The 2015 Book Challenge: January

Happy happy Friday! Friday’s always a good day, right? It is in my world anyway, where it marks the end of my working week and the start of 2 glorious days of weekend. Today I am extra giddy about it because at 4.30 tomorrow morning (Oh God, so early, so very early) I shall be heading off on my first ski holiday in 7 whole years and I am so excited I can barely contain myself. I’ll be taking my February Book Challenge envelope with me, which makes it all even more exciting.

Anyway, earlier this month I posted about the rather excellent Christmas present my pal Sarah got me – the book challenge – and how the first book was Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927
Well, I’ve read it, and I am taking a quick ten minutes before I go on holiday (I'm going skiing. Did I say?) to jot down my thoughts about it because that is the point of the the whole thing, right?

I feel like I need to bake Sarah a cake or something oh my God, because I really liked this book. The following information came as a shock to her and so if it comes as a shock to you too then PLEASE DON’T JUDGE ME: I’ve never read any Bill Bryson before. I’ve picked up Notes from a Small Island about a gazillon times, and thought ‘yes, this is a thing I want to read….one day’ but one day never came because I am all about the novel and there are always so very many novels I want to read and I wasn’t really sure if travel writing was really my thing and so poor old Bill remained on my list of authors I might read, eventually.

Until Christmas Day. & you know what, I was delighted when I opened that book, because I probably never would have bought it for myself which is crazy, actually, because it’s a book all about 1920’s America, which, well it has my name all over it. ALL OVER IT.

So, I read it, and I loved it and well Bill Bryson, where have you been all my life?

So it is exactly what it says it is: a book about one summer in America. The summer of 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic and Babe Ruth broke his home run record; the Mississippi flooded and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed and Al Capone was at the height of his success; work started on Mt. Rushmore and the first talking film went into production and Prohibition was still in effect; production of the Ford Model T was stopped and a rather insignificant murder trial took a hold of the whole country and the Federal Reserve made the decision that precipitated the Wall Street Crash. SO MUCH HAPPENED.

So, what to tell you? Well for starters I had no clue that Henry Ford (and to a lesser extent Charles Lindbergh) was such an utter asshat. Seriously what an absolute cock.

‘He was definitely narrow-minded, barely educated and at least close to functionally illiterate. He did not like bankers, doctors, liquor, tobacco, idleness of any sort, pasteurised milk, Wall Street, overweight people, war, books or reading, J.P Morgan & Co, capital punishment, tall buildings, college graduates, Roman Catholics or Jews.’

It actually seems like the most adored public figures in 1927 were asshats in one way or another, which is unfortunate to say the least but I rather think Henry Ford was the worst of the bunch.

Bryson does an excellent job in this book of highlighting the extreme bigotry of the time, I mean, we all know how prevalant racism was, but it was interesting to see how it kept cropping up in the events of that summer – Lindbergh was racist; Ford a complete and utter hater of Jews,(and indeed EVERYONE. *insert swear word of choice here*); supposedly high brow publications published racist slurs without so much as a batted eyelid; the records for the Mississippi flood tell the exact number of cows that perished but there’s nothing about the number of humans because the majority of them were black; and the Ku Klux Klan was collecting members for fun ‘nothing better captured the expansive spirit of detestation of the period than the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan’ (and they hated everyone ever) It runs throughout the whole book and is (neatly?) tied up at the end with the terrifying statistic that batshit crazy eugenics theories led to 60,000 people being sterilised and sterilisation laws are still hanging around in 20 states TODAY. It’s messed up but still really interesting to read, you know?


Secondly how the fuck did Prohibition last for 13 years?! Seriously, what?

Thirdly Babe Ruth and all the baseball stuff, which there’s a lot of.  If you’d have asked me in December if I fancied reading all about the history of baseball I would have laaaaaaughed because erm , not so much and yet there I was reading this book and actually caring about the number of people going through the doors of Yankee Stadium and Babe Ruth’s stats. Also I now really want to watch a baseball game please. Can that happen?

ALSO the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. How could the whole entire US police and judicial system be so utterly incompetent, really. Talk about shocking. THERE WAS NO EVIDENCE. In fact, what evidence there was probably proved their innocence. And still they were executed. What?

I could go on forever, but this is a long book and I have a holiday to go on and you should read it for yourself anyway. (Sarah, if you're reading this then more of my thoughts will be coming in a letter to you just as soon as I can get them on paper. Keep your eyes peeled for your postie.)

It’s actually a really fascinating book – Bryson has this way of writing so that reading ‘One Summer’ was kind of like having a chat with someone that’s really really passionate about what it is they’re talking about – I couldn’t help but be swept along by his enthusiasm. I cared about what he cared about and I wanted every bit of information he had to share with me and then some because he made it all fascinating. He jumps from topic to topic and back again and he writes about the people as much as he writes about the events and it’s just really kind of fun. I’m so pleased I read it.

