The Girl Who Reads on the Metro – Christine Feret-Fleury (trans. Ros Schwartz)

I’ve been reading all kinds of interesting and different books recently (reviews to come, hopefully) but let’s start with a review of a title which is totally in my comfort zone. Because, what with weather, politics and all the other stuff in the world, I needed comfort…

9781509868339Juliette lives what I think of as a typically Parisian life (because my knowledge of Parisian life comes from quirky French philosophical/romance novels). She isn’t unhappy – she has a job, she dates (but doesn’t find lasting love), she has somewhere to live – but her life contains very little actual joy. The nearest she gets to real contentment is on her daily commute when she imagines the lives of other passengers reading on the metro. One day, however, when the thought of the dreary day ahead of her at work feels too much to contemplate, Juliette decides to get off the metro a stop early and her life is changed. She finds a door, intriguingly wedged open with a book and, when she enters the rooms behind that door she meets the mysterious Soliman. Soliman never seems to leave his rooms, which are filled with books, but he employs a group of people (known as passeurs) who take the books and then pass them on to readers who they feel would be well-matched to each volume. Not the book they want, or the just one which will make them happy but the one they need. When he not only offers Juliette a role as a passeur but also asks her to look after his daughter when he needs to go away for a short while she finds herself living in the bookstore, running the whole enterprise.

This is a quirky little book – romantic, but not about a specific romance. A love story where the beloved is the act of reading: where readers find happiness by meeting just the right book. Although the life Juliette finds herself leading by the end of the book is not without sorrow or loss it is the life which gives her the greatest peace. And still, of course, contains books.

The Brothers York: An English Tragedy – Thomas Penn

I’ve been quiet again, haven’t I? My excuse is, as usual, too much time reading and not enough time writing about the books I’ve read. My extenuating circumstance (AKA excuse…) is that I decided to take the time to read a nice, fat non-fiction history book. You know how much I love the luxury of a 650+ page history book…I think I have been selling Penn’s first book on the C16th English monarchy for most of the last ten years without ever reading it so I decided I owed it to him to indulge myself with his latest, looking at the three Yorkist brothers whose stories preceded (and overlapped) with that of Henry VII.

34879218Although we generally think of the Wars of the Roses as being largely the conflict between the two branches of the ruling elite, the houses of Lancaster and York this book focuses more on the tensions which developed between the three brothers at the heart of the Yorkist faction. Edward, who became Edward VI, was handsome and charming; middle brother George spent time as Edward’s heir apparent but became resentful when the King’s growing family pushed him lower down the ranks; youngest brother Richard worked hard in support of his brother, gradually learning how to be a monarch himself. We see Edward in his struggles with the rather unworldly Lancastrian king, Henry VI, and his much more assertive wife as well as with the rulers of other major European nations. We also see his much more complex battles with the economics of running a country, public opinion (especially regarding the very large family of his wife Elizabeth Woodville) and with the ambitions of those who helped him to gain the throne (and then feel that they can share in the actual ruling…) This is more than a book about the battles (although they are in there) but also about the difficulties of being a flawed human being with ultimate authority.

I’m a relative newcomer to the Wars of the Roses as a historical period. I’ve been fascinated by the earlier medieval era for a long time and, like many people, I’ve always seemed to be aware of the Tudor/Elizabethan history but the middle bit somehow didn’t matter so much to me until I was living in Yorkshire.  I blame the fact that there weren’t enough Jean Plaidy books covering those years…

Jane

 

The Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman

We often get sent advance reading copies (ARCs) of new books but it is very, very rare that we would be sent one for a book which has a strict (so strict we can’t even open the packs of books to price them before midnight on publication day) embargo. So when each shop was sent a proof copy of the second book in Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy six weeks before publication we were all stupidly excited. The only problem we were going to have was not talking about the book for SIX WHOLE WEEKS… I managed it, but only because I passed the proof to a colleague as soon as I finished it so I had at least one person to discuss it with.

9780241373330This book reunites us with Lyra – yes, she was in La Belle Sauvage but babies are not the greatest for dialogue or motivation – seven years after the end of His Dark Materials. She is now an undergraduate, at Oxford naturally, and is living a relatively normal student life with essays, friends and boyfriends. Her life, of course, isn’t normal: mostly because of the fact that she and her daemon, Pantalaimon, are able to function apart from each other. It becomes even more difficult when Pan, wandering the city at night, witnesses a murder and they both head, separately, across Europe to try and solve the mystery behind this death. These journeys are full of discovery and danger, secrecy and sorrow, philosophies and political intrigue but, most importantly, of Lyra and Pan’s characters. Both are intelligent, passionate and stubborn – their separation, and their inability to live alongside each other makes the whole book, among other things, their own (potentially tragic) love story.

