A Winter of Relative Content – April 2015

DSCF3817This review covers the period October 2014 to March 2015.

During this period we took a quick flip over to France to check on the boat in November, spent Christmas at home, and drove down through France to Spain in January, to avoid the worst of the English winter.  We took a good supply of library books with us, (renewing them online) and didn’t have to visit the second hand book stalls this visit.   A computer glitch seems to have temporarily obscured the reviews I’d jotted down of some of the books I read, (a number of Hilary Mantel books amongst them).  I’ll keep looking for them, and include them in the next post.

Thankfully I seem to have got back into my stride since my last Bookworm post, and have stuck with most of the books I’ve picked up.  As ever, I’d be pleased to read your comments if you’ve read any of the books I’ve listed below, or if you’ve any recommendations to make.

Whatever you Love – Louise Doughty *****

I am going to find out what you love, then whatever it is, I am going to track it down and I am going to take it away from you.”

A mother of a young son, half-crazed by the death of her young daughter in a traffic accident, moves in a dream-like state through the subsequent weeks and months. She is separated from her husband, David, who has left her for another woman with whom he now has another son. This story is stark and gripping, loaded with emotion, grief and menace, and covers the period of her courtship and marriage, the subsequent marital breakdown, the mutual jealous obsession between herself and her ex-husband’s new mistress and her need for vengeance on the car driver who killed her daughter. It was compelling reading, to the point where I even read it in the car (I wasn’t driving – before you ask) which is something I seldom do. The reader can’t help but empathise; and this journey through her grief, jealousy, obsession, vengefulness… quite draining.

The Silver Star – Jeanette Walls ***

A pleasant enough story told from the unreliable narrator point of view. Bean (rhymes with Jean – her real name) and Liz her elder sister form a capable duo as their self-centred, self-absorbed mother wanders off to ‘find herself’ from time to time. When one particular absence becomes protracted, and they find a police car outside the house, they fear the ‘bandersnatches’ are about to take them into care. They take themselves off to Virginia to find their uncle, who lives in their mother’s childhood home, a now decaying mansion. The story charts their progress, their developing relationship with the uncle, their dangerous exposure to a local bully of a businessman, their mother’s periodic contact. The younger daughter, (the narrator) gradually begins to assume control of the relationship, is the first to understand their mother’s shortcomings, and the only one of the pair who fully integrates into the local community.

There are some interesting issues explored in the book, the integration of the local black school into the white, child exploitation and molestation, family breakdown and the nature of the extended family. The problem is that it’s all handled a bit superficially, a bit too quickly, and simplistically but then there’s the problem with using the unreliable narrator point of view.

The Lives of Stella Bain – Anita Shreeve ***

Another of my favourite writers. Shreeve has the knack of creating believable characters whose inner strength and composure can be both daunting and inspiring at the same time. An American woman wakes from unconsciousness in a field hospital in France, 1916. She knows very little of herself, only that she can drive an ambulance, that she can draw and that her name, she believes, is Stella Bain. Slowly but with determination she begins to piece together her history from the fragments of her past that are occasionally revealed to her, making her way from France to London and back to America. The reality of her former life is incrementally revealed and eventually she is reunited with her former family, and a new love in her life. Meticulously researched as ever.

It wasn’t for me however, compulsive reading in the way that I’ve become accustomed to when Anita Shreeve is at work. But beautifully written with a great sense of detail.

Love Story, With Murders – Harry Bingham ****

This book is the second in Harry Bingham’s ‘Fiona Griffiths’ crime fiction series. I haven’t read the first, ‘Talking to the Dead’ but I will most assuredly be doing so. Fi Griffiths is a quirky, tough, ditsy detective constable with a history of mental illness, ‘Cotard’s Syndrome’ no less. She has a past that is shrouded in mystery, (which she is painstakingly investigating) and an unswervable conviction that the future is going to turn out as it should. I won’t give any of the plot away, except to say that it involves the discovery of two dissected bodies at various locations, an apparently illegal arms (as in munitions, not body parts) export business, and hired assassins. The narrative is spiced with humorously inappropriate comments that had me in stitches at times – “some families just give off a choppy-uppy odour. Others don’t”. Or “it’s not the beating of the crap out of people that takes it out of you. It’s the waiting around beforehand, the cleaning up afterwards. You should be able to get support staff for that kind of thing.

