Friday, 26 August 2022

Micro Reviews 73, 74 & 75

 

Women in Translation Month

August has been designated Women in Translation month and I've managed to read a few books that fit this brief - well two books written and translated by women and the third just being translated by a woman.

Marzahn. Mon Amour - by Katja Oskamp and translated from German by Jo Heinrich (Peirene Press)

This has recently been Radio 4's book at bedtime but to my annoyance I kept falling asleep while listening. I did however have a copy of the book on my shelves and decided to 'read along' as it were.

It's a strange little book, set in the former East Germany and focusing on a woman who's retrained as a chiropodist and her clients. The book is a series of vignettes about the people who come to the clinic where she works, or those who live in the area. It meanders and repeats key phrases but was wholly compelling and like nothing I've read before.

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The Easy Life - by Marguerite Duras and translated from French by Emma Ramadan (Bloomsbury)

Incredible The Lover by Duras was one of our French A Level set texts but since then I've not read or heard anything about her books. This one isn't out until December but while it was beautifully written and translated I am not sure I understood it at all. I'm not sure that I hugely understood The Lover either but that might just have been my French - I'm going to reread it again (in English) soon to see if it does bear any resemblance to my memories.

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Tasting Sunlight - by Ewald Arentz and translated from German by Rachel Ward (Orenda Books)

Another quirky tale with two strong female voices thrown together by circumstance and yet perfectly suited. Each has her own traumas to battle and these are unfurled slowly and convincingly.

I had my heart in my mouth on more than one occasion and wouldn't have minded if the book was twice as long!

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So in month that has seen me battle to find novels that capture my full attention it is literature in translation from independent publishers that has seen me though!




Friday, 12 August 2022

Heatwave 2


 As I write this we aren't quite halfway through the second officially designated heatwave of summer 2022 and I have to confess that I'm finding it all a bit much.

When we're on holiday temperatures like we're currently experience are fine - well there's no work, the sea and/or swimming pools plus the expectation that siestas will be taken. Sitting around and reading in these circumstances is fine.

With the extreme heat here I'm finding reading more of a chore and I've not lost myself in a novel for quite some time - short story collections and non fiction essay collections are keeping my reading muscle in shape but even they aren't holding my attention. Once I've struggled through work sitting in the living room watching cricket is about all I'm good for.

I'm sure that once it cools down this will all change but for now I'm scouring my shelves for anything that has a snowy/wintry setting! If anyone catches me moaning about the cold later in the year you do have my full permission to call me out on it!

Thursday, 4 August 2022

Micro Review 72

 

Resist by Tom Palmer (Barrington Stoke)

Tom Palmer's last two books (After the War & Arctic Star) have appeared on my 'best of the year' lists and this one is heading that way too!

Again Palmer has taken a slightly less know aspect of WW2 history and made it accessible. and interesting, to readers of all abilities.

The book is set around one girl's (Edda) war and is all about how she decided to become a member of the resistance, and how dangerous this was. It is mostly set towards the end of the war, when much of Holland had been liberated but not all, and what life was like under these circumstances. This period is known as the 'Hunger Winter' and is brought into sharp focus with Palmer's skill.

An added bonus to this book is that it is inspired by the real experiences faced by one girl and her family - Audrey Hepburn.

There are a lot of WW2 books set in Holland for all ages, but this one definitely adds to the canon and is worth a read by anyone.

Many thanks to Net Galley and Barrington Stoke for providing an advance copy of this book.

Saturday, 30 July 2022

Micro Review 71

 

The Fire Cats of London by Anna Fargher (Macmillan Children's Books)

After the splendid Umbrella Mouse books the whole family has been looking forward to this new book from Anna Fargher - her talent for retelling history through the eyes of animals is just brilliant.

This time we've gone much further back in time to London in 1666 and while the book does feature the Great Fire  it isn't quite the main point of the book. 

Plot threads are all about being separated from your family, perilous journeys, the fear (real or imagined) that is in the air regarding people who are different or foreign, and also quack medical ideas plus cruelty to animals in various forms.

When listed like that the books seems very dark and depressing - and also very political, but while, as an adult reader I can see these themes the book is just an adventure story about two wildcats who are captured in the wild, brought to London and then try to escape back to their home territory.

The skill in telling a story with so much to unpick but that remains a gripping adventure is huge and I'm already hoping for another book from Fargher very soon!


Monday, 25 July 2022

Micro Review 70

 

Murder Before Evensong by Richard Coles (Orion)

Crime novels, however cosy, aren't something that I read very often. In fact most of the ones I've ever finished have been in my to be read pile because I need to review them for various projects, rarely after that do I read other books by the author. I must be one of the only people around who didn't get on with Ricard Osman's books.

I've liked Coles' writing style in his non fiction books and his tweets often make me laugh (or think) and so I was really pleased when I was given access to this one early thanks to the publisher and Net Galley.

I really liked it, and felt that Coles' voice really came through and even in my head I could hear him 'reading' it to me. I liked the characters and while it did feel a little 'written for TV' I felt inordinately pleased when I did solve half of the mystery (who but not why) as usually I miss this completely. 

However since I finished the book I know two others who have read it and they both had the same problem with it - there were just too many ecclesiastical terms and references that they didn't recognise which spoilt the book for them. Thinking back I realised that I'd had this issue too but because I was reading on my Kindle I could just highlight the word or phrase and I'd instantly get a definition without losing my reading stride...a feature of reading eBooks that I'd not fully appreciated until now.

I'm already looking forward to the next one and that's not something I say often about a crime book.