This is much darker, much more adult story than the His Dark Materials trilogy or La Belle Sauvage – there are scenes towards the end that I found quite hard to read, to be honest – but that is no bad thing. Lyra, as a child, lived through events that most adults would struggle with so it makes sense that they would continue to trouble her in early adulthood. We meet various people who have been important in her past, filling in some of the gaps in her story, as well as new forces who are determined to crush her. But Lyra, as ever, impresses with her determination, strong principles and warmth. She is a character who has grown up and suffered before our eyes, we now need to know how she will continue to not only live but to fight against the injustices of her world. I just hope we don’t have to wait another two years to find out…

Jane

 

Imaginary Friends – Stephen Chbosky

We are fast approaching the time of year when we celebrate all things spooky and mysterious and when even those of us who don’t necessarily think we enjoy horror try something scary. Although when I picked up this book, the one fans of Chbosky’s first book have been awaiting for twenty years, I didn’t realise it was going to be quite so chilling. Considering the first book was a 240 page coming-of-age novel this, 700+ pages in the company of seven year old Christopher and his imaginary, but frighteningly real, friend, was a whole new ball game…

46287728._SY475_Christopher and his mother move to the small town of Mill Grove after they run from her abusive ex-partner and, at first, their bad luck continues. The only work Kate can get just about pays the bills and Christopher still struggles to follow the numbers and letters which leap around the pages of his school books: when Christopher disappears for six days in local woods their new-found security is set to vanish as hospital bills start to pile in. But, just as Kate is set to skip town again it seems that miracles start to happen – Christopher, for the first time in his life, gets a perfect score on a maths test and using the numbers which were his answers Kate wins the lottery. Life seems to be improving until we realise that the voice Christopher hears in his head, a friendly voice, encouraging him to build a tree-house in the very woods where he went missing, is frighteningly real. The fight in his dreams, between good and evil forces, starts to play out in real life and everyone in Mill Grove is affected. With its cast of children led by a charismatic youngster it reminded me in some ways of Good Omens (never a bad thing) but it is far, far darker. There are still moments of humour but the sense of foreboding which starts to hang over the town as more and more residents fall into a flu-like illness, rising rage and a mindless hatred for Christopher and his friends makes it much more menacing. It also shares strong religious overtones with the Pratchett/Gaiman novel but, in this case, I definitely got the impression that the author was raised as a Catholic (like most of the residents of Mill Grove itself).

If you enjoyed Good Omens and Carrie this would be an excellent choice but, honestly, I think it is worth the effort of reading (even if 700+ pages seems like a big ask) for anyone who enjoys good writing.

Jane

P.S. I gave my ARC to Bex to read and she has called it ‘her fave book of 2019’…

The Bone Ships – R.J. Barker

I read a lot. I think we can say that we’ve established that. But I still find it very hard to know for sure what I will really love in a book – I love great characters, quirky plots and beautiful use of words but I can also be drawn to atmospheric illustrations, a really good map or writing that just tickles my sense of humour. And, sometimes, I also like it when I like the author. I know some authors personally (generally not the really famous ones, even if all the ones I do know very well deserve to be better known), some I have met at signings and talks and many I follow, and interact with on social media. Mostly Twitter (which I do the bulk of for the work account). I do like an author who gives good Twitter. Some are political – I can appreciate that, they are as entitled to a political viewpoint as any of us – and some speak passionately on issues which mean a lot to them and to me. Some are just plain daft. Often, I like the daft ones best. R.J. Barker is definitely one of the daft ones – in a really good way (antlers and cat pictures mostly, what’s not to love?)

43521682The Bone Ship is the first in a new series and, if this book is any indication, it’s going to be great. Full of action and adventure, this is a story set in a world whose seas are the source of power through the mighty aquatic beasts whose bones are used to make ships, used by the two warring nations to attack each other in raids which are, largely, to kidnap children who are sacrificed in the process of ship-building.  New bones have been unavailable for years – all ships have been built from the gradually diminishing supply of material tied up in older vessels – and the oldest, shabbiest, of these ships is The Tide Child. Tide Child is a ship manned entirely by those who have committed terrible crime – their punishment was either death or Tide Child – and it is this ship which finds itself sent to accompany the last sea-dragon and keep it safe as it heads to the remote North.