Throwback Thursday: Josephine's Book Edition

How is it Thursday again already? It's also super cold in this part of the world, it took for actual ever to get to work this morning in what can only be described as a blizzard and I am currently rocking a hoodie at my desk because COLD. Anyway. It is Thursday, because time does keep doing the passing, so let’s talk about Karen Walker’s The Age of Miracles which I read in 2012.

Everybody knows I love me good dystopia. Seriously, give me all the post-apocalyptic stories and give them to me now, and I guess that if you had to put TAoM into a box then the dystopia box is the one you’d probably choose. The book is about, in a nutshell, the slowing of the earth’s rotation and the repercussions of that. It’s not an action packed story though, in fact there’s very little action at all. The whole book is sort of eerily calm. & you know what, I liked that. I mean don’t get me wrong: I totally love a fast paced dramatic story but it kind of makes sense, that when this is a thing that’s happening to you, when ‘the slowing’ is your life, the initial chaos eventually slows down, like the world itself, and all you can do really is keep on keeping on.
Life, such as it is, goes on.

It all means, rather wonderfully, that in the midst of the end of the world, other stories are allowed to be told. Everything changes, everything, but still, so much remains the same: we get to see Julia, who’s 11 when the book starts, grow up a little and mature and change and we get to see her over-protective Mother and her never there Father; we meet her new friends and her lost friends; we deal with friendship and bullying and the heart-clenching sweetness of first love; we watch her Grandfather prepare for what we all know is to come, and we get all of this, a story of honest to goodness human relationships told against the backdrop of a world that’s quite literally falling apart. A coming of age story set during the end of the end of the world and it all just sort of happens; the days get longer and the earth is slowing and Julia just keeps growing up.

It’s a lovely book really, the writing is lovely and sharp and emotive and every single page is almost painfully poignant. It’s a book that makes you feel.

Sometimes the saddest stories take the fewest words.

My pal Helen was left feeling hopeless after reading this book which I get because you know that no matter how poetic the writing is, that things are only going to get worse – hardly your ‘feel good’ story then, it makes your heart twist and God knows that’s not always the nicest of feelings. I get it, that feeling of hopelessness but despite that (or maybe even because of it) this is entirely my kind of book, not just because of the whole dystopia thing it has going on, but because it made me think (which I love) and it made me feel (which I also love) and because it stayed with me, it made me think and question and reassess. 

Melancholy, that’s the word. This is a melancholy sort of a tale and I really really loved it.

The Christmas Book Pile and Exciting January Releases

You know what I never blogged about? My Christmas book pile. The Christmas book pile has been a thing my whole life, like, actually. My parents have always always given me a book parcel for Christmas, made up of books I want to read and books they think I should read and books with pretty covers that my Mum just couldn’t leave on the shelf. It’s pretty much the best bit about Christmas Day, the familiar weight of a present that can only contain books and wondering what’s in it. I generally get a book or two from other folk too – my Granny for instance who introduced me to Muriel Spark the Christmas before last, or the time Ian’s parents bought me the new editions of Harry Potter in a pretty boxed set. There are always books on Christmas Day, and Christmas 2014 my book haul looked like this:

There’s the Bill Bryson on top, (from Sarah, for my book challenge) which I have very nearly finished and will be coming back to talk about very soon so WATCH THIS SPACE, along with three other lovelies:
The Secret History which I am super excited about because I am terribly late to that particular party. God. I actually wonder if I am the only person left in the reading world who hasn’t read this book. I’ve heard so much about it and pretty much all of it has been excellent and now I can find out for myself. Hurrah. Here’s hoping it lives up to the hype, then.
Margaret Drabble’s The Pure Gold Baby, which I know little about actually, but Margaret Drabble is one of my Granny’s faves and we have remarkably similar bookish tastes so you know, I’m sure I’ll love it. I’d been looking at it actually just before Christmas which makes me wonder if Mum was secretly book-stalking me, or whether Granny said ‘buy this for Josephine…’
Andandand the disreputable history of frankie landau-banks which I totally did a happy dance about right there in Mum’s living room on Christmas Day because I capital letter LOVED we were liars last year and I super duper wanted this and THERE IT IS. Hurrah. There you have it. It was rather a Merry bookish Christmas and they've all been added to the towering TBR pile. Whoops.

You want to know another thing?

I’m a teeny small (massive) bit concerned that my book buying habit is going to become a habit again this year. Mostly because there are SO MANY books I want to read and don’t own and also because the list of books due for release this year that are making me jump around in poorly contained excitement is well, it’s a long list that’s getting longer and longer and longer. It’s like the magic porridge pot of lists; the more books I buy the more books get published and it’s all VERY BAD because you see, I’m not supposed to be feeding this habit. In fact, what I am supposed to be living under – until further notice – is a Book Buying Ban. It’s a very real problem though, because I am surrounded by enablers and I have no self control and I just want all the books okay? I just want them.

