The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes – Ruth Hogan

It is always a happy day when you can add to your list of favourite authors – someone whose books you look out for and who you can generally rely on to provide you with whatever it is you get from that writer (laughter, tears, esoteric knowledge or combinations of all the above). Even though this is only Ruth Hogan’s second book I’m fairly certain she has made my own, personal list. She has even made the list of authors who make you feel as if you are reading the words of a friend – who you feel really understands you and your life*. Bliss.

39860004Masha has been many things in her life: a free spirit, a lover, and a mother. But right now she is none of those things – since her beloved little boy disappeared thirteen years ago she has become obsessed with drowning. Although she decided that she wanted to go on living she spent years visiting her local lido practicing how long she can hold her breath underwater – reliving her son’s final moments. She can’t speak to her friends or parents about how she feels, she can barely admit it to herself, she is just drifting. The only things that keep her afloat are her good friends Edward and Epiphany and her wolfhound Haizum but she only really begins to live again through her friendship with two older women – the magnificent Kitty Muriel, a force of nature in leopard-print and heels, and Sally who roams the local park, feeding crows and, sometimes, mistaking profanities for everyday conversation. In a separate strand of the novel another woman, single mum Alice, loves her fourteen year old son Mattie with a passion which threatens to smother him until her own health begins to fail. At this point the two stories start to move closer together and secrets are, finally, revealed.

The plot here is actually secondary to the wonderful, wonderful characters in some ways. There is a story (and it all hangs together perfectly well) but the really important thing is who is being affected by the events described. Masha is, at the beginning of the book, almost totally defined by her sorrow but, as she begins to rebuild her life, we see the vibrant woman she should have been all along. Alice is, initially, a deeply irritating character – giving her teenage son no freedom or trust, a total ditherer – but as we learn more of her life her actions become much more understandable. Kitty Muriel is never anything but the kind of woman I want to be when I’m in my 70s but Sally Red Shoes (Masha’s name for her) is my favourite character in the book. We find out about her earlier life – which seems it should have left her colourless and withdrawn but just plain hasn’t – but only in hindsight. Throughout the novel itself we just get to see her in her unrestrained, crow-feeding, tourettish glory: she teaches us, as she does Masha, that we don’t have to be the sum of the awful things life throws at us. If we are lucky we can learn how to be the best ‘us’ possible even when it seems too difficult.

Jane

*Oddly, I hadn’t read Hogan’s biography on Goodreads when I read her first book. It seems we share a few experiences in life including our love of reading, sweetness preferences regarding tea and brushes with cancer. I think she really, really does understand my life 🙂

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The Burning Chambers – Kate Mosse

I’m sure I’ve mentioned previously that I enjoy reading books set in areas I travel to and also that, when I visited Carcassonne, I read Labyrinth by Kate Mosse as part of my exploration of the Cathar history of the region. I really enjoyed Mosse’s take on this period of extreme religious conflict (combined with a bit of romance and lots of adventure) so I was interested to see that she had returned to that part of France with her latest novel.

36660443Many things about this novel seem familiar after reading Labyrinth – the setting, the ongoing wars of religion, there is even a character called Alis – but it is also a thrilling story in its own right. Minou Joubert live in Carcassonne with her father, a bookseller who deals with books from all sides of the religious divides, and her younger siblings. Apart from the death of her mother her life has been happy enough but things are becoming difficult: her father has changed, refusing to leave the house and leaving Minou to deal with the shop, the ongoing wars of religion between the Catholic establishment and French protestants, known as Huguenots, are coming closer to the city and she receives a mysterious letter saying just ‘She knows that you live’. When she meets Piet Reydon, a young Huguenot on a mysterious mission, both their lives become more complicated. Their lives begin to intertwine with each other’s and with that of Valentin, a priest who was once a close friend of Piet’s, and Blanche, the chatelaine of Puivert. Danger follows them from Carcassonne, to Toulouse and, finally, to Puivert itself where many questions about Minou’s past are answered.

Kate Mosse has, once again, given us a fascinating insight into the past – I’d heard of the Huguenots but knew very little beyond the fact they were protestants – combined with an exciting story blending romance and adventure. Her historical research is meticulous and her storytelling gripping, her female characters are strong (I particularly liked some of the supporting cast – Alis, the younger sister, Madame Boussay and Blanche de Bruyère) and I’m looking forward to seeing how the story moves on as promised to Amsterdam and South Africa in the rest of the trilogy. Of course, I may need a return visit to the Midi, the Netherlands or even a first trip to Franschhoek to read them…

Jane

 

The Pursuit of Ordinary – Nigel Jay Cooper

Ordinary. Normal. Are these things insults? Or something to aspire to? When we are young we want to be individuals (although often by joining a tribe of some sort) but at other points in life the idea of fitting in, of not calling attention to ourselves, appeals. But when it comes to our mental health, well, normal is the thing to aspire to: or is it?

36313350Dan’s brain is certainly not what anyone would call normal. He has suffered since childhood and is currently living rough in Brighton, alone apart from the persistent voices in his head. When he witnesses a fatal car accident he realises the voice in his head is that of the victim, Joe, and he (Dan) is inexorably drawn towards Natalie, the widow who he last saw cradling her dying husband. This, given, Dan’s state of mental health is understandable but why does Natalie accept his story? Why does she then let Dan into her home, her life and, eventually, her heart? As we look back into both Dan and Natalie’s lives we learn about their pasts, their relationships and discover that they each have their own issues with their mental health and with the families who have tried, and failed, to make them more ‘normal’.

If this were just an exploration of two characters psyches it would be an interesting but rather ‘worthy’ novel. However, we explore more about Dan and Natalie than their mental health – we explore their relationships with families, friends and strangers and the growing romance between them. Nothing is prettied up either and each character’s internal voice is, by turns, bitter, fearful and self-hating until they are able to realise that while those voices are individual and personal to them they could, with help, move towards one which is far more within a normal range. They both, in the end, aspire to become ordinary, while realising they can still retain much of what makes them both unique and worthy of love.

Jane

 

The House With Chicken Legs – Sophie Anderson

Books of the Month, as mentioned in my last post, are not just for adult books. It would be easy to say that it is harder to focus with children’s titles – as they have to cover such a wide range of ages, interests and genres – but I don’t think this is any different from books for older readers. In fact the children’s BOTM (if you’ll pardon me using an acronym) should appeal to an even wider audience since these titles can also be read by the grown-ups. More specifically: me. Even if I still don’t always feel like a grown-up and yearn to define myself as ‘young at heart’.

33832945Marinka, the heroine of The House With Chicken Legs, is 12 years old but doesn’t feel young. She lives with her grandmother and isn’t allowed to have any friends other than her jackdaw, Jack, and their house which, rather unusually, not only has the legs of a rather large chicken but uses them to travel the world so that Marinka’s grandmother can fulfil her role as a Yaga: one whose role is to guide people from the world of the living to that of the dead. She loves her grandmother, and Jack and the house do their best, but she longs for friendship, stability and a normal life. However, when she does defy her upbringing by making friends first with a boy called Benjamin and then a young girl named Nina (who should have passed through the Gate into the world of the dead) things start to go terribly wrong. Her grandmother leaves her, the house – who has nurtured her as much as any person she ever knew – begins to fall apart and she doesn’t know how to make things right…

What I really loved about this book was the way that I can see a young person reading it just because it is a great story with characters you care about but as an adult you can see all the lessons which a young person could be learning without even noticing. Even as a (probable) grown-up I was caught up in Marinka’s problems and was kept turning the pages as I tried to work out how she could solve them. It was only when I reflected after I had finished that I could see the lessons which Marinka learned and which I suspect children may take from the book. Her grandmother tells her, as she helps people of all ages through to the world of death, that the length of a life is less important than its sweetness.  We’d all like to keep those we love with us forever but we can’t – so we need to learn to make the most of the life we do get to share with them. Life is unfair (Marinka is such a realistic pre-teen) but, once you accept that and start to work towards making positive changes things really can get better. Along with Marinka we learn that it is important to learn to love and embrace the things that make you different. The things that make you, well, you. It is then that you realise that others can, and do, love you too.

Jane

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

The bookshop where I work has monthly promotions. Books of the Month. Just like most major booksellers. What makes these promotions a bit different, however, is that the promoted titles are not selected for us (i.e. paid for…) by publishers but my a team of very talented booksellers at our Head Office. I’m not sure if I can remember what their official job titles are but let’s just call them the Book Wizards because they pick some blooming brilliant books. Last month we had, among other things, the fabulous History of Bees as our Fiction Book of the Month and this promotion has often had me trying fiction, non-fiction, thrillers and children’s books I wouldn’t otherwise have tried. And that is the whole idea – the Book Wizards get to read all the good books so they can tell us which are the very best. This month’s fiction choice is a case in point.

9781509843985the end we start from_8_jpg_269_400The End We Start From is a slender little book – fewer than 150 pages – but it packs quite a punch. A woman gives birth during an environmental disaster, as her waters break the flood waters are rising all over London, and soon after the child (who she names Z, rather than the name going round the maternity ward – Noah…) is born she and her husband abandon their flat and drive to his parents’ farm. As time goes by the mother bonds with her child and reports on what she hears of a gradual breakdown of society: gradually she and her child move further away from civilization and yet closer and closer to each other. In the end what both survives and gives hope for the future is the love of a mother for her child.

It has been well documented that I love a bit of dystopian fiction and this book certain ticks that box. It also scores highly on ‘environmental issues’ and ‘makes me think’. I also really liked the way the book was written (even though I’m far more of a plot girl than a language geek). The sentences are short, we see it all from the mother’s point of view – the idea of thinking in long, complex paragraphs certainly doesn’t fit with my experience of new mothers (or people living through environmental catastrophe, although that is a little more out of my actual experience) – and characters are only given initials rather than names. I can see that this might feel like an odd device to some readers but I felt it gave the impression that anyone could make a connection with this story. We never learn the mother’s name but her husband, for example, is R. He could be Robert, or Richard, or indeed Raoul, Rashid or Ruairidh. This universality is reflected in short passages throughout the book, taken from creation myths from around the world. The author is a poet – used to putting universal experiences into words – this book is, in many ways, a prose poem to guide us through the end of our world.

Jane