The Memory of Midnight – Pamela Hartshorne

This is my book group book for this month, I am really looking forward to hearing what the rest of the group thought of it. It’s definitely not one of the best we have done! Set in York in both present time and Elizabethan time it tells the story of Tess, who has just left a manipulative husband in London, and Elizabethan Nell who is married to an aggressive manipulative husband. The story is mainly told through Tess who is trying to settle back into a new life in York, where she grew up, with her 5 year old son however she frequently becomes possessed by Nell who uses her to tell her story of her life. The transitions between the two stories are fairly smooth and the story itself is compelling enough that you do want to know what happens to both the women. However the whole thing is also a bit ridiculous, that Tess can suddenly become Nell and feel her so strongly she even appears to become more attached to her children than her own son. Although Tess grew up in York she doesn’t really have much of a life there, she has a mother who barely features except as a source of disapproval and a friend who is able to conveniently provide child care. There is also an old boyfriend who is very two dimensional but provides a bit of back story as well as someone to care about the fact that Tess appears to spend increasing amounts of time spaced out while she lives an Elizabethan life. Although it must look like she is having some sort of nervous breakdown the old boyfriend Luke is very supportive and luckily knows someone who is an expert in regression. Fortunately Tess doesn’t have a day job that is interrupted by her time travelling as she works from home collating historical archives. The story gathers momentum throughout the book as it becomes clear there is going to be some sort of climax for both Tess and Nell, sadly for Nell it is a fairly brutal one while for Tess it borders on the ludicrous featuring ex husbands, police and explosives. While this was an easy and at times interesting book due to the description of life in Elizabethan times it was also so far fetched and contrived that I am not going to put it on my good reads list.

Room – Emma Donoghue

I read this book a few years ago but went to see the film adaption in the cinema this week.  I was unsure of how this would work as a film as it didn’t seem to be a book that would naturally lend itself to screen but I have to say I was impressed at how well it was done. It remained very true to the book and captured it’s atmosphere so well I think I would be hard pushed to choose one over the other. The story is the fairly harrowing telling of the daily live of ‘Ma’ and her 5 year old son Jack who live in Room, literally one room, in a shed in the garden of the man whe abducted her when she was 19. Although this room is Ma’s prison it is Jacks whole world and as he narrates we are given his perspective on everything in it and their daily routine.  This does give the story an interesting dimension however at times his 5 year old voice seems too sophisticated for his years, perhaps the experience of living in such intense conditions with only his mother would create this anyway, it’s impossible to know but certainly doesn’t detract from the book as it’s such a compelling read. This is a book of two halves, the first deals with their intense life in Room while the second tells of what becomes of them. It’s a powerful read, you can’t help but admire the fierce protective love Ma has for Jack and the way she carves a life for him out of the most dismal of living conditions. It’s a book that forces us to confront the forms and reality of evil in our society and the repercussions it has on those affected. It challenges the way we look at life as we see things through Jack’s eyes. It is not an always an easy read because of its subject but it is well written and constructed and one that you will remember for some time. The film is equally powerful and well worth a watch although both do leave me with the unsettling feeling that this is not a book or film to be read or watched for pleasure but one that demands some kind of response.

The Siege – Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmores writing never disappoints. She writes without sentimentality yet quickly draws you into her characters lives and tells a story with such vivid descriptions you are left with an image of them long after finishing the book. Although it is a few years since I read The Siege I can still recall the brutal freezing temperatures and harsh reality the characters are living in. It takes place during the siege of Leningrad, focusing on the winter of 1941/42, and tells the story of 22 year old Anna as her family battle to survive both the exceptionally cold winter and starvation due to the city being virtually cut off by the Germans. As people become reduced to their search for food you can feel their desperation. Alongside that is a fear of officials and the reality that they might simply disappear for saying the wrong thing, trapping people even more in their own minds. The story is at times harsh and bleak yet the endurance of the human spirit and its triumph in the face of adversity results in an interesting and ultimately uplifting read. This one definitely makes my good reads list along with its sequel The Betrayal which picks up Annas story some years later.