What I’m thinking is that if I talk all about these forthcoming books here then it might stop me from…oh who am I even trying to kid?! Let’s just cut to the chase. I just really want to talk about books that I am excited about in January (three of which are already released so you don’t even need to wait) and that you just might like as well: 

The Invisible Library­- Genevieve Cogman (published January 15th 2015)

Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she's posted to an alternative London. Their mission - to retrieve a dangerous book. But when they arrive, it's already been stolen. London's underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book.

Adding to the jeopardy, this world is chaos-infested - the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. Irene's new assistant is also hiding secrets of his own.
Soon, she's up to her eyebrows in a heady mix of danger, clues and secret societies. Yet failure is not an option - the nature of reality itself is at stake

I want this book. I want this book so badly. I’m going to buy this book and read it and hopefully not be disappointed. Does it not sound amazing? Also I think it’s one of a series which is always fun. I love a good series. It feels like it might be a little bit Thursday Next (another series that I really ought to read more of but you know, stupid book buying ban) – it sounds kind of crazy and kind of fun and just the right kind of utterly surreal and I WANT IT.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James ­– Emma Hooper (29th January 2015)

Etta's greatest unfulfilled wish, living in the rolling farmland of Saskatchewan, is to see the sea. And so, at the age of eighty-two she gets up very early one morning, takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots, and begins walking the 2, 000 miles to water.
Meanwhile her husband Otto waits patiently at home, left only with his memories. Their neighbour Russell remembers too, but differently - and he still loves Etta as much as he did more than fifty years ago, before she married Otto.

Why would I not want to read a book about an old lady hiking 2000 miles to the sea? Why would I not? Answer: I always always would. *grabby hands* Etta’s my Granny’s age and you want to know who I can imagine wanting to take a rifle and her best boots and begin a 2000 mile hike to live out a dream? My granny, that’s who, because she’s excellent. I am so excited for this and it’s out TOMORROW. Go forth and buy it. 

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins (15th Jan 2015)

Rear Window meets Gone Girl, in this exceptional and startling psychological thriller.

That’s it, that’s the blurb. & IT MAKES ME WANT TO READ IT. I loved Gone Girl and I’m feeling a little bit thriller-y at the moment so this ticks all the right boxes. 

And last but not least, I’ve already read The Life I Left Behind (1st Jan 2015) and I talk about it here. It’s good; read it.

There you go then, have at it and let me know if you read any of these – and if there are any books released this month that you can’t wait to get your hands on. I’ll be back in a week or so with my February wishlist (which includes Neil Gaiman, naturally.)

Review: Me and Mr. J

From Goodreads:

Fifteen-year-old Lara finds her soulmate. There’s just one problem – he’s her teacher.
Lara's life has changed radically since her father lost his job. As the eldest, Lara tries to keep upbeat, and the one outlet for all her problems is her diary where she can be open about how dire everything is at home, and worse, the fact that she’s being horrifically bullied at school.
And then a shining light comes out of the darkness – the new young and MALE teacher, Mr Jagger. The one person who takes Lara seriously and notices her potential. The one person who is kind to her. The one person who she falls madly and hopelessly in love with. The one person who cannot reciprocate her feelings … can he?

When I was about 17 (so long ago I’m so old oh God) I read a book called Love Lessons by David Belbin about a 17 year old girl who had a thing with her teacher. I read it, mostly, because David wrote my favourites in the Point Crime series (I loved Point Crime books so hard) and I was at that stage of author love where I wanted to read every word he’d ever written and it did sound kind of good. There weren’t really any crush-worthy teachers when I was at school (le sigh) but still, somehow, the idea of Love Lessons appealed to me.
Make of that what you will.
Perhaps it’s because it was a forbidden love; the illicitness of it all appealed to my (practically invisible) sense of danger and let’s be real, I was never one for living dangerously myself; the very idea of rule breaking brought me out in hives. All the exciting things in my life happened within the pages of books. Besides, you’re allowed to root for the people doing the things they’re not supposed to do, when it’s only happening in a book, right? It’s fine to see something appealing in the pages of this book about a teacher – a figure of authority, the one holding all the cards – engaging in an illicit and exciting affair with his student. It was ok to read this book, to root for these characters, to think the very idea of it was hot, because it was never ever ever going to be anything more than a story that didn’t even come close to being within the realms of possibility.

[Also, I have a thing for older men. If you look at the celebrities I have crushed on throughout my whole entire life, you’ll struggle to find more than a couple I actually share a decade with. I was in love with Jon Bon Jovi from the moment I was aware of his existence - I was about 12 - and my first serious boyfriend was considerably (and I mean considerably) older than me. We were together for 4 years, I am who I am now because of him and I will be forever grateful for every moment I got to spend with him, but I won’t lie: the whole ‘sexy older man’ thing was definitely a part of what made me notice him in the first place. I think it’s hot. The older man thing, not the student/teacher thing. The student/teacher thing outside the pages of a book, is a thing that is very much not fine because holy abuse of power batman.]