Many thanks to Orion and NetGalley for my copy of this book - I was under no obligation to write a positive review

Thursday, 21 July 2022

Micro Review 69

 

Much Ado About Mothing by James Lowen (Bloomsbury)

While I've been captivated by butterflies for a long time I've never really thought about moths. This year that has changed. Earlier in the year we were at Sculthorpe Moor Nature Reserve when wardens there were opening a moth trap, and then whilst on holiday in Scotland and seeing to many day and evening species.

Much Ado About Mothing was just the book for me at the moment as it follow Lowen over the course of the year as he tries to find and see the rarest UK moths. It isn't just about the rarities however and through the eyes of his daughter he talks about so many more species, often ones that are easier to find!

I had a couple of issues with the book.  One that Lowen touches on this - the use of artificial pheromones to lure moths to his garden and traps. I wasn't aware that this is a thing you can do and at it feel like cheating, or even cruelty to the poor moths. Lowen did stress where lights and lures couldn't be used but there was no discussion of the ethics of this.

When I talked about this with a friend they pointed out I had no problems with bird feeders and so wasn't I being hypocritical...I thought about this and came to the conclusion that at least on a bird feeder the bird was getting a physical and useful reward, but pheromones promised a lot but didn't actually reward the moths with a mate. I'm still not sure how I feel about lights in traps...

My second issue was that Lowen talks a lot about how climate change is really impacting on the moth populations of the UK and yet in one year he drives 14,000 miles as he searches for these rare species. The thought of this incredible mileage has made me all the more certain that I won't become a wildlife 'twitcher' who travels just to see an unusual species, it will have to fit into my plans and there has to be another goal for the trip, even if this is just a walk at a nature reserve. 

Apart from these two points I really enjoyed the book, all the more so as Lowen does live in Norwich and makes it clear just how many moths I could see on my own patch and how overlooked or feared moths are. It was certainly interesting to see how few language separate butterflies and moths out and so moths overseas don't have the same negative stigma that moths here often do.

Much Ado About Mothing is on the 2022 Wainright Prize longlist and I hope that it does make the shortlist as it is a fascinating read.

A selection of the moths seen in Scotland, July 2022 that have inspired me to learn more


Friday, 15 July 2022

Micro Review 68

 

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin (Vintage Publishing)

I am so glad that this book is finally out and that I can talk about it. I say this because I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this months ago and have wanted to share my love for it every since.

Zevin wrote one of my favourite books ever with Elsewhere and while I've read all of her other works since they didn't have the same impact on me despite being very enjoyable at the time.

However when reading Tomorrow I was reminded just how brilliant Zevin is.

From the summing up on the Waterstones webpage:

From the author of the beloved The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry comes a heartwarming tale of human connection, creativity and collaboration as two children who meet in a hospital go on to pursue their dreams and identities through the production of video games.

It isn't at all obvious that this is book for me - someone who really doesn't play video games.

While the gaming industry, and the creatives behind it, are the focus of the book it really isn't about this - the characters could be involved in pretty much any field - it is about how complicated and unpredictable life is, and how one action many years ago can resonate through the following years.

I have to confess that I was hooked on this book when one of the characters can't see one of the once popular 'magic eye' optical illusions being used on a subway advert. As someone who never could make these illusions work, despite everyone around me being wowed, I loved this throw back reference and also discovering after all these years I wasn't the only one not to see them!

I think that the biggest complement to this book that I can make is that I was so invested in the characters and plots that I really wanted to try some of the games they create.

It didn't matter that I'm not a gamer - missing some of these references didn't stop me falling in love with Sadie, Sam and the other character.

Saturday, 25 June 2022

A Quick Reads quick update

 

Quick Reads from the Reading Agency

I've talked about my love for this initiative a few times here and I've been picking up one of the Quick Reads each time I visit my local library - mostly from this year's selection but I've also been catching up on ones I've missed from other years.

As ever not all of the books are the type of book I usually go for, in fact books like M. W. Craven's Cutting Season is just the type of book I actively go out of my way to avoid!

I surprised myself by quite enjoying both The Swimmer and Blind Spot and also by how much I really enjoyed The Kiss and Sofia Khan and the Baby Blues -  not authors I normally pick up but if I'm wandering around the library looking for something to read these are authors I'll search out.

It has to be said that the inclusion of Cutting Season surprised me as it is obviously a book that is mid series and the references to books I'd not read was a little off putting - it felt a bit like I was being excluded from a club and I'm not sure that is a good thing from a book that is encouraging a reluctant or returning reader.

Kate Mosse's The Black Mountain strikes me as another odd choice - don't get me wrong I really liked the book, and I loved finding out a new piece of history about a place I've visited. However if a new reader found this one and decided to read more of Mosse's books they might be in for a big shock as they are real doorsteps and much different in feel from this, great books but a huge leap from this slim tale.

As ever these are just my thoughts on the books and as an avid reader I did enjoy them all (even the gruesome one!) and I think that this initiative is brilliant.


Monday, 13 June 2022

Micro Review 67

 

Escape to the River Sea by Emma Carroll (Macmillan Children's Book)

Eeek - another sequel to a much loved book...am I brave or crazy?

Well in the case of Carroll's Escape to the River Sea what I was is blown away!

I re-read Ibbotson's original book recently and I had forgotten just what a perfect book it is: well rounded characters, humour, adventure and peril with an (almost) believable plot and a thoroughly satisfying ending. In fact the book really didn't call out for a sequel so I was very nervous when starting Escape to.

I didn't need to worry, from the opening lines Carroll has captured Ibbotson's style and flair while at the same time writing a completely new (and brilliant) book.

The time setting of the book has moved on to a just post WW2 setting, and the main character in the book is an Austrian Kindertransport child who has been living at Westwood House (with some familiar characters) since 1938 - and she doesn't know what has happened to her family at all. The story this time hinges around the search for a jaguar as well as continued references to the Giant Sloth from the original book but to say more will ruin the way the book unfolds.