Fi Griffiths is fearless, optimistic, feisty and extremely likeable. I need to read more about her.

Starter for Ten – David Nicholls ***

Richard and Judy Bookclub best seller 1985, though whether that’s a recommendation or an indictment I’m not sure. First year student and Kate Bush fan Brian falls for beautiful university challenge queen Alice in a brilliant comedy of love, class, growing up and the all important difference between knowledge and wisdom. It’s an entertaining read, more suitable for a YA, which I most definitely am not. It will mean nothing to those who are unfamiliar with the long running British television programme University Challenge. I suspect, if I’d read this when younger, I might have found it hysterically funny. As it was, I had a good giggle or two during the couple of hours that it took to read.

Crazy Paving – Louise Doughty *

London, during the height of the IRA terrorist bomb attacks. Three women struggle to work each day, Annette, Joan and Helly are secretaries but strange events force them to be heroines as well. I’ve read quite a few from Louise Doughty, but this wasn’t one of the most memorable.

Ghostwalk – Rebecca Stott ****

A tremendous amount of research has gone into this book, something that never fails to impress me. An intricate tale of love, science, ghosts, history, secrets and lies, it truly covers all the bases. If you’re familiar with the city of Cambridge, as I am, this book will hold an additional attraction for you. The action takes place in Cambridge, spanning from the seventeenth century to 2003, when an accomplished historian academic and author is found floating in the river, clutching an antique glass prism. The book she has been working on, a story of Isaac Newton’s foray into alchemy remains unfinished, and two former lovers, (one of whom is the son of the deceased) are reunited when the woman takes on the role of ghostwriter. The story takes a bit of following, the intermittent appearance of historical ghosts, the antics of modern day animal rights activists, strange lights and refractions appearing around the house… it’s all gripping stuff. I think I understood it, but my husband will be reading it shortly and I’m sure we’ll have some debates about it.

DSCF3806The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood *****

I enjoyed this story, the first, I think, that I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. The narrative is provided by the elder of two sisters, as she approaches the end of her life. Born into an affluent family (a local factory owner) the two girls enjoy a relatively care-free childhood, blighted only by a varying procession of private governors/governesses. As the girls grow up, the factory founders, the girls become involved with a unionist who operates on the wrong side of the law, the elder is married off to a wealthy businessman dominated by his sister, and eventually the younger sister, always something of a loose cannon commits suicide. (I’m not spoiling anything here; this event opens the book.) There are some surprises as the book meanders along at a leisurely pace, and the crusty, snappy writing style of the main character is entertaining. (There’s also a fantasy story within the story that is enjoyable in its own right – as told to one of the lovers by the other. ) I enjoyed the ride, and it’s a tribute to the author that I stayed on board for the whole of it. At 600+ pages, it could have been shorter.

The Fire Witness – Lars Kepler***

Set in Sweden, the action starts in a home for troubled girls, where one of the inmates and a care worker are found murdered. Another inmate has absconded and is assumed to be the murderer. The hunt for her assumes more urgency as she steals a car with a toddler strapped in the back, a car which is later found at the bottom of a river. It wasn’t immediately clear that this is the third in a series of books about the main character, Joona Linna, who struggles to solve the mystery whilst suspended from active duty on account of a previous disciplinary issue. It’s essentially a stand-alone book, but would have been more enjoyable, I think, if I had read the others in the series. The only problem I have with Swedish books is that I frequently have difficulty remembering who is who, since all the names tend to look fairly similar! But this was a compulsive read, even if I did reach the correct conclusion a hundred or more pages before the end

DSCF3809Doctor Sleep – Stephen King ****

A sequel to The Shining, this is Stephen King at his inventive best. Danny Torrance has been drifting for years, in various degrees of alcoholism as he struggles to come to terms with his past and the terrors that haunt him. Finally, and with the help of two men who recognise him for what he is, he starts down the path of sobriety. Still in possession of ‘the shining’ he becomes aware of a young girl similarly afflicted, only to a far greater degree than he. At the same time, an evil cult called The True Knot who travel the country in RV’s searching for ‘steam’ – the intense pain and suffering of others also become aware of the existence of the young girl. The ‘steam’ of those possessed with ‘the shining’ is of the purest form – and enables them to extend their lives indefinitely. They are on her trail.