Anyway, back to the point. I read Love Lessons when I was 17. About 5 times. I loved it. I liked it because it didn’t feel clichéd. I mean, maybe it is, we’re talking 15 years ago (in fact ,maybe I’ll read it again to see how I feel about it now) but then, I thought it was great. It didn’t feel clichéd and it felt raw and honest and real and the fact that you got both sides of the story – teacher and student – made for an emotional and realistic read. Also, the teacher in the story was young, this was his first teaching job which was interesting. The age gap between the two characters was nothing at all, really, less probably than the age gap between me and my boyfriend now (9 years if you wondered. Sexy older man!) but still, the fact remains he was her teacher and she his student and the 5 years or whatever might as well have been 50, BUT, I was 17 and I wanted them together anyway. I read it, and I rooted for the two of them, because even though I knew it was wrong, my 17 year old romantic heart really wanted it to work.

I read it, I liked it, the trope was obviously one that appealed to me but I’d all but forgotten about it til I was browsing NetGalley recently and came across Me and Mr. J. I read the blurb, was transported right back to being 17 again and loving David Belbin a whole lot and had clicked the link without thinking twice. I read it on Sunday.

So, what did I think?

(Well, I want to read Love Lessons again for starters, so there’s that, but that’s not saying much about this book is it, which is kind of the point of the review after all.)

I think…I think that it’s been a while since I read a book that made it so readily apparent to me that I am now what my four year old niece classes as an old lady. I read a lot of YA fiction, a lot of books written for and about teenagers and not for a long time has one of them made me feel as grown up as Me and Mr J did. & you know that student/teacher thing that I found so hot when I was seventeen?

In this book I found it less so. I was much less caught up in the romance of it all, and instead found myself questioning Mr. Jagger’s choices.

Perhaps it’s the style of writing – the novel is written as entries in Lara’s diary. She’s 15/16 depending on where you are in the book and she just seems young. There’s such a difference I think between 16 and 18 and Lara really did come across sometimes like a very young 16 year old. I liked her though – she had guts, and some of the things she wrote about the more minor niggles with her parents or her brother reminded me a lot of how it felt to be that age and kind of like the whole world doesn’t understand you. She made me grin. Mostly though, I just wanted to give her a hug, a hug and an ‘it gets better’ speech.

Anyway, because you only see Lara’s point of view, you have no idea at all who Mr Jagger is or what he’s about or what he’s thinking at all so when they finally get together, it all feels so sudden – as in the second he gets Lara out of a school environment he’s not thinking twice about confessing his feelings and kissing her and texting ‘I love you’s’ a few days later. It sort of came from nowhere, the crush only having ever really been portrayed from Lara’s point of view, and even though I knew that this was where the story was going I still felt sort of blindsided. Lara’s a teenage girl; you expect that depth of feeling from her, that intensity of emotion, that sudden ‘omg I love you so much IDST.’  From Mr. Jagger though, it just didn’t feel right – I would have enjoyed the book more I think if I’d been able to get inside his head just a little bit.  I want to know what made him tick. I want to know how he felt about her, really. I wanted more Mr Jagger. (As did Lara, for entirely different reasons. Wink.)
Because I knew none of this, I spent the second half of the book just being mad at him, being mad at him and incredibly worried about her. That was my issue really, not that Mr J was older than Lara (although 16 is young in anybodies book) but that she was 16 and messed up and her entire life was falling apart around her and she needed real honest-to-God help and suppprt, not some hottie McHotterson teacher coming along and being super good at kissing but super shit at actually being a teacher and I didn’t know where his head was at.  

I liked Lara, I really really liked her, and I wanted more for her than what she got. I wanted Mr. J to care enough about her to make sure she was actually really genuinely alright and I wanted her parents to take their heads out of their backsides and I wanted somebody to lock away the evil horrible kids who were making her life hell and throw away the key. I wasn’t rooting for Lara and Mr. J at all. In fact, I was really wishing he’d just stop dicking around and be the person she needed him to be, which was not some hot teacher who regardless of his position of authority, and the fact that that position instantly handed him all of the power, or the fact that above all else he had a duty of care, decided to act on the fact that he was attracted to her. Even if he really did love her, and maybe he did – I didn’t get his point of view so I don’t know – but even if he did, it doesn’t matter, Lara was a messed up kid from a broken home being bullied to the point of sexual harassment. Kissing her in a pub is not what her teacher should have been doing. Although it can’t be denied I guess that the fact that the teacher Lara’s bullies were crushing on ‘chose’ her must’ve been something of a confidence boost….

The question is though, is that what I think because of where I am now, of who I am? Has the fact that I am on the same side of the fence as Mr J influenced my take on the book? If Me and Mr J had been written 15 years ago, would I have loved it like I loved Love Lessons?


Let that not be counted as a mark against it, then. After all, it’s not Rachel McIntyre’s fault that this 31 year old reader of a book aimed at people half her age wants to know more about the thought processes of the teacher than the student. That’s not the story being told here and that’s fine. I get that. What I would have liked though, is something with a little bit more to it than the instalove story I got – I wanted some character development on the part of Mr. J, and for some real relationship development between the two of them – I wanted the love story dammit. I always want the love story; I wanted more of Lara’s relationship with her parents, both of whom pretty much hovered on the periphery of the story and let her down massively; I wanted things with Lara’s bullies to have developed further too, towards a more satisfying resolution because that was a story I could get behind, a story I could relate to and a story that matters and oh God, I sound like I didn’t enjoy it don’t I?

That’s not true.

I did read it thinking all of ^^^ that stuff, but it all kind of came together for me at the end. I gave it three whole stars on Goodreads which is a long way from being terrible and I read it in an afternoon - that should tell you something! I just, I wish certain things had been different, namely that Mr J was a little bit more fleshed out, and Lara a little bit older. That said, it was a quick easy read, and I liked it.  I liked Lara and I loved that she wasn’t some perfect teenager from a perfect home and with a perfect life because teenagers do come from broken homes and bullying is a thing that happens and you know, kudos to Rachel McIntyre for writing a story with a main character that her readers are going to be able to relate to, for taking those real life problems and running with them.  Lara was pretty excellent actually, all things considered and the way she dealt with the shitty hand life dealt her is what I hope people – young people – take away from reading this book. She had an incredible strength of character, despite everything that was thrown at her, and as young female protagonists go, she held her own.

So. The end. I liked that things got better for Lara and that she figured a lot of things out and that she came out of her GCSE year wiser, despite the asshat kids who tried to break her. She seemed to have her head screwed on by the time the book finished and I’m glad she ended up in a better place than she’d started. McIntyre did a great job of tying up the loose ends and making her (valid and important) point.  
I actually really liked how that all came about, because Lara is pretty much as unreliable a narrator as there has ever been, and I wonder if that was kind of the point? I think, that even though (as a grown up) I wanted a more rounded look at the whole affair (pun intended) the point might just have been to tell this story from the point of view of a 16 year old girl with an almighty crush: Mr J could do no wrong, his girlfriend (later ex) was painted as a psycho bitch from hell, the people who cared about Lara the most, notably her cousin, were painted in a bad light the second they disagreed with any of her choices and you get to see the whole way through how despite how she perceives herself, deep down she really is just a kid. As the reader you’re kind of looking at this relationship with her teacher and sort of thinking ‘errrr, hang on a second’ but you don’t get much time to dwell on it properly because Lara is all ‘MR J IS SO FIT AND HE LOVES ME SO MUCH ZOMGZ SOULMATES.’
But then, you get this epilogue where she’s kind of come full circle and she’s looking back on her own life and her own choices from a whole new vantage point and it’s kind of great, really. If that was the point, to take this contender for the World’s Most Unreliable Narrator Award, and have her figure things out for herself in the end, well, mission accomplished I think because that sends a valuable message too, doesn’t it?

TL;DR: This is not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s also a long long way from being the worst and I think that teenage girls (who are the target market for this novel after all) are going to eat it up.

Me and Mr J will be Published by Egmont UK on February 5th 2015.

The Girl in the Photograph

From Goodreads:

The Girl in the Photograph is a haunting and atmospheric novel that tells the tales of women in two different eras – the 1890’s and 1930’s – and how their lives seem to be entwined by fate. Kate Riordan’s novel is a beautifully dark and beguiling tale which will sweep you away. It will appeal to fans of Kate Morton and Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca.

In the summer of 1933, Alice Eveleigh has arrived at Fiercombe Manor in disgrace. The beautiful house becomes her sanctuary, a place to hide her shame from society in the care of the housekeeper, Mrs Jelphs. But the manor also becomes a place of suspicion, one of secrecy.

Something isn't right.

Someone is watching.

There are secrets that the manor house seems determined to keep. Tragedy haunts the empty rooms and foreboding hangs heavy in the stifling heat. Traces of the previous occupant, Elizabeth Stanton, are everywhere and soon Alice discovers Elizabeth's life eerily mirrors the path she herself is on.

The Girl in the Photograph (Kate Riordan) was published by Penguin on January 15th so it’s just over a week old. It’s a rather good winter read, actually. Goodreads describes it as ‘atmospheric and haunting,' which, yes, accurate description is accurate.

'I could never have imagined all that would happen in those few short months and how, by the end of them, my life would have altered irrevocably and for ever'

The book tells the story, simultaneously of Alice (in 1933) and Elizabeth (in the late 1800’s.)