The book did stretch my credulity a little at the very end, but at the same time there's no way I'd have rather had the story finished. When Journey to the River Sea was published I was working in a bookshop and I marketed it as a perfect book for everyone in the family to read and wonderfully this one fills exactly the same brief.

Since reading this I've gone on to read Carroll's The Week at World's End and I am in awe of how she manages to work truly scary events into books that are suitable for a middle grade audience - I'm glad that I've got a lot more books by her to try.

Many thanks to Macmillan for giving me advance access to this book via Net Galley

Sunday, 5 June 2022

Micro Review 66

 

The Change by Kirsten Miller (HarperCollins)

This book isn't out until August so just a very quick review.

I was sent this by the publisher to take part in a focus group about the book and the blurb really intrigued me:

The change is coming...
Nessa: The Seeker
Jo: The Protector
Harriett: The Punisher
With newfound powers the time has come to take matters into their own hands...
After Nessa is widowed and her daughters leave for college, she's left alone in her house near the ocean. In the quiet hours, she hears voices belonging to the dead - who will only speak to her.
On the cusp of fifty Harriett's marriage and career imploded, and she hasn't left her house in months. But her life is far from over - in fact, she's undergone a stunning metamorphosis.
Jo spent thirty years at war with her body. The rage that arrived with menopause felt like the last straw - until she discovers she's able to channel it.
Guided by voices only Nessa can hear, the trio discover the abandoned body of a teenage girl. The police have written off the victim. But the women have not. Their own investigations lead them to more bodies and a world of wealth where the rules don't apply - and the realisation that laws are designed to protect villains, not the vulnerable.

 It sounds utterly crazy but turned out to be a book that I really couldn't put down, even though content was waaaaaaayyyyyyy out of my comfort zone a lot of time!

Despite the title it isn't really about the menopause, this is just a nice hook to remind people that women aren't all young and pretty or old and demented. My favourite character was definitely Harriet, with her erudite take downs of a male centric world but all three worked well together.

The book is a bit sweary (but to be honest that works in this context) and it is a crazy story but I hope it does well when it is published later in the year - I've definitely read nothing quite like it before!


Many thanks to Harper Collins for supplying the book and running the focus group - there was no expectation that I'd (positively) review the book as part of the group.

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Micro Review 65

 

The Magic Faraway Tree by Jacqueline Wilson (Hachette Children's Group)

As readers of my blog will know I am drawn to modern sequels of classic books like a moth to the flame, and like the moth all too often I do end up being burnt.

I still remember when I first read Enid Blyton's Magic Faraway Tree books. My grandad came home from shopping with a green hardback copy of The Folk of the Faraway Tree. I don't recall reading much fantasy before this time and I can't remember how old I was when I was given this book but I know that it had a deep impact on me and even today on sleepless nights I use the idea of every changing lands at the top of a tree as a way to try and drop off.

This up to date sequel captures some of Blyton's out of time feeling to it, not including the bit that is necessary for the plot. They are a modern family but they don't have modern toys for instance, and their parents are fine with them playing alone and outside in an unfamiliar area... I know that as a child I didn't really think too much on the stereotypes, names and actions in the stories but in removing these, or explaining things away, the book felt very anodyne. Even the childrens' names no longer raises a smile!

For me the book just had none of the magic that I remember from childhood, even taking into allowance that I am probably about 40 years older than the target audience there was just no wonder, and also no real peril. All of the characters felt very flat and the adventures just not adventurous... I read an eProof thanks to Net Galley and this didn't include Mark Beech's illustrations so perhaps they do make the book more magical.

I am loathe to go back and read the originals again as I don't want to lose my memories of them but I feel that perhaps this is an author (and a series) that shouldn't be reworked for a modern audience.

Many thanks to the publisher for letting me read this book in advance of publication via Net Galley


Monday, 30 May 2022

Inadvertent Blog Silence

 

Apologies for the lack of posts recently, I have been reading a lot of books in proof form that aren't published until later in the year and so I can't really talk about them yet.

There's a few books about to be published however so stand by for a flurry of posts.

In the meantime Mr Norfolkbookworm and I have been enjoying the recent good weather and getting out and about lots, and just last week we had a few days in Yorkshire with my parents where we spent lots of time getting windswept on the cliffs at Bempton watching the seabirds.

I do try to upload my photos to Flickr on a reasonable regular basis and if you'd like to see them then they can be found here: flickr.com/photos/norfolkbookworm/albums

Back to the book backlog...

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Micro Reviews 62, 63 & 64

 

The Ticket Collector from Belarus by Mike Andersen & Neil Hanson (Simon & Schuster)


A Village in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd and Angelika Patel (Elliott & Thompson)


The School that Escaped the Nazis by Deborah Cadbury (Two Road)


In that way that seems to happen in my reading life I've recently read three books that connected in more ways than just the obvious WW2 setting.

The Ticket Collector from Belarus is an account on the only War Crimes Trial to ever take place in the UK and weaves a moving (and horrifying) tale of atrocities carried out by one Belarussian man on behalf of the Nazis. The details of the war period were supplied by Jewish survivors from the area, some of whom knew Sauwoniuk, and others who were directly affected by his actions.

I had no idea that there had only ever been on War Crimes Trial in the UK and the explanation of how it worked and the very precise legal wording and evidence that was admissible was as eye opening as the wartime stories.

The book also had added poignancy as thanks to border changes over the past 100 years the area in question is back in the news again as the current war in Ukraine is also taking place in this area.

A Village in the Third Reich also touches on some of the same themes as Ticket Collector. This is the biography of a rural village in Germany from roughly 1900-1950, and again a book I found fascinating as I read it, although slightly more controversial as I think about it afterwards.
Boyd attempts to be scrupulously fair in her account of the politics as they ebb and flow through the years and shows the insidious way Nazism did creep into every facet of life.

However in this attempt at fairness and balance I found that there was just a little too much excusing of people's behaviour and also the perpetuation of the idea that 'ordinary' Germans didn't know what was really happening. There was also a lot of justification of people with low party numbers not being the same as the 'bad' guys.

It was really interesting to focus on one village throughout the period rather than individuals but overall I'm left feeling that it was a bit bland and too safe - perhaps unsurprisingly as the author makes her home in the village.

The School that Escaped the Nazis also presented me with another strand of wartime history that I knew nothing about as it follows educator Anna Essinger who realised very early on into Hitler's reign that she needed to move her school out of the Third Reich and to provide a safe haven for her Jewish pupils, as well as those who's parents were marked as enemies of the Reich.

Against amazing odds she moves the school to England and builds a school that was far more like a family than place of education. She fought prejudice on all sides and was hugely instrumental in helping with the Kindertransport. Once war was declared there were more struggles for a German school in England, not least the internment of teachers and pupil and rationing.

After the war Essinger also took in survivors from Europe, whether they'd been in hiding or the Concentration Camps, as well as trying to trace any surviving relatives of her pupils and teachers. 

The book is interspersed with personal stories from the children she saved, and in that circular way of books one of these stories also touches on the locations mentioned in Ticket Collector.

This book was always going to be more emotive as it is filled with first hand accounts but of the three connected books this was definitely the best (if you can use such a word for the topic) and it was also the most hopeful as we look at how history does seem to be repeating itself in 2022.

Thanks to Norfolk Libraries for ordering in Ticket Collector and Net Galley for the 2 other books

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Micro Review 61


 When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle (Andersen Press)

This one was another recommendation from Kentishbookboy as it was their family read a few weeks ago. I didn't know that much about it beyond that it has been shortlisted for (and won) lots of awards.

I am drawn to books set in WW2 and I was eagerly awaiting my library copy to come in when I got a message from my sister warning me that I'd need tissues by the end and to make sure I had them easily to hand...

I was so grateful for the warning as this book packed a huge punch and while I couldn't see that it could end any other way I was still sniffing gently (full blown sobbing) by the last page.

The book is about a troubled boy being evacuated to a friend of his grandmother's after his father is sent to France to fight. It is a reverse evacuation however as Joseph is sent into a city that is under sustained attack from German air raids. Mrs F is not your standard guardian and is trying to save the last few animals remaining in her family's zoo - including Adonis, the male silverback gorilla. Looking after dangerous animals at a time when they could be released from their cages by bomb damage brings a whole new level of dilemma and thought provoking points for discussion as well as making it an edge of the seat read.

There's so much covered in this book but it all works together and as with all the best books I wanted to know what happened to the characters after the last full stop.

I'm glad I got the warning about the ending of the book - and if books carried warnings then this one would have 5 handkerchiefs on the back cover, but also 2 laughing emojis as there's a lot of dry humour in the book. 

It is being recommended for fans of Michael Morpurgo and I'd agree with this - but it is definitely for the older end of his readership. I've seen that Earle has another book about WW2 coming soon but I think I'll have to recover from this one before reading that!

Friday, 15 April 2022

Micro Review 60

 

Argo by Mark Knowles (Head of Zeus)

It is no secret that I love Greece and all of the stories, myths and legends attached to the country. It also no secret how much I enjoy retellings and reinterpretations of these tales for modern readers and so discovering a new version of the Jason and the Argonauts tale got me very excited, and even the whopping 600+ page count didn't deter me.

Sadly this one didn't quite live up to expectation and to mix my legends it felt far more like one of Hercules' labours to finish rather than an edge of the seat tale of epic adventures.

I'm not sure why, the chapters were short and punchy and the over all tale is fascinating. However I wasn't a great fan of the writing style and to get to the end of the novel to find that it didn't cover the whole adventure was the final straw. A definitive translation of the original epic comes in at only 375 pages *including* commentaries and an introduction!

This led me to think about modern versions of the Greek legends and their authors. Many of these new volumes have been by women - Natalie Haynes, Madeline Miller, Pat Barker and Margaret Atwood  to name a few, and I've enjoyed or loved nearly all of these. However Stephen Fry's retellings left me cold, as did Colm Toibin's.

This has made me think about why this could be: 

Not all of them are told by the female characters so it isn't all about giving voice to the unheard characters from the sources. 

They certainly don't shy away from the brutality of the originals so it isn't all about being squeamish either. 

Toibin is an award winning writer while a lot of the female authors are debut novelists so it isn't a straightforward case of experience. 

It isn't even an unconscious bias against male writers in general as I've read and enjoyed translations of the originals and these are by men and the editions I have are translated by men... 

If anyone has any other ideas as to why I'm struggling with the retellings from (modern) male authors - or suggestions of other retellings I could try I'd be grateful to receive them but for now I shall be eagerly awaiting Stone Blind, a new version of the Medusa tale from Natalie Haynes which is due later this year! 


Sunday, 10 April 2022

Micro Review 59


 The No-Show by Beth O'Leary (Quercus Publishing)

I was blown away by Beth O'Leary's first novel, The Flat Share as it managed to pack some hefty punches in what could so easily have been any other rom-com. Much of the plot to this appeared to be obvious but the way the two leads got there was innovative and emotional.

I didn't enjoy her second book (The Switch) quite so much and very unusually for me I didn't finish  last year's The Road Trip. However I'm nothing if not persistent and felt very lucky when my wish to read this book was granted by Quercus and Netgalley.

Something about the book's blurb drew me in from the start: 

Three women. Three dates. One missing man...

8.52 a.m. Siobhan's been looking forward to her breakfast date with Joseph. She was surprised when he suggested it - she normally sees him late at night in her hotel room. Breakfast with Joseph on Valentine's Day surely means something... so where is he?

2.43 p.m. Miranda's hoping that a Valentine's Day lunch with Carter will be the perfect way to celebrate her new job. It's a fresh start and a sign that her grown-up life is finally falling into place: she's been dating Carter for five months now and things are getting serious. But why hasn't he shown up?

6.30 p.m. Joseph Carter agreed to be Jane's fake boyfriend at a colleague's engagement party. They've not known each other long but their friendship is fast becoming the brightest part of her new life in Winchester. Joseph promised to save Jane tonight. But he's not here...

Meet Joseph Carter. That is, if you can find him.

With a hook like that I was instantly drawn in and I am going to say nothing more about the except to say that it was funny and sad and beautifully written. The plot gently revealed itself and was very clever, and the book managed to touch lightly on many issues giving you plenty to think about and discuss.

I am now looking forward to Beth O'Leary's next book even more!

Tuesday, 5 April 2022

Micro Review 58

 

Librarian Tales: Funny, strange, and inspiring dispacthes from the stacks by William Ottens (Skyhorse)

I've always enjoyed books that take you behind the scenes of professions, and that are full of anecdotes from the front line, and as I've now worked for the library service for well over a decade books about library life (fiction or non) are definitely ones I gravitate towards.

On the whole I find books about real libraries slightly more appealing as they try to dispel so many persistent images people have of libraries and library staff.  Reading Allowed by Chris Paling did this for the English library system a few years ago and I loved it so much that I've read it repeatedly.

I've been looking forward to reading Library Tales for a while to get a behind the scenes feel for how American libraries work, from trips we've made to libraries in the States I had the feeling that US libraries were incredibly similar to ours but also very different and I wanted to know more about this.

Otten's book charts his career as a librarian and working in libraries in Kansas and Iowa, and it gave me a great feel for what these similarities and differences are. It seems that library users are the same the world over - it is the behind the scenes work that differs. He does explain the different roles that people working in libraries do, and clarifies who can actually be called a librarian although I'm not sure that this makes any difference to customers in branches!

This was an easy read that made me nod along in recognition and wince at some of the stories whilst gaining an insight as to how different the running of buildings can be. If I'm honest I'd have preferred more anecdotes but that's just me - and if you'd like more of the humorous insights into working for a library then do give Ottens a follow on Twitter @librarianprblms or on Instagram as @librarian_problems.



Tuesday, 29 March 2022

Reading in the time of Covid

 

Well after two years avoiding Covid, being super cautious, working from home, wearing masks and being fully vaccinated our luck finally ran out and we both caught it.

Luckily we weren't too ill but at the very start when I found my concentration shot and my inability to read/remember what I'd read I was taken back to the months after my brain hemorrhage and it wasn't very pleasant at all.

My (fortunately temporary) inability to read doesn't seem to have affected my ability to buy and acquire books and the postman has been a little busy. The good (?) thing is that post Covid I am still really suffering from fatigue so I'm not feeling too guilty about curling up on the sofa after work and just reading.

Also helping to relieve the guilt is knowing that all of the books I've brought are from independent publishers and ordered through independent bookshops!

I have now finished Lesley Parr's When the War Came Home as recommended to me by Kentishbookboy's mum and I though that this was a brilliant read - it was so nice to read a book about the First World War that wasn't just about the fighting but had the focus on what came next for those returning from the front and those who'd held everything together on the home front.

Next up as a recommendation from Kentishbookboy is When The Sky Falls by Phil Earle which has made it on to the short list for lots of book awards, including the 2022 Yoto Carnegie Medal. I have been warned I'll need tissues for this one so perhaps I'll save it until I'm fully recovered!


Monday, 21 March 2022

Micro Review 57

 

Heritage by Miguel Bonnefoy, trans. Emily Boyce (Gallic Books)

Bonnefoy has managed something incredible in Heritage - a sweeping, multi-generational, family saga told in just 200 pages. It also repeatedly takes you by surprise, the blurb for the book is also a masterclass in understatement:

A winegrower ruined by the Great French Vine Blight takes his one surviving vine stock and boards a ship for California. But the new life he has in store is not the one he had imagined – taken ill aboard ship, he is forced to disembark at Valparaíso, where a misunderstanding at the customs post finds him rebaptized after his birthplace, Lons-le-Saunier: the Lonsonier family is born in Chile.

Making the journey in reverse, his sons return to defend the motherland in 1914, and the ghosts of the war live on across the Atlantic, in a house with three lemon trees and a garden filled with birds, for years to come.

It is only in the very last paragraph of this are you given a hint that there is more to the book than a simple family saga:

From the depths of the trenches to the soaring peaks of the Andes and the shadow of dictatorship, the personal stories of the Lonsoniers collide with key moments in a century of global history, painting a vivid picture of what is both gained and lost through migration. 

I confess that I was lulled in to a false sense of security by the first two thirds of the book, it was a good read but with the exception of a few magical realism flights of fantasy I thought it was 'just' another multi-generational family book - all be it one looking at WW1 & WW2 from the point of view of the colonies.

Then there comes the last part and boy was that an eye opener and shocking read - I knew a little of Chile's history but this packs no punches.

Thanks to the publisher for the advance copy of the book (which I was under no obligation to review), it is published on 14th April and is well worth a read. 

Monday, 14 March 2022

Micro Review 56



Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (Transworld Publisher/ Net Galley)

After seeing a lot of chatter about this book on Twitter I was really pleased to be approved for an advance copy on Net Galley and it really didn't disappoint - in fact it is already a contender for being one of my top 2022 reads.

Set in the 1950s and 1960s it follows the story of Elizabeth Zott and her family. Nothing about Elizabeth is conventional and this definitely isn't a nostalgic look back at the 1950s by any stretch of the imagination! 

Elizabeth is a woman ahead of her time in so many ways, and while at first you think that this could tip in to the Eleanor Oliphant genre of books it really doesn't. 

It is about making it as a woman in a man's world, being true to who you are, love, experimentation, family and bravery. Some reviews have said they couldn't find a likeable character in the book but I didn't find that - I loved them all and laughed/cried my way through it. What made me cross is the opposition & discrimination Elizabeth faced in every area of her life and how little this has changed in the 50 years since the book's setting.

Lessons in Chemistry is published on April 5th and I recommend reserving it at your local library (or preordering) as soon as possible


Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Micro review 55

 

Nisha's War by Dan Smith (Chicken House)

Kentishbookboy and I (plus his mum & nan)  have been talking books again and recommending lots of titles to each other, we've also been loaning books around the family and it does feel wonderful to be able to catch up in person and talk about them.

I have my sister's copy Lesley Parr's When the War Came Home about to reach the top of my TBR pile and the last time I was in Kent with them all KBB lent me his prized (signed) copy of Loki: A Bad God's Guide to Being Good by Louie Stowell. This loan came with conditions however as I had to read it while in Kent and under no circumstances could I bring it back to Norfolk to finish. (It was a fabulously funny book and I did fit it in around other family activities).

The book I added to the mix was Nisha's War by Dan Smith a book set during the Second World War. This one came with a difference however as it was partly set in the Far East theatre of war, during the  invasion of the area by the Japanese at the end of 1941/ start of 1942. While being written from a child's point of view the horrors of this campaign are not soft soaped and it was an emotional read.

The other thing I liked about this book was the inclusion of non white characters - Nisha's dad was white British but had married a local woman while he was working in the Far East. There is a lot of curiosity about Nisha's colour and some racism/colonial ideas expressed towards her Amma but no overt racist behaviour on their arrival back in England - I hope that is how such refugees would have been treated but I have my doubts.

Amma and Nisha make it back to England on an evacuation ship and the story opens with their arrival at Nisha's grandmother's house, which is not very welcoming. Slowly the story unfolds and we learn more about the experiences of the family in Singapore and why the family house is so rule bound and forbidding.

There is also a ghost story/mystery element to the book which marries the plot together nicely, without being too off the wall. It is a book about hope, friendship, and reconciling yourself with the past - whilst definitely being a children's book. 

It is hard to discuss the book without any spoilers and I think coming to it knowing just the barebones is ideal. I saw it being mentioned on Twitter to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore and I was drawn to it because of the unusual wartime setting - the war in the Far East is so often overlooked that anything using this as a plot is going to appeal to me.

Tuesday, 22 February 2022

Indulgent Reading


Longterm blog readers will recall that pre pandemic Mr Norfolkbookworm and I often have a winter holiday around now and spend a week somewhere warmer than Norfolk. Our main activities were reading, sleeping, eating, reading, gentle exploring, and reading some more.

We're still not comfortable enough to travel as yet but I have just had a week off and I have spent a lot of it reading, and rather than reading for forthcoming projects I have spent the time revisiting old favourites as well as some good old romantic fiction.

First up was a reread of Eva Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea and I was so pleased that it did live up to my memories. In many ways is it a very old fashioned tale, along the lines of Nesbit or Hodgson Burnett, but at the same time is as a fresh and modern as anything else being written for this age bracket. Thanks to Net Galley I have just been granted access to the official sequel, Escape to the River Sea by Emma Carroll, and I will be starting this very soon!

A new book next and Cressida McLaughlin's The Staycation. This was just what I needed after a couple of heavier reads and unlike most of Cressie's books this is a standalone novel published in one go, rather than in monthly instalments and then as a full novel which is how I've read her previous books. While the overall plot of this book was clear from the outset it was just how delightful the journey to get there was that made this such a great read. And yes the pun is intentional! My favourite part about this book was the descriptions of the British locations - I knew them all and they were spot on, I felt like I was able to follow Hester and her friends completely as they roamed London and Norfolk.

A reread and a new book made up my last two books - Rachel's Holiday and Again, Rachel by the wonderful Marian Keyes. Looking back through my reading journal I can see that I read Rachel's Holiday back in 2005, and after that all of Keyes' other books. While I could remember the general gist of the book I thought that a reread was a good idea as Again, Rachel was going to be a direct sequel (although set 20-ish years after the first book). Both were brilliant.

Reading these two books (and if I'm honest The Staycation too) reminds me of why I get so cross the way  that this genre of books is dismissed as 'romantic fiction' or 'women's fiction.' The topics covered in Keyes' books don't make easy reading, although the writing makes them pure page turners, and the plotting is so tight it puts a lot of thrillers (or men's fiction) to shame. They are also funny - oh another genre that is dismissed all too often...

But as I'm typing this I can see that I have brought into this narrative. While I read quite a lot of 'women's fiction' I do tend to only review the more literary end, and the fun books like the ones mentioned I do only include in holiday round ups or under the heading 'indulgent reading.'

I think that because I don't review anything like all of the books that I read on my blog I do neglect to mention the books that are like a comfy sofa and a hot cup of tea. I need to start talking about the books that make me happy as well as the ones that make me think, that take me by surprise or that challenge me. I've never hidden the fact that I read and enjoy kidlit why don't I champion romantic/comic/women's fiction in the same way?

I'm too late for a New Year's resolution (and even a Chinese New Year's resolution) but I will try to do better.

Sunday, 20 February 2022

Micro Review 54

 

A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe (Faber)

I'd seen and heard this book being talked about a lot at the start of the year and each time I heard about it I became more intrigued. 

