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Susie B
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The Goddess and the Thief
The Goddess and the Thief
by Essie Fox
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.01

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Extravagantly Written - But Good Fun, 5 Dec 2013
Essie Fox' s very attractively presented third novel takes the reader on another journey back to the 19th century, beginning in India and then moving to Victorian England. Alice, whose mother dies shortly after she is born, is brought up in India, cared for by her father and her beloved ayah, Mini. When Alice's father decides that he would like to return to England, Alice is uprooted from a country she has grown to love, and is left in the care of her Aunt Mercy who, unknown to Alice's father, dabbles in the occult and is a fake spiritualist medium. Into Alice's and Mercy's lives, enters the enigmatic and very charismatic Lucian Tilsbury, who is obsessed with the Koh-i-Noor diamond, a priceless jewel claimed by the British Empire at the end of the Anglo-Sikh wars, and now in the possession of Queen Victoria. On a visit to Windsor Castle with her aunt, to hold a seance for the Queen, who is in mourning after the loss of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, Alice unwittingly finds herself involved in a plot to steal the famous diamond. (No spoilers - there is lots more to discover in this well-paced and very atmospheric story).

Essie Fox, inspired by Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone and M M Kaye's The Far Pavilions has created a romantic gothic tale rich with atmosphere and drenched in Victoriana, and the author's descriptions of the heat and colour of India contrasted with the greyness and damp fogginess of London, were enjoyable to read. It must be said that parts of this story are rather far-fetched and even fantastical in some aspects, but it is true that after Albert's death, Queen Victoria consulted various mediums with the hopes of receiving messages from her dearly-loved husband, so Alice and her aunt's involvement with the Queen is not quite as unlikely as it first appears. A friend of mine obtained an early copy of this novel and let me read it first and although this is not my usual kind of reading fare, and I did find parts rather implausible and extravagantly written, it is well-paced and good fun. If you enjoyed Essie Fox's previous novels: The Somnambulist and Elijah's Mermaid and you allow yourself to enter into the spirit of the story, this could make for an undemanding and entertaining down-time read for you.

3 Stars.


The Rain Before it Falls
The Rain Before it Falls
by Jonathan Coe
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Melancholic but Beautifully Written Story, 2 Dec 2013
This intriguingly titled novel tells the story of three generations of one family and begins with Gill, a middle-aged woman with two grown-up daughters, who learns that her elderly aunt Rosamond has been found dead in her home. After the funeral, Gill goes to her aunt's home to sort through her belongings and she finds some photographs and self-recorded tapes that Rosamond had made just before she died. She soon discovers that the photographs and tapes are intended for a distant relative called Imogen, a young blind woman, whom Gill barely knows, having met her only once more than twenty years ago, when Imogen was a child. Having failed to track down Imogen, after advertising in the papers and searching for her on the Internet, Gill decides to play the tapes herself. As Gill and her daughters listen to Rosamond talking about the past and describing the photographs she has selected for the unsighted Imogen, the complex and poignant story of Rosamond's life and of the three generations of women in her family is gradually revealed to the reader. And it is in this way that the reader is taken back to the 1940s, where we meet Rosamond as an eight-year-old child and her eleven-year-old cousin, Beatrix, and where we learn of Beatrix's mother's emotionally abusive behaviour towards her only daughter. As Rosamond continues her story we are told about Beatrix's equally difficult relationship with her own daughter, Thea, and of how this dysfunctional relationship is repeated yet again with Thea and her daughter, Imogen. And ultimately we discover what has happened to Imogen.

