I read Bjørn Larssen’s debut novel, Storytellers, which made some references to Norse gods and featured a certain subtle humour in places. I also read his second novel, Children, which is about the children of Norse gods and contains far more funny bits. I’ve read many of his blog posts and follow him on Twitter; the conclusion I’ve come to is that Mr Larssen is a terrific comedic writer, first and foremost, so I’m delighted that he’s actually written A FUNNY BOOK!
Creation is a novella, a slim paperback (beautifully presented), is hilarious, and made me laugh out loud on several occasions, which books rarely do. It’s about Odin and his brothers, Vili and Vé, creating the world. Except they’re not very good at it and don’t really understand what they’re doing. They wonder how to get the food out of Audhumla the cow, why words like ‘anvil’ ‘laptop’ and ‘algebra’ keep popping into their heads, how the flying water happened and why the wolf bit off the peacock’s head. Odin discovers that, along with man and woman, he has created irony.
I think it’s the sort of book you find screamingly funny or you don’t, depending on your sense of humour. I echo the words of Bjørn’s husband, when he finished reading it: ‘When can I get more?’
In the beginning there was confusion.
Ever woken up being a God, but not knowing how to God properly? Your brothers keep creating mosquitoes and celery and other, more threatening weapons. What can your ultimate answer be – the one that will make you THE All-Father and them, at best, the All-Those-Uncles-We-Don’t-Talk-About?
Terry has been reading I Jonathan, A Charleston Tale of the Rebellion by George W B Scott
Jonathan Vander is marooned in Charleston on his way back to his hometown of Boston, just as the Civil War is brewing. Circumstances leave him with nothing but the shirt on his back, but he makes himself a life there. He does not fight in the war; this is more of a social than a military history, showing how the war affected the people during and for many years after.
The book is written as though a third hand true story; as an old man, Jonathan gives his account to his great-great nephew, who then gives it to the writer. It is one of those novels that you’re aware of being a heck of an achievement, all the way through; the research that has gone into it is evident without one ever feeling that one is reading research. It’s highly readable, and I loved the writing style; it was a delight to read an author who uses the language so well, and is acutely aware of the words and phrasing that would have been used in this period in history.
I particularly liked Jonathan’s observations about the futility of war; there is a good section about this in the chapter Laurels of Glory. And I loved this:
‘Duty to an abstract government whose purpose was to use the heroic idealism of youth to forward the goals of the venal wealthy. Is it not always so?’
The observations and accounts of the attitudes towards the slave trade and segregation were most interesting; I was surprised by some of them. ‘Several fine hotels on Broad Street by St Michael’s Church were owned by free blacks, serving only whites. Some freemen were themselves slaveowners, buying them to use as labourers’. As always with historical events, though, you cannot judge them by the outlook and culture of today’s world.
I found the end of the book, about the aftermath, most emotive, not to mention the moment when the reader is told what the ‘I’ in the title means – it is not as I’d assumed. Now and again I felt the story meandered a mite too much; it is a very long book and I felt it could have been edited down just a little. However, I could not give it anything less than five stars, and highly recommend it to anyone with a particular interest in the American Civil War, or historical fiction generally.
First-time novelist George WB Scott debuts a novel that offers a thrilling glimpse of Civil War Charleston through the eyes of a newcomer from Boston.
Readers join the main character of “I Jonathan, A Charleston Tale of the Rebellion” on his journey as a young man, marooned in a strange city just as the Civil War begins. His relationships with working men and women, slaves, merchants, planters, spies, inventors, soldiers, sweethearts and musicians tell the story of a dynamic culture undergoing its greatest challenge. Scott’s novel shows the arguments and trials of a wealthy cosmopolitan community preparing to fight a nation superior in manpower and arms.
Terry has been reading Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which is both entertaining and incredibly sad. It is set mostly in 1989/90, with flashbacks to the 1930s, and Matty Osborne, also known as Matilda Windsor, has been a resident in psychiatric hospitals for fifty years – since she was around twenty. The reason given at the time was ‘moral turpitude’ – in other words, becoming pregnant without being married. I remember seeing something on television once, a long time ago, about how, in the first half of this century, young girls who were committed to asylums for getting pregnant, and were never let out again. In this circumstance, Matty eventually lost her mind; her path to this state is not revealed until the end of the book.
