Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: If You Go Away by Adele Parks

If you go away

I’m afraid this book has gone on to my small life is too short pile of unfinished books.  The book was highly recommended to me by a friend so clearly not everyone feels this way!

It was just so humdrum and dull (IMO).  I gave it a fair chance, I got to page 233 before I decided that I had no interest in finding out what happened to these characters and would quite easily shut the book and never think of them again (obviously I’m thinking of them now – but only because I’m writing the review).

The book gives us alternate chapters following our heroine then hero over the same time period.  Our heroine is Vivian a very beautiful (we’re told this repeatedly) and slim (which we’re told over and over again) debutant.  Slim, beautiful Vivian is a popular girl who hopes to make a good marriage and help raise her family’s flagging fortunes but then when she fears she is losing the attentions of the man she has set her sights on she has sex with him in an attempt to seal their relationship.  This is a shocking thing for a high born young woman do to in 1914 and, although it is not clear that the details of her indiscretion are widely known, her reputation is damaged so her family rush her into a hasty marriage much more lowly than they had hoped for.  Her husband is not cruel or anything but he is cold and unaffectionate so their marriage is rather unsatisfactory.  It gets worse for Vivian when war breaks out her husband goes to war and it’s decided she should relocate from London to their relatively modest country home in the midlands where she is very lonely and isolated.

Our hero, Howard’s, story runs concurrently.  He a handsome (we are told this repeatedly), tall and manly (we are told this again and again) playwright who has a promising career ahead of him.  But then war breaks out and Howard is pressured to sign up, he resists because he does not agree with war and instead goes to the trenches as a journalist.  There he sees the horrors of war first hand and becomes even more convinced of the futility of war.  He returns to England just as conscription is introduced.  He becomes a conscientious objector and is imprisoned because of this.

trenches

Howard witnesses the horrors of life in the trenches

At this point I felt the time was coming for our heroes to meet as Vivian had befriended Howard’s mother in the country and she had started to talk to Vivian about the plight of her son.  That’s when I decided I just couldn’t go on.

It’s hard to put my finger on why this was so rubbish.  I guess in a way it wasn’t terrible just so so, it seemed to have nothing to offer that hadn’t been done better elsewhere.  There have been better books about lonely neglected wives and much better books about the horrors of war.  The characters were very two dimensional with nothing about them that drew you in or made you feel an emotionally linked to their journeys.  I just thought they both sounded fairly inoffensive but dull and I couldn’t imagine having an interesting conversation with either of them (even though I’m sure they would have been very nice to look at!)

I’d really like to hear from anyone who strongly disagrees with me on this.  What is it about this that you liked so much?  Does something extraordinary happen in the second half to make it all worthwhile?!

2/5

Zoe

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Filed under Book Review, books, Historical novel, Modern Fiction

Books to read to improve your health

As person who is trying to lead a more healthy more “organic” life (which I believe is a made up word for natural and before supermarkets and chemical engineers mess with perfectly good food) I can’t state how much I enjoy reading books by Dale Pinnock the Medicinal Chef. The recipes are easy to follow some use minimal ingredients but taste great for example the Kale chips. Also unlike some others there is no abuse of power words like revitalising and nourishing, instead he clearly explains the health benefits and goes into how different foods help skin, hair, digestion, respiratory system, immune system etc. His books even explain how food can be used to improve emotional health which included things like anxiety and depression.

Medicinal Chef

I highly recommend these books to anyone wanting to eat and live well.

 

James

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Book Review: Heresy by S.J. Parris

Cityread starts next month and you may already know that Prophesy by S.J. Parris has been chosen as this year’s title.  Hope you are planning to read it next month!  It is part of a series so I thought I would take a look at the first book in the series in preparation (Prophesy is number two in the series).

Heresy

The sequence starts with Heresy, the first of five novels (so far) set in the late sixteenth century and following the story of Giordano Bruno, former monk turned travelling academic and part time sleuth!  Giordano Bruno was a real person and although all the novels are works of fiction they are littered with real characters and events.

The novel begins in Bruno’s youth as a monk in Italy and gives us a nice background into his character and situation.  Expelled from his monastery for reading banned books he has to go on the run and is then later excommunicated for his own controversial writings – making his existence even more perilous.

giordano-bruno

Portrait of the real Giordano Bruno

Despite his fugitive status he does find favour with some powerful people due to the brilliance of his philosophy and scientific ideas.  While this is a time of religious extremism and control it is also a time when learning and new ideas were embraced – these contradictions feature throughout the novels reflecting the confusing times he was living in.  After an exciting life on the run, including time spent working for the King of France, Bruno travels to England to a debate at Oxford University he is also hoping to locate a rare book he is eager to read – this is where the meat of this particular story begins.

