*Sigh* Once again I find myself with lots of finished books and no reviews. If I’m reading an e-book I move them into a folder marked ‘reviews’: the folder currently has nineteen items in it. I’m not sure if they will all get onto the blog but let’s see if I can at least chip away and tell you about a few of them. Because some of them were so good I think they will move onto a favourites list of some sort (either for 2021, lockdown or, maybe, even all-time….).
The Galaxy and the Ground Within – Becky Chambers
This series of books (The Wayfarers) is definitely on my list of all-time favourites – thoughtful science fiction, more concerned with the people involved than with technology or space battles and full of ideas about tolerance and diversity without ramming their ‘wokeness’ down your throat. We have followed various characters through the universe which Chambers has created and seen them on spaceships, on vast artificial ship-based worlds and on small planets and it is on the latter that this book is set. Not much of a planet – Gora has no air or water, plants or creatures – but one very conveniently situated at a sort of intergalactic crossroads of the wormholes used to travel to the more habitable and cosmopolitan worlds. To avoid messy accidents travel through these wormholes has to be controlled so Gora has become a sort of motorway services where ships and their crews await their turn to move on.
The book tells the story of one group of travellers, and their various spacecraft, who are stranded for an extended period during a freak technical crisis which knocks out most communications. The owner of the self-contained dome they are in and her adolescent child do everything they can to keep their guests happy and safe and the novel follows the backstories of the hosts, the three visitors, their interactions and, in the end, their potential futures. This is another of Chambers’ character-led tales where, through the lives of various alien races, we can explore questions which affect us as humans.
The Paris Library – Janet Skeslien Charles
A new author for me but a familiar theme – a Parisian romance with a book-filled setting. The story is partly set during World War II, where Odile gets her dream job in the American Library, and partly in a small Montana town, where a young girl called Lily is learning to cope with major changes in her life. The two stories intertwine, since Odile, having left France after the war, is Lily’s elderly and rather reclusive neighbour.
I loved Odile’s thread of the book – her joy at getting a job in the prestigious American Library and the friendships she forms there. Once war breaks out she sees how books can help in troubled times as they arrange to send reading materials out to the allied forces so far from home. When Paris is occupied by the German army this activity halts and, despite the fact that her father is a high ranking police officer, working alongside the invaders, Odile becomes part of the team providing books to those banned from using the library itself – mostly Jews. She hero worships Dorothy Reeder, the library’s director, and one of her colleagues falls in love with Odile’s beloved brother – both of these women help her to cope when her brother Remy joins the army – but she feels her life is complete when she finally falls in love with one of the many, many young police officers her father invites home to dinner.
We learn of Odile’s story through her own words in the 1940s and also through Lily. Partly as Odile reveals details in conversations which she hopes will help the girl with her own problems but also through some rather shocking letters which the girl finds in the older woman’s house. A reminder that historical fiction as always also about now, as well as then.
The Mystery of Henri Pick – David Foenkinos
Like The Paris Library this is a mixture of two of my favourite things – a book about books and a quirky French love story. This is a much lighter story though, replacing a tragedy set in occupied Paris with a library in a small Breton town which contains a collection of manuscripts rejected by publishers. A young woman, making a name for herself at a Parisian publishing house, visits the library while on holiday with her author boyfriend, and discovers a manuscript which she is sure will be a bestseller. This book was written, it appears, by Henri Pick, a local pizza chef who is now dead and becomes a literary sensation. Although there is doubt, even from Pick’s widow and daughter, that he could have written such a book everyone who reads it is touched, and sees something of their own life reflected in its pages.
This was a pretty perfect lockdown read: a romance with no sugar-coating, a mystery with no murders, and a disreputable journalist searching for the truth. Very satisfying.
Madame Burova – Ruth Hogan
Ruth Hogan is another favourite author – I think I’ve read all her books so far and thoroughly enjoyed them – so I was delighted to see she had another coming out. Her particular brand of fiction – involving a mix of sorrow and joy, a little romance, quite a few faithful dogs and a hint of the unexpected – is one that always seems to appeal to me. When you’ve always felt that enjoyment you do always get a twinge of fear when you start a new book: will this be the one that I just don’t like, quite as much? Luckily the answer, once again, is no. Still just my cup of tea.
Madame Burova (Imelda to her friends and family) is a Tarot reader (also palms read and general clairvoyance) and has been since she took over her mother’s Brighton booth in the 1970s. Her job involves knowing a lot of other people’s secrets, and she has always kept them before, but this time she has been charged with revealing information which is going to change a young woman’s life forever. In the early 70s Imelda Burova joined the ranks of ‘entertainment’ at a local holiday camp and the story follows this motley crew – singers, pianists, a wall of death rider, a middle-aged contortionist and a trio of glamorous mermaids – and their romances, spats and jealousies. One of which leads to to the birth of a baby girl, abandoned on Imelda’s doorstep, who returns decades later to try and discover how she came to be.
Nick – Michael Farris Smith
The Great Gatsby seems to be a lot of people’s favourite book. I didn’t read it at school and only got round to it a few years ago so maybe I wasn’t the right age to fall in love with it. It was good but was never going to replace the books which transformed my late teens (One Hundred Years of Solitude, maybe, or the Gormenghast trilogy). I was, however, interested to read Nick – a novel giving Nick Carraway the backstory which Fitzgerald never shared with us.
This story takes us from the mud, death and horrors of the Great War to the heat and passions of New Orleans on the brink of prohibition via a fleeting but doomed love affair while on leave in Paris. Carraway’s character in the Great Gatsby seems to be that of a practical, intelligent man of some integrity and we do have that confirmed to a large extent but he is also revealed to be so much more. We see the details of his stifling Midwest upbringing, the tragedy of his Parisian love affair and the staggering brutality of war – these things all lead to the Fitzgerald Nick but it is the events in New Orleans which really fleshed him out for me. Heat, passion, booze all leading to pain, loss and, eventually, a future on Long Island…
Next post: I try to carry on the catching-up with some children’s books….