Under Fishbone Clouds – Sam Meekings

This is a treasure trove of a book. There are many gems to be found throughout what is essentially a family saga following the lives of Yuying and her husband Jinyi through the events of China’s recent political history. Beginning in 1946 and ending in 2000 it covers significant changes in both their lives and that of their fellow country men. Narrated by the kitchen God, who has made a bet with the jade emperor that he can divine the workings of the human heart, we are drawn into a tender love story detailing the subtle changes that take place in a marriage over time from nervous newlyweds to a couple who have travelled the long hard road together. The story takes you on a journey with them, a journey of many trials and hardships, but is interwoven with traditional Chinese folktales and myths. This is where so many of the gems are hidden,  in the wisdom and teaching of these old tales that have an enduring relevance if we look closely. I found it fascinating to have this insight into Chinese culture and really cared about the characters and what happened to them. This was a book group book for me a few years ago, I took one look at the cover which was brown and unappealing and immediately thought I wouldn’t like it! I would never have chosen it for myself which goes to reinforce the benefits of being in a book group and the old adage you can’t judge a book by its cover! This definitely makes it on to my good read list.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy – Rachel Joyce

This is a joy of a book, it’s not a book to be devoured in a single sitting but rather to be gently read little by little savouring it’s delicate moments. It’s a companion to Rachel Joyces first novel The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry in which Harold, having received a letter from his old friend Queenie saying her goodbye from her death bed, unexpectedly walks from his home in Devon to the hospice she lies in in Berwick. It’s very much a journey for Harold, both physically and emotionally as he reflects on his life along the way. I loved the premise of this book, that you could leave your house one day and just keep walking. Harold has some interesting encounters along the way and you quickly become very fond of this unlikely, very ordinary hero. Well worth a read and a book I intend to return to again soon. This companion book tells Queenies story, after she finds out Harold is walking to her and wants her to wait for him she begins another letter. A letter of confession telling Harold of events that happened twenty years ago as she seeks atonement for them. Queenies letter is interspersed with moments from her current life as she lies dying in the hospice. We learn and grow to care about her fellow patients and find humor and joy alongside grief and sadness. Queenies letter is as much a journey as Harolds walk as she travels back into her past as well as faces her impending death. This book is about the stuff that affects all of us, love, loss, disappointment, sacrifice, mortality and how happiness is often hidden in the everydayness of ordinary life. Rachel Joyce has a gift for writing in a warm, moving style that draws you in and makes you feel that you really know and care about the characters. The ending, despite its inevitability, does not disappoint but leaves you reflective and strangely content. This book definitely makes my good reads list and will stay on my shelf ready to be re read at some point in the future.

The Lake House – Kate Morton

I am in a book group that meets in my local library once a month, over the last few years we have read and discussed many books some of which we have enjoyed and some we haven’t. We have also discussed Downton abbey, holidays, food and other non book related subjects,  it doesn’t take much for us to go off track! It’s great being part of a book group as you end up reading books you wouldn’t normally choose and you have an opportunity to talk about books with other book lovers. This month’s book was The Lake House by Kate Morton. The story revolves around an incident that took place in an idyllic sounding house and family in Cornwall in the 1930s. The baby of the family disappears during a midsummer party. As the mystery of what happened is gradually uncoveredseventy years later by Sadie Sparrow,  a detective on enforced leave from her own job with the metropolitan police, we are introduced to many characters and jump backwards and forwards in time before eventually having everything neatly tied up in a somewhat contrived ending. There are probably too many characters to really be able to get to know them and there are a few twists and turns that seem a bit unnecessary and at times clumsy.  That aside, it is an enjoyable book to read, on the whole it’s well written, Kate does have an impressive ability to weave past and present together,  and you do want to know the truth about what happened. It’s similar to her previous novels so if you are already a fan you will definitely enjoy this. My book group all enjoyed it, we didn’t love it but all agreed it was a perfect book for a relaxing, easy read over Christmas. As I didn’t love it and there are so many books that I do love, it doesn’t make it on to my list of good reads but if you have time it is a good read!

Life after life – Kate Atkinson

I am a big fan of Kate Atkinson, I read Behind the scenes at the museum many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the voice she creates in Ruby who tells the story of her family spanning four generations. I think Life after Life has a similar voice, as we learnt about Ruby’s family through her own eyes so we experience most of the twentieth century through the central character Ursula, their own personal experience and opinions naturally colouring situations and memories. It’s a very British voice often with a wry humor. The central idea of the book, that Ursula is continually reborn after dying in different ways at various points in her life, is very clever and not as crazy as it sounds! I liked it, I liked the way the story built up layer by layer after each new death and birth. It reminded me of the books I had as a child where you could pick different endings. Ursula has many different endings and lives more of her life each time it begins, this allows us to see where with just one minor change to the story the fragile line between life and death can be altered. It allows us to live the ‘what ifs’and start again, an ability that may sometimes be useful in real life! We are introduced to members of Ursulas family including her favourite brother Teddy upon whom Kates next book God in Ruins is based. The story in Life after Life takes us from 1910 and covers both the world wars, Kate Atkinsons descriptions are powerful and atmospheric, particularly those of war torn London and the blitz. The book draws to a satisfying conclusion although personally I would have been just as happy to have had more endings and beginnings! This is one of those books that you miss when you finish it, definitely on my good reads list.