Before travelling to Oxford Bruno is asked by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Walsingham, to keep an eye out for Catholic Heretics while in Oxford.  Bruno admires Walsingham and also needs the money offered for the task!  He accepts with some reservations.

So you can see he’s in a bit of a pickle before he even begins!  He’s hated by some in Protestant England because of his Catholic background.  Hated by others because he has been excommunicated.  People tend not to trust him because he’s a foreigner.  He is eager to impress in a prestigious academic debate even though he doesn’t know the English debating style.  He wants to find a book, but can’t ask openly about it as it concerns elements of sorcery and could see him accused of witchcraft.  He has been told to look out for Catholics and report them to the authorities but his own instinct is for religious tolerance.  As soon as he arrives in Oxford he finds himself attracted to the beautiful and clever daughter of the University Rector – and she is very much out of bounds to a foreign former Catholic!

There is enough here for an exciting novel already…but then there is a grisly murder!

I won’t go into too much detail about the crime as this is basically a plot driven whodunit and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

I do definitely think it is worth a read.  The novel really immerses you in this fascinating era and the plot is pacey and exciting.  I suppose my only criticism is that, now I have also read Prophesy, the second novel is considerably better!  But this is a good sign as it hopefully means the series will develop and improve as it goes on.  In Hersey, while the ideas and feelings of the era seem well described, I often found it difficult to imagine the physical surroundings as S.J. Parris describes them (whereas in Prophesy the setting of Elizabethan London is extremely vivid).

3.5/5

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#LovetoRead

Over the weekend on November 5-6, libraries all over Britain took part in a twitter hash tag called #LoveToRead, which involved workers and customers to take a picture of themselves and upload it onto Twitter. As the event was organised by the BBC, they put on various events across the country, one being a talk about books with singer Cerys Matthews on BBC 6 Music and another being various BBC television personalities taking part in the event, well mainly the news team. The BBC website also had interviews with famous authors about what books shaped them over the years. Of course, Brent Libraries took part in the event and you can see a selection on the @BrentCulture twitter.

 

 

Kieran from Willesden Green Library’s favourite book is Christopher Hitchens ‘Diary of a Young Contrarian’ The book by the noted Vanity Fair writer and essayist explains his views in greater detail and details his life and politics.

Kieran from the Library at Willesden Green’s favourite book is Christopher Hitchens ‘Diary of a Young Contrarian’
The book by the noted Vanity Fair writer and essayist explains his views in greater detail and details his life and politics.

Adina, also from Willesden Green Library, chose Youth without Youth by Mircea Belidem, which was made into a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola starring Tim Roth

Adina, also from Willesden Green Library, chose Youth without Youth by Mircea Belidem, which was made into a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola starring Tim Roth

 

 

And finally (as we don’t want this to be all about selfies) Development Officer Kate chose two Charles Dickens classics that are not A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations; Nicholas Nickelby and A Tale of Two Cities

And finally (as we don’t want this to be all about selfies) Development Officer Kate chose two Charles Dickens classics that are not A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations; Nicholas Nickelby and A Tale of Two Cities

 

Well done to everyone in Brent who took part in the event during the weekend, it was a pleasure seeing the amazing variety of tastes and books on display there. The weekend shown that the library is a magical place in which anything can happen if you let your imagination wonder in it and choose a book that will make it flourish. The library is the only place (besides the internet, of course) where you do not have to pay for knowledge. Unlike the internet, in the library you can touch the knowledge, and no the iPad does not count!

I did not take part myself in the event due to intense selfie phobia but I do have a number of books that I would have liked to pose with if not for my various ailments. First is the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. It is famous in two ways: one for winning the Pulitzer Prize and secondly for being Seth Cohen’s favourite book in the O.C. The book centres on the two protagonists in the title over 16 years of their lives in pre and post war America. The book tackles a wide range of subjects from war, religion, immigration and sexual identity. Plus it’s about comics. Comics are fun.

The second is a book I discovered in highschool and would have loved to study but it’s of French origin and my French is bad. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas is a story about one man seeking revenge for the deeds his friends did to him years ago. He gets sent down and then discovers gold. Jackpot. Guess what happens next?