Told as a story within a story, this tale of mothers and daughters and friends and lovers, is rather slow-paced but becomes increasingly compelling as the story unfolds and I was drawn into Rosamond's life and of those around her. I particularly enjoyed Rosamond's careful descriptions of the photographs she had chosen for Imogen, in order to help her to imagine the situations described and I also enjoyed the way Rosamond diverged from her narrative of Imogen's family history and shared with us interesting and sometimes painful details of her own younger days - and although the author is male, his voice as an elderly woman, haunted by the past as she looks back over her life, was very convincing. I do have to say that I would have liked to have known more about the main characters and their inner thoughts and motivations and I would also have liked to have learnt more about Gill and her two daughters - but that said, I found this an interesting and involving read and although it may be a very melancholic tale, it is a beautifully written one, and reading this has made me interested in reading more from this author.


Lily-Josephine
Lily-Josephine
by Kate Saunders
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Escapist, Romantic Read, 28 Nov 2013
This review is from: Lily-Josephine (Hardcover)
This rather racy novel begins in 1980, when three middle-aged half-sisters: Primrose, Juana and Isobel, come together after the death of their mother, Sidonia, expecting to inherit a share of her large fortune. However, before long all three learn that Sidonia, a beautiful but vain, manipulative and heartless woman, has not been honest with her daughters - each of whom have been fathered by different men. Whilst alive, Sidonia had been living on the income from her late husband's estate, and the fortune will now pass to Sidonia's step-daughter, Lily-Josephine - and, as she is no longer living, to Lily-Josephine's son, Octavius Randall. Shortly afterwards, by chance, Isobel's daughter, Sophie, meets Octavius, and it is partly through Octavius's and Sophie's experiences, and partly through a narrative that moves backwards and forwards in time, that the reader gradually learns about Lily-Josephine and of her rather unconventional life. When the narrative moves to the 1940s, we learn how Lily-Josephine, a beautiful and naive young woman, is exposed to the cruelty and jealousy of her vain and sexually voracious step-mother, Sidonia. Running away from home, Lily-Jospehine arrives at Randalls, a house filled with seven handsome men, and she becomes their housekeeper. (Think of an updated and more risqué version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). However, Lily is not merely the Randalls' housekeeper for long - but I shall leave the details of Lily's unusual domestic arrangements for prospective readers to discover.

Full of revelations and family secrets, this novel makes for fairly entertaining and amusing reading, but I do have to say that I found the story too lightweight and too unconvincing to really satisfy (and I must admit that some of the sex scenes were more amusing than titillating - but perhaps this was what the author intended). However, all of that said, if you are looking for an unchallenging, escapist read with some mildly racy sex scenes and something not to be taken too seriously, then this could fit the bill for an entertaining weekend read for you. For light reading, I actually preferred the author's:The Marrying Game and I also have: Bachelor Boys on my bookcase waiting to be read, which has been recommended to me as one of Kate Saunder's best novels.

3 Stars.


Angels Flying Slowly
Angels Flying Slowly
by Jill Roe
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Atmospheric and Interesting Coming-of-Age Story, 25 Nov 2013
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This review is from: Angels Flying Slowly (Hardcover)
Jill Roe's debut novel 'Angels Flying Slowly' is first-person narrated by the novel's main character, Isobel, who is twelve years old when this story begins in 1947. Shunted off to a convent boarding school with her ten-year-old sister, Caro, when her cold-hearted mother decides to re-marry, and doesn't want her children around while she enjoys herself, Isobel's life is made all the more difficult by the arrival of her cousin, Ursula, both at home and at the convent. Ursula, a very attractive, but sly and sexually precocious girl, usurps Isobel's position at home and aims to do exactly the same at school and, with her deceptive air of innocence, she finds it easy to cause trouble for Isobel and, to a lesser extent, Caro. Isobel, frustrated and feeling unable to retaliate, soon grows to hate her beautiful cousin - however, when she discovers something that could ruin Ursula's life, Isobel decides to exact her own revenge...

Jill Roe captures the atmosphere and the claustrophobic intensity of a convent school very well as she describes the fear instilled into the girls to prevent them falling into what the nuns consider sinful ways. When Isobel has to prepare to go to confession, she tells us how the thought of going into the darkened box and telling someone how evil she was, made her feel as if her heart were choking her and as if her chest were being squeezed until she had to struggle to breathe. However, later on in the story, as she gradually learns to cope with convent life, Isobel becomes a little less traumatised and is even able to be rather witty about the infirmary nun who, she tells us, is an ex-Wren, intent on proving that cold water and sarcasm will cure most illnesses.