Everything you’d expect from Stephen King, gripping, powerful, addictive. And the inevitable triumph of good over evil. A good read, delivered in his inimitable accomplished manner.

DSCF3808The Wise Woman – Philippa Gregory *****

Set in the reign of Henry VIII, this is a story of a nun who escaped the burning and pillaging of her beloved abbey, through a dreadful act of cowardice and selfishness.

She finds herself in a position of wise woman for the local lord of the manor, who uses her ability with letters and Latin in the role of clerk, as she firmly resists the advances of his son and heir, the young lord who was responsible for the destruction of her abbey and the woman who she called her mother. Ultimately however, she succumbs to his seduction.

Already blessed (or cursed) with magical abilities, she dips into witchcraft to defeat her rival in love – the wife of the young lord. Philippa Gregory tells a faultless historical tale, and the story vividly describes the transformation of the devout nun who wanted nothing more than to find a place at another nunnery and serve her God, into a scheming witch who dabbles in voodoo, murder and sexual perversion. The transition is expertly handled, as the reader’s sympathy switches to dislike, abhorrence and finally back to respect. I’ve a lot of time for Philippa Gregory’s work, her attention to detail is excellent and the historical background is melded seamlessly into the story.

So that’s it for this review. The pile of books beside my bed now contains more Hilary Mantel (still not made my mind up about her work, but more of that next time), a couple of Nicci French novels and some new authors I’m looking forward to getting to grips with. See you next time. 🙂

About Sandra

I used to cruise the French waterways with my husband four or five months a year, and wrote fiction and poetry. Now I live on the beautiful Dorset coast, enjoying the luxury of being able to have a cat, cultivating an extensive garden and getting involved in the community. I still write fiction, but only when the spirit moves me - which isn't as often as before. I love animals, F1 motor racing, French bread and my husband, though not necessarily in that order.
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8 Responses to A Winter of Relative Content – April 2015

  1. dmmacilroy says:


    Haven’t read a one of them, but I read your reviews because you wrote them. Just saying hello and letting you know that you are one of my favorite writers.




  2. Sandra says:

    🙂 Hi Doug, lovely to know you’re out there and reading my ramblings. You say the nicest things. I don’t mind that you haven’t read any of these books, my OH would probably class them as ‘wimmins’ books, anyway. Take care and see you next Wednesday. x


  3. Hi Sandra, I’m eager to read your thoughts on Hilary Mantel. I read “Wolf Hall” and it left me quite shaken. Haven’t mustered up the fortitude to continue the trilogy. The burnings, after all. I’ve not read any of these books but the Phillipa Gregory book appeals. And I had such affection for Danny in The Shining that I guess Doctor Sleep will have to be added to the toppling-over book pile. Great post!


    • Sandra says:

      Hi Barbara, The ones I’ve been reading were from before the trilogy, and I’ve pretty much enjoyed those, together with a compilation of her short stories. I did start Bring Up the Bodies, but became quite irritated with her style, not something that had been a problem in the earlier works. I’m still looking for the reviews I did … darn computer. 😦 Danny continues to be a likeable person in Doctor Sleep – I think you’ll like it. Thanks for dropping by.


      • She about drove me mad in “Wolf Hall” with the “he” construction in her sentences. I never knew who the hell she was talking about. And then I read a review where they explained that this confusing choice was deliberate and to always default to Cromwell when wondering who the “he” was. Irritating. I was glad I wasn’t alone in wondering what was going on!


        • Sandra says:

          I am SO glad you said that! I thought it was just me. I had to keep going back to try to work out the progression of dialogue to see who was saying what. It has put me off reading the trilogy to be honest. She would even begin a chapter with the ‘he’ word, which made it impossible to be sure who was doing what. What was the point of being deliberately confusing? Grrr!


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