She believes that she is in her own stately home – sometimes during the Great War, at other times during World War II – that the other residents are her guests, and the carers are her staff. The story weaves between three points of view: Matty, a young carer called Janice, and Matty’s younger half-brother Henry who doesn’t know where she is or why she left home. The staff of Tuke House have no idea whatsoever what goes on in Matty’s head, or probably within the head of any of the residents. Janice is likable and fun, and I enjoyed the portrayals of the people she worked with, most of them ghastly, grey jobsworths with limited imagination. She is very much a young woman of the Thatcher years with anti-Thatcher ideals; I felt such a sense of going back over 3 decades when I read about her.
I guessed early on what had led to Matty’s dreadful fate, but it’s not obvious, and I did change my mind a few times; either way, the fact that we don’t know ‘how, who and why’ adds to the page-turning quality of the book. When I got to the end of her 1930s story, I could have cried at how alone she was, how there was no-one, anywhere, who would listen to and believe her. It was so tragic, so shocking, made even more so because you know that this sort of thing happened to so many girls, never mind the stories of some of her friends in the unmarried mothers’ home.
Another element that adds to the suspense is Henry’s search for the long lost sister he hardly remembers, and all the near misses when he could have found her but didn’t. They’re frustrating; each time I though, oh, they’re going to find each other!
I found this book particularly interesting because I’ve worked at a psychiatric hospital in the past, and because I was reminded of my late mother, who had Alzheimer’s for eleven years and lived in a care home for the last seven or so years of her life. I visited her often; I remember her being under the impression that the place was a hotel, and the carers were waitresses.
Although this story has a certain amount of resolution, I gather there is to be a sequel. I admit to being a little disappointed as I expected to get to the end and have everything nicely wrapped up – but life isn’t like that, and the stories of Matty, Janice and Henry will continue. I look forward to reading the next book when it appears!
In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect.
Henry was only a boy when he waved goodbye to his glamorous grown-up sister; approaching sixty, his life is still on hold as he awaits her return.
As a high-society hostess renowned for her recitals, Matty’s burden weighs heavily upon her, but she bears it with fortitude and grace.
Janice, a young social worker, wants to set the world to rights, but she needs to tackle challenges closer to home.
A brother and sister separated by decades of deceit. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart?
In this, her third novel, Anne Goodwin has drawn on the language and landscapes of her native Cumbria and on the culture of long-stay psychiatric hospitals where she began her clinical psychology career.
Terty has been reading Departures by E. J. Wenstrom
4 out of 5 stars
I adored the premise of this book – it is set way into the future, after devastating wars, in a part of the world ruled by the ‘Directorate’. Here, citizens live in environmentally safe domes called Quads, where every aspect of their lives is observed, every move they make controlled by their governors.
To an extent, I saw this situation as a clever take on a world that could be waiting for us: the mildest physical or mental ill health is to be feared, free speech is not an option and the primary objective is safety for all. No risk taking, no individuality, no strong ideals to make a stand for. In the Quads, extremes of emotion are not allowed, and grief is treated with medication – which brings me to the title of the book. All citizens have their ‘departure’ (death) date tattooed on their arm. Many will live for over a century, but others are allowed far less time on this earth. Evie doesn’t know why she is to die at aged seventeen, but, as with every other custom in the Quads, the ‘departure’ procedure is presented as a kindness; the Directorate wishes to spare the individual any pain or discomfort.
Full compliance is essential; any diversion from the official line, from the prescribed behaviour, is not tolerated.
‘The Directorate would do whatever was necessary to placate its citizens. There would be an explanation. A distraction. And then life would move forward. A few might question it all for a bit, but the tug of a content, easy life would ultimately lull them back into line. Because, I realise, here’s the kicker: what most people want is not to trust their government. It’s not to build a better world. All they want is to be comfortable … and with a sickening twist to my stomach, I realise that I am one of them.’
The problem with Evie’s Departure ceremony is not only that she doesn’t know why she must die when her life has hardly begun. Her departure doesn’t happen as it should. She lives. She is one of the few for whom the euthanasia medication doesn’t work.
