The Bear – Claire Cameron

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The Bear

As readers of my blog will know, I’m something of an avid reader. On the whole, I tend to read more novels written by women than men, though this is by no means a deliberate choice. Thus when the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announced their longlist just over a month ago, I was surprised to discover I had read just one of the chosen titles – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

For me, the best thing about a new list of books is the opportunity to discover writers you otherwise wouldn’t have read. Much like my endeavour to read my way through the BBC’s Big Read – a challenge that has meant I’ve read a number of books previously not on my radar – the Baileys Prize longlist has brought a number of new authors into the limelight.

And while I don’t imagine I’ll be able to come even close to finishing the 20 longlisted books ahead of the winner’s announcement in June, I will certainly use the opportunity to discover some books I’m yet to read.

Since I’ve been training for the London Marathon, my reading time has been culled; consequently I decided to begin with The Bear by Claire Coleman, one of the shorter books on the list. Inspired by the death of a couple who were killed by a bear when camping at Algonquin Park in 1991, The Bear is narrated by five-year-old Anna who finds herself alone with her brother – two year old Stick – in the Canadian wilderness after a bear attacks her parents in the middle of the night.

As adult readers, the danger the children are in is immediately evident, and the childish narration of the tale adds a huge vulnerability to the story. Cameron cleverly uses Anna’s memory as a way of bringing the family to life and giving the tale a background and the palpable confusion of the narrator adds an element of sheer terror as the children make their way through the woods in search of safety.

Both unique and unsettling, The Bear is a compelling and uneasy read that keeps its reader turning until the very last page. If the quality of the writing and story-telling is consistent throughout the rest of the Baileys Prize, it will no doubt prove to be a twenty-strong long list well worth reading.

Life Drawing – Robin Black

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LDSimilar to writer’s block, there are times when, as a reader, I seem to hit a wall. This happened recently; I half-heartedly began a number of books but, unable to feign my interest, discarded them within a few days. And for someone whose favourite past-time is reading, it can be hugely frustrating.

Luckily, I was to come across a rather special book that would not only coax me out of my reading slump, but that would restore my love of words and of books.

Robin Black’s debut novel, Life Drawing, is the story of Augustus and Owen who move to the country to leave behind the demons of city life. They buy a barn with the inheritance from an aunt of Owen’s and envisage themselves devoting their lives to each other and their art – Gus as a painter, Owen as a writer.

Life is quiet and uneventful until Alison Hemmings, a recently divorced mother of one moves into the neighbouring barn, which has remained desolate, until now. A bond between the two women forms and they soon become each other’s closest confidant; unearthing past secrets that are long since buried.

The arrival of Alison’s teenage daughter Nora – both pious and passionate – changes the dynamic of the three neighbours and causes a sequence of events to unfold that lead to the novel’s climatic ending.

Masterfully written with exquisite prose, Life Drawing is compelling to its very last page. Black creates a world of both love and sorrow that is so full of suspense it is almost tangible. So beautiful was Life Drawing that I had to slow my reading pace towards its end to savour every last page. It truly is the perfect debut.

Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

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ATYAfter reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – a big book by anyone’s standards – I vowed that the next novel I read would be a quicker read; and one that didn’t result in back ache from lugging its weight around. Thus, I chose Apple Tree Yard, a thriller by Louise Doughty generating much praise on Twitter.

The story begins when Yvonne Carmichael, an eminent geneticist in her early 50s, has a chance sexual encounter with a mysterious stranger in the House of Commons when she is there to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee. The prologue warns the reader how the affair will end – with the central character cross-examined in the dock of the Old Bailey as an accessory to murder – and the tale follows Yvonne as her life begins to unravel.

An angry undertone is evident throughout the novel as themes of violence against women, gender inequality and the consequences of a single drunken mistake are woven together to create the undoing of a happily married middle-aged woman.

The initial suspense the prologue affords Doughty is maintained throughout the novel, which is both cogent and eloquently written. The finest kind of page turner, Apple Tree Yard will have you gripped from start to finish.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

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1goldfinch.JPGI first heard of Donna Tartt many years ago. Newly graduated, I was interning at Bloombsury when someone recommended I read her debut novel, The Secret History. I was to later discover it was on the BBC’s Big Reads and indeed I thoroughly enjoyed it when I finally got around to reading it, some months after my internship at Bloomsbury ended.

Tartt later went on to release My Little Friend, after which there was an eleven year wait before The Goldfinch was published last year. As expected with such a heralded author, the book was met with high critical acclaim and so I swiftly added it to my Christmas wishlist. And so it was that having finished The Shock of the Fall, and knowing I needed something seriously good to follow it that I began Tartt’s third novel.

There is always the fear surrounding a long-awaited book that it simply won’t live up to its hype; though any concern that this would be true of The Goldfinch was swiftly abated.

Narrated by Theo Decker, the story opens in an Amsterdam hotel before moving back fourteen years to the day his mother dies, when Theo is on the cusp of manhood. They are visiting the New York Metropolitan Museum and are in separate rooms when a bomb goes off, killing Theo’s mother instantly. Theo returns home, having removed The Goldfinch – his mother’s favourite painting – from the debris of the museum, expecting to find his mother at their apartment only to be faced with the stark reality that she is dead.

What follows is the slow disintegration of life as Theo knows it. Initially looked after by the Barbours – a wealthy yet dysfunctional family of a classmate, he also befriends a local antiques dealer – the hugely likeable Hobbie, whose business partner also died in the explosion. Just as Theo adjusts to life with the Barbours his wayward father turns up with his new girlfriend in tow; and instructs Theo he’ll be moving to Las Vegas with them. In Vegas he meets Boris – a Ukrainian outsider with whom Theo develops a deep friendship and a penchant for both Russian vodka and illegal drugs.

The novel follows Theo as he passes from boyhood to adulthood, returning to his native New York. The painting of the Goldfinch remains at the very forefront of his mind – both as a thing of beauty and a constant reminder or his mother and is indeed the one constant in his life right until the novel’s last page.

At 770 pages or thereabouts, The Goldfinch is no quick read. Carrying it around with me proved endlessly tiresome but I simply could not put it down. So engrossed was I towards its climatic end that when on a tube home, rather than getting off at Baker Street I found myself in Pinner – five stops from Watford and somewhat dazed and confused.

Both astonishing and profound, The Goldfinch has been hailed by many as a modern masterpiece, and it is quite abundantly clear to see why.

 

 

The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

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The Shock of the FallAs a book blogger trying to read my way through the BBC Big Reads as well as trying to stay abreast of new releases and read recommendations from friends and family, it is not unusual for a book to escape my attention. The Shock of the Fall was one of those. Until recently it remained unread – along with about a hundred other books – on one of the many bookshelves in my room.

Last week however, it won the best first novel at the 2014 Costa Book Awards and there has since been much media coverage surrounding both the book and its author – a mental health nurse who also teaches creative writing at Bath Spa University. I recognised the cover immediately, and as soon as I finished the book I was reading, I began Nathan Filer’s debut.

The Shock of the Fall is narrated by nineteen-year-old schizophrenic Michael, whose guilt at the death of his older brother Simon has left him in need of constant care from his local community health team. The use of various fonts and drawings throughout the narrative lend well to the erratic tone in which Michael recalls life both before and after Simon’s death – an accident for which he blames himself.

As the tale flits between different stages of Matthew’s life, it also follows the ebb and flow of his mental illness and the way in which his loved ones try and cope with his increasingly unstable behaviour. Having already suffered the loss of one son, his parents fear they are to lose another and there is a particular scene when Matthew comes across a secret scribble from his father that is quite, quite heart-breaking. His grandmother – or Nanny Noo as Matthew calls her – is perhaps his closest ally – and a wonderfully maternal character who accepts Matthew just as he is without passing any judgement.

The Shock of the Fall is a harrowing and heartbreaking novel that is beautifully written and has left me quite stunned. Truly deserved of its win at the Costa Book Awards I have not read such a unique and powerful book in a very long time and truly hope this is not the last we hear from Filer.

Wake – Anna Hope

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WakeThe challenge I set myself a couple of years ago – to read the BBC’s Top 100 books – has certainly been an interesting one thus far. I’ve read a vast number of books that I wouldn’t have otherwise – most of which I’ve enjoyed; others less so. The one downside to it has been that if I’m reading a book from the list and struggling with it, rather than deciding to revisit it at a later date, I persevere – often for a good few weeks – thus wasting valuable reading hours.

Such was the case recently that I had spent a good three weeks on a book and was still only two thirds of the way through, until I finally decided to have a break from it and try something else. Thankfully, I had Wake – the debut novel from Anna Hope – on hand to renew my love for reading.

Set across five days in November 1920, Wake tells the tale of three different women – Ada, Hettie and Evelyn – all of whom are suffering from the aftermath of WW1 and its effects on the men in their life – a son, a lover and a brother.

Each of the three central characters are beautifully drawn out and as the tale unfolds their tragic connection is slowly revealed. Each of them are dealing with the loss of a loved one and the novel follows them as they slowly come to terms with the fact that life will never be the same again.

The novel closes two years after the war ends, and offers a hopeful climax to this tale of love and of loss. Beautifully written, powerful and heartbreaking, Wake is a hard-hitting novel that truly captures the devastation of the first world war.