I must end it there but now I ask you: Did you take part in #LoveToRead? Do you have a book you love to pose with?

 

BY SOLMAZ

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Russian Roulette, Anthony Horowitz

If you happened to have read the Alex Rider series, you’ll absolutely love this one. It’s a spinoff of that bestselling series, following the dangerous Russian assassin Yassen Gregorovich. It’s basically the fictive biography of a killer.

anthony horowitz

Anthony Horowitz

 

The book starts in the 3rd person, following this strange man checking into his hotel room. The author describes his ultra-careful thoughts and his precision. Before long we are told that he sits down to read his diary. That’s when we embark on an epic adventure.

His story starts in a very small village in Russia, home to the people working in the factory. Little Yassen lived with his parents and his grandmother. His best friend was a boy called Leo. But this book is all about twists and surprises, and the first one would change his life forever. A disaster strikes and suddenly everyone starts dying including his parents who inform him that he’s immune to the killing gas. Yassen escapes the village but dangerous men would come for him. From then it’s all about survival, whatever it took.

Now I warn you, before you start reading this, it’s not a kid’s book. There’s plenty of deaths and straight-up horror, but it’s an absolutely brilliant read. There are countless twists and turns and in some parts you just won’t believe what you’re reading. I feel the real goal of the book is to show us how a normal kid, living a normal life can somehow turn into a cold-blooded killer. The reader inevitably struggles to keep up.

YassenGregorovich

Yassen Gregorovich in the movie “Stormbreaker”

 

I love this book because Horowitz is so in control of every sense (taste, feeling…). He always keeps you on your toes and even if you read all the Alex Rider books, he still comes up with plenty of surprises. At the end of the book you will feel as though you have been taken on a journey, physically and mentally. But the scary thing, despite all the bad things Yassen did, you come to love this man, and even understand him.

 

Fred

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#MHAW16 – The Outsider by Albert Camus.

the-outsider

Part 1 – review

This is the story of Meursault a French Algerian living in the early 1940s.  He is an outsider.  On paper you wouldn’t think him an outsider, he has a good job, a girlfriend, friends and a mother.  He is an outsider because of how he feels.  He approaches life with a neutral indifference, whether he is burying his mother, starting a new love affair or committing a crime – his approach is the same, matter of fact indifference.

I hope you aren’t thinking ‘that sounds weird and kind of boring’ because it isn’t (OK I do admit that as it is all written in the first person the first chapter reads quite strangely until you get used to his tone).  There’s something about his approach to life that is uplifting and his say what you see descriptions of the world around him actually create some beautiful moments.  My favourite bits are when he is describing his neighbour’s relationship with his dog, his cold observations of what he sees and hears as his neighbour comes and goes from the apartment building paint a moving portrait of the complexity and frailty of human emotion.  There is also a lovely sequence where he sits on his balcony all day and describes what he sees looking down on the street, you get a real sense of the sleepy bustle of Algiers on a hot Sunday afternoon just from his basic unflowery relating of what he can see in front of him.

Meursault does enjoy life in a way too.  He has moments of raw pleasure swimming in the sea, having sex with his girlfriend, eating a good meal etc.  He just doesn’t imbue them with meaning or emotion, they are what they are, here and now, pleasurable and fleeting.

In terms of plot, and there is a plot even though I feel this isn’t a plot driven novel,  Mersault’s mother dies in an old people’s home and he travels there to her funeral.  When he returns home he goes back to daily life and also forms a new romance and makes a new friendship.  Then, seemingly out of the blue, he commits a serious crime.  This is a very interesting point in the novel, just when you are starting to think ‘Well what’s wrong with not having conventional emotions?’, Mersault commits this extreme act – so is he mentally ill?  There are enigmatic clues that he might have suffered a trauma, he makes reference to feeling differently “before”, but doesn’t say before what, he also mentions having to abandon his studies but doesn’t say why.  Why did he do it?  The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath of the crime…I won’t tell you if questions are answered – read it to find out!

5/5

(N.B. this novel is very short, only about 100 pages, so do give it a go even if you think it’s not for you.  Even if you don’t like it it won’t be a hard slog)

Part 2 – The Outsider and mental health.

I read the outsider as it was recommended on a blog about mental health problems as a good book to read.  It appealed to me as self-help books just don’t, I always worry they will tell me what to do or try to ‘cure’ me and make me ‘normal’.  If reading to deal with mental health issues I much prefer something like this that explores issues without necessarily offering solutions.

I personally found the outsider extremely uplifting as someone dealing with mental health issues, it also made me think a few uncomfortable thoughts which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!  Meursault doesn’t think there is anything wrong with his approach to life, and I can relate to that.  Sometimes it is OK not to fit in and we don’t all have to act and feel the same.  The one size fits all approach you sometimes get to treating mental health can be frustrating when seeking help.  For example a therapist once told me that he could tell I had serious issues because I had laughed at “inappropriate things” at a previous session, I asked him what he meant and he repeated the phrase I’d laughed at – I laughed again!  I then stopped myself, did my sense of humour make me insane?  I found the quip I had made relating to death and suicide funny, darkly humorous, I still do today when I’m not in a period of crisis and am sitting calmly at my desk feeling perfectly cheerful.  Meursault goes through something similar, a priest wants him to repent for his sins and admit to believing in God and justice but he doesn’t so he won’t.  The priest becomes increasingly frustrated and Meursault starts to get bored.  It is a really good parallel with some of my experiences of therapy, the main reason I have given it up in the past has been boredom with the process, boredom with talking and boredom with listening to them tell me why I am as I am and how I should be different.

So is the conclusion live and let live, let’s all just be who we are?  Unfortunately not!  Meursault isn’t OK.  He does something both cruel, pointless and illogical.  It works out badly for everyone including himself.  Even he doesn’t seem to understand his reasons for his actions, and worryingly doesn’t even really question them.  So this book doesn’t provide the answer, but it provides lots of interesting questions and I found asking them of myself a positive exercise.

 

Zoe

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Filed under Albert Camus, Book Review, books, mental health, Mental Health Awareness Week, reading

What are you missing?

So far this year I’ve been reading lots of books, fiction and non-fiction, about missing people. That is, about people who go missing, and the people who miss them. Mostly the cause is abduction. I have a fairly good idea about why I chose these, though I can verify that it hasn’t been a purely conscious choice, I just, as is usual for me, went by books that caught my mind. Since this is Mental Health Awareness Week, the topic is very pertinent. As others who also have mental health that can be fragile will likely verify, at the peak of most severe illness, one’s very self feels to go missing. The theme of MHAW this year is Relationships, so a poignant and raw topic all round. When your self/mind/psyche/being feels to be AWOL, how on earth do you maintain the relationships you have, never mind cultivate new ones – having a relationship with your own self at those times can be even too much to bear. But it has to be done to survive, and such is the work of psychotherapy – and reading carefully chosen [whether by the conscious or subconscious mind!] books can indeed be part of this.

“What is this thing that happens? When disaster strikes and women come, with their cakes and their bandages, with their cups of tea and their soothing fingers. It’s the complicity of the birthing chamber, the laying out of the dead. They pick the bits of tragedy up off the floor and try to knit them together in some shape, the way I’d felt I could knit Carmel back to life. Not the way they were before, something lumpy and misshapen – but so there’s a whole again.”

The girl in the red coat by Kate Hamer

the-girl-in-the-red-coat-kate-hamerA few days ago I finished reading The girl in the red coat. It’s a seemingly understated book about loss. A mother loses her daughter, the daughter loses herself, the mother has lost her husband, the couple who abduct the daughter lose their way. Does the mother find her daughter? Does the daughter find herself? It is a novel about hidden powers, and the energy of love, betrayal and connection. It is rather a profound novel, and the quote above spoke to me deeply. It is highly resonant of a fairy tale, and if you’ve ever read Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes you are likely to be moved by this book.

TAsylumWhat happens when ideas of safety, freedom, longing, sanity and damage collide? The Asylum, a strong thriller by Johan Theorin attempts to address these conflicts in a labyrinth of twists and turns. The protagonist, Jan, is missing someone from his troubled childhood. He is a staff member of a nursery attached to a secure psychiatric hospital, where children of the patients receive care. This, in a different way, is also about relationships and grief.DeepShelter

Right now I’m coming to the end of Deep Shelter by Oliver Harris. It’s set in London, which for me is always a win for bringing things close to home – psychologically speaking that is. It reminds me, in a way, of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here we enter the literal underworld, a parallel world of fear and power beneath our very feet, our very heart. When we search for love and human connection, power can stand in its way, and ideas of freedom and responsibility seep in, too. There’s a deeper theme of loss in there as well, and but I will leave that to you to discover.