At first I thought that a book about an embalmer who helps with the emergency response after the Aberfan disaster just didn't seem like it would be for me but I added it to my I want to read these books list regardless and then entered a Twitter competition run by @TwoFondOfBooks.

I was lucky and won a signed copy of the novel and last weekend with iffy weather and an under-the-weather husband changing our plans I curled up with the book and didn't really surface until I'd read it all!

It isn't an easy read in many ways, the topics it covers are (occasionally) bleak but the writing and characterisations are so good that the bleakness is balanced with light and humour. The non judgmental narration along with the message of acceptance was also refreshing and made a nice way to keep the focus on William's story.

William himself is an odd character and at times I wanted to reach in to the book and give him a good shake but that is again testament to the writing in that I found him to be so real.

The other delight with the book was Browning Wroe's accuracy in describing locations - all too often you can be pulled out of a book when a description of something/somewhere you know is wrong but the Cambridge of this book is spot on!

I can see why this book is being talked about everywhere and I hope it continues to do well and features on at least some of the literary prize lists this year.

Thanks to the Two Fond of Books team, Faber and Jo Browning Wroe for my signed copy as a prize- you were all right and I loved it!

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

Micro Review 53

 

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray (Penguin Random House)

This was a book I got for Christmas after seeing it mentioned in lots of different places - I mean a book about a librarian specialising in rare, antiquarian books was always going to pique my curiosity!

The book is the story of J. P. Morgan's private librarian and how between them they created one of the most interesting private collections of books (and art) and then made them accessible to the public.

While this story is fascinating in itself there is another strand to the story in that Belle, the librarian, is in fact passing as white due to her family's light skin tone. Her father was the first Black graduate from Harvard and was very prominent in the integration movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In having a main character that crossed into both communities allowed a lot of history to be told without ever descending into bald exposition. I found it profoundly sad that society has not progressed as much in the past 100 years as we'd like to think as many of the events could (and probably do) still happening today.

While I really enjoyed the novel and how all of the story wove together I did find myself wishing that it was a little more of a biography with slightly less of the imaginings of Belle's romantic entanglements. I will now be looking out for other books about her and her achievements.

One thing I did like about the book was the openness of Marie Benedict as she realised that by being a white author she couldn't authentically tell Belle's story and so worked with Victoria Christopher Murray to create a more rounded book. This co-authorship worked wonderfully and at no point could I pick out one voice from the other - it was just a good book.

In that way that sometimes happens the theme of 'passing' has cropped up in a few other things I've come across recently, most noticeably in the film Passing which is nominated for several BAFTAs next month and I do recommend both the film and The Personal Librarian for an insight into pre-WW2 New York society.

Wednesday, 9 February 2022

Micro Review 52

 

The Betrayal of Anne Frank by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper Collins)

Long term followers of my reviews know that books about the Holocaust feature reasonably regularly in my reading. It has been well over 30 years since I first read the The Diary of Anne Frank and since then I've read quite a few books about her, the helpers and her family but I've never been obsessed with knowing who did betray those in the Secret Annexe.

This book treats the events of August 1944 as a cold crime and a team of researchers, historians, computer programmers and criminologists is formed to work through as many documents and sources as possible to try and work out who was ultimately behind the arrest of the Frank family and the others hiding with them.

Systematically the team work through different theories and show all of their research as they exonerate (or not) those who have been named as possible betrayers over time. In the main each strand is followed from start to finish which I really did like as theories didn't get confused, and with so many names to remember it didn't become overwhelming.

This choice of narrative style did however make me think that the chapters were each written as podcast chapters as at times they did feel a little cliff hanger-ish and overly dramatic.

The book has proved to be controversial with the ultimate reveal of who this team think did betray those in hiding, and publication has been stopped in Holland. 
The team do seem very convinced that they have cracked the case but I think I agree with the critics. For me it felt that they'd decided 'who dunnit' and worked all of their research to show this. I felt that some of the other threads were dismissed as being too flimsy yet the one that they fixed on didn't seem to have any more definitive evidence than the others.
 
The team are also always very clear to say that none of us in 2022 can understand the pressure those in occupied Holland were under, and we can't judge their actions by today's standards. Who knows what any of us would do to survive, or to ensure that our families did?

I'm pleased I read this from a curiosity point of view but I don't think it is the definitive solving of the case that the authors would like it to be. It is also quite telling that they were not given permission to quote from any of the original documents/diary or from any correspondence between Otto Frank and the other helpers.

Wednesday, 2 February 2022

Micro Review 51

 

I, Mona Lisa by Natasha Solomons (Cornerstone)

I love books with interesting narrators and as this one is told from the point of view of the painted Mona Lisa I was quickly drawn in.

The conceit is that Da Vinci was such a skilled painter that he actually created a sentient being with the Mona Lisa and so this book is actually her autobiography.

This Mona Lisa was firmly in love with Da Vinci and the bulk of the book is her recounting her life with him during Renaissance Italy and France. After his death we hear smaller parts of what happened to her/the painting in pre Revolutionary France, during her theft/kidnap at the start of the twentieth century and then how she was kept hidden from the Nazis during World War Two.

Because this Lisa had few people to talk to (exceptional artists/art lovers can also hear her, as can one other painting by Da Vinci) during these latter historical periods there is less detail in them and I did want to know more about them in a historical sense.

Solomon's Mona Lisa is quite a snob, very scathing and acerbic and also very unimpressed with most of the people who came to see her through history. At the same time she is quite amusing and her view point on history is different from other historical fiction set in similar time frames (such as The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone).

I feel that I would be one of the people that Mona Lisa would disparage as when I did see the painting in Paris she was smaller than I expected and hard to see because of the crowds, I never got close enough to see her in detail and failed to fall under her spell. The room was full of people trying to take selfies with her even before the camera phone became ubiquitous. I was much more impressed with the picture she was looking at...

Many thanks to Cornerstone and Net Galley for my advance copy of the book, it is published later this month.

Thursday, 27 January 2022

Micro Review 50 (Holocaust Memorial Day)

 

Maman, What Are We Called Now? by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar, trans. Francine Yorke (Persephone Books)

This volume from Persephone Press has been sitting on my shelf for a while but it has been worth the wait.

The titles of the book comes from the author's daughter as the family were French Jewish and in hiding during WW2, although unlike so many they were hiding more or less in plain sight and together for a lot of the war. The first part of the book covers the last 5 weeks of the German occupation of France and comes in the form of Mesnil-Amar's diary from these weeks - starting when her husband is arrested and put on the last transport from France to the East, and the Concentration/Death camps.

The excitement (and fear) caused by the approach of the Allied Armies on Paris is heightened by fear for Andre and this is all pored out into the diary entries, along with some reflection on the past decade. It was very interesting to get an eye witness account from inside Paris as the German's left, and also a reminder that whatever the victors would like you to believe not everyone suffered under the occupation and that although there were plenty of brave people not everyone was in the Resistance...

The diary is a breathless read, but for me the book becomes even more interesting in the final part where Mesnil-Amar's reflections on what came next for the displaced Jews of Europe, and the children who had been successfully hidden but now had no surviving family. Her meditations on how deluded French Jews had become before 1940 are also fascinating. 

I've read many books set in WW2, and many books with the Shoah as the main theme, but I think this is an excellent addition to my personal canon. I don't think I've read a book, by a survivor, that covers the before, during, and after in such a clear sighted way.

Sunday, 16 January 2022

Micro Review 49

 

Jane's Country Year by Malcolm Saville (Handheld Press)

This book was on my extensive book wish list and seeing a friend talking about it on Facebook nudged me into placing an order straight away. The book isn't officially published until 18th Jan but Kate at Handheld Press dispatched it pretty much as soon as I clicked on the buy button.

Bex said she thought I'd love the book and (spoiler alert) she wasn't wrong.

Jane's Country Year is a little like a novel version of the wonderful What to Look for in... series from Ladybird that I fell in love with last year.

The book is set in 1947 and Jane is sent to live with her aunt and uncle on a farm to recuperate from a serious illness, the book then is split in to 12 chapters - one for each month of her stay.

Unlike many books set in this era with a similar theme Jane settles into country life well, she isn't a snobbish 'town mouse' disparaging everything rural. She is keen to learn, and make friends with everyone but every so often small plots (upset at killing pests, fear of shadows etc.) reminds the reader that she isn't a local. Her homesickness is also sensitively handled which was a nice change from usual tropes.

At times the plot is a little didactic and occasionally Saville does fall foul of the country yokel stereotype but on the whole I loved this book, especially with the fascinating introduction. I wish I'd had the resolve to read along just one chapter a month but it was soooooo good I couldn't help myself and just had to read it all in one go!

Saville was a prolific author but this is only the second of his books I've read and I will be looking for more by him - especially if they are set in locations I know (like Redshanks' Warning) or have a natural history theme like this one.

This is the 3rd book I've read from The Handheld Press and I am already looking at their beautiful catalogue and website working out what to try next...

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Micro Review 48

 

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury Publishing)

A very dear friend recommended this book to me and I was more nervous than usual in starting it. While we are old friends and share lots in common our taste in books/plays doesn't always correspond. In general if I love a play she is ambivalent (or really didn't like it) and vice versa so a lot was riding on this read.

I'm pleased to say that I was drawn in from the start and begrudged all the time I had to spend at work and not reading it.

I'm at a loss to explain the book, it starts with a man getting off a train and losing all his memories, a lighthouse, alternative histories and even time travel...

The publisher's blurb also doesn't give too much away: 

Come home, if you remember. The postcard has been held at the sorting office for ninety-one years, waiting to be delivered to Joe Tournier. On the front is a lighthouse - Eilean Mor, in the Outer Hebrides. 

Joe has never left England, never even left London. He is a British slave, one of thousands throughout the French Empire. He has a job, a wife, a baby daughter. But he also has flashes of a life he cannot remember and of a world that never existed - a world where English is spoken in England, and not French. And now he has a postcard of a lighthouse built just six months ago, that was first written nearly one hundred years ago, by a stranger who seems to know him very well. 

Joe's journey to unravel the truth will take him from French-occupied London to a remote Scottish island, and back through time itself as he battles for his life - and for a very different future.

All of this vagueness works in the books favour, and the confusion I experienced while reading the book definitely mirrored Joe's which made for an unexpectedly immersive read. 

I was lucky enough to get another Natasha Pulley book as a 'Secret Santa' present and I am looking forward to diving into her back catalogue. There is some incredible violence in this book, and at times it is shocking but at no point did I want to stop reading. 

Monday, 3 January 2022

Review of the year part 3

 

Top Kidlit & YA books read in 2021

Despite everything that was thrown at us all in 2021 Kentishbookboy and I have continued to share books with each other and there's nothing more I like than getting a message from him (or his mum) saying how much they love a book, and although only a couple of shared reads have made my final top 10 all of the books he suggested were great and I think that we are living in another golden age of children's literature.

The books that made my list in alphabetical order are:

  • Medusa by Jessie Burton
  • Darwin's Dragons by Lindsay Galvin
  • Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargreve & Tom de Freston
  • How to Be Brave by Daisy May Johnson
  • Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Melinda Lo
  • The Swallows' Flight by Hilary McKay
  • Wishyouwas by Alexandra Page
  • Arctic Star by Tom Palmer
  • Swarm Rising by Tim Peake & Steve Cole
  • Amarantha by Elena Traina