Shiny Debuts – Love and Linkiness…

Today’s batch of Shiny linkiness from my reviews in issue 5 of Shiny New Books features three debut novels. All absolute crackers! Please click through to read the full reviews and join in the comments:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

eorj This is a quirky quest novel, wherein 80-year-old Etta decides to walk to the sea – 2000 miles from Saskatchewan to the Atlantic Ocean. She leaves behind two men who love her, husband Otto and neighbour Russell, and we’ll find out all about the three of them as her journey goes on. And no, it’s not the Canadian Harold Fry – it’s totally different.

This novel was a quirky yet understated pleasure to read – I loved it.

Click here to read my full review (and see a clip of Emma talking about her grandparents who inspired the book).

Fire Flowers by Ben Byrne

Fire Flowers Europa Editions’ first British novel is a story of lost siblings and romance set in Tokyo following the prolonged firestorm that moreorless destroyed the city, and starts on the day of the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII.

The story is told by four characters. Satsuko Takara and her younger brother Hiroshi have been orphaned and separated by the firestorm. Satsuko will never give up looking for her teenaged brother, whereas he assumes she is probably dead. Then there is Hal Lynch – an American who used to be an aerial photographer, now a photo journalist for the US press in Tokyo. Lastly we follow Osamu Maruki, a writer and Satsuko’s lover before he was sent to the South Pacific. The four have separate lives in the ruined city, and they will cross paths although not necessarily meeting.

Fire Flowers is the first novel I’ve read set during this time and place. It was a gripping historical story, heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure. A remarkable debut – I loved it too.

Click here to read my full review

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

fuller I’ll put my cards on the table – as of today, this is still the best book I have read so far this year!

It tells of a girl Peggy, daughter of Ute, a German concert pianist and James – a survivalist. In 1976, James takes little Peggy off to live in a hut in the woods in the Black Forest, telling her the rest of the world has gone. Nine years later she is back, naturally damaged by her experience. We tease out the story of what happened in the book’s present and in flashback. It is full of fairy-tale resonance, very dark, sometimes humorous, but always full of music. Absolutely fantastic!

Click here to read my full review.

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Source: Publishers – thank you all!

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

 

Some Shiny linkiness

Time for a few links to my reviews at Shiny New Books.  Feel free to comment here or there.

I shall start off today with a crowd pleaser!

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

ross-poldark-978144728152801What a good excuse to be able to post pics of Aidan Turner and Robin Ellis as new and old TV Poldarks (along with their respective Demelzas of course)!

I welcomed being able to re-read the first novel in Graham’s popular series, (and am now getting stuck in to Demelza, the second). OK, my review is less about the book, and more about comparing and contrasting it with the TV series – but, I enjoyed reading again the beginning of the story I loved so much as a teenager when I devoured the books first time around.

The good news is that the BBC will definitely make a second series!

Meanwhile here’s the link to my full piece: click here.

To accompany the book/TV review, I also compiled an entry in Shiny’s Five Fascinating Facts series about Winston Graham: click here.

Interview with Jane Thynne

War-of-Flowers-final-front_480x_acf_croppedI am, as you may already know, a big fan of Jane Thynne’s Clara Vine novels – the latest of which, A War of Flowers, I reviewed here.

So it was a pleasure to be able to interview her again, this time for Shiny New Books. We talked about the series, some of its themes, her research and all those characters from real life inside the Third Reich in the late 1930s as well as the conversations around the dinner table – her husband, Philip Kerr, also writes spy novels set in 1930s Germany!

This series gets better and better with each addition – I can’t wait for the fourth novel.

For the full interview: click here.

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Source: Own copy and publisher respectively.
To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate link), please click below:

The return of Clara Vine

A War of Flowers by Jane Thynne

War-of-Flowers-final-front_480x_acf_croppedI am a big fan of the wartime adventures of Anglo-German actress and British spy Clara Vine’s first two outings in Black Roses and The Winter Garden, so I was delighted to get stuck into the third volume of Jane Thynne’s series to see what happened next to Clara. In the first book, Clara had become a model for the Deutsches Modeamt (the Reich fashion bureau) and through that ended up as a confidante of Magda Goebbels and the other Nazi wives. In the second volume she got mixed up in a murder at Himmler’s Bride School for those marrying SS officers and later met the Mitfords and the Duke & Duchess of Windsor.

Where next for Clara, as we are nearing the formal declaration of war between Britain and Germany in 1939? Well, her British handlers have a new mission for her…

She thought of the task they were asking of her now. Getting close to Eva Braun, and in the space of a month? How was she possibly going to manage that? She didn’t even know what Eva Braun looked like. Emmy Goering had once said she looker like the film star Lilian Harvey but stupider, but that wasn’t much to go on. And even if Clara was to meet the girl and manage to talk to her, what were the chances that she would be willing to confide private details about Hitler’s state of mind? Clara would need to employ all her persuasive skills. She had become well versed in asking ingenuous questions under the guise of female curiosity – the paranoid, isolated existences of most Nazi wives meant they tended to open up gratefully to an apparently sympathetic listener – so all she could hope was that Hitler’s girlfriend felt the same.

Before that though, nearing the end of her stay while filming in Paris, Clara has to visit one of Coco Chanel’s soirées, to collect some perfume for Magda Goebbels. It is there that she meets Max Brandt, a cultural attaché at the German Embassy. He will become important later.

Back in Berlin, she delivers the perfume to Magda who is very depressed – her husband, a prolific philanderer wanted to move his current mistress in.

‘Anyway, the ménage à trois was intolerable. I couldn’t stop crying – I even thought of killing myself and the children. I did, honestly. When we accompanied the Führer to Bayreuth in July, I sobbed all the way through Tristan und Isolde.’

Clara will soon meet Eva, who turns out to be girlish, even naive, and a real chatterbox given the opportunity.

‘He’s very stubborn when it comes to taking any interest in my hobbies. Like perfume, for example. … he never comes shopping with me now and you can’t get French perfumes either. But it doesn’t matter because I’ve started making my own.’

I won’t tell any more about the plot except to say that Clara will eventually get to visit Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof near Berchtesgarden, under pressured circumstances – but luckily Adolf isn’t there. He has yet to make a proper appearance in Clara’s life.  Indeed, I rather hope he remains afar in Clara’s next adventures, for yes, there is to be a fourth Clara Vine novel.  Yippee!

As before, Jane Thynne has brought us a wonderful picture of the life of prominent women under the Nazi regime. It was really rather enjoyable to encounter the Nazi wives again. In a side-plot, we find out more about some of the Third Reich’s programmes too through which they tried to control people – in this case the disappearance of a young woman from a KdF (Kraft durch Freude – Strength through Joy) cruise ship; cruises being a reward for being a good Nazi.  The research is impeccable and the novel is full of fascinating detail.

Combined with adventure, spying, glamour and inevitable romance, we have another thrilling story which romps along and definitely left me wanting more.  I asked Jane a whole load of questions about A War of Flowers and the other Clara Vine novels, but you’ll have to wait for the next edition of Shiny New Books on April 7th.  (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

A War of Flowers (Clara Vine 3) by Jane Thynne. Pub Nov 2014 by Simon and Schuster. Paperback Mar 2015, 416 pages.

It’s Shiny linkiness time …

I haven’t told you about all the reviews I wrote for the latest edition of Shiny New Books yet… If you’ve not visited yet, there are around 80 new pages of reviews and articles and our editors’ picks competition on the front page as usual.

Back to me!  This time we’re concentrating on fiction reviews:

A Price to Pay by Alex Capus

a-price-to-pay1-190x300

Capus is a Swiss-French author writing in German. This novel, translated by John Brownjohn, opens in November 1924 at Zurich railway station with three people passing through it at the same time but they never meet. We follow these three through their lives into WWII, in which each will have a part to play and pay the price. Based on real lives, they will become the forger, the spy and the bombmaker. The book relates its history calmly and thoughtfully, giving us the space to appreciate the characters’ fates – and leaves us wondering what would have happened if these three people had actually met?

Read my review here.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

hornby funny girl

You’ll probably know that I’m a big Hornby fan (see here and here for previous reviews).