The damage that can ensue from someone going missing, whether physically or psychically – or both, transcends time and rationality. It threads into not only our relationship with those around us, but with the very self. It is a common theme in literature, as in life. Authors tackle it with depth and sensitivity. We see the scars on the psyche in glittering sore technicolour. Yet, it seems terribly hard for many people to actually talk about these kinds of themes with their nearest and dearest. That profound distress, that is often seen clinically as a ‘Mental Health Condition’, attracts such stigma in society, still. Many cases of such illness, however, and I count myself in this, are a result of the trauma of loss on all kinds of levels. The mind can break down under such despair and loneliness.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, therefore, perhaps take some time to ponder those times when you have experienced a sense of loss of self and/or loss of another, and open your heart to that and to the world.

Katie

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Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This is a wonderfully well written book but has a slightly unsatisfactory narrative flow.

goldfinch

The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker who is involved in a horrific terrorist attack at the age of 13 in his home city of New York.  The aftermath of the catastrophe leave him struggling through his teenage years and into adulthood living in far from ideal circumstances.  This tale basically follows his journey (for 864 whole pages – it’s a chunky tome!)

The novel is at its best I believe when recounting the daily struggles of Theo’s difficult teenage years.  If the novel had ended at this stage, about three quarters of the way through, I would have given in 5 out of 5 and been left with a pleasing yearning for more.  But Tartt seems determined to ‘finish’ the story, nothing wrong with that in itself, but the way she ups the action and skips forward in time towards the end of the novel felt rather clunky and inelegant.  The first part of the novel is also rather slow at times, the middle section in excellent, so overall the pace of the novel felt a little off.

Carel_Fabritius_-_The_Goldfinch_-_WGA7721

The title comes from a real work of art which features throughout Theo’s story.

Having finished with my criticisms I will go on to say that the writing style is wonderful, truly mesmerising at times.  It really takes you to another person’s world and immerses you there.

On the back of the book there’s a quote from the Independent “A gripping page-turner”, I don’t agree with this, it didn’t grip me it more gently and subtlety tugged me in after a modest start then held me firmly for a while before it’s grasp began to weaken and I steadily slipped from its hold.  But a very good enjoyable read.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Maze Runner by James Dashner

The_Maze_Runner_cover

The author is James Dashner it part of a trilogy. The book is narrated by Thomas and starts of with teens being trapped in a maze for two years and have their memories wiped and all they remember is their names.  Then Thomas arrives and on the same day so does Teresa the first girl to ever arrive in the maze. She some how triggers the ending. If you choose to read the book you will know what that means.

I’m currently reading the Scorch Trial the second book in the trilogy. The books don’t take very long to read but are full of action. I definitely recommend this book especially if you enjoyed reading the Hunger Games. They’re pretty much the same genre.

I will give this book a 3/5.

Umaimma

The_Scorch_Trials_cover

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Book Review: Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend by Jenny Colgan

 

This novel follows the adventures of Sophie, a spoilt but relatively likeable rich girl.  Thanks to her wealthy father she has everything she could ever wish for materially and spends her time shopping and partying and socialising with equally privileged friends.  Then her world is turned upside down by a series of dramatic events and she is suddenly forced to stand on her own two feet and support herself – this is the tale of how she copes with this new reality.Diamonds

This is a jolly very readable story that I would recommend for escapism.  I think it deals relatively well with the subject of modern life on a low income, it can be a tricky subject that is not always dealt sensitively with in Chick Lit (see my comments on Sophie Kinsella).  I was a little concerned on beginning the novel that the heroine would learn some trite lesson that it’s better to be poor (which really irritates me as it’s blatantly not true!) or that Sophie would find success with ease and find standing on her own two feet easy due to hard work and spirit – but the novel doesn’t take either of these approaches and manages to remain light without being insulting to anyone struggling to get by!

I suppose by way of criticism I would say that the novel lacks any emotional depth.  Even when dealing with serious subjects like bereavement and poverty the novel remains frothy and there are no tear jerking moments when you really feel for the characters.  But this is OK, as it’s in keeping with the style, just don’t pick this up if you are looking for an emotional roller-coaster that will have you laughing then crying then pulling out your hair – this is light hearted fun to be read on a day when you don’t want to engage you heart or brain too deeply.

2.5/5

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