Piglettes – Clémentine Beauvais

Recently I’ve been enjoying some great novels with distinctive French themes and plenty of interesting YA books. So, obviously, given the chance to combine these two interests, I had to give it a try… Throw in some thoughts on body image, attitudes towards Islam and feminism and I think this book was just about perfect for me!

piglettesPiglettes is about a group of girls in a provincial French town who find themselves the winners of a rather nasty little contest run by a boy at their school. They are voted as the winners of the ‘Pig Pageant’ – the ugliest girls in school. This is, obviously, out-and-out bullying but our main heroine, Mireille, isn’t going to give the bully the reaction he wants. She just laughs it off – although her internal monologue seems to show that she is not quite as happy with her life as she professes to be – but somehow, when she meets up with and talks to the two other ‘lucky’ winners, she decides that they will cycle across the country to Paris, selling sausages from a trailer, and gatecrash the President’s Bastille Day garden party. Like you do. The three girls, Mireille, Astrid and Hakima, are accompanied by Hakima’s brother (a disabled ex-soldier) and a wonderful friendship develops between them. Mireille is very much in charge initially – she is certainly the fiestiest of the three – but the others all come into their own as time goes by. There is a hint of love interest as Mireille has an instant crush on Kader (Hakima’s brother) but it is all very innocent – the main story is about the girls, how they learn to love themselves, to realise that they don’t need to change in order to fit in with other people’s ideals, and their refusal to accept that they are worthy of being bullied.

I really loved these girls and Mireille in particular. She is a girl who loves her food and doesn’t see why she shouldn’t – she loves cheese even more than I do (which I didn’t think was possible…) – but she also has her problems. As well as her body-image and developing feminism we are shown the complicated relationship she has with her mother and step-father. In the teenage mind, at least,  the unknown father is preferable to the known mother but, in the end, Mireille is able to understand all the adults in her life a little better as she becomes a little closer to adulthood herself (but while never losing her ‘sass’. Who says you should?).

Jane

 

The Bedlam Stacks – Natasha Pulley

Some people like books to sit quietly in their genre. If it is a spy thriller it should be thrillery, but not contain elements of fantasy; historical novels shouldn’t be set in space; hard-boiled crime should not contain chapters with descriptions of cute kittens (unless, of course, they are the ones being hard-boiled….). I don’t mind a bit of a mash-up – post-apocalyptic love stories? historical thrillers? Bring it on….As Tom Stoppard assures us, all stories have a little bit of romance, death and eloquence. I’m particularly fond of a bit of quirkiness drifting into my reading – although strictly speaking I should call it by its Sunday name, Magical Realism…

bedlamIn The Bedlam Stacks Natasha Pulley brings us to a world which is undoubtedly real – the East India Company has become the India Office, malaria is still hampering Britain’s ambitions in the East and Peru has banned the export of the seeds or saplings of the trees whose bark supplies life-saving quinine. The main character, Merrick Tremayne, is a gardener/botanist who has worked as an opium smuggler for the East India Company during the Opium Wars with China is the perfect person to send in to try and succeed where others have failed. Tremayne, however, was seriously injured during his last mission and is living on his family’s dilapidated Cornish estate. He is on the point of taking a job as a curate when he is called to travel to Peru, accompanied by his good friend Clem and his wife Minna. There they find themselves in a world which is ruled by cartels controlling the sale of cinchona (the tree from which quinine is derived) but also superstition, religion and the mysterious geography of the region. This, of course, is where the magical part of the story happens. Living statues, exploding trees, a mysterious community built up from children with disabilities left there by the inhabitants of other villages deep in the forbidden forests, not to mention a key character, Raphael, the village priest who seems to suffer from a strange condition.

I’ve often enjoyed books which feature magic realism (or quirkiness, as I insist on calling it – it sounds so much less daunting and lit-crit-like) and I enjoy good historical fiction. This, I think, is one of the first times I’ve been able to enjoy them together – I have to say it is a combination I will try again in future. In fact, I think I may have to go back to Pulley’s previous book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which seems to involve at least one character from Bedlam Stacks…(my to-read pile is never going to get any smaller, is it?)

Jane

The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce writes wonderful books. Not necessarily with the most beautiful, flowery language (although they are good words, honest and accessible) but with characters, plots and emotional sucker-punches which make me very, very happy. I’ve never met a Rachel Joyce novel (so far) that I didn’t love but, boy, do they bring a tear to the eye. In an oddly satisfying way. It feels quite hard to describe why I love these books so much beyond the fact that they get me right in the feels (as the kids no longer say…) – lets hope I can convince you to read them and find out for yourselves…

51yytgdLxSL._AC_US218_This book opens in 1988. In a music shop which is resisting the rise of CDs (although not modern music) and the march of progress generally. It is on a street with a small parade of the kind of shops which are closing down all the time – the book opens in a sort of dead-end. But it is the kind of glorious dead end that I, for one, would love to have on my doorstep. The owner of the shop, Frank, is a bit of a lost soul who is still mourning his beloved (but rather difficult) mother, who shies away from relationships and who, despite all this lives to help others through music. The man with the unfaithful wife who listens only to Chopin is reminded that he is not alone via the work of Aretha Franklin; a bank manager’s baby is lulled to sleep by The Troggs Wild Thing. He is, in the early days, pretty astute about music – he’s the only shop locally to stock the Sex Pistols and stocks all the big indy labels – but the rise of CDs is a problem. Frank won’t stock them and he becomes persona non grata with all the reps from record companies.

Of course, if this were just the story of a shop it wouldn’t be quite as satisfying (apart, possibly, to those of us who work in shops and have a vested interest) so there are also some fascinating characters to meet. Frank himself is a gentle, rather shabby, giant of a man who, despite trying to avoid relationships, is essential to the lives of all those around him. Then there are the other residents of Unity Street – a Polish baker, an ex-priest running a religious gift shop, a pair of elderly undertakers, a combative tattooist, little old Mrs Roussos – who are all given life and character and who all become part of Frank’s ‘family’ (for want of a better word). Add into this his hapless (but big-hearted) assistant Kit and a mysterious German woman, Ilse Brauchmann, and it seems that Frank hasn’t been able to avoid all relationships after all.

I loved this book because of those wonderful, warm and complicated human relationships. I loved it because it made me cry as much as it made me smile and I loved it for the music. Frank’s approach to music is unusual, to say the least, since he is possibly the total opposite of High Fidelity’s obsessive alphabetiser but his tastes are broad. I loved the fact that its four parts are presented as being the four side of a double album (a concept album, obviously). And, for my money, any novel which opens with a quote* from Nick Drake deserves all the praise I can give it…

Jane

*Time has told me
You’re a rare, rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind

Nick Drake – Time Has Told Me

 

Postman’s Fiancée – Denis Thériault

When I’m on holiday I like to read books set in the area I’m visiting. This year, however, we did a bit of a tour of Northern Europe (Denmark, a bit of Sweden and then Latvia) and I wasn’t in the mood for Nordic Noir so I just gathered up the next half-dozen or so books on my magic spreadsheet of ‘things to read’ (plus our children’s Book of the Month for June and the next title for the shop book group). Most of these were set in the usual places – the UK, the United States, a bit of outer space – but I did manage to include a quirky little novel set in Montréal with a German heroine. A pretty international haul, I think you’ll agree (although I need to get more books by non-European or North American authors read, I know…).

9781786071132_1In the Postman’s Fiancée we meet Tania, a young Bavarian woman who moves to Montréal to improve her French. She falls in love with a customer at the café she works in, Bilodo a quiet and shy postman, even though they never speak beyond orders for drinks and food. When Bilodo has a serious accident and loses his memory Tania poses as his fiancée in an effort to make his love for her a reality. If you think of a cross between Amélie and While You Were Sleeping in book form (with additional haiku) you’d not be far off. The plot is rather like a French farce, as Tania tries to keep the amnesiac Bilodo from any contact with his past but it also has a strong thread of sadness (or maybe I should say ennui, it sounds more appropriate with a french twist) running through it.  As well as the french feel to the book it has a rather spare elegance, like the haiku used throughout. I read this as a standalone novel but there is an earlier book, featuring some of the same characters, whose plot intertwines with it which I have now added to my ‘to-read’ list.

Jane

 

 

Broken River – J. Robert Lennon

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for odd place names. Our personal favourite, in the Jane and Rob household, is the magnificently odd (but slightly naughty) Broadwoodwidger in Devon. Closer to home we enjoy going through Thurgoland and a trip back home to Essex isn’t complete without giggling at Vange. Essentially we are very peurile. I particularly like the kind of odd town names you get in the U.S.A. – small town America does the best place names with classics like Yeehaw Junction, Paint Lick, Bitter End or Hop Bottom. They lend themselves to book titles too – Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery knew this – so I was interested in what kind of place Broken River would be…

9781781257975It turns out Broken River is a fairly broken sort of small town. It has a closed down cinema and a few stores: the only part that is really thriving is the local prison. Its main claim to fame is the brutal murder, many years previously of a couple living in an isolated house on the edge of town. The story follows the family who move into the house – a writer, her unfaithful sculptor husband and their precocious 12 year-old daughter – the men responsible for the original shooting and, slightly oddly, an entity referred to as the Observer. This means the book is a blend of thriller, a contemporary family saga and something a bit stranger but it does it very well. The Observer character could have been a distraction but it actually tied together the various groups of characters pretty well as well as allowing us to shift our focus between groups.

This is an interesting book and it is certainly a change from the run of psychological thrillers. In fact, since many of the characters follow the same website which delves into unsolved crimes, it is possibly more interested in the psychology of those who are fascinated by murder.

Jane

Calling Major Tom – David M Barnett

I think there are a few secret rules that authors are taught at author school – how to pose for the photos on the back of the book, how to sign books so that their name is almost (but not quite) illegible and, most importantly, when to include an M in their name. Iain Banks did it to delineate the difference between his literary and his sci-fi novels and now David Barnett (author of the Gideon Smith novels) has added an M to his name for his latest book – which is definitely a departure from his previous steampunk works. And I can see why it would be useful to make this clear since this book has very little to do with airships, mechanical girls or heroes of the British Empire. Well, hardly anything…

29547280This book is the story of Thomas Major who, after the total failure of his marriage, manages to inveigle his way onto a one-way, one-man, mission to Mars. Mission control assume he will then set up and  wait for the next ship to arrive with more intrepid astronauts but he knows he is just looking for the ultimate seclusion in which to die. All in all he’s a miserable beggar. The story swerves, however, into much sweeter territory when he tries to ring his ex-wife and ends up chatting to Gladys, a grandmother from Wigan who is meant to be caring for her motherless grandchildren but is having trouble remembering what day of the week it is. As Thomas moves further away from Earth he becomes more involved with Gladys and her family than he has been with anyone for a long time.

I wasn’t sure what I’d make of this book – I knew it was going to be very different from the author’s previous work – but I really loved it. The story is a bit quirky (and we’ve established I love quirky), there is humour and also some genuinely moving moments. The main character is delightfully grumpy (there is a running gag about his name and he spends most of his time telling people that he should be called Thomas, not Tom, and that he’s not a major…) and Gladys and her grandchildren, Ellie and James, are wonderful. It is not all laughs, of course. Ellie is having to work three jobs as well as going to school and she daren’t ask for help in case the authorities take them into care when they discover that Gladys has dementia and James, like so many children, is keeping quiet about being bullied.

It is a bit of a cliché to say that I laughed and cried while reading this. But it can’t be a cliche if its true, can it?

Jane

 

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend – Katarina Bivald

I live in Bradford and was born in Basildon, Essex. What both these places have in common is that they have spent a lot of time being thought of as inferior to some other nearby (or not so nearby depending on your access to transport) town or city. In Basildon for many years any unobtainable item always resulted in the need for a shopping trip to London (which was called ‘going up to town’ as opposed to ‘going down to town’ if you were just shopping in Basildon itself – there’s an Essexism for you). In Bradford the opinion has often been that the only place worth going – for shopping, a night out, a decent football team, gigs – is Leeds. These things are not necessarily true but a reflection of how smaller towns and cities can almost wallow in their perceived inadequacies…*

51yZ4k8fHcL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_Broken Wheel is another such town. It is described at one point as ‘a complete waste of brick, asphalt, and concrete’ and its inhabitants have become used to using the neighbouring town of Hope for anything beyond the basics. They are fine people – warm and welcoming when a newcomer arrives in their midst – but they are certainly not fully satisfied with their lives. The newcomer is Sara, who has come for an extended visit from Sweden, but who finds that the woman she was coming to visit, Amy, was a) rather older and more ill than she let on in her letters and b) dead. The townsfolk (who are welcoming, remember) invite her to stay in Amy’s house for the two months she was planning to stay. And, since the thing that bought the two women together in the first place was a love of books, it is not long before Sara decides to pay the townsfolk of Broken Wheel back for their kindness by opening a second-hand bookshop with Amy’s extensive collection. The town is unsure at first but, gradually, Sara (or rather the books themselves) work their magic as the right reader is matched with the right story.

I’m sure some of you may be thinking this sounds a bit twee and cheesy. You are not alone – some of the Broken Wheel residents have the same fears but it is more than that. This book is about a town which is broken and on the point of dying and about people who have, largely, given up hope. Although the books are very important ( especially, to Sara) it is the people who keep you reading. Each character has a back story which is developed and then, eventually resolved: on the surface by books but maybe mostly by someone taking the time to understand them enough to place the right book in their hands. And of course Sara’s unique approach to shop signage and recommendations made my bookseller’s heart beat a little faster.

I really loved this book. It is heart-warming without being sentimental and full of good old-fashioned decent people. There are love stories, tales of sadness and despair and parts that made me laugh out loud. I’ve seen a few reviews complaining that, when Sara talks about the books she loves, she often gives away spoilers. It didn’t bother me to be honest – what book-lover worth their salt doesn’t already know how Jane Eyre ends, for example?

Jane

*By the way, I can recommend a visit to Bradford if you want to see a city which is restoring its love for itself. As a wise man (okay, Rob) once said ‘Bradford will come back once it stops trying to be Leeds – Leeds is a fine place but Bradford has got heart> Just like Broken Wheel.