Love, Nina – Nina Stibbe

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LNAfter finishing Labor Day by Joyce Maynard I promised myself that the next book I read would be one of the many I have left from the BBC’s Big Read. At the begiining of the year I challenged myself to read fifteen from the list by the end of the year; thus far I’ve got through about six. Unfortunately, coming across Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe was too big a temptation to resist and consequently Far From the Madding Crowd still remains unread.

Set in London in the 1980s, Love, Nina is a collection of letters from Nina Stibbe to her sister Vic in Leicester. As nanny to the deputy editor of the London Review of Books, Mary Kay, and her two sons, Sam and William, the novel is a delightful portrayal of the banalities of family life.

Told with a warmth and witticism no doubt unbeknown to the author at the time of writing them, the letters are brilliantly observant and possess a certain magic that make Love, Nina such an utterly charming read.

Nina’s musings are the perfect example of the lost art of letter writing and will undoubtedly be treasured by not only Nina and those within the letters, but equally by all readers of this quite marvelous tale.

 

Labor Day – Joyce Maynard

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Labor Day

In the past few weeks I have read so many incredible books,whose prose are so beautiful, and whose plots are so readable that I’m beginning to sound like something of a broken record. Most recently, Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. So intent was I on finishing it, that having read it on the tube my way to work yesterday, forgetting I was running home, that I ran 12k from Chiswick to Clapham holding it wrapped in a plastic bag. And for the second morning running, I woke at 6am to tear through the last few chapters.

Labor Day is set in New Hampshire as a balmy Labor Day weekend approaches. Thirteen year old Henry is shopping with his divorced mother Adele, a one-time dancer who has been single since splitting from Henry father’s many years ago. A delicate character whose fragility is beautifully portrayed, Adele rarely leaves the house, instead choosing to stock up on canned goods to feed herself and her son.

During the trip to the supermarket Frank, an escaped prisoner with a bloody leg, approaches Henry and asks for his help. Adele agrees to take him home and hide him from the police without asking any questions about his conviction and over the next six days Frank will have a profound effect on the two characters. While an intimate and loving relationship develops between Frank and Adele, Henry, also, is to learn some valuable lessons Рfrom how to bake the perfect peach pie, to the often harrowing consequences of loving someone. 

The three main characters are vulnerable in their own way and Maynard has described them exquisitely. The plot is captivating from the first to the last page and it is a truly heart-breaking, beautiful read. While it’s been compared to Atonement and About a Boy – both of which I’ve read and enjoyed – for me, Labor Day is miles ahead of them both.

A poignant tale of love and of loss, Labor Day will remain on my list of books to recommend for many years to come.

Mrs Hemingway – Naomi Wood

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When I was in Dubrovnik earlier in the year I met a group of American doctors, one of whom recommended I read For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Despite having visited Cuba a few years ago – a country where Hemingway spent much of his life – I know very little about the author and For Whom the Bell Tolls still remains on a pile of unread books.

Thus it was that when I began Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – author of The Godless Boys – I had very little idea of what to expect. Set between the 1920s and 1960s against heady backdrops of Paris, Antibes and Havana, Mrs Hemingway is narrated by the author’s four wives – Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary – as each of them deal with explosive love-triangles that tear apart their relationships.

Compelling from the get go, Mrs Hemingway is a fascinating depiction of the interwoven intimacy between Hemingway and his four wives; each of whom deal with the break down of their relationship in different ways.

The setting is both highly evocative and hugely glamorous; a stark contrast to the heartbreak and betrayal simmering behind closed doors. The portrayal of Hemingway is intricate; and the research Wood must have undertaken to write this novel obvious.

Both poignant and heart-breaking in equal measure, Mrs Hemingway is a captivating read that will delight fans of both Wood and Hemingway. A brilliant insight into one of the world’s greatest writers, I shall certainly be moving For Whom the Bell Tolls further up my reading pile.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

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Earlier in the year I attended a writing evening at the Southbank – hosted by the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Grazia Magazine – with my lovely friend Helen. Following the event I was lucky enough to meet one of my very favourite authors – Kate Mosse – whose books include Labyrinth and Sepulchre – and it was on her recommendation that I began Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte one blustery afternoon.

Rated number 12 in the BBC’s Big Read, Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 and was Emily Bronte’s first and only published novel. One of the nineteenth century’s best-loved books, Wuthering Heights is set in a farmhouse on the windswept Yorkshire moors and tells the haunting tale of the intense and destructive love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine’s wealthy father. The prose is replete with powerful imagery that perfectly complements the often unsettling nature of the plot.

As the story unfolds, the Yorkshire moors offer the perfect backdrop to a tale of love, rage, passion and revenge. Heathcliff, in particular is a dark and brooding character and the novel follows the anti-hero from his first appearance at Wuthering Heights to his untimely demise.

Wild, passionate and intense, Wuthering Heights is a compelling tale of a demonic romance that truly deserves its place in the nation’s best loved books.

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