Funny Girl is set during the golden age of the 1960s for TV comedy and concerns a northern lass who was nearly Miss Blackpool, but escapes to London to become a star in a TV comedy that follows the trials in the lives of a young couple.

The show itself is really the star of this book, and we get an inside view on it – from concept to finished article, and all the lives of those concerned in between. Hornby could have chosen an edgy show to feature, instead he went the cosy route. We have a charming heroine and everyone behaves as expected. To be honest, it’s not Hornby’s best, but it was still very enjoyable, nostalgic fun.

Read my review here.

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

ghosts-of-heavenIf I’m a big Hornby fan, I’m an even bigger fan of Marcus Sedgwick, one of the best authors of teen fiction that really does cross over to make satisfying adult reads. (see here, here and here for previous reviews).

His latest novel is a cycle of four novellas – each having a focus on spiral patterns. In the order published they move through from stone age to middle ages, to Victorian and then the future – but he says you can pick your order to read them in. I preferred the gradual reveal of the interlinking between them so stuck to the natural order, and it wasn’t until the last part that it clicked that the whole novel was a homage to a certain other story – and I loved that!

The hardback is also a lovely thing, with gold foiled covers and turquoise page edges – but in side is a fine novel too. I loved it.

Read my review here.

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Sources: Top two – publishers – thank you. Bottom – my own copy.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Orion books, 2014, hardback 448 pages, paperback coming March 5.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby, Viking, 2014, 352 pages.
A Price to Pay by Alex Capus, Haus Publishing, 2014, Hardback, 240 pages.

 

We followed our men to Los Alamos …

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

wives of los alamosThis is not a novel about the development of the atom bomb, but rather the development of the community surrounding the laboratory which produced the bomb. Most of the scientists who worked at Los Alamos were seconded to the military from all over the country in 1943 for the Manhattan Project under its director Robert Oppenheimer, who had chosen the location for the new top secret facility.

Many of these scientists were family men and TaraShea Nesbit’s novel tells the story through the eyes of their wives. The need for secrecy was such that the scientists’ families followed them to Santa Fe, and on to Los Alamos on the mesa – much easier to keep a lid on things with them all there. Their wives, and children if they already had them, were installed in a fenced compound of pre-fabs outside the ‘technical area’, and she tells how they established new lives for themselves during the later years of WWII.

Nesbit’s style is experimental. Each paragraph is a little vignette set within a collection of paragraphs on a theme. Each paragraph is written using ‘we’, the first person plural – but makes it clear that within the collective ‘we’ are the many different individuals that made up the community – they all have a voice, so both sides of the story are usually expressed within each paragraph…

We were round-faced, athletic, boisterous, austere, thin-boned, catlike, and awkward. When we challenged people’s political views we were described as stubborn or outspoken. Our fathers were academics – we knew the academic world. We married men just like our fathers, or nothing like them, or maybe only the best parts. As the wives of scientists in college towns we gave tea parties and gossiped, or we lived in the city and hosted cocktail hours. We served cigarettes on tin trays. We leaned in close to the other wives, pretending we were  good friends, cupping our hands and whispering into their ears. And, most importantly, we found out how to get our husbands tenure.

The themed collections of paragraphs built up to present the chronological story from arrival to departure. Many of the families had a hard time settling into the army way of doing things, not forgetting the weather – from snow and mud to blinding, never-ending sunshine. They also had to get used to not seeing as much of their husbands…

Many of us hated the women scientists. And the women scientists hated us, or they had better things to worry about. We tried to be their friends. We invited one of them to lunch but she was busy. We despised what she knew and how she laughed at our questions.

But there must have been something in the water, for soon the community was awash with babies.  The Army General complained. The Director said, ‘I’m not going to interfere in the lives of adults.’ There is a sense of settling down, the women build their friendships and routines; some become friends with the local Tewa women who are hired to be helps. Naturally too, some friendships and marriages will founder and not all will last the course. Not being able to quiz their husbands about their work, the women try to make their often mundane life sound exciting. They just do their best to get on with things as their husbands work towards the big one. You know how that ends – but it’s still shocking to read about it in the novel.

It may be experimental, but the style worked for me. It does require more concentration to absorb all the strands than a straight-forward narrative, and consequently it took longer to read than a conventional novel. What was truly fascinating was the way that the style celebrates the differences in the women, they are all individuals and they each have a story to tell in the book. Having said that the middle section, once the wives were well established in situ, was not as riveting as the beginning or the end, but I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s a brave author that debuts with such an unconventional first novel, but Nesbit shows great promise and I shall look out for her name in the future. (8.5/10)

For another review of this book see Susan’s at A Life in Books here.

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit, pub April 2014 by Bloomsbury Circus, Hardback 240 pages.

P.S. Following Col’s comment below: here is a clip of Deacon Blue singing Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now from 2013. Thanks Col!

Psst! Want to know a secret?

Secret by Philippe Grimbert

Secret

This short novel contains within its 154 widely spaced pages a tale so compelling you will want to read the whole thing in one sitting as I did and still have time to savour the exquisite writing as translated from the French by Polly McLean.

The only problem that I have in writing this review is that I can’t tell you much about it without giving away the central secrets that lie in this family’s past. The narrator tells of his childhood growing up in post-war Paris in the 1950s, the sickly only child of supremely fit and glamorous parents. He wishes he had an older brother and invents one, but it is when he talks to an old family friend once he reaches fifteen that he begins to find out the truth about his heritage, something his parents had wanted to stay buried.

One day while still a child, he helps his mother tidy in the attic …

She had opened a trunk in which she expected to find fashion magazines that used to publish her designs. She jumped when she saw the little dog with Bakelite eyes, sleeping there on top of a pile of blankets. Threadbare and dusty-muzzled, he was wearing a knitted coat. I immediately grabbed him and hugged him to my chest, but had to abandon the idea of taking him to my room: I could feel my mother’s unease as she asked me to put him back in his place.  (page 5)

You should never hide things like that where people may find them – at the very least they should have ‘lost’ the key to the trunk. I shouldn’t be so glib though.  Grimbert himself is a psychoanalyst and he uses all the tricks of the trade to gradually tease out what happened. He also shares a his surname with his protagonist, which will lead you to all sorts of questions, not least the killer one – are there elements of autobiography in this story?  I have no idea of the answer to that by the way.

Published in 2004 in France as Un Secret, and 2007 in the UK dropping the ‘A’, this book was a bestseller in France and won a Prix Goncort. It was also filmed and I can certainly see it as a French drama. Please be aware that it is also available under the title ‘Memory‘.

The style is spare, yet full of the details that we need to get pulled into the story. I enjoyed this novel very much indeed. (9/10)

For another non-spoiler review see Vulpes Libris here

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Secretby Philippe Grimbert. Pub 2007 by Portobello Books, paperback 154 pages.

Back to Pre-War Berlin …

The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne

winter garden

Last year, I was thrilled with Black Roses (my review), actress/spy Clara Vine’s first outing in 1930s Berlin, in which she became accepted in the high social circles of the First Reich’s wives. This was the story of how Clara came to Berlin to act in the movies, but got sidetracked into the Reich Fashion Bureau headed by Magda Goebbels and later became a spy.

In a later Q&A with the author, Jane teased about the Mitfords making an appearance in volume two of the planned trilogy.  I couldn’t wait for The Winter Garden

It is now 1937 and sadly, Leo Quinn, the spy who recruited and loved Clara in Black Roses has gone back to England. Clara is living alone and is shortly to start filming her first starring role as the wife of a Luftwaffe pilot at the famous Ufa studios in Berlin. Enough of Clara though for the moment, for The Winter Garden starts with the murder of Anna Hansen at Himmler’s Bride School, set up to train fiancées of SS officers to be perfect Nazi wives.  Shockingly, it really existed – and you couldn’t marry an SS officer without graduating from the two month course.

Today they had been focusing on ‘Cooking Without Butter’ because of the shortage, and very dull it had been too. Though that was no bad thing, Anna thought, because all these regular meals were making her plump. After lunch came Culture, consisting of a talk on fairy tales. All brides needed to learn fairy tales because the German mother was the ‘culture bearer’ to the next generation. Today’s lecturer had explained how in Cinderella it was the prince’s Germanic instincts that led him to reject the step-sisters’ alien blood and search for a maiden who was racially pure.

It turns out that Clara knew Anna, who had been a dancer and artist’s model (which introduces the degenerate art exhibition), before changing tack to become respectable and when Clara’s American journalist friend Mary visits the Bride School, Anna’s room-mate gives her Anna’s little writing case to take back to Anna’s family.  Little do they know what the case contains …

Clara is invited to a party by Magda Goebbels, ostensibly to act as a translator.  I must admit, I was sort of ‘glad’ to see all the first ladies of the Reich reappear in this second volume, they gave a sense of continuity!  However, Magda and the others are merely on the sidelines this time. I did love their little rebellion though, when, on hearing that the Führer wouldn’t be coming to a party, they got out their French couture dresses that he so disapproved of.

Also arriving in Berlin are Edward and Mrs Simpson, and Diana and Unity Mitford are already well entrenched. All the right-wing English notables are being cultivated and encouraged by Hitler. Clara needs to find out about the Mitfords, so she takes Emmy Goering who is pregnant a present …

‘Unity Mitford!’ Emmy Goerring grimaced. ‘That girl with her staring saucer eyes and the Party badge on her heaving bosom. The men call her Mitfahrt – the travelling companion – because she’s always there. She absolutely dogged Hitler’s heels at the rally. She spends every lunchtime at the Osteria Bavaria in the hope of catching Hitler’s eye. She’s dreadfully jealous of Eva Braun, of course, terrified that Eva comes first in Hitler’s affections. I’ve told her, it’s a bit late to worry about that. Eva has her own room in the Reich Chancellery, doesn’t she?’
‘So Unity’s not popular then?’
‘No one can understand why the Führer likes her. Apparently, he loves the fact that her middle name is Valkyrie. Eva says, well, she looks the part, especially the legs. Himmler hates her too. He thinks she might be a spy. He has a tame SS man follow her around, posing as a photographer. But I said to Heinrich, spies don’t go around dressed in a home-made storm-trooper’s uniform, do they? …’

So we already have the murder mystery and all the excitement caused by the Mitfords and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and a third main strand is added to the novel. This involves the Luftwaffe, and here Clara is able to help get information by virtue of her next film role being the wife of a pilot – it’s research.  This is where Clara finds a new lover, and cultivates a Luftwaffe test pilot who of course falls for her – at least slightly.  Everything gets stirred up, and Clara ends up in a precarious situation, as you’d expect of any good spy novel. I won’t elucidate any further.

Jane Thynne has again done her research impeccably – all the details seem perfect.  I was slightly disappointed at first that Leo was out of the picture, but that frees Clara for other relationships. I did feel that there was a lot going on in this volume, and that maybe the Anna story or the Luftwaffe story would have been enough on their own – we could have had a quartet rather than a trilogy. That is a minor quibble, for being immersed in Clara’s world is getting addictive and the stakes are getting higher and higher as war nears. The final part of the trilogy, A War of Flowers, will be published in 2015 – and I’ll be waiting for it!  (9/10)

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Source: The Publisher sent me a lovely signed copy – thank you to them and Jane.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

The Winter Gardenby Jane Thynne, pub Feb 2014 by Simon & Schuster, hardback 432 pages.
Black Roses by Jane Thynne, paperback.

 

“It’s the end of the world as we know it” …

Ragnarok by A.S.Byatt

The Myths series of books by Canongate, is a set I’ve been collecting since their inception in 1995 – I’ve read maybe half of them so far though – something I must address! Every year or two, Canongate are adding titles in the series – short novels by esteemed writers. The latest – by Natsuo Kirono based on the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi was published in January.  Each of the books takes a tale from world myth and re-tells it. You can read some of my other reviews from this series here, here, here and here.

However, to tie in with my reading of Joanne (M) Harris’ new novel The Gospel of Loki, I turned to A.S. Byatt’s more conventional narrative of the Norse myths and the twilight of the Gods – Ragnarök.

ragnarok

Whilst some of the other authors in this series have brought their chosen myths right up to date, Byatt uses a different style – a framing device to tell the old tales in new covers so to speak.

A thin young girl is evacuated during WWII. She is missing her father and struggling to understand her enforced relocation. One day she is given a copy of an old book about the Norse myths, and it transforms her life, allowing her to transport her worries and make sense of everything. All of life is to be found in Asgard and the Gods, or her other favourite book Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The thin child walked through the fair field in all weathers, her satchel of books and pens, with the gas-mask hanging from it, like Christian’s burden when he walked in the fields, reading in his Book. She thought long and hard, as she walked, about the meaning of belief. She did not believe the stories in Asgard and the Gods. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive. She read the Greek stories at school, and said to herself that there and once been people who brought ‘belief’ to these capricious and quarrelsome gods and goddesses, but she herself read them as she read fairy stories. Puss in Boots, Baba Yaga, brownies, pucks and fairies, foolish and dangerous, nymphs, dryads, hydras and the white winged horse, Pegasus, all these offered the pleasure to the mind that the unreal offers when it is briefly more real than the visible world can ever be. But they didn’t live in her, and she didn’t live in them.

WagnertheAshYggdrasill

Yggdrasil – The World Ash. Engraving by Carl Emil Doepler

The thin child, she is always referred to thus, reads the book and reflects upon it, the idiosyncracies of its author, and the parallels between the stories and her life. At this point, I should add that Asgard and the Gods (adapted by M.W. Macdowall from works by German Wilhelm Wägner) is a real book. It was published in 1886, as a primer in Norse myths for older children. Amazingly, it is still in print – hopefully with its engravings in tact – several of which are reproduced in Ragnarök (see right), and this book was the inspiration for Byatt too. She says in an accompanying essay at the back, “my childhood experience of reading and rereading Asgard and the Gods was the place where I had first experienced the difference between myth and fairy tale.”

So we go through the creation of Asgard, the installation of the gods and godesses led by Odin.  Then we meet Loki whom the thin child likes as ‘alone among all these beings he had humour and wit‘, even though the clever trickster, Odin’s problem-solving adopted brother, often created as many problems by his actions as were resolved.

I felt sad for the thin child when we got to Baldur’s tale. Baldur being a beautiful god who was doomed to die…

Baldur went, but he did not come back. The thin child sorted in her new mind things that went and came back, and things that went and did not come back. Her father with his flaming hair was flying under the hot sun in Africa, and she knew it in her soul that he would not come back.

As Byatt says, “Myths are often unsatisfactory, even tormenting.”  The thin child sees the parallels between the War, the Blitz, her believed loss of her father and the destruction of her normal life and the downfall of the Norse Gods which stems from the death of Baldur, bringing chaos back to the world. Although she comes to believe her father is doomed too, there is a grim satisfaction to be had from the scale of the destruction involving all who touch it, schadenfreude as Wägner would probably say. What the thin child doesn’t know at this point, is that after the battle, the world will be reborn anew.  As REM sang “It’s the end of the world as we know it.“!

The Norse myths are more than just heroics though, the creation of their world was anchored out of chaos by Yggdrasil – The World Ash, and the force of nature is as strong, if not stronger than that of the gods. The myths abound in biological detail, and the thin child notices the flowers and animals surrounding her too, they help her feel alive. At one point Byatt almost goes overboard letting the thin child enjoy the glories of late spring – a list of which takes over two pages, but I’ll forgive this as from daisies to tadpoles, they’re worth it – mother nature in the form of Yggdrasil has it sorted.

I’ve felt rather stifled by Byatt’s full length novels previously and couldn’t even get started on The Children’s Book, but this shorter form being written from a child’s eye view and all about myths was perfect for me.

Ragnarök is both an accomplished novel and a fantastic primer for the Norse Myths, brilliantly retold. (8.5/10)

See also: Desperate Reader and Tales from the Reading Room for other reviews.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
– Ragnarok: the End of the Godsby A.S.Byatt, pub 2011 by Canongate. Paperback, 192 pages including Appendices.
– The Goddess Chronicle (Canongate Myths) by Natsuo Kirino, pub 2014 by Canongate. Hbk or pbk 320 pages.
– The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris, pub 2014 by Gollancz. Hardback.
– Asgard and the Gods: The Tales and Traditions of Our Northern Ancestors, Forming a Complete Manual of Norse Mythology Work (Classic Reprint) by Wilhelm Wägner.

Practice makes perfect?

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life-After-Life

Way back, when Kate Atkinson’s debut novel Behind the Scenes in the Museum was published and won prizes, I bought a copy – and struggled with it. Me and it didn’t gel back then, and I’ve not bothered reading any other books by Kate Atkinson since, until now.

I was taken the with idea of Life After Life though, and bought a copy of the hardback from the supermarket last year. It has sat there on the shelf waiting, despite everyone else reading and loving it, until now – as it is our book group’s choice for discussion next week. I needn’t have worried though, for I loved it, and I couldn’t wait until after book group to put some thoughts down.

I had worried before I started reading that Atkinson’s story of the many lives of Ursula Todd would be too much like a literary Groundhog Day, that there were no new tricks in the reliving one’s life game.   While I love that film, Life After Life has a very different time-looping mechanism to it.  In GHD, newsman Phil lived the same day again and again for around ten years until he became a better person and got his girl – but, he was aware of his previous days, so was able to use that experience to learn to play the piano, speak French etc and gradually improving himself. Most days he doesn’t die either.

That doesn’t happen in Ursula’s story – in each life she lives until she dies, then starts again at birth, unaware of her past lives except for an occasional sense of déjà vu at critical moments which enable her to do things differently.

What is fascinating is to see how the little changes can make big changes to her destiny.  The novel actually starts with her death in a very bold scenario that makes you wonder how she’d got there, and if that is the real ending.  I’m not going to tell you, if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I refer to, if not, I’ll leave it to you to find out for yourself.

Ursula is born in a snowy February 1910, so her lives go from that day each time through the decades. In her very first life though, she dies at birth, strangled by the umbilical cord.  The next time she is born, she lives and her parents Sylvie and Hugh are bickering gently after the birth…

A fox appeared out of the shrubbery and crossed the lawn. ‘Oh, look,’ Sylvie Said. ‘How tame it seems, it must have grown used to the house being unoccupied.’
‘Let’s hope the local hunt isn’t following on its heels,’ Hugh said. ‘It’s a scrawny beast.’
‘It’s a vixen. She’s a nursing mother, you can see her teats.’
Hugh blinked at such blunt terminology falling from the lips of his recently virginal bride. (One presumed. One hoped.)
‘Look,’ Sylvie whispered. Two small cubs sprang out on to the grass and tumbled over each other in play. ‘Oh, they’re such handsome little creatures.’
‘Some might say vermin.’
‘Perhaps they see us as verminous,’ Sylvie said. ‘Fox Corner – that’s what we should call the house. No one else has a house with that name and shouldn’t that be the point?’
‘Really?’ Hugh said doubtfully. ‘It’s a little whimsical, isn’t it? It sounds like a children’s story. The House at Fox Corner.’
‘A little whimsy never hurt anyone.’
‘Strictly speaking though,’ Hugh said, ‘can a house be a corner? Isn’t it at one?’
So this is marriage, Sylvie thought.

life-after-life pbkApart from illustrating the brittleness between Hugh and Sylvie, I chose this passage to quote, as it’s where they first see the fox.

The house, Fox Corner, is to remain a constant in Ursula’s lives, and the fox appears many times during her childhoods. In fact, the cover design of the paperback (right) is graced by the lovely creature.

I also like Hugh’s little joke – The House at Pooh Corner won’t be published until 1928.

I wondered too whether the author also chose the surname Todd as a nod to Beatrix Potter’s Mr Tod – although he wasn’t such a nice fox.