Although some of the convent scenes were a little unsettling and rather poignant to read, I very much enjoyed reading about the summer holidays that Isobel and Caro spent in Cornwall with their paternal grandparents, and these parts of the novel where the author deftly described the landscape and the interesting variety of characters the girls met, made a very pleasant contrast to those focusing on convent life. 'Angels Flying Slowly' may not be a perfect debut novel and I wish the ending had been handled a little differently (I cannot explain further without revealing spoilers) but I very much enjoyed Isobel's coming-of-age story and I would be interested in reading more from this author.

3.5 Stars.


The Last Time I Saw Jane
The Last Time I Saw Jane
by Kate Pullinger
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good in Parts But a Little Frustrating in Others, 22 Nov 2013
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Audrey, a Canadian living in London, is glad to have left her childhood and adolescence behind in Canada, and to have become an anonymous Londoner. She works as a freelance journalist, focusing on race and gender issues and when she is not working, she enjoys the metropolitan social life. At a party one night, she meets Shereen, a very attractive Indian lawyer and the two women immediately hit it off and later become friends; however, there is another person at the party who really makes an impression on Audrey, and that person is Jack Campbell, a good-looking, black American who works in television. Soon Audrey and Jack embark upon a relationship which mostly revolves around sex and although Audrey would like a little more commitment from Jack, she knows better than to force the issue. When Jack meets Shereen, they both appear to be very attracted to each other, but Audrey tells herself this is nothing to be concerned about; Jack is just an incorrigible flirt and Shereen is her friend. Running alongside the main story we learn about Audrey's friendship with Jane, a young girl with whom Audrey became very friendly at high school back in Canada, and of their complex relationship with one of their male teachers. A third strand of the story is told is through the narrative of pioneer and fur trader James Douglas (a distant relative of Audrey's whose life she researched for her history degree) who arrived in Canada in the early nineteenth century, married a young woman of mixed race, and who rose to the position of Governor of Vancouver Island.

'The Last Time I Saw Jane' is a well-written and, in parts, an interesting story of love, sex, friendship and race; however none of these themes are explored in any depth and I was left with mixed feelings about this novel. Initially I enjoyed reading about Audrey's London life and her relationship with both Shereen and with her lover, Jack; however, after a while, I must admit that Audrey's passivity, her emotional detachment and her lack of self-worth became a little irritating - I'm afraid that I can't explain further without revealing spoilers - and the more I read about her, the less I felt in sympathy with her. Also, although the sections about James Douglas were of interest, I did not feel that his experiences added much of real significance to the story, and I would rather the author had focused on and further developed the narrative of Audrey's present life and her earlier life in Canada. I was also expecting the three strands of the story to be brought together at the climax of the novel and bring enlightenment to the reader, but unless I missed something, this did not happen. So all in all, a bit of a frustrating read in places; however, there is some good writing here and parts of this novel did capture my attention, and I would be interested in reading more from this author, possibly her novel about Lady Duff Gordon: The Mistress Of Nothing which has been recommended to me.