The book alternates between the points of view of Evie, as she finds herself outside the Quads in a strange world that isn’t supposed to exist, and her sister Gracelynn, who is confused, hurting over the loss of her sister, and beginning to wonder if their lives are based on lies. The writing itself is clear and effective, and the compelling plot line flows along. Evie and Gracelynn’s discoveries come to light gradually, with truths unravelling at just the right pace.
For the first half of the book, Evie and Gracelynn’s personalities were well-defined, very different, but as the action ramps up they become more alike. This novel is YA, not usually my genre of choice as I have not been a young adult for decades, but I couldn’t resist the plot. I felt this was right for the younger end of the YA range; I can imagine liking it when I was about fourteen but finding it a bit too simplistic when older.
I would have liked some sort of explanation about where in the world this was supposed to take place; as this is a couple of hundred years or more into the future, it could be that the author envisions a world in which the countries as we know them no longer exist – fair enough. There is a little background information, but I would have liked more, and to know how large an area the Quads are supposed to cover, as well as how big they are – I couldn’t imagine them. The only other problems I had with it were a) overuse of the word ‘goofy’, and b) the malfunctioning euthanasia process – even now, there exists the means to put people to death quickly and effectively, so it seems unlikely that in a couple of centuries’ time they would still be making errors. However, any books of this genre require some belief suspension here and there, and this didn’t bother me too much. Not as much as all the goofy grins, anyway, or ‘Jeeze’ being spelled ‘Geez’ (as an expression of annoyance, it’s short for ‘Jesus’) – repetitions and misspellings are something we all do, but these should have been picked up by the editor.
Departures is a stand-alone, though I imagine there is more to come; I liked the rather uncertain ending (no spoilers!), particularly Gracelynn’s outcome. E J Wenstrom has created a spookily plausible future world, and I’d certainly be interested in seeing what happens next.
Tonight, seventeen-year-old Evalee is scheduled to die.
She’s planned her celebration for weeks, and other than leaving her sister Gracelyn behind, she’s ready. The Directorate says this is how it should be, and she trusts them, as all its citizens do. So tonight she dresses up, she has a party, and she dances. Then she goes to sleep for the last time … except, the next morning, Evalee wakes up.
Gracelyn is a model Directorate citizen with a prodigious future ahead. If she could only stop thinking about the shuffling from Evalee’s room on her departure morning. Even wondering if something went wrong is treasonous enough to ruin her. If she pulls at the thread, the entire careful life the Directorate set for her could unravel into chaos.
Swept away by rebels, Evalee must navigate a future she didn’t count on in a new, untidy world. As the Directorate’s lies are stripped away, she becomes determined to break Gracelyn free from its grasp—before Gracelyn’s search for the truth proves her to be more unruly than she’s worth to the Directorate.
Terry has been reading Sunflowers Under Fire by Diana Stevans
Even before I began to read this, I was so impressed by what Diana Stevan has done – this is the first part of a partially fictionalised biography of her grandmother, Lukia Mazurets, who Stevan knew as a young child. In the notes at the back, she writes that her mother told her the story of their lives, and she pieced the rest together by extensive research of the history of that place and time. The research is evident throughout, without seeming intrusive; the customs and daily toils of such resilient peoples’ lives were fascinating to read about. Also most interesting was the effect of the political situation, from WW1 to 1929, and how little the peasants actually knew; all news about events elsewhere in the country came via word of mouth. Aside from this, the nature of Lukia’s incredibly hard life, with so much tragedy, meant that events happening thousands of miles away were not her immediate concern. The novel begins in 1915, with her husband going off to fight for the Tsar just as Lukia has given birth to a sixth child – Stevan’s mother. The story is simply written, very readable, and I flew through the first half. During the last third, I sometimes felt that events were whizzed through too fast, and the storytelling became a little too simplistic, as if she was racing to the end. Now and again I would have liked a little more depth and detail, and did consider that there might be an excess of material for one novel.
In itself this is a marvellous book to have written, and I imagine it is greatly treasured by Stevan’s family, but it also stands up as a commendable piece of historical fiction about the lives of the common people of a country about which I knew little. I have the sequel, and look forward to finding out what happens next.