An affair with a married man that leaves her pregnant  *gasp* causes Alice to be sent away from her home in London in disgrace, to spend the summer (and her pregnancy) at Fiercombe Manor where a childhood friend of her Mother’s is Housekeeper. 
You can’t help but feel sorry for her really – her Mother seems a little cold, her Dad a little weak and really, Alice is just a naive young girl who fell in love with the wrong man. He told her he loved her, that he'd leave his wife and she believed him, bless her. Being packed off to a deserted manor in the middle of nowhere to have her baby among strangers knowing she’ll have to give it up for adoption on her return to London feels harsh, and Alice is so likeable that you can’t not sympathise with her. I did at least. 

A little research before she leaves London and the discovery of a letter hidden in an old sewing box and an old diary grabs Alice’s attention – the ideal distraction from her own rather sorry situation and can you blame her really: things are pretty shit from where she’s sitting, I’d have needed a distraction too – and soon she’s pretty obsessed by Fiercombe Manor’s former mistress, Elizabeth, who in the summer of 1898 was also heavily pregnant.
There are eerie similarities between Alice’s story and Elizabeth’s – similarities that run far beyond the summer pregnancies - which really help with the split narrative, as does the excellent development of all the characters, minor ones included.  The more Alice finds out about Elizabeth the more fascinated I became, and whilst the old dual timeline is becoming increasingly familiar,  it works super well here, thanks in part to Mrs Jelphs, the housekeeper (once ladies maid to Elizabeth) who is a strong supporting character and ties the two stories together nicely.

This is a story that’s bursting at the seams (at the spine?) with detail. Seriously, there is a lotalot going on here, and the atmosphere is tense and almost claustrophobic the whole way through. It’s not particularly dialogue heavy which I liked and it’s written in such a way that there’s a sort of sense of panic - terror almost although that does feel a little bit like my being over dramatic - that builds gently the whole way through, not to the point that you’re actually terrified (a horror story this is not, as if I would ever. Although perhaps don’t read it if you’re feeling a little nervy) but certainly to the point that you don’t want to stop reading.. You feel it building and building, an almost delicate crescendo, and you know something is going to happen and it might not be something good; you kind of don’t want to know, but at the same time you really really do. You need to unravel these two stories; you need to figure out the connection; you need to know what happened to Elizabeth and what’s going to happen to Alice and how it all pans out. Just like Elizabeth’s story got its claws into Alice, this whole book got it’s claws into me. The attention to detail is excellent, the story gripping and all of the characters fully fleshed out and real. It’s really really good.

I think you should read it.

[I received a copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Throwback Thursday: Josephine’s Book Edition

Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.

It's (Throwback) Thursday! Let’s talk about Ruta Sepetys and Between Shades of Gray.

I read this in the summer of 2011. Ian and I were on holiday in Cornwall, staying in a beach hut style cottage and I started this book on the beach at St Ives and finished in my beach hut bed whilst Ian read a car magazine beside me. I seem to recall we drank wine and ate Maltesers and it would have been so lovely had this book not crushed my soul. I got about three quarters of the way through, said to Ian ‘I think I’m sad,’ and promptly burst into tears. Like, I was actually sobbing. We're talking proper ugly crying here people, the real deal.

The book is about, in a nutshell, Siberian work camps in WWII and it’s really freaking brutal.

It’s also exceptionally well written.

This is WWII like I’d never really seen before, and I hated myself for that. I never really knew that any of this terrible horrible stuff even happened. You just don’t hear about it the same as you do say, the Holocaust, or at least I never had. You think about WWII and you think about Hitler and the mass genocide of the Jews, but this, the millions of people that were killed by Stalin and his men, it’s kind of glossed over. We’d touched on it briefly at school, and I knew Stalin was a total dickwad, but the atrocities portrayed in Between Shades of Gray, (which, fitting title is fitting, as a by the by because this book is all about varying shades of gray - good people doing shitty things and random acts of kindness from total bastards) those atrocities I had little idea about. 
& that ignorance left me feeling disturbed and guilty and somehow humbled. 
That’s the thing I think: that this might be a work of ‘fiction’ but at the same time it’s totally not. It’s not. These things happened. It’s part of our history, and what the hell is there that feels like a sucker-punch in quite the same way as knowing that? That letting people freeze to death in huts they built themselves whilst enjoying a glass of whiskey by a fire is a thing that happened? That it's only one in a too long list of inhuman things that happened to innocent people.
Reading this book made me angry, it made my chest physically hurt – breathing in, filling my lungs, at some points hurt – it broke my heart. Not just the brutality of it either, but the hope; each and every smile made my eyes water, each joke made me want to cry, each tiny act of kindness felt like a knife wound and the love story, Lina and Andrius. Jesus God. I swear. I don’t know if it made me hurt more or less.

Even thinking about it now kind of makes me want to cry a little bit.

And yet. And yet. 

I could not put it down. I swear. I couldn’t stop reading.