3 Stars.


Deceits of Time
Deceits of Time
by Isabel Colegate
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Perceptively Observed and Beautifully Written Story. 4.5 Stars, 18 Nov 2013
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This review is from: Deceits of Time (Paperback)
Catherine Hillery is in her late fifties, recently widowed, the mother of two sons, and a writer of moderately successful biographies. When she is approached by her publisher to write the authorised life of Neil Campion, a fighter pilot in the First World War and a politician in the 1930s, who died in the 1940s, Catherine learns that the Campion family has requested that the biographer should be: "conscientious and unprejudiced, someone sound, who won't be carried away by crazy theories." Catherine's research so far, has provided no information that might encourage her to be carried away by crazy theories so why, she wonders, was this stipulation made? However, when she discovers that there is a shortage of material available about Campion's activities during the early years of the Second World War and that he was close friend of Peter Heinrich, a German, who fought in World War I, Catherine thinks perhaps she should delve a little further into Campion's past. (No spoilers, we learn more than this from the book's jacket). Neil Campion's remaining family however - his sister, Eleanor, his brother, Hugh, and his widow, Effie, are being rather tight-lipped about certain aspects of Campion's past, so when Alfred Maddern, a journalist and friend of Catherine's daughter-in-law, has some information that Catherine might find useful, she finds it difficult to ignore him. When Catherine manages to piece together information from different sources and discovers things that the Campion family will find extremely unpleasant, does she decide to go ahead and publish or does she relent and become party to the deceits of the past?

This is a beautifully written and perceptively observed story with some wonderful descriptions of situation and setting, where the author carefully demonstrates how some of us attempt to conceal unpalatable truths - not just from others, but also from ourselves, and I found this novel a pleasure to read. During the course of this story we meet some rather amusing and eccentric characters, including the elderly Henry Hawker who, when Catherine manages to beat a path through the woods to his home to question him about Campion, tries to ply her with strong wine and then propositions her; we also meet Effie's rather wayward grandson, Sam, who spends most of his time up on the roof of his progressive boarding school instead of attending lessons; and I very much enjoyed reading about Neil Campion's brother and sister, Eleanor and Hugh, who once rented a television set and sent it back after a week of horrified viewing. It is true, that not a huge amount happens in parts of this novel, so if you are looking for a fast-paced, plot-driven story, this is most probably not going to satisfy; however, if you prefer stories which focus on personalities and you enjoy impeccable writing and beautiful prose, this should make an entertaining and satisfying read for you.

4.5 Stars.

Also recommended by this author:The Shooting Party (Penguin Modern Classics)


Part of the Spell
Part of the Spell
by Rachel Heath
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.39

3.0 out of 5 stars 3.5 Stars. One Woman Swearing at her Kitchen Sink, 18 Nov 2013
This review is from: Part of the Spell (Paperback)
Stella lives in Saffron Walden, an historic market town in Essex, with her estate agent husband, Zeki, and their two children, toddler Jack, and baby Mary. Stella has lived all of her life in the same place with her widowed mother, Sheila, and her aunt, Joyce, both living close by and she spends her days looking after the children, taking Jack to nursery and to the Paint & Sing group in the church hall. When Sheila disappears one summer's day, Stella is concerned, but not unduly alarmed, and it is not until a few days later, when her mother is still missing and her aunt calls the local police, that Stella really starts to worry about where her mother may be.

Tacita is a full-time mother of two girls and is married to Jonathan, who works in a London bank; they moved from their London home as "Jonathan's head had been full of bewitching bucolic visions of his girls in wellington boots...and of him digging a vegetable plot" but now they have made the move, Jonathan blames Tacita for saddling him with a huge, old, money-gobbling house. And then Jonathan notices that Tacita is behaving a little oddly, but he is not sure why, until a friend suggests that he reads a blog entitled: 'Washed Up - One Woman Swearing at Her Kitchen Sink' and is rather shocked when he discovers just what has been upsetting his wife.

Theresa appears a kind and compassionate person, but she is one of those people who try a little too hard; she works in the local museum and came to Saffron Walden from London, convincing herself that life in a small town would be more rewarding with everyone working towards a goal of common communal interest. But Theresa is trying to hide from something she is ashamed of, and she soon discovers that moving away does not get rid of her guilt.

