Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo – Guest Reviewer Kate Vickers

Bridge of Sighs is an example of Richard Russo’s skill in taking the seemingly mundane everyday lives of Americans and creating an engrossing, intimate portrayal of their hopes and frustrated dreams. The story is largely based on the rather self-indulgent reflections of Lou C Lynch, or Lucy. Reflections that appear at first completely unjustified as he has, on the face of it, lived a relatively unextraordinary life. The small town of Thomaston, which he brings to life with melancholic devotion, also appears on the surface of very little interest compared to any other. However, Russo’s magic lies in drawing you close to a world that you would otherwise overlook, to reveal their intricacies and hidden nuances; depths that hook you in as the inhabitants play out their lives, each decorated with their own individual tragedies.

Lucy is the exemplification of the American dream as his family, alongside that of his supposed friend Bobby Marconi, move up through the social strata laid bare by claustrophobic Thomaston, a town divided into the impoverished West End, the up-and-coming East End and the society heights of The Borough. The book opens with Lucy walking through his hometown, where he has become a sedate well-respected big fish in a little, polluted pond. The fact the town is poisoned by the tannery industry, specifically run by Borough residents the Beverleys, perhaps reflects Russo’s opinion of the poisoned-chalice offering of the American dream. That the poisoning is permitted to happen over the course of the book illustrates the cloying inertia of the town, unwilling to disrupt the safety of the established order and rise up against injustices, a point that is only too well made by the brutal beating of a young black boy while half the school looks on.

The love of the town by Lou Lynch, despite his good nature, gradually elicits an intense frustration as his narrow vision is exposed by the adventures and innate flare of Bobby Marconi and the Lynch-muted under-accomplishments of his brilliant wife. Certain qualities of Lucy are admirable, and are attributes that you wish you could see more in people. He is kind, patient, and accepting, bearing no prejudices and treating all those around him as equals. His family also provide a warm sanctuary in an unforgiving world. The reader becomes well aware that the family fortunes can easily slip in the opposite direction as the Lynch family, led by formidable matriarch Tessa, continually fight the dragging tide that threatens to pull them back westwards.  However, Lucy’s persistence in attaching land and people to him, together with his passivity, is intensely frustrating at times as you yearn for certain characters, particularly the women like his mother and Sarah, to break free and flourish sticking one finger up at Thomaston in the process. This is indeed what Bobby Marconi does and this in my opinion makes him the hero of the book.

At times, despite Russo’s obvious craftsmanship, it is hard to keep involved with this slow-paced book, especially as you may fall out of love with Lucy as his less-than-shining personality is exposed by a story of his own telling. However, you will be left with a warm regard for the subtle nuances of American society, of people’s psychologies in an unforgiving world, and appreciate the danger of unquestioned, self-limiting horizons.

By Kate Vickers

A Column Of Fire – Guest reviewer Kate Vickers

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

 

A Column of Fire is the third and, presumably, final book in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge saga – a trilogy that has taken us from the humble 12th century beginnings of the fictional town of Kingsbridge through to the majestic Elizabethan era.

 

Readers settling down, expecting the same intimacy of the first two books, should be pleasantly surprised by a much more adventurous outing, both in geographical scale and historical scope. Beginning with Queen Mary exiting the world after a bloody reign, the reliable formula core to all the books is evident with disreputable characters and ruthless ambitions driving apart the two star-crossed lovers Ned and Margery. Present too are nods and glancing links to the history established in the first two books; Kingsbridge Cathedral still stands at the heart of the town, with the faithful statue of Caris adorning its top, and Margery dons Kingsbridge ScarletTM with suspicious regularity. Ancestral links to previous well-loved characters are referenced and the ‘big-bad’ gene has been reliably passed down through the generations of Fitzgeralds.  However, consistent with the greater scope, the big bad badge cannot, in my opinion, be awarded to any member of the Fitzgerald or even the Shiring family (although there are contenders). Instead it can be arguably attributed to a French upstart called Pierre Aumande who, through a potent mixture of charm, manipulation and outright deceit, deftly maneuvers himself to wield political power, reeking devastation across the Paris protestant community.

