Sunday, 5 April 2020

Fiction about Separation

All around the world right now, lovers, friends and family members have been separated by Covid-19 lock-down procedures. We know it's only for a short time, and yes we are lucky to live in an age where we can easily communicate online, but it's still hard. People miss that face-to-face connection. Here's a selection of novels (all available through the library's e-collections) featuring lovers divided by circumstances, often lasting years.

Who can forget Atonement, Ian McEwan's novel about Cecilia and Robbie, first of all separated by class, next separated by a lie and then by World War II. All they have to hold on to is an image of a holiday cottage, where they might again meet one day. The novel was made into a film starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy and Romola Garai. "Smoulders with slow-burning menace," said The Times.

Love, Rosie by Cecelia Ahern (originally Where Rainbows End) is the story of Alex and Rosie, best friends since forever. When Alex's family move to the US, fate conspires to keep the besties apart - everything thing that can go wrong, goes wrong, misunderstandings, misconnections, missed chances. Can there be any hope for something bigger than friendship? Another book that made it to the big screen - these long-distance affairs of the heart make for great movies.

Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Web is set during the years of World War I. Evie watches her brother Will go off to war with his pal, Thomas. All three plan to celebrate with a holiday in Paris when the war is over, surely by Christmas. But as the war drags on and Paris seems ever more distant, Evie and Thomas get to know each other through letters, sharing their hopes and fears, and developing feelings for each other from afar.

Still Me by Jojo Moyes is the third novel in the popular series that started with Me Before You. Louisa Clark takes on a job in New York among the super-rich, confident that she can maintain her relationship with Ambulance Sam thousands of miles back home in England. A story about finding the courage to follow your heart, this is a warm, humorous and touching novel from one of the best in the game.

In March, Gerladine Brooks imagines the story of the missing father from Lousia May Alcott's novel, Little Women. This is quite a different kind of story altogether, though. March, a man of firm abolitionist beliefs, enlists as a chaplain on the Union side in the American Civil War. Here he will witness racism and brutality, become seriously ill and struggle to maintain his faith before having to reconnect with his family a changed man. A compelling tour de force which won the Pullizer Prize.

Posted by JAM

Friday, 3 April 2020

The Heart of the Ritz by Luke Devenish

I didn’t immediately engage with this historical fiction, but that may have had something to do with it being the first few days of level 4 lockdown in the Covid-19 national emergency.

The Heart of the Ritz is a story about the resistance movement and the occupation of Paris; beginning in 1940 and ending four years later with its liberation. The novel follows the people who live in the Hotel Ritz; the families, the high ranking Germans, the collaborators, the resistance fighters, the Jews, the women with secrets to hide and people to protect, and it is also about love.

Polly is a 16 year old orphan at the beginning of this story, and is being sent from Australia to live with her Aunt Marjorie in Paris after her Father dies. When her aunt dies suddenly the guardianship of Polly is handed over to Marjorie’s three friends: Comtesse Alexandrine, a converted Jew; Zita, a film star; and Lana Mae, a rich American. They take Polly to live with them in the palatial Hotel Ritz. All are keeping secrets from Polly about themselves and Marjorie. When the Nazis invade Paris and take over most of the Hotel Ritz the four women’s lives are changed as they adapt to sharing a room in the hotel and learn to interact with the high ranking Germans. Polly befriends Tommy, a Hungarian Jew, and illegitimate son of Alexandrine’s husband. Tommy is being hidden as a bar attendant at the Ritz by Alexandrine, to try to keep him safe. Together Tommy and Polly, with the help of a blind girl Odile, start quietly taking action against the occupiers. They call themselves the freedom volunteers. Overtime their escalating and more daring missions come to the notice of the Gestapo, suspicions and accusations are beginning to surface. Innocent people are being taken away, never to be seen again. As the Nazis and French police begin rounding up Jews, the guardians take action to protect the ones they love.

The story builds to dramatic acts of resistance and courage, as more resistance operators at the hotel are revealed. Collaborators and spies for the Nazis show their true colours. Alexandrine, Lana Mae, Zita and Marjorie’s secrets are told. The story finally ends with the liberation of France and the Hotel Ritz.

At the end of the book, the author Luke Devenish tells us The Heart of the Ritz was based on real life events. The characters in this story were based on people who showed courage, resilience and sacrifice for the greater freedom of France.

At the beginning of this novel, I compared the occupation to our own lockdown with queuing for food, and restrictions of movement. I was wrong, the occupation and reality of war in France far outweighed anything we are enduring. We are being kept safe, while they were never safe.

The Heart of the Ritz is an enjoyable read for lovers of historical fiction. Score 3.75 out of 5.

Reviewed by Lynette 

Catalogue link:  The Heart of the Ritz

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Some Audiobook Picks

While you're at home catching up on that DIY or maybe learning a craft, why not tune into an audiobook to entertain the brain? I am a recent convert to audiobooks, and probably wouldn't have tried them if it wasn't for the Libby App on my phone. Suddenly with a phone in my pocket, earbuds in my ears, I could can go for a walk or get stuff done around the house while listening to a novel. Once downloaded, you don't need any further data to listen along. Here are a few I've particularly enjoyed:

The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn describes Lucy and Owen's random decision to try an open marriage for six months with surprisingly hilarious results. The couple are New Yorkers who have decamped to a more rural lifestyle, but still suffer the stresses of their world (keeping up with appearances; managing their autistic son; saving their chickens from predators, etc). What results is a witty comedy of manners excellently read by Ellen Archer, who does amazingly well with all the voices.

Grace and Truth by Jennifer Johnston is a poignant story about an actress who returns from a long theatre tour to her home in Dublin. When her husband declares he is leaving her, Sally throws a wobbly, then decides to reconnect with her remote grandfather, a retired bishop, so as to find out more about her father. Johnston weaves a thread of wry humour and top notch characterisation through this novella about dark family secrets. The reader, Kate Binchy brings it all to life in a delightful, Irish way.

After the Storm by Linda Castillo. I'd had lots of recommendations for these novels but this audiobook was my first experience of Castillo's ex-Amish Chief of Police, Kate Burkholder, and the crimes she solves - mostly related to the Amish people in her county. Good police procedural peopled with terrific characters: Kate's team of cops, Agent Tomasetti, Kate's troubled love interest and the Amish people who don't want outsiders solving their problems. Lots of fabulous insight into the Amish way, too. This novel blends a cold case with the aftermath of a tornado to get things off to a pacy start. The series is read by Kathleen McInerney.

Bullseye by David Baldacci. Short and sweet, this is a story that could have worked in an episode of Mission Impossible. A gang of armed robbers (or are they?) take over a bank, but what could be their real motive? Caught in the crossfire is Will Robie of the Camel Club, a bunch of elite agents that can outsmart the baddies in any given situation with their assortment of specialist skills. This 2 hour novella packs in a lot of nail-biting action. Rollicking good fun - I can see what everyone enjoys so much about Baldacci. Read by Ron McLarty.

A Fine Summer's Day by Charles Todd. I've read a few from this post WWI detective series featuring Ian Rutledge and the ghostly voice of Hamish which resides in his head. Ian's is a peculiar form of shell shock and the two make an odd crime-solving duo. But this novel jumps back in time to 1914 as clouds gather over Sarajevo and Ian plans to propose to his girl. Unfortunately, her family aren't keen on his career choice, which soon has him on the case of a murderer and turning up late for dinner parties. Little does he know that the war is going to change everything. Narrated with aplomb by Steven Crossley.

Posted by JAM

Friday, 27 March 2020

Akin by Emma Donoghue

Donoghue is the author of mega-selling Room, for which she wrote the screenplay now airing on Netflix. Akin is her new book and the story of an odd couple. 

First there's Noah, a recently retired science academic about to turn eighty and celebrating it with a trip to France, his place of birth. Noah has never got over the feeling of abandonment when his mother, Margot, stayed behind in Nice during the war, to care for her famous photographer father, Pere Sonne, shipping off young Noah to his dad in New York. Armed with a bundle of obscure photographs, he hopes to make sense of those missing years, before Margot rejoined the family on American soil.

Enter eleven-year-old Michael, born on the wrong side of the tracks, the son of Noah’s nephew who died of an overdose, while Michael’s mother is jailed for a drug deal she probably had nothing to do with. Mere days before his trip to Nice, Noah is asked to care for the boy to prevent him going to foster care. There is nothing for it but to take Michael along to Nice too. It is an uneasy pairing: the urbane, cultured Noah, the foul-mouthed boy with an addiction to gaming and junk food.

But Noah toughs it out, it’s just a temporary arrangement, and the two explore Nice together and slowly form a bond. Along the way, Nice is described in all its glory and Noah is the perfect tour guide with his knowledge of French, the arts and of the town’s history. This history frequently turns to the war years and the secret life of Margot, the work of the resistance and in particular the Marcel Network who saved hundreds of children from the concentration camps. But which side was Margot on?

Akin is a brilliantly layered book, offering a heart-warming look at how blood can be thicker than water, and the characters of Noah and Michael so sensitively drawn so that you feel for each of them. There is the story of the developing art of photography and the images are described so well you can picture them in your mind. But it is the story of the war in Nice, the occupation and the slow unravelling of secrets that really draws you in.

This is such a rich read, I could almost read the whole book again and would be sure to find plenty more nuggets to enjoy. It's a brilliant book, and likely to be one of my top reads for the year. Happily it is in multiple formats, so while you can't access a print copy, you can order it as an ebook. See the links below.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Akin (normal print copy)

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Hastings Library Book Chat Summer Reads

Soon we'll be turning the clocks back and summer will just be a memory, but maybe not those books that left a lingering impression. Here's a glimpse of the more memorable titles read over summer by members of Hastings Library Book Chat.

The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton: The setting is as much a character as the people in Tim Winton's novels. In his new book, Jaxie Clackton must cross the saltlands of Western Australia when a life-changing event forces him to run. A novel about resilience in a tough environment that perfectly captures in its tone the hard decisions forced on the protagonist. A wonderful read.

Circe by Madeline Miller: Miller brings classical            mythology to life in this imagining of the story of Circe, the witch banished to a deserted island by Zeus. It is here she perfects her occult craft and finds herself battling both men and the gods - but is it for what she does or what she represents? That is, a powerful woman alone.

The Body Lies by Jo Baker: A superb thriller that follows a writing lecturer making a fresh start. When a student's work features her as the main character, things begin to look a little creepy. But when he includes for her a terrible fate, should she feel truly afraid? A page turner with a literary feel - the perfect book really.

Someone's Wife by Linda Burgess: A collection of memoir pieces and observations from this well-known NZ writer. From what it's like to be married to an All Black, to living overseas, or house hunting in Wellington, there are stories to strike a chord, make you laugh, make you cry. A charming and fairly quick read.

How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster: This is Forster's last novel and follows Tara Fraser as she leaves London for a new life in Cumbria. She yearns for solitude, but a new neighbour and old friends decide otherwise. An intriguing novel with an even more intriguing title and a few surprises.

Fall of Man in Wilmslow by David Lagercrantz: A new slant on the Alan Turing story, this novel follows Leonard Corell, the detective tasked with investigating the famous mathematician's apparent suicide. Corell is torn between admiration for Turing's work and the horrors of his downfall. A clever, engaging novel.

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman: A novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and at 1000 pages but a single sentence, this may not seem appealing. It's stream of consciousness taken to new heights. But told from the point of view of an Ohio woman, it is oddly resonant as she worries about her family, elephants, Weapons of Mass Destruction, the state of America and everything in between. Well worth the effort.

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves: A new departure for Cleeves, the novel features a North Devon setting and a new police team - plenty to get excited about. Detective Matthew Venn returns to his home town to mourn his father as well as to take charge of new case - a stabbing victim whose body is washed up on the beach. This case will drag up the past Matthew'd thought he'd escaped. A really good, fast read.

Posted by Hastings Book Chat

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

"You can do this, he tried to get his brain to inform him. You can do this no matter what. But his brain had told him a lot of things over the years. His brain wasn't very reliable."

Fleishman is in Trouble is a modern take on marriage, divorce, and the world of online dating.

Toby Fleishman is a caring father who has recently left a nightmare of a marriage. His wife Rachel is a high-flying publishing agent who works long hours, treats her staff appallingly and neglects their children.

Rachel earns a lot more money than Toby (a physician) and constantly reminds him that she bankrolls their lavish Manhattan lifestyle (as reassuringly hideous a world as you could imagine). Despite this their children Hannah and Solly adore their mother and the couple share the care of them. Toby is enjoying the bewildering world of online dating and is astounded and delighted that many women want to meet him for brief encounters.

And then Rachel goes missing. Toby's life is turned upside-down and he juggles children, work, and his anger at Rachel for disappearing.

The marriage break up has also prompted Toby to reconnect with his two oldest friends: carefree and never married Seth, and Libby; a writer and harassed mother in the suburbs and narrator of the story.

As a (cynical) reader, alarm bells go off as the story progresses: can Rachel really be as twisted and evil as Toby describes? Is Toby really so perfect? And why is he not trying to find his ex-wife, at least for the sake of his children?

Perspective is everything and eventually Rachel's story is told.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a born and bred New York journalist known for her gently satirical interviews of the rich and famous. This is her first novel, written after feeling the frustration of being told that writing a piece on the modern state of divorce is no longer relevant.

Fleishman is in Trouble combines a contemporary view of age-old universal themes of love, disappointment and loss. A sympathetic and funny gaze at the human condition make this a punchy read.

Reviewed by Katrina

Catalogue link: Fleishman is in Trouble 

Thursday, 5 March 2020

This Poison Will Remain by Fred Vargas

Vargas is one of the most original authors in the crime fiction genre. Her award-winning Commissaire Adamsberg series is entertaining for a bunch of reasons. Paris and rural France settings: check. Creative and surprising storylines: check. Animated scenes set in cafes and restaurants reminiscent of Simenon’s Maigret novels: check. A police department peopled with eccentric detectives: check.

It is this last point that keeps me coming back to the series more than any other. As if Adamsberg isn’t oddball enough – he’s scruffy, secretive and sentimental, with a weird intuition that can sniff out guilt at a hundred paces. But his team in the Serious Crimes squad are even odder.

Voisenet would rather be an ichthyologist and has the head of a moray eel under his desk to study later. Mercedet suffers from narcolepsy, taking naps during the day in the cushiony corner of an unused office. Violet Retancourt is of Amazonian proportions, and ‘worth ten men’, but is the carer of Snowball, the office cat who sleeps on the disused photocopier always left on to keep it warm. To name but three.

In This Poison Will Remain, Adamsberg returns from leave to a murder case that needs careful handling. An elderly woman alerts him to the mysterious deaths of three old men in Nimes - each bitten by a recluse spider. Not normally fatal, these bites have turned to septicaemia and the victims’ age and tardiness in seeking medical treatment is thought to have contributed to their deaths.

The fact that two of the men were part of a gang in an orphanage and tormented other boys has Adamsberg sensing foul play. But getting his team on board, a team whose confidence in his leadership has been seriously undermined, has the Commissaire acting even more secretively than ever.

The novel has plenty of twists to keep you turning the pages, with a few key themes around child abuse and the effects of isolation, plus some interesting facts around religious recluses from medieval times. All the same, it’s a cracking good read that will make you laugh and yearn for another in the series. Best read in order, the novels first introduced us to Adamsberg in The Chalk Circle Man. Recommended.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: This Poison Will Remain