This is Rachel Heath's second novel and it is a quiet, thoughtful and, at times, engaging story of the lives of some of the inhabitants of a small market town, many of whom are trying to be the person they think they should be and, in doing so, end up deluding themselves and those around them. I thought this was a well-written book with some interesting and amusing parts to it and I found the 'Washed up at the Sink' blog entries diverting, and the descriptions of the ex-professional, snobbish mothers at the Paint & Sing group were spot on; I also thought it interesting and topical how the author showed both Zeki and Jonathan being tempted into acting unethically in order for them to either keep or be successful in their jobs.

I do have to say however, that although I found parts of this story interesting, I did not engage with the characters quite as much as I would have liked and, in consequence, I found it difficult to become involved with their problems. I also thought the story would have benefited from a stronger narrative drive (I was surprised to find that at no point did I feel particularly concerned for Stella's mother's safety) and I felt the author could have encouraged the reader to become more involved with the story and her characters, by looking deeper into their personalities and motivations. That said, this is a well-composed, perfectly readable and relevant story about the problems people cause for themselves and others when they cannot be honest with themselves or with those around them and I am now interested in looking at Rachel Heath's previous novel: The Finest Type of English Womanhood which was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize, to see how that compares with this.

3.5 Stars.


The Fifth Child (Vintage International)
The Fifth Child (Vintage International)
by Doris May Lessing
Edition: Library Binding

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Gripping and Unsettling Read, 16 Nov 2013
Doris Lessing's 'The Fifth Child' may be a slim novel, but it is one that makes a real impact and is a compelling read from beginning to end. Harriet and David Lovatt have a seemingly idyllic life; they have four lovely children and plan to have several more; they have a beautiful, rambling family house complete with a huge kitchen where family and friends congregate; they have parents who are willing to support them with financial and practical help, and everything is going just the way they planned - that is until Harriet falls pregnant with their fifth child. This pregnancy is different from Harriet's previous pregnancies; the baby is so active that Harriet feels it is trying to fight its way out of her body, and this it does, one month prematurely, weighing eleven pounds and looking "like a troll or a goblin." They name the baby Ben and hope he will settle down and become more like their other four children - but Ben does not settle down at all, in fact he becomes a violent and virtually uncontrollable child who terrorises the whole family - adults, children and animals alike. Convinced that she has given birth to a throwback from the past, Harriet becomes deeply afraid of the creature that she has brought into the world and into the midst of her previously happy family.

As expected from a writer of Doris Lessing's calibre, this a well-written and thought-provoking read, but it's also very chilling and unsettling too. Admittedly there are parts to this novel that are a little unconvincing and I kept thinking would this couple really have reacted in the way they did in certain situations - which I would love to discuss further, but cannot as it would mean revealing spoilers - and I do have to say that I became rather irritated with David and Harriet (as I am sure the author intended) as they selfishly go ahead with their plans for their dream life, buying a huge house they cannot afford, having one child after another and expecting Harriet's mother to spend all her time looking after them, and relying on David's father to pay the mortgage and the school fees. And having accepted David's wealthy father's handouts, could they not have used some of this money to find a more enlightened specialist (even in the 1970s/80s) who might have been able to offer a more satisfactory diagnosis or even just a more sympathetic approach to Ben's problems? All of that said however, I found this a gripping and unputdownable read, which I started and finished in one sitting and although I have read several of this author's novels, reading this has made me keen to obtain those that I haven't yet read and remedy that situation. If you are in the mood for a literary chiller (its most chilling factor being the failure to adequately acknowledge, let alone begin to address Ben's difficulties) then this should fit the bill for you.

