Colin with Dickon’s help, by their bringing the garden back to life, themselves blossom and heal.

The narrative very clearly sets before the reader the joys and positive outcomes that can be derived from gardening and an appreciation of nature. This was the source of my joy in reading this book.

I am left wanting to know about the author and what her life was like that made her want to and be able to write a book like this. A biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett beckons.

I heartily recommend this book to all children of an appropriate age, so that they may learn to find delight in nature and gardens and to all adults of any age who want a soothing read that lets them forget about all of the technology of our modern world and get back to basics.

The White Tiger
The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly brilliant, 19 Jan. 2016
This review is from: The White Tiger (Paperback)
So you want to know about India. So the author says then I will tell you. And he says: “Forget the glossy travel brochures or the perfectly crafted videos, instead I’ll grab you by the throat and stuff your face into the real India, the India that lies behind the veneer of democracy. By the time I have finished with you, you will be able to smell all of the smells of India, you’ll have seen all of the dirt, mud and grime, the abject poverty personified in people living their entire lives on the pavements. As a consequence of the tearaway journey that I will take you on you will cease to take for granted, if only for a short while, while your memory of our journey remains in your mind’s sight, all of your possessions and comforts and you will come to appreciate your western democracy despite all of its ills.”

This is a magnificent book. After the first few pages, it mutates from one thing into quite another with a punch in your face. It is one lower caste Indian man’s story, told over the course of seven late nights in a letter that he writes to the president of China. He exposes the chasm between the haves and the have-nots in his country and his particular journey from the one to the other. The degradation, the humiliation, the cruelty that is exacted upon the have-nots, those from the Darkness, by the haves, is all laid bare and picked over as if you were witness to a gruesome post mortem. So too is the corruption, the greed and the shallow lives that are led by the masters. It exposes the truth that the haves are in reality no happier than the have-nots; they just get to live their lives in comfort. However, this is not a grim read because the narrative is told with guile and wit.

Adiga educated in the west tells us how the inculcation of western ideals and business into India has fashioned a greater, or perhaps just a different form of exploitation of the servants by their masters. He cleverly gives us a story in which one servant gets even with his master, so that he becomes the master of his own destiny; he gains his freedom from the rooster coop.

Clearly, Adiga is a deep thinker and he has presented his thoughts in an accessible parcel of brilliance. His book is all the more astounding because it is his first novel. If he had not won the Man Booker prize in 2008 for this book it would have been a travesty.

In short an absolutely must read.

The Fair Fight
The Fair Fight
by Anna Freeman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

4.0 out of 5 stars A good debut in historical literature, 10 Jan. 2016
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This review is from: The Fair Fight (Hardcover)
A novel I would say in two parts: the first setting the scene for the action of the second part. It was during the second part that I gradually began to care about the characters. I have given this book four stars instead of five, because I would have liked to start caring about what happened to the main protagonists from the outset. Whilst the first part I found a little slow, the later part became a page- turner. I had to know what happened next. It is in the second part that I came close to understanding why Sarah Waters, author of Tipping the Velvet and her more recent masterpiece The Paying Guests, gave a review for this book which included the statement: ‘hugely exciting’.

It is a many layered book and cleverly structured in that the same narrative is told by different players. This means that you do not just get one character’s perspective.

It is a Georgian upstairs and downstairs because it traces the lives of the well heeled in Bristol and surrounding countryside and that of the down at heel in the seedier parts of Bristol. These two separate walks of life become intimately mingled because of prize fighting. If you do not like to read descriptions of two people trying to wound and incapacitate the other then this book is probably not for you. I must admit that at times I found such passages heavy going, the more so when they related to one of the main protagonists: Ruth fighting other women and on one occasion a man in the ring.

A comparison with Dickens can be made not in the writing, although I like Freeman’s writing style, but in terms of her descriptions of depravity and poverty. This too can be heavy and raw, but I feel such images should not be turned away from. Many thoughts and realisations arise from such reading.