 

The book serves up an expansive and comprehensive insight into the bloody religious conflicts that swept across the western nations. The narrative transports us to France, caught in the midst of a vicious and bloody civil war, to the Netherlands and as far as the West Indies. As a result, it often feels that some characters, for which Follett has carefully wooed emotional investment, are left abandoned mid-story only to be re-introduced too late for any meaningful impact to resonate. This exposes the suspicion that their sole purpose is to ensure the cross-continental religious disputes are fully represented. However, a kinder interpretation would be that the unexpected twists are a reflection of lives at the mercy of a violently divisive period, a historical time that ultimately leads to scattered lives and scattered relatives that only reunite on a few notable occasions.

 

Within the rich tapestry of interweaving characters, key historical figures appear with exciting regularity, including Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake and William Cecil. Such figures are observed through Follett’s fictional characters and with the exception of Mary Queen of Scots, can sometimes feel like cameo appearances. However, it serves to thrust the reader right to the heart of historical events and political machinations in a way not felt in the previous two outings.

 

As the story briskly moves through countries and through time, the number of characters can often feel overwhelming and the reader may wonder why they should care about certain individuals and how they can possibly interlink in any meaningful way. But this is a necessary and temporary by-product of the ambitious nature of the story, and Follett’s craftsmanship gently pulls the respective threads into a tight weave that is both thrilling and gratifying in equal measure.

 

A central message that emerges is the strength and dignity of the women, both historical and fictional. Margery and Sylvie, distorted reflections across the religious divide, mirror each other in their remarkable resilience and courage if not in their religious convictions, and Follett takes great pleasure in placing Elizabeth I and Caterina de’ Medici upon high pedestals of religious tolerance.

 

“A Column of Fire” is a truly enjoyable story, each richly written character taking the reader by the hand and through events that are engraved in time and into the hearts of most English school children. If the reader perseveres through the more expansive sections and forgives some contrived plot twists, they will find it difficult to put this thrilling but warmly intimate book down. At the end, you will be sorry to leave behind characters you have come to count as friends and a tumultuous, historic time made touchingly real.

 

 

by Kate Vickers

The Rosie Project – Guest reviewer Kate Vickers

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsiom

 

The Rosie Project is a fresh, light and modern tale written by Graeme Simsion and told through the eyes of Associate-Professor Don Tillman.  Don is a highly intelligent academic who views the world through a different lens than most, impervious to emotional and social subtleties and existing within a self-imposed regime of discipline and order. Seemingly unable to find love, he sets himself the quest of identifying a wife through the screening tool of a questionnaire, designed to maximise efficiency and avoid seemingly unnecessary painful situations. However, as chaos is the chemistry of life and love, he soon learns that love will not flourish within the confines of predictability and the reader is quickly drawn into Don’s spiraling journey towards unavoidable emotional turmoil and vulnerability.

 

As Don introduces us to the world and the people within it as he sees them, the reader is able to fill in the blanks, identifying emotions in fellow characters and in Don that he himself is blind to. Don contrasts delightfully against characters such as Gene, his promiscuous mentor and friend, and of course the rebellious Rosie who scatters Don’s senses and regime giving the reader great satisfaction in the process. Don’s perspective inadvertently exposes some of the ludicrous social restrictions and rituals that are generally accepted as the norm and the reader shares in his painful vulnerability. As he takes tentative steps towards an unknown world you can’t help but feel protective as he is buffeted against emotional and social situations that he is unfamiliar with and unprepared for.

 

Some aspects are hard to believe, particularly as the story progresses and the lengths Rosie and Don embark on become more extreme. Rosie too can sometimes feel under-rounded; her strong individual and feministic personality undermined by her rather flimsy reasoning for dissatisfaction with the man that raised her. The ending is also slightly saccharine, the only telling sign that the author originally intended the book to be a screenplay. You can almost imagine all the characters coming together on screen for a glorious penultimate scene.

 

However, these aspects are easily forgiven and lost in a highly enjoyable read. The moments told through Don’s dry perspective are truly hilarious and you will find yourself laughing out loud on many occasions. The two main hooks of the story, Don’s tumultuous path towards an alien emotion and the hunt for Rosie’s father, pull you through the narrative at lightening speed and you will find yourself devouring, and relishing, the book in just a few sittings.

 

Review by Kate Vickers

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.