Category Archives: Book Reviews

Meet Me At The Museum

Meet Me At The Museum

by Anne Youngson

 

Please be aware I am writing to you to make sense of myself …

When the curator of a Danish museum responds to a query about ancient exhibits, he doesn’t expect a reply.
When Tina Hopgood first wrote it, nor did she …

 

Tina Hopgood is dissatisfied with her life.

As a school child her class had corresponded with Professor Glob at the Silkeborg museum in Denmark about the discovery of the Tollund Man, an Iron Age man found perfectly preserved in a Danish bog. She is now the wrong side of 60 years old and writes once again to Professor Glob. Unfortunately he has passed away, but Tina receives a reply from the present curator of the museum, Anders Larson. What starts out as a quite formal exchange of letters about the Tollund Man and his effect on modern life, soon turns into a more personal correspondence.

Two very different characters; Tina, a disillusioned hard-working farmer’s wife from East Anglia and Anders, a widower and the curator of the Silkeborg museum in Denmark. They both find they have common ground in feeling somewhat surplus to their own lives.  Tina is a cog in the efficinet working of the farm, but feels her family wouldn’t notice her otherwise. Anders, a widower, lives alone. Always looking back to the life he lived with his wife and wondering if he had done enough to help her.

This book is gentle, thoughtful and tender. The relationship grows slowly, like the opening of a fern frond. As they discuss their lives they develop a closeness with each other that neither seems able to find with their own families.

When there is upheaval in Tina’s life she has to re-evaluate their relationship. Whether that means ending it or setting it on a new pathway only she can decide.

A beautiful debut with gorgeous prose. I totally loved both characters and the slow, thoughtful response to each other’s letters. I was quite ridiculously peeved at the thought of them using email rather than real letters, I loved the idea of their handwritten letters dropping through the letter box and the feel and touch of the paper and envelopes.

I did guess quite early on what was going to happen, but it in no way impaired my enjoyment of the book. I felt the author played out the events perfectly…or her characters did.

A book about lost lives, missed opportunities and the fact that it’s never too late to change your life.  A wonderful read and highly recommended.

Anne Youngson will be appearing at urmston bookshop on Wednesday 6th june 2018, to talk about her book and her writing journey. Tickets are £3 inc glass of wine and redeemable aginst the cost of a book.

Tel: 0161 747 7442

emai:  books@urmston-bookshop.co.uk

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.

Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than… fine?

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine…but not really. her life consists of work – Monday to Friday, with very little in the way of human interaction. Then weekends spent at home, alone, not speaking to a soul from leaving work on the Friday to getting on the bus on Monday morning.

On Friday after leaving work she buys a pizza from Tesco and two bottles of vodka that she drinks throughout the weekend, never getting drunk but in a suitable haze to see her through.

Eleanor’s social skills are extremely limited; she has no filter for her thoughts and her only point of reference is ‘mummy’ who is cruel and vindictive and no longer in her life except for a weekly phone call.

Then three men come into Eleanor’s life…

The first she decides is the man for her: the one she will walk off into the sunset with. So she sets about updating her appearance for the meeting that will change her life, with hilarious consequences.

The second man is Raymond, the IT man at work. They meet when Eleanor’s computer breaks down. Raymond is one of the few people who is not put off by Eleanor’s blunt manner.

The third man is Sammy. When Sammy is taken ill, Eleanor and Raymond help him and the three become friends, resulting in Eleanor’s life opening up and a huge learning curve.

Eleanor is one of the most fabulous creations. Her thoughts on other people and the world around her are totally hilarious.

“I purchased it in a charity shop some years ago, and it has a photograph of a moon-faced man. He is wearing a brown leather blouson. Along the top, in strange yellow font, it says ‘Top Gear’. I don’t profess to understand this mug. It holds the perfect amount of vodka, however, thereby obviating the need for frequent refills.”

But at the same time she is vulnerable and holds dark secrets from the past. We follow her as she tries to come to terms with who she is and how she interacts with the world, with the help of the lovely Raymond. Their relationship is a joy to behold. His small kindnesses making all the difference to a woman who has never been shown any and known only loneliness.