I loved the way that Atkinson finds so many different takes on Ursula’s birth, all the little changes are quite entertaining once we’ve got past her initial death.  However, we don’t get Ursula’s birth every time – the author only gives us the occasions when her life moves on and changes – so we get several different versions of key events, which then lead to totally different outcomes.  It’s very cleverly mapped out indeed.

We’re with Ursula right from the start, grieving each time she dies – again and again; sometimes mouthing out loud ‘Don’t do it!’ when we know that a life will turn bad if she does a particular thing, and cheering when her instincts lead her to do things differently, only for it to go bad again in another way. Will she ever manage to life the right life?

This gradual reveal of the final story reminded me of another novel in which the narrative is told out of time.  The Night Watch by Sarah Waters is actually told in reverse, but it’s only when we get back to the start of the story that we get the full picture.  With WWII playing a big part in both novels too, its a fair comparison.

I am so pleased that I’ve given Kate Atkinson another try, for in Life After Life, she is clearly an author at the top of her game, and I loved this book. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, 2013. Black Swan Paperback, 624 pages.
Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Groundhog Day (Collector’s Edition) [DVD] [2002]

After the war is over …

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

aftermathThe aftermath of war can be just as hard to get through as the war itself – for both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  Rhidian Brook’s novel gives us a portrait of the British zone in Hamburg after WWII, a city largely destroyed by Operation Gomorrah in 1943.

It is now 1946, and Colonel Lewis, is arriving with his family, to take charge of the British occupying forces.  His staff have found him a house, a large mansion on the banks of the river where an architect lives quietly with his daughter.  Herr Lubert and Freda are due to be billeted elsewhere, but in an unprecedented act of kindness, Lewis offers to let them share the house. The Luberts will move up to the attic servants quarters.

The house is finely furnished, and is full of art, antiques and a grand piano. Before Lewis’ wife Rachael even steps through the door, she is intimidated by the situation her husband has foisted upon her …

‘But I don’t understand,’ Rachael said. ‘Are other families doing this?’
‘None of them has requisitioned a house like this. It’s not really the same.’
Rachael had no space for this. It did not matter how grandiose, how replete with rooms, how exquisite the art of the action of the piano; were it a palace with separate wings and outhouses, there still would be no room for a German in it.

Rachael’s attitude can be easily understood for the Lewis family lost a son in the war, her eldest Michael. She was there when the bomb hit the house, whereas Lewis was away with the Army of course. She has another son, Edmund, but she is still grieving and angry at the Germans and Lewis for not being there.  Her reunion with him after this time will be tough for both of them, and her enforced relationship with the Luberts will become interesting too.

Meanwhile Lewis has to deal with the severe lack of food and jobs for the remaining Germans, who are only allowed to resume their prior work once they have been certified as clean. Intelligence are determined to root out the slightest hint of collaboration or Nazi sympathies, something that goes against the grain of Lewis’ ideals. Lewis is a good man, and is unfailingly polite to his host-nation. He wants nothing more than to let the Germans get back to work, to reunite parted families, to get food to them, start the rebuilding, but bureaucracy is always getting in the way.

Alongside the adults’ stories, is that of a band of feral children, orphaned, living in the ruins close to the Lubert’s house. Ozi their leader, is an expert wheeler-dealer, getting the most for things scavenged.  Edmund spots them one day, and becomes their saviour – Lewis’ cigarettes are better than currency. They are the true forgotten in all of this, living on their wits in terrible conditions.

It turns out that the central premise of Brook’s novel – that of sharing a house with the former enemy – is something that actually happened.  His grandfather, who was in a similar position to Lewis, did just that – he must be proud of him. While all around are taking advantage of being in charge, Lewis and his small team of officers who understand his point of view, show restraint and compassion for their fellow man.

Lewis, Rachael and Herr Lubert are three fully realised characters and as I read, I wanted the best for all of them. That Lewis and Rachael would find themselves again, and that Herr Lubert would be able to begin again too – for as an architect, his skills would be needed to rebuild the city.

This was an emotionally involving novel that gave a rather different take on WWII and I enjoyed it a lot. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Aftermathby Rhidian Brook. Pub 2013 by Viking Penguin, Hardback 336 pages. Sorry – no sign of the paperback yet.