4 Stars.


Butterflies in November
Butterflies in November
by Aušur Ava Ólafsdóttir
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.09

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging and Off-Beat, 14 Nov 2013
'Butterflies in November' is an unusual and very engaging story, first-person narrated by an unnamed linguist, in her early thirties, who has been discarded by both her husband and her lover in the same day. Newly single (although her ex-husband seems to find plenty of excuses to keep calling in regularly) our heroine, after some very good fortune, decides to leave her old life behind and take a road trip around her native home of Iceland. Just before she leaves, however, her best friend, Aušur, has a nasty fall and is unable to take care of her four-year-old disabled son, Tumi. Before she knows it, our heroine has agreed to take Tumi with her on her trip, and deciding she will take: " a picnic, two bottles of water, some books, two favourite fluffy animals, optimism, an enthusiasm for travel...and a glove compartment stuffed with thousand-kronur banknotes" she sets off with her young charge in tow, having no previous experience of being responsible for a young child. During the trip, as our heroine begins to bond with Tumi, a variety of things happen along the way, and whilst we are reading about these and the people she meets, the reader also gradually learns about an incident from our narrator's past, which helps us to understand a little of why she seems to have drifted through part of her life in a rather detached and passive way. At the end of the trip, after some rather unusual experiences, our narrator ends her journey of self discovery with a rather different view on life.

Perceptively observed, darkly humorous and rather idiosyncratic, I found this a strangely compelling read and when I arrived at the end of the book I was surprised to find forty seven rather unusual cooking recipes (which the author admits may work better on the page than the plate) and one knitting pattern, which would be very useful should you feel the need to pick up some knitting needles after finishing the story. As I was reading this novel I kept thinking how it would make a very quirky film and I have just learnt that the film rights have already been sold - I do hope the film version is as engaging and off-beat as the book.

4 Stars.


Stella Bain
Stella Bain
by Anita Shreve
Edition: Hardcover

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Who is Stella?, 13 Nov 2013
This review is from: Stella Bain (Hardcover)
Marne, France, 1915; a woman wakes in a military hospital tent suffering from amnesia after being unconscious for days. She does not know why she is there; she does not even know who she is - but gradually the name Stella Bain floats into her thoughts. After a short time, we learn that Stella is an American and in the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), she has been working as a nurse's aide and, when necessary, driving an ambulance; we also learn that she has witnessed horrific injuries inflicted on soldiers and she has learnt to: "Always look a man in the eye, no matter how terrible the wound." But Stella still cannot remember anything about her past life and why she came to France. When she overhears someone mentioning the Admiralty in London, she has the intense feeling that she must go to Admiralty House, where she will be able to find out who she really is. Arriving in London, exhausted and unwell, Stella is taken under the wing of Lily Bridge and her husband, August, a cranial surgeon who has an interest in psychiatry and the work of Sigmund Freud. Deciding that Stella's loss of memory is the result of shock, August is keen to treat her as one of his patients and to encourage her to talk as much as possible as, according to Dr Freud, talking is the purest form of analysis. Whilst treating Stella, August discovers that she is a talented artist and he encourages her to draw pictures for the things that she cannot talk about. However, it is not until August takes Stella to Admiralty House and she comes across someone who recognises her, that Stella discovers she is not Stella Bain at all, but Etna Bliss, and that she has a husband and children in America. Gradually the reader learns about Etna's troubled past including a failed love affair, an abusive husband and two estranged children - but I shall leave the details for prospective readers to discover.

Written in the present tense and including a series of letters and courtroom scenes where Etna fights for the custody of her children, this novel was, in some respects, a rather interesting read - however, I should add that although I usually enjoy stories narrated in the present tense, as this can often provide a sense of immediacy, I did not find that to be the case in this particular story. The reason for this may have been that as so much of the plot hinged on Etna's past life, I feel the story might have worked better if written in the past tense. Also, I felt the amount of space devoted to the letters and the courtroom scenes, where the reader is provided with a lot of factual information, seemed to affect the flow of the story rather and prevented me from becoming as deeply involved as I would have liked - a little bit too much telling instead of showing. The author states in her acknowledgements section that she moaned her way through seven drafts of this novel, so maybe she struggled with the structure and flow of this particular book. That said, Anita Shreve is a good writer and there were some interesting parts to this story including the subject of using art as therapy and especially the discussion of the effects of shell-shock on women, a subject that is rarely looked at and one I wish the author had explored in more depth.

3 Stars.


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