Here’s the thing. This book is not a nice book. Bittersweet, that’s the word: it will not fill you with any kind of joy, really (although, that said there are moments that shine like a beacon in the darkness, like the brightest of stars in the night sky)   It will, instead, smash your heart into millions of tiny little pieces.

‘Why the hell,’ I hear you (especially you, Helen. You are particularly loud. I am a mystery to you, I know.) ‘would I want to read a book that's going make me so sad?’

You want to read it because whilst it’s not pretty, it is beautiful. And it will change you. And it matters. You need to read it, you do, because I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that it is phenomenal, but, (and this is very important) you need to read it prepared for what it will make you feel.

Review: The Life I Left Behind

I’ve always kind of liked a good thriller, now and then.  Once upon a time, actually, I’d read little else, kind of addicted to the thudthudthud of my chest as I turned pages in a hurry, devouring words and holding my breath, safe in the confines of my own home.
These days I read a lot less of the old thriller; I have to be in the mood for a book that gives me that familiar panicky feeling, for twists and turns that leave me gasping.  

I must’ve been in that kind of a mood then, this week, because I couldn’t put Colette Mcbeth’s The Life I Left Behind down. On the whole, it was a riveting read, and the last 15 percent or so (I read this on my Kindle) had me turning the pages like a crazy person; that thudthudthud I mentioned? The climax of this book gave me that feeling in spades. The premise is interesting, the characters – for the most part at least – vivid and well crafted, and the whole thing unravels at that sort of pace that keeps you on the edge of your seat, skipping meals and frantically speed-reading towards a conclusion that really is pretty damn satisfying.

This is the story of two crimes and interestingly, the narrative of the novel is split between three main characters – Melody, the victim of an attack 6 years ago that left her in a coma and now suffering from poorly disguised PTSD; Eve, who has just been killed – crime number two - possibly by the same person who attacked Melody years ago (yep, we’re hearing from a dead person here, which in and of itself is a pretty neat twist and works better than you might imagine) and Victoria, a police officer who worked on Melody’s case and is the lead on Eve’s.

I could have done without Victoria’s POV if I’m honest. There wasn’t much of it, just a chapter here and a chapter there which meant I didn’t quite get in her head, and there wasn’t enough of the whole police work (which usually I love) to hook me in, and so I was reading her chapters and counting the pages til I was back with Melody (who is rediscovering herself and reclaiming her life in the wake of Eve’s murder, a clever and interesting arc) or Eve (who has been investigating Melody’s attack in the wake of the guy who was convicted being released from prison and who may have been murdered because of it) both of whom I really liked, for entirely different reasons. Eve is an interesting narrator, her investigation into Melody’s attack thorough and intelligent and the way the intricacies of the story are revealed through Eve’s eyes, either via the research she leaves behind before her murder, or her recounting of her story alongside the investigation into her own death is fascinating.
As for Melody, she’s a great example of how a person is not always all they appear to be on the surface. Melody has an inner strength that even she didn’t know she had and when everybody – herself included – expects her to fall apart upon learning the man convicted of attacking her has been released from prison and is possibly back to his old (murderous) tricks, Melody does the opposite. What everybody thought would break her actually saves her, kind of, and watching her take back her life made for a very satisfying read

If I had to pick out a flaw, then I’d go with this: I kind of wish the secondary characters had been a little more fleshed out, particularly Melody’s fiancé Sam who seemed to undergo a personality transplant about a third of the way in that made me blink a little in confusion. The thing with books like these is that most of the times the supporting cast is just as important as the protagonist(s) and it can be just a tiny bit frustrating if you feel like they’re not given much attention until the chapter they star in. That’s a minor niggle though, because on the whole I really liked this book. The prologue was excellent and grabbed me from the get go; the clever way in which the threads of the story are woven together delighted me; and the ending was exactly how the ending to a good thriller should be.

Throwback Thursday: Josephine’s Book Edition

I made the most delicious tea last night, all smoked cod and beans and cheese and yumminess. It was Nigella inspired, obvs, but this is me, and I do thins thing where I want to cook the thing but don’t have the ingredients required to cook the thing and so I just swap them out for whatever I have in the cupboard.
Also, Nigella’s version of this meal does not involve any kind of topping with cheese and grilling. However, why would you not? What savoury dish is not made better by topping with cheese and grilling?
So, I made it, and it was lush and I was super happy. Ian was less so, but it was always going to be hit and miss with him: he’s not so keen on things like that. He hates gnocchi, and will only eat risotto under sufferance, (which is a shame as I could eat both of those things for ever and not get fed up) and so I kind of knew that a meal that was mostly haricot beans and a bit of fish wasn’t going to fill him with joy. & why I have decided this is a thing to blog about I have no idea.

I still haven’t finished the Bill Bryson – although I am loving it. Seriously, so good. The thing is, though, is that it’s the kind of book that you can just dip in and out of and there are a couple of books that I got from Netgalley that I need to read sharpish, so last night (after the smoked cod deliciousness) I took myself off to bed with fruit pastilles and a glass of wine and started to read The Life I Left Behind. I’m only about a quarter of the way behind, but so far so good. I am intrigued, which is kind of the point, and it looks like being a super quick read so I should still be able to finish Bryson by the end of the month.

Also, today is Thursday (which you know already, but bear with me as I do have a point…) and various social media websites seem to run with a thing called ‘Throwback Thursday’ or (#TBT if you tweet or Instagram), whereby people post content, usually photos, relating to something they’ve done or seen in the past. Well, I thought to myself whilst pondering on the fact that updating more regularly was one of my New Year’s Resolutions, why not jump on that bandwagon? Everyone loves a little bit of nostalgia do they not, and I love talking about books I have read and liked and so here we go – Throwback Thursday: Josephine’s Book Edition.

I read this week that Steve Toltz has a new book out later this year, a fact that delights me, and so what better place to go back to this Thursday than 2010,  and Toltz’s debut novel A Fraction of the Whole (first published in 2008.)

You want to know why I like it don’t you? I like it, mostly, because it’s really excellently written. It also contains one of my favourite quotes of ever.

I’ll teach you how to decipher all the confused faces by closing your eyes & how to cringe when someone says the words ‘your generation’. I will teach you how not to demonise your enemies & how to make yourself unappetising when the hordes turn up to eat you. I’ll teach you how to yell with your mouth closed & how to steal happiness & how the only real joy is singing yourself hoarse & nude girls & how never to eat in an empty restaurant & how not to leave the windows of your heart open when it looks like rain & how everyone has a stump where something necessary was amputated. I’ll teach you how to know what’s missing


So, what’s it about?

From Goodreads:
Most of his life, Jasper Dean couldn’t decide whether to pity, hate, love, or murder his certifiably paranoid father, Martin, a man who overanalyzed anything and everything and imparted his self-garnered wisdom to his only son. But now that Martin is dead, Jasper can fully reflect on the crackpot who raised him in intellectual captivity, and what he realizes is that, for all its lunacy, theirs was a grand adventure.
As he recollects the events that led to his father’s demise, Jasper recounts a boyhood of outrageous schemes and shocking discoveries—about his infamous outlaw uncle Terry, his mysteriously absent European mother, and Martin’s constant losing battle to make a lasting mark on the world he so disdains. It’s a story that takes them from the Australian bush to the cafes of bohemian Paris, from the Thai jungle to strip clubs, asylums, labyrinths, and criminal lairs, and from the highs of first love to the lows of failed ambition. The result is a rollicking rollercoaster ride from obscurity to infamy, and the moving, memorable story of a father and son whose spiritual symmetry transcends all their many shortcomings.
A Fraction of the Whole is an uproarious indictment of the modern world and its mores and the epic debut of the blisteringly funny and talented Steve Toltz.

This book is excellent. It’s long, at over 700 pages in my paperback copy, but it doesn’t feel long, it’s fast-paced and witty and sharp. There’s a remarkably short list of characters and yet still an awful lot going on – there is nothing in that whole 700+ pages that you could get away with skipping, it’s all brilliant and it’s all relevant.  At times it’s fairly harrowing and Toltz tackles some pretty heavy subjects with an enviable skill (another of those books that leaves me asking, ‘how do I words?’), but it also made me laugh out loud and I remember being a little bit blown away that this was Toltz’s first novel. It’s pretty impressive, I think to write a book that touches your readers on a deep level, a fundamental level, to write an unlikely tale of tragedy and yet still manage to pepper it with a sharp wit. There’s something about the writing that feels kind of effortless, like, if you smile or even laugh, that it’s not because Toltz was trying to be funny, it’s just that he naturally kind of is. It’s that kind of humour and this is that kind of story – life is shit sometimes and bad stuff happens sometimes and sometimes its really sort of hard, like when you’re having the worst day ever and out of the blue something happens that has you laughing even though you’re wound tight as a spring inside; a bad day doesn’t stop the good stuff being good. Not always. 

Basically, it’s just a really really excellent read and I am so excited for Quicksand.

I couldn't think of anything other than her and the components of her. For example, her red hair. But was I so primitive I let myself be bewitched by hair? I mean, really. Hair! It's just hair! Everyone has it! She puts it up, she lets it down. So what? And why did all the other parts of her have me wheezing with delight? I mean, who hasn't got a back, or a belly, or armpits? This whole finicky obsession serves to humiliate me even as I write it, sure, but I suppose it isn't that abnormal. That's what first love is all about. What happens is you meet a love object and immediately a hole inside you starts aching, the hole that is always there but you don't notice until someone comes along, plugs it up, and then runs away with the plug.

And that’s that. Throwback Thursday. I wonder if I’ll remember to do it again next week….?