This is such a powerful book, having strong themes of loneliness and heartbreaking sadness but with a huge warmth and tenderness. You’ll laugh out loud on one page and cry buckets on the next. I didn’t want this book to end and was bereft when I had to say goodbye.

Do not miss it. The best book of the year so far.

 

The Light Between Oceans

 

The Light Between Oceans

by M. L. stedman

 

A boat washes up on the shore of a remote lighthouse keeper’s island. It holds a dead man – and a crying baby. The only two islanders, Tom and his wife Izzy, are about to make a devastating decision. 
They break the rules and follow their hearts. What happens next will break yours.

 

The book is set in Partageuse, South West Australia. Tom Sherbourne, just home from the First World War takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock to counteract the effects of war; needing the silence and nature to soothe his troubled mind. The island is miles off the coast of Partageuse and the store boat only visits every three months, the lighthouse keeper is granted a month’s leave every three years. Tom is meticulous in carrying out his duties and is principled and disciplined. I loved Tom’s character, his quiet dignity and diligence, the love he felt for his wife. A good man put in a terrible position.

Whilst on leave in Partageuse, Tom meets Izzy, the two fall in love and move back to Janus to start married life together. Izzy’s greatest wish is to have a child and when she suffers two miscarriages and then a stillbirth, she is heartbroken.

The crux of the story comes into being when a boat is washed up with a dead man and a baby inside. Against every moral fibre of his being, Tom is convinced by Izzy to let her keep the baby. You know this is not going to end well.

The descriptions of the island and the lighthouse with the weather and the sense of isolation are just wonderful, so evocative that it has you yearning for life on Janus.

The genius of this book is making all the characters real, normal, flawed individuals who are ultimately good people with such tragic life stories that you really feel for them and understand the decisions made…until you meet the person who has been affected by that decision, who is also a good person who life hasn’t treated at all well. The layers keep peeling away like onion skins and you are forced to confront your own moral standpoint.

The author has created the ultimate moral dilemma and this book is deeply, deeply affecting and so emotional, it had me sobbing through parts of it. The story covers all sorts of emotions; love, guilt, grief, morality, remorse, but  with such a deft hand that although it is heart rending, it is also beautiful and immensely readable. Unbelievable that this is a debut novel.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough and as it is going to be released as a film in the autumn now is the perfect time to read it.

In Her Wake

In Her Wake

by Amanda Jennings

 

A perfect life … until she discovered it wasn’t her own.

A tragic family event reveals devastating news that rips apart Bella’s comfortable existence. Embarking on a personal journey to uncover the truth, she faces a series of traumatic discoveries that take her to the ruggedly beautiful Cornish coast, where hidden truths, past betrayals and a 25-year-old mystery threaten not just her identity, but also her life.

Chilling, complex and profoundly moving, In Her Wake is a gripping psychological thriller that questions the nature of family – and reminds us that sometimes the most shocking crimes are committed closest to home.

After the death of her mother, Bella returns to her childhood home to comfort her father, but the two have never really had a closeness to their relationship, and her father’s need to tell her something important and his inability to do so makes the distance feel like a chasm.

After another tragedy, Bella finds out things about her life and family that questions everything she has ever known to be true. She finds herself on a journey that takes her to the Cornish coast where she finds people who know more about her than she knows herself.

The descriptions of the the Cornish setting and the weather gives a claustrophobic feel to the book and a deep sense of foreboding infuses the narrative. The Old vicarage, Bella’s childhood home, exudes a malevolence that makes you feel sure that you would never walk through the door.

The depth to the characters in this book is phenomenal. Bella, who we follow as she stumbles through areas of her life that she never knew existed, trying to make sense of the decisions made on her behalf with barely a thought of the devastating ramifications. How she copes, how she struggles, how she feels; Bella is brought to life by Amanda Jennings in a way that touches the deepest part of you.