For example I found the lives of the female characters thought provoking in terms of what pitifully few choices they had whether well heeled or down at heel. Freeman’s descriptions of women un-dressing certainly made me appreciate the freedom that my body has within modern dress. Whichever way women turned they were confined and constrained by tight fitting corsets, which were physical synonyms for the limited lives that most led. I did not find this an overtly feminist piece of fiction but at times it certainly got me thinking and any book that achieves that in me is worthy of praise.

Reading Freeman’s acknowledgements at the back of the book it is clear that the writing of this book has been something of an epic undertaking requiring confidence boosting from others along the way. I think the end result is something that she should be proud of and I hope will prove to be a platform for further books. I think she is a fine addition to the catalogue of historical fiction writers.

Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania
Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania
by William Blacker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

5.0 out of 5 stars A gem of a book in which you enter a different way of living, 10 Jan. 2016
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One popular review of this book says that it puts Patrick Leigh Fermour’s work into a cocked hat. When I read this I thought that this could not possibly be true, but now having read The Enchanted Way I can see where the reviewer was coming from. I would say that in terms of enchantment meter readings and romanticism it is on a par with either ‘A Time of Gift’s or ‘Between the Woods and the Water.’ Blacker has created a modern day companion to these books and in addition provides a contrast to them. Whilst in Romania PLF spent much of his time with the gentry and aristocracy, Blacker spent all of his time with peasants or gypsies; he has given a real account of what it was like to live in Romania amongst them.

Others have criticised Blacker for not painting a balanced picture of life in Romania, in particular the restrictions, restraint and resultant deprivations imposed upon the populace by the Ceaucescu dictatorship and what it was like to live under them. However, he spent a lot of his time in one of the more remote areas of the country which seems to have largely been left to its own devices during the communist years and indeed by Blacker’s account seems to have actually benefited from it. Moreover, he is writing of his experience of Romania which began immediately after the execution of the Ceaucescus and the people that he spent most of his time with, and therefore who figure largely in his book, did not experience great adversity. His objective was not to write an expose of peasant life lived in the communist era but simply to tell us what he experienced, the things that he saw, the people he met and spent time with and how he felt about it. I therefore think it is inappropriate to criticise him for a lack of something that it was never his intention to include. How could he when he had not come up against it?

Blacker does not flinch from laying bare the appalling experiences of the gypsies or the Saxons at the hands of the Nazis and in the case of the former, in addition by the Romanians themselves, including corrupt and brutal police officers.

I therefore believe that The Enchanted Way is a balanced memoir of his time in Romania.

It is certainly a book that you can lose yourself within. It is quite easy to develop fantasies of following in his footsteps and experiencing the last grains of sand remaining in the top half of the hourglass of the medieval way of life that he found in Maramures. A way of living that was dictated by the changing seasons rather than the modern commercially driven life that is dictated by advertising. Heart breaking to read of the rapid changes that are taking place in Maramures as the villagers become entrapped by the often false promises of the benefits of modern life. The contrast between the two ways of life could not be more stark and Blacker succinctly shows us how in many, many respects how we have all been sold off down the river; the river in Breb soon becoming clogged with plastic packaging, killing off the fish.

There is so much of interest in this book and it is multi-layered: in no particular order it tells of the traditional peasant life tracing it through one revolution of the seasons, of folklore and witchcraft, weddings and funerals, courting rituals, tragedies and cruel injustices, of idyllically happy times and Blacker’s own love affair with a gypsy girl.

My only negative comment is that one of the photos is of a funeral and in this photo two young mourners are facing away from the ceremony taking place in front of them and instead are looking directly into Blacker’s camera situated directly behind them. This photograph makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Blacker at the time lived in the same village, as one of them, but yet before he left to attend the funeral he must have thought “I’ll take my camera with me to take some photos which might be useful for a future article or a book.” In that moment of taking the photograph Blacker ceased to be one of them and instead became a journalist who would use the photograph later for financial gain. I think it is not surprising that his book was published after Mihai the man who came to regard Blacker as his son, he being childless, had died. You can’t help wandering that if he had published it whilst he was alive he would have felt to some greater or less extent betrayed. This is obviously my personal opinion about a tiny part of the book and should not be used as a reason not to read this book, because you would be missing a gem.

by Graham Swift
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A cleverly constructed narrative, 10 Jan. 2016
This review is from: Waterland (Paperback)
A cleverly constructed narrative in which a middle-aged history teacher who is about to be pensioned off in the early 1960’s, looks back over his life, laying bare before us why he is being pensioned off and much more besides. Including a highly interesting section on the natural history of eels, which the author weaves seamlessly into the narrative. There is much musing on the meaning of history, the importance of history, its cyclical nature and how often it is ignored at individual and even whole nation’s peril. If you like history you will definitely like this novel.