This book is a combination of a traditional nautical adventure, think Patrick O’Brian for example, and a fantasy adventure. There is a certain air of piracy about the crew of the Tide Child but there’s also some big sea battles (with lots of cunningly deadly weaponry and all the resultant blood and destruction); life at sea is described in great detail but we also travel into jungle-like forests and cities full of politics and criminal underbellies. There are fabulous characters – Joron Twiner, the ship’s original Shipwife, a very young man left angry and lost after the death of his fisherman father and Lucky Meas Gilbryn, an acclaimed shipwife and firstborn child of the ruling family, are the main two but there are plenty of others. My favourites are the Gullaime, an odd bird-like weather mage, and a foul-mouthed parrot. Every seafaring novel needs a foul-mouthed parrot: fact. It isn’t necessarily an easy read though as the world is subtly different from our own in so many ways – the first half of the book is spent working out a new vocabulary of words for both parts of a ship and its crew, and fitting this into a whole world’s worth of creation myths, natural history, politics and societal norms. I, personally, love letting a world build up in my head as I read but if this is something you struggle with there is a glossary. The detail I enjoyed most was the shift in gender power – ships are masculine, rulers are female (there are so few whole and healthy children born that any woman who produces them has vast power in her own right) and their male consorts are referred to as the Kept. Nice touch…Anyway, if you stick with it you will be rewarded with a proper page-turner full of adventure, danger and quite a few laughs with the promise of a couple of sequels.

Jane

Pages & Co: Tilly and the Lost Fairytales – Anna James

I do love books about books. About booksellers, authors and libraries. I also enjoy new approaches to fairy-tales and folklore but, usually, the books which have these settings (the bookshop/library ones) are written for adults. Anna James’ Pages & Co books are an exception: stories written for children of 9 and upwards which are set in both a glorious bookshop (honestly, I’d love to visit this store) and the world of fiction. Rewritten fairy-tales are usually the realm of at least Young Adult fiction (usually the frame for some kind of fantasy dystopia/love story) but here the fairy-tales at least start out as child-friendly – but then they turn darker. As we all know, fairy-tales can be very, very dark indeed once you get past the baby versions…

42427479._SX318_After the first Pages & Co book young Tilly has been reunited with her mother – rescued from within the pages of A Little Princess – and they should now be enjoying life working in the bookshop owned by Tilly’s grandparents but the odd political machinations of the Underlibrary (a shadowy organisation, responsible for the world of fiction) are working against them. When Tilly spend a few days in Paris with her best (non-fictional) friend Oskar and his family they also discover that there is a good reason to beware of bookwandering in the realm of Fairy Tales. Adventures are had, dangers are faced and attempts are made to thwart evil-doing. There are also laughs to be had – particularly from Oskar who is a cheeky lad – and the history of the world of book-wandering to continue exploring. And the ending seems to be leading to a third book where, hopefully, our protagonists will be able to root out the remaining baddies. Which I am looking forward to enormously.

Jane

The Confession – Jessie Burton

I think every child – or probably more accurately every teenager – has had their moment of anger at being defined by who they are within their family. I always thought the worst things anyone could say to me as a child were a) ‘haven’t you grown’, b)’ I remember the time when you…..’ and c) ‘don’t you look like your mother’. In my mind a) all children grow and adults were pretty stupid to be surprised by the fact that I had also become taller, b) I wasn’t going to remember much about being 6 months old, thank you very much, and grown-ups only mentioned things like this to embarrass children and c) I didn’t look like my Mum – I looked like me – and everybody older than me was not only daft but not terribly observant. Of course, now I am proud to look like my lovely Mum but I hope I remember, when I speak to youngsters, how idiotic our statements sound to them. And I do understand that I was annoyed because seeing me just as a smaller (but growing, obviously) version of a parent was denying the fact that I was an individual but I also realise now that I was lucky to have a big, happy family to be compared to. Part of what I enjoyed about the latest book from Jessie Burton (author of The Miniaturist and The Muse) was understanding that it was also very hard not to know a parent – to always wonder what an unknown mother may have contributed to your personality and DNA.

9781509886142The story alternates between Rose Simmons, whose mother disappeared over thirty years ago when she, Rose, was less than a year old and Elise Morceau, Rose’s missing parent. The people they have in common are Matt, Rose’s father, who doesn’t like to speak about Elise and their relationship but has been supportive and loving, and Constance Holden, an acclaimed novelist and Elise’s one-time lover, who doesn’t like to speak to anyone. When her dad gives Rose copies of Constance’s novels, and tells her that she was the last person to see Elise before she vanished, she is determined to contact the older woman, no matter how reclusive she is. Through an unusual set of circumstances Rose not only meets Constance but becomes her assistant (although under an assumed name), helping her produce a new novel after decades of silence. Although the plot follows both Elise and Rose it is the latter’s story which has the most closure – both women had mothers who were absent to a greater or lesser extent but, at the end, we are still unsure of what actually happened to Elise after she vanished.

As well as being the story of the three women – and, to a lesser extent, the men and women around them – this is a book which made think about motherhood. Not something I have ever experienced first-hand but I feel I now know more about how hard it can be, how rewarding and how it is not something that every woman can (or needs to) deal with. None of the women are without their faults and flaws and yet they are all worthy of love and respect – if only they can allow it.

Jane