But the author doesn’t just concentrate on Bella, the other characters are just as well drawn; David, arrogant and controlling; the wonderful Dawn, a survivor, against all odds, trying her best to get through each day; Alice, living with an all-encompassing grief, the sort that rips your heart out and takes away your entire life; Henry and Elaine, the nuts and bolts of this piece; even the lovely Phil who gives Bella, and us, moments of light relief.

Amanda Jennings doesn’t flinch from the stark realities of people’s lives. She exposes the flaws and mistakes but in such an empathetic way that leaves us feeling less judgmental than perhaps would be the case in a lesser author’s hands.

This is a stunning story of heartbreak, identity, love and loss. It has the perfect title, the perfect cover and is the most beautifully written, breathtakingly powerful book.

I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Dollmaker

 

The Dollmaker

by Harriette Arnow

 

Strong-willed, self-reliant Gertie Nevels’s peaceful life in the Kentucky hills is devastated by the brutal winds of change. Uprooted from her backwoods home, she and her family are thrust into the confusion and chaos of wartime Detroit. And in a pitiless world of unendurable poverty, Gertie will battle fiercely and relentlessly to protect those things she holds most dear — her children, her heritage . . . and her triumphant ability to create beauty in the suffocating shadow of ugliness and despair.

 

There are books that you read that you think are good, then there are ones that you think are brilliant, but on top of that there is another category: masterpiece. The Dollmaker is an absolute masterpiece.

If the first chapter of this book doesn’t get your interest nothing will.  Gertie Nevels is riding her mule down the hills of kentucky to try to get emergency treatment for her sick son. we get a real taste for Gertie in this chapter, her strength and determination shines through.

Gertie and her family live in rural Appalachia. It is Gertie’s dream to own her own place and for her and her family to live off the land. But these are the dark days of WWII and the men are being taken away. The ones that aren’t conscripted are sent to Detroit to work for the industrial war machine. just when it seems that Gertie’s dream will come true; fate intervenes.

Taking all the children, she follows her husband to Detroit where life could not be more different or difficult. Living in a project scheme for workers at the factories there is no space, no privacy, nothing except grinding poverty.

Life for the family from here onwards is about making adjustments, but Gertie and her son, Reuben, find it the most difficult. When Gertie goes to meet the children’s teachers she is told in no uncertain terms that the problems Reuben has is because of his lack of adjustment, his refusal to fit in. Gertie’s retort to the obnoxious teacher is brilliant…

“but he cain’t help the way he’s made. It’s a lot more trouble to roll out steel-and make it like you want it-than it is biscuit dough.”

But Reuben’s failure to fit in, to find any kind of life for himself brings about one of Gertie’s many upheavals.

Gertie is such a brilliant character. in fact it is hard to think of her as a character in a book, she is so real your heart breaks for her. She is so strong and yet it seems impossible for her not to fall under the weight of her life. But she has children and responsibilities that she does not take lightly. there is a moment in the book when her husband says something to her that leaves you gasping. You wonder how she does not break, how she does not let hate take over her entire being. Gertie’s way of coping is whittling – sculpting from wooden blocks – she has a project that gives her some release from the hardship that she is living; but even that is somewhat taken from her and reduced to money-making.

There are two distinct settings to the book; the first is Kentucky, home for Gertie and her family, and the descriptions of the way people lived during the wartime, waiting for news of relatives fighting abroad is potent. The second setting is Detroit, this setting of total poverty, of the steel factory blazing away in the background, the multitude of characters living and struggling together, gives such depth to this novel. The book is told in local dialect which is totally necessary and quite easy to pick up and run with.

The war is always there in the background; although it is when it is over that most people are affected. When jobs begin to dry up and the animosity between employers and the unions wreaks terrible violence.

There is such devastation and tragedy in this novel, it is not an easy read, but there is also such savage beauty, charm, elegance and grace. I have found it so hard to write this review because I know I can’t do it justice, this book will stay with me for a very long time. It is re-released by Vintage as a lost classic and it quite simply is.