The majority of the story is set in the Fenlands of East Anglia where Tom the to be history teacher was born and bred, only leaving it to fight in the later stages of WW2. Swift provides us with brilliant descriptions of the landscape and an interesting resume of how this landscape was created by man, one in particular, who kicked off the drainage programme to create agricultural land.

Rather like some detective dramas of recent years in which right at the beginning you are given split second images which reveal part of what happened in the murder of the victim, so too Swift gives us from the outset snapshots of the calamitous events which would happen a few years later or indeed decades later. So the reader does not really have to guess what tragedy is going to befall Tom’s menopausal wife, but this in no way detracts from the narrative. Swift ably pulls the reader through his book: he gets you wanting to know what intervening events and actions occur to bring her to her particular brink.

I would call this a must read book because of the cleverness of the construction of the narrative and the high degree of skill that Swift exhibits as a writer.

The Book of Fires
The Book of Fires
by Jane Borodale
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A narrative with an underlying tension that mounts to an un-expected climax, 10 Jan. 2016
This review is from: The Book of Fires (Paperback)
Well written, evoking for us an C18th world in rural Sussex and London and by so doing giving much room for thought about how hard life was then for the poor and disadvantaged and how punitive the justice system was.

A gentle book I would say, with an underlying tension that mounts to an unexpected climax.

I learned some about fireworks, a subject I had hitherto given no thought to or in particular their historical development and the quest to produce colourful fireworks.

The central character, Agnes is well drawn. I liked her, I sympathised with her and I cared what happened to her. This pulled me through the pages, although apart from one brief section, I would not class this as a page turning book, hence why I define it a gentle book. But this is not intended to be a criticism.

The back of the book contains an interview with the author, her description of how she writes and a guided walk through London which readers can walk for themselves passing by key locations in the book.

A good historical novel debut and I look forward to reading her next book. Well worth a read if historical fiction is your thing.

Romanian Furrow: Colourful Experiences of Village Life
Romanian Furrow: Colourful Experiences of Village Life
by Donald Hall
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for all interested in Romania & travel writing in general, 13 Sept. 2015
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First published in 1933 Donald Hall was travelling through Romania shortly before Patrick Leigh Fermour. Whilst the latter was principally moving from one landed gentry in his mansion to another, Hall travelled from one peasant village to another. Thanks to Hall we are therefore able to learn how the other half was living at that time. And with the passage of time Hall can now be regarded as the forerunner to William Blacker’s ‘Along the Enchanted Way’.

Hall’s writing style is much more immediate and less fancy than PLF’s, but for me, his account of his travels through Romania is in no way diminished. It is detailed, but not overly so, highly interesting and thought provoking. He lays before us the never-ending hospitality of the peasants and the cyclical nature of their lives, linked intrinsically to the earth and the passing seasons. Lives full of meaning and purpose and though hard by comparison with our centrally heated, technology driven lives, they seemed completely content with their lot. How many of us can say the same?

Of interest is the blend of pagan and Christian ritual that was undertaken, the former giving us perhaps a glimpse into the beliefs and customs of humans in Europe stretching back for millennia prior to the coming of Christianity.

Of particular interest too is Hall’s account of his travels through Moldavia, which then was in union with Romania and of his experiences on the border with Russia, now Ukraine, at a time when the Bolsheviks were in power.

My only minor criticism is that I wish there were more photographs than those on the covers.

For all those with an interest in Romania in particular and travel writing in general I would class this a must read book.

The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests
by Sarah Waters
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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 book because you simply must!

I therefore can’t recommend this book enough.

A Place Called Winter: Costa Shortlisted 2015
A Place Called Winter: Costa Shortlisted 2015
Price: £3.99

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: £5.79

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.

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