In this family saga and Great War story, love and loss are bound together by a country always at war. A heartbreakingly intimate novel about one courageous woman.
In 1915, Lukia Mazurets, a Ukrainian farmwife, delivers her eighth child while her husband is serving in the Tsar’s army. Soon after, she and her children are forced to flee the invading Germans. Over the next fourteen years, Lukia must rely on her wits and faith to survive life in a refugee camp, the ravages of a typhus epidemic, the Bolshevik revolution, unimaginable losses, and one daughter’s forbidden love.
Based on the true stories of her grandmother’s ordeals, author Diana Stevan captures the voices of those who had little say in a country that is still being fought over.
Terry has been reading The Wilderness Between us by Penny Haw
A close-knit group of friends set off on a hike in the remote, mountainous Tsitsikamma region of South Africa. Three couples, one father and his daughter. From the beginning there are problems; one person falls ill, and another takes no notice of the rangers’ weather warnings, leaving them stranded in various locations.
This interesting and highly readable drama centres around Clare, the daughter, who has anorexia, and Faye, the wife of Derek, whose own insecurities manifest themselves in the psychological abuse he bestows on Faye; he uses a version of the ‘gaslighting’ technique, lying to her about things she has said and done in order to make her doubt her own emotional stability. Although I understood the situation, I did find it frustrating that she was such a complete doormat and appeared never to have stood up for herself about anything in her entire married life.
Clare’s story was most compelling; how the anorexia began, the reasons behind it, the way in which it took hold and the repercussions. Clare’s self-awareness made her likable, and I thought the whole subject was dealt with sensitively and intelligently, while still making for a good story in which I was totally engrossed.
I liked that this was set in South Africa, not a part of the world I know much about, and I enjoyed the occasional South African/Afrikaans word, even when I wasn’t sure what it meant. I thought there could have been more of a sense of desperation, fear and hunger, considering the precarious situation everyone was in, but the intricate emotional dynamics kind of made up for this, from a reader’s point of view. I particularly liked Faye’s feeling of connection with her environment, near the end.
I had a few issues with some of the content (such as a few instances of the word ‘convince’ that should have been ‘persuade’ – it’s one of my pet peeves!), but nothing major. I enjoyed this book; it’s a thoroughly good read – and the cover is gorgeous!
Faye Mackenzie and her friends’ anorexic daughter, Clare are thrown together when a flood separates them from their hiking group in the remote, mountainous Tsitsikamma region of South Africa. With Clare critically injured, Faye is compelled to overcome her self-doubt and fear of the wild to take care of the younger woman, who opens her heart to Faye.
As their new friendship takes the women on an unexpected journey of discovery, the rest of the group wrestles with the harrowing aftermath of their own near tragedy. When the hiking party is reunited, their number is reduced by one.
Juxtaposing physical and psychological suspense, The Wilderness Between Us is a tale of two fragile women who unexpectedly find clarity, independence and renewed purpose as they fight to survive. It is a vivid, moving story about family, friendship, adventure and the healing power of nature and compassion. It also expounds the author’s love for animals and the outdoors.
Terry has been reading The White Rajah by Tom Williams
5 out of 5 stars
I read the third in this series (the Williamson papers), Back Home, five years ago, and adored it – they’re all stand alones. I read Book #2, Cawnpore, shortly afterwards, liked it but in a 4* rather than a ‘5* OMG’ way, and never got round to reading The White Rajah. Then I watched the film Edge of the World, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as James Brooke, and thought, I know of a book about this…
In short, it’s a fair bit different from the film, in that it’s written from the fictional John Williamson’s point of view – he is cast as an interpreter who went with Brooke to Borneo. However, I recognised the atmosphere and the chain of events, but even if I hadn’t, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Tom Williams is a fine writer and a most engaging storyteller, his style perfect for the time period, and I was engrossed from the first page. His characterisation is subtle and clever, and the narrative is not without humour (the earlier Governor of Sarawak’s military strategy).
I loved reading about the different tribes in their long huts and the traditions; I would have liked to read more about them. Of course, the attitudes of the British men are of the time, and at first they see it as their God-given right – nay, duty – to bring ‘civilisation’ to the natives, though there is a rather nice passage in which Williamson observes a tribe and considