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Susie B
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The Proof of Love
The Proof of Love
by Catherine Hall
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars An Involving and Atmospheric Story, 25 Aug. 2016
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This review is from: The Proof of Love (Paperback)
In the blisteringly hot summer of 1976, mathematician Spencer Little escapes from Cambridge, where he has been working on his doctoral thesis, and arrives at a Cumbrian sheep farm, where offers his help as a labourer in exchange for bed and board - his bed being in a very basic shepherd's hut situated beside a running stream, some way from the farmhouse. The farmer, Hartley Dodds, is a rough and sullen man who drinks heavily and treats his wife, Mary, mostly with indifference, and his daughter, ten-year-old Alice, with little outward affection. Despite trying to keep himself to himself, Spencer finds himself spending time with the bright and very engaging Alice, with whom he builds a friendship and, as time passes, he also finds himself becoming the confidante of the unhappy and under-appreciated Mary. However, as the story progresses, we discover that Spencer has a secret of which he feels ashamed and which, by throwing himself into intense physical labour, he is hoping to expunge. And then somebody unexpected arrives in his life and arouses in him a passion that he finds difficult to contain, and which contributes to a tragedy occurring which has devastating consequences for almost everyone around him.

Catherine Hall writes with vividly and atmospherically about the Cumbrian landscape and of the harsh life of a sheep farmer (which I found very interesting) and it was easy to become drawn into this involving and atmospheric story. The main protagonists are interesting characters (although I would have liked to have read more about Spencer's back story and I would also have liked to have read more about Dorothy, an elderly countrywoman living alone in a remote cottage, who was an intriguing character with a seemingly interesting past of which I would have liked to have learnt more) and, through the course of the novel, the author deftly and slowly builds the tension of her story until it reaches its upsetting and shocking climax. Overall, 'The Proof of Love' is a well-written and compelling novel, but I do have to confess that I wish Ms Hall had created a less depressing and unsettling ending for her story - but I cannot explain further without revealing spoilers. That said, this is a very good book with a superb sense of place, and it's one that I am still thinking about even though I have started reading something else.

4 Stars.


The Archivist: A Novel
The Archivist: A Novel
by Martha Cooley
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars An Elegiac and Thought-Provoking Story, 23 Aug. 2016
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This review is from: The Archivist: A Novel (Paperback)
Martha Cooley's impressive debut novel 'The Archivist' focuses on Matthias (Matt) Lane, a university librarian in his sixties, who is responsible for the safekeeping of a cache of letters sent by the poet T.S. Eliot to his close friend, Emily Hale. Although not available for access of any kind until 2020, Matt admits to us that he read the letters whilst cataloguing them, but when Roberta Spire, a poet and graduate student with an intense interest in the correspondence, approaches Matt and asks to see the letters, he firmly rejects her attempts at persuading him to make an exception. However, as time passes, Matt and Roberta form an unusual friendship and it's one that has an unsettling effect on Matt who finds the parallels between Roberta and his deceased wife Judith (a poet and one who struggled with her Jewish identity and with feelings of betrayal), force him to confront issues about his past life that he finds both difficult and compelling.

'The Archivist' is a skilfully written novel which discusses literature, faith, religious identity and mental instability, and looks at how events from the past can have such a huge effect on the present. Moving backwards and forwards in time as Matt muses on his memories of meeting and marrying Judith at the end of WW2, and written partly in the form of a journal, where the reader shares Judith's experiences in a mental hospital and of her anguish over the Holocaust, this elegiac story is not an easy read, but it is a thought-provoking and rather compelling one. The author also provides an interesting portrayal of the cultural and social atmosphere of postwar New York and, apart from the very ending, about which I am a little unsure (I can't explain further without revealing spoilers), I was impressed with this debut novel and would certainly be interested in reading more from this author.

4 Stars.


Whisper
Whisper
by Kim Hargreaves
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.45

4.0 out of 5 stars Whisper, 22 Aug. 2016
This review is from: Whisper (Paperback)
As I have commented in several previous reviews of mine for Kim Hargreaves' knitting books, I have been buying and knitting from Kim's books for many years (including the Rowan Knitting books where, before she set up her own company, Kim was one of the main designers) and I have always been pleased with the finished results - Kim's designs and the yarns she uses produce garments that have a stylish hand-crafted appearance, rather than looking like a homespun effort, which is important when the knitter is going to be spending time, energy and money on a project. Although 'Whisper', which was first published five years ago, is not my absolute favourite of Kim's books, there are several patterns in it which I have either knitted and would knit again, or patterns that I am keen to knit sometime in the future. I fished this book out from the cupboard as I remembered there was a pattern in it for a crocheted cardigan - I'm a knitter, not a crocheter, but I felt the need to master something different and this pattern, with its fitted shape and three-quarter sleeves, is so attractive that it has encouraged me to 'have a go'. Knitted in Rowan's hand knit cotton (a soft, double-knit yarn), which grows quickly, I have got the hang of my double and treble crochets and, so far, it's looking rather good. When the book first came out I knitted 'Christina' - a textured cardigan with panels of eyelets (I made a cropped version in Rowan's lovely Cotton Glace and I have worn and worn this) and I also made 'Gabriela' which is beautiful cropped cable cardigan knitted in Rowan's Siena (a 4ply yarn with a subtle sheen) and again is something which I have had a huge amount of wear out of. Looking back through this book, I now have my eye on 'Sheer' - an a-line tunic with a scoop back, knitted in Rowan's Pima Cotton, which would look good worn with skinny jeans, but as there are only so many knitted garments one person can wear, I might have to give this one a miss. There are twenty-one designs in the book and if you want to see these in detail, do visit Kim's website or English Yarns, based in Shoreham, West Sussex, who have a great website where you will be able to see all of the patterns in detail and they also sell the materials needed to knit the designs. John Lewis now also sell a wide range of Rowan Yarns online.

4 Stars.


William (VMC)
William (VMC)
by Emily Hilda Young
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Subtle and Enjoyable, 22 Aug. 2016
This review is from: William (VMC) (Paperback)
First published in 1925 and republished in this very attractively-covered Virago Modern Classics edition in 1988, Emily Hilda Young's 'William' tells the story of the Nesbitt family who live in Radstowe: William, a businessman; his worthy wife Kate; and their five grown-up children: Mabel, Walter, Dora, Lydia and Janet. The dependable and unadventurous Walter, and heir to William's business, is married to the elegant Violet; Mabel, a rather hapless woman (whose unnecessary self-pitying and parsimonious behaviour irritates the other members of her family) is married to the bumptious John; Dora, a kind-hearted, sensitive young woman is married to the overly-devoted and rather boring Herbert (against whom she is trying to assert her independence); the charming and lively Lydia (and William's favourite) is married to the quietly controlling Oliver (but her 'gadabout' behaviour in London worries her mother who wishes Lydia would focus more on her marriage); and, lastly, there is the reticent stay-at-home Janet, who has hidden depths and who is also secretly in love with Lydia's husband. On the face of it, the lives of the Nesbitt family run along quite happily and reasonably smoothly, but underneath there are currents which are brought to the surface when Lydia falls in love with writer, Henry Wyatt - a situation which results in her acting in a manner that causes problems of varying degrees for the entire family - but to say more would spoil the story for those who have yet to read it.

This novel (which has an interesting introduction by John Bayley, where he likens Ms Young's writing to that of Barbara Pym) is a subtle, exquisitely written story of family life, of the interactions between its various members, and of how the behaviour of one family member can affect others in the family and encourage some of them to look more deeply at their own lives. It is true, that this is a quiet and mostly a leisurely-paced story, so for those who enjoy pacy, plot-driven novels, this may not satisfy; however, I enjoyed this story from the first page to the last and am now very much looking forward to reading and reviewing the other novels ('Miss Mole'; 'The Vicar's Daughter'; 'Chatterton Square'; 'Celia' and 'The Curate's Wife') that I have from this author on my bookshelves.

4 Stars.


The Wild
The Wild
by Esther Freud
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully Evoked, 20 Aug. 2016
This review is from: The Wild (Hardcover)
Esther Freud's beautifully evoked 'The Wild' focuses on the emotionally insecure nine-year-old Tess who, with her older brother, Jake, and her somewhat feckless mother, Francine, moves in with teacher, William Strachan, who rents Francine two rooms in his eco-friendly home. Divorced from the lovely Felicity (with whom he is still obsessed), William is the single parent of three girls, and a self-trumpeted and self-satisfied 'new man' who thinks he knows best for everyone around him. The clear-sighted eleven-year-old Jake can see William for the smarmy and controlling person he is, however Francine (whose philandering estranged husband changes his girlfriends as often as the feeling takes him) soon finds herself succumbing to William's advances. And Tess, desperate for William's approval, follows him around eager for any attention he can spare, despite him constantly rebuffing her. William also insensitively reveals a secret that Tess has been trying to hide from the rest of the family and from the teachers at the small private school where William teaches and where Tess, Jake and the Strachan girls are pupils. How long will it take before Francine and Tess realize that William is not the wonderful person they want him to be? And what happens if, and when, they do?

Esther Freud is a perceptive and intuitive writer, her characters are well-drawn and her vivid depiction of dysfunctional family life and of the unintentional (and, sometimes, intentional) humiliations that adults inflict on children is almost painful to read at times (especially as one has the feeling that parts of this story could be autobiographical). Almost from the outset of the novel the reader realizes that William is a destructive and controlling individual and, as we become drawn into the story, we long for Tess and Francine to see him for the manipulative hypocrite he actually is. But where Ms Freud really excels in this novel is in her depiction of childhood and of what feels like to be an excluded child and one who desperately wants to belong. This is a convincing, beautifully evoked and involving story and one that I read practically in one sitting. I can also recommend the following from Ms Freud:'Mr Mac and Me'; 'The Sea House' and 'Hideous Kinky'.

4 Stars.


Family Album
Family Album
by Penelope Lively
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars (3.5 Stars) Elegantly Written, But Not Ms Lively's Best, 18 Aug. 2016
This review is from: Family Album (Paperback)
Charles Harper, a rather vague young academic, finds himself married to earth-mother Alison, and before he knows it he has six children and a resident Scandinavian au pair called Ingrid, who soon becomes a permanent fixture. They all live together in Allersmead, a large, comfortably shabby Victorian house, with its marble-tiled entrance hall, its oak staircase, its stained glass windows and its original De Morgan tiled fireplace in the drawing room. Surrounding the property is a large garden, where treasure hunts and hide-and-seek games and countless birthday parties take place over the years, and when the weather is too bad for outside activities, the six children retreat to the cellar, where they play games of pirates, spies and 'mothers and fathers'. Sounds idyllic? Maybe not. While Alison wafts around in her Laura Ashley frocks, cooking delicious homemade meals, declaiming to anyone and everyone in earshot what a wonderful old-fashioned family life they lead, Ingrid looks on with cool appraisal, and Charles occasionally emerges from his study, where he writes books, to make half-hearted attempts at joining in family life, before retreating to his own child-free space with relief. And what of the six children? As they grow and mature, nurtured by their very hands-on mother, do they decide to remain close to home and provide Alison with a clutch of grandchildren? Or do they escape from their 'idyllic' homelife as soon as they are able?

Penelope Lively's aptly titled 'Family Album' is presented to the reader in the form of a series of snapshots or little vignettes of family life, so it's not a straightforward linear story, nor is it one with much of a plot, but it is a perceptively observed, elegantly written and very readable one. The characters are well-drawn, the interactions between the various family members are deftly depicted, and Allersmead is so well described, it almost has a character of its own. However, with so many characters jostling for space in a book of less than 250 pages, it is not possible for the reader (or this one, anyhow) to get to know any of them really well, and I also found the 'family secret' easy to guess and the vague suggestions of 'something nasty happening in the cellar' didn't materialise into anything very much at all - but I cannot explain further without revealing spoilers. In addition, I wasn't keen on the last part of the novel where the author used a series of emails as vehicle to end her story, as this made me feel Ms Lively was trying to tie all of her loose ends together as quickly as possible. Therefore, I have to be honest and say that although I found this an entertaining and readable story, in my opinion this is not the best of Ms Lively's range of excellent novels - it is, however, beautifully written and effortless to read, and as I have had this languishing in one of my bookcases for years, I am very glad to have finally got around to reading it.

3.5 Stars.


The Whole Day Through
The Whole Day Through
by Patrick Gale
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The Whole Day Through, 16 Aug. 2016
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This review is from: The Whole Day Through (Paperback)
Laura Lewis, a self-employed accountant in her forties with several unsuccessful love affairs behind her, leaves her Paris apartment and arrives in the city of Winchester to take care of her elderly mother, the formidably intellectual Professor Jellicoe, a retired virologist, who has become incapacitated due to osteoporosis. After dropping her mother off at the local hospital for a clinic appointment, Laura bumps into Ben, an old flame from her Oxford undergraduate days, who is a doctor specialising in sexually transmitted diseases and who has returned home to Winchester to care for his brother, Bobby, who has Mosaic Down's Syndrome. Set mainly over the course of a single summer's day, but also moving backwards and forwards in time, this deftly-crafted story shows how Ben ended his relationship with Laura whilst they were at Oxford, and how he began dating and then married the beautiful, but rather shallow Chloe; we read of how Ben's and Chloe's relationship is now experiencing significant difficulties, and of how Ben uses his brother's condition to take time out from his ailing marriage; we read of Laura's and Ben's pleasure at meeting up again after twenty years and of their renewed interest and reawakened love for one another, and we read of whether they will take the opportunity of this second chance of happiness to form a lasting relationship with one another…

As always with Patrick Gale, this is a beautifully written novel and one that is a confidently executed and perceptively observed story of relationships, of missed opportunities, and of the obligations and rewards of family life. I particularly enjoyed the author's unsentimental portrayal of the affinity between Laura and her mother (he acknowledges his debt to his own mother and sister for allowing him to draw inspiration from their relationship for this book), and I also found Mr Gale's exquisite descriptions of the details of Laura's dally life very rewarding to read (although I have to mention that I could have easily managed without the details of Ben's work with patients who'd contracted sexually transmitted diseases). In addition, I very much enjoyed the descriptions of the lovely city of Winchester (which I know well) and despite finding parts of the story a little less than convincing and feeling that the story ended too suddenly (I can't explain further without revealing spoilers), I really enjoyed this novel and have returned it straight away to one of my bookcases to experience again in the future. I can also recommend the following books by the same author: 'A Perfectly Good Man'; 'Notes From An Exhibition'; 'Friendly Fire'; 'Ease' and 'Kansas in August'.

4 Stars.


Tea At Four O'clock (VMC)
Tea At Four O'clock (VMC)
by Janet O'neill
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Marvellous, 14 Aug. 2016
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First published in 1956, and republished in this lovely Virago Modern Classic edition in 1988, Janet McNeill's quietly titled, but emotionally and psychologically deep novel 'Tea at Four O'Clock' focuses on Laura Percival, a middle-aged, middle-class, unmarried woman, who has spent years devoting herself to the care of her tyrannically dominating sister, Mildred. After Mildred's death, Laura's estranged brother, George, returns to Marathon, the old family home in Belfast, keen to renew his ties with Laura now that his father and Mildred, who strongly disapproved of him, are no longer living. After years of irresponsible living, George has now settled down, has a regular job, and is living in a cramped little terraced house with his wife, Amy, and their growing daughter, Kathie. Married to a woman he considers his social inferior, George is nevertheless reasonably happy with Amy, who looks up to her husband and makes him feel valued, and he is very fond of his daughter - however, money is always tight, and George has had enough of scrimping and saving, and feels the time has come for him to have a share in what should have been his inheritance. And that, of course, is where Laura comes in….

Perceptive, poignant and with some brilliant flashes of humour, this is a beautifully written novel with some marvellous descriptions of situation and setting. Janet McNeill's depiction of a thwarted life, beset with repression, guilt and disillusionment, is a dark, but wonderfully readable story which kept me involved from the first page to the last. I have two more novels by this author: The Maiden Dinosaur and The Small Widow and I am very much looking forward to reading and reviewing both of those in the near future.

5 Stars.
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Rumour of Heaven
Rumour of Heaven
by Beatrix Lehmann
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Original and Unusually Engaging, 11 Aug. 2016
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This review is from: Rumour of Heaven (Paperback)
Literary critic, William Peacock, marries the beautiful, but highly-strung dancer, Miranda, and the couple have three children - two of whom, Hector and Viola, inherit their mother's feyness and mental instability. In order to escape from the harsh reality of the outside world, Miranda and William take their children and move to an attractive, but tumbledown country house with an untamed garden, called Prince's Acre - where, despite the beauty of her rural surroundings, Miranda becomes even more debilitated by her fragile state of mind. After her death, William is left to care for his three children with the help of the redoubtable housekeeper, Mrs Humble, who does her best to make a home for the three unusual children and their distracted father. Into their lives arrives Paul, a writer, who is psychologically damaged from his experiences during the First World War, and who is attracted to the beautiful teenaged Clare, the elder of the Peacock girls. Staying with Paul in his rented cottage, is his penniless artist friend, Tony, and soon both of them find themselves irresistibly drawn to the eccentric family at Prince's Acre and their strange inner world, and both of them become partly instrumental in triggering a series of events that have lasting consequences for all involved…

Written by the sister of the better known Rosamond Lehmann, 'Rumour of Heaven' is an unusual and strangely poignant novel and one that is difficult to categorize or to discuss fully without revealing too much about the story and spoiling it for prospective readers. As noted, in the introduction by Gillian Tindall, this novel has echoes of Stella Gibbons' 'Cold Comfort Farm', but it has its own story to tell and it's one that is beautifully told, if a little uneven at times. Full of lush prose and a novel that pulls the reader into the strangeness of its characters' lives, I found this an original and unusually engaging read and although it's maybe not one that I would recommend to everyone without a few reservations, I really enjoyed it and this attractively presented Virago Modern Classics edition will go straight back into one of my bookcases to be experienced again in the future.

4 Stars.
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Mary Tudor: England's First Queen
Mary Tudor: England's First Queen
by Anna Whitelock
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

4.0 out of 5 stars England's First Queen, 8 Aug. 2016
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As commented by other reviewers writing here, Anna Whitelock's debut book is not a revisionist biography, nor is it an exhaustively in-depth analysis of Mary Tudor and, as far as I am aware, there are no significant new revelations made by the author about her subject; however, this attractively presented and well-researched book is a competent and very accessible account of the life and reign of the first woman to be crowned Queen of England. Many of us reading this book may already be aware that, due to her insecure position as the daughter of Henry VIII's discarded first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and her staunch Roman Catholicism, Mary Tudor's accession to the throne of England was somewhat against the odds and, once she was actually on the throne, her reign was a particularly difficult one - both politically and personally. Anna Whitelock explains just how traumatic Mary Tudor's life was, and she comments that the contrast between Mary as Queen and the personal tragedy of Mary as a woman, is the key to understanding her life and reign; she sums up her subject's life by stating that: "[Mary's] private traumas of phantom pregnancies, debilitating illnesses, and rejection - first by her father and then by her husband - were played out in the public glare of the fickle Tudor court. The woman who emerges is a complex figure of immense courage and resolve…" and Ms Whitelock carefully leads the reader through the events of Mary Tudor's life making this a sympathetic, faithfully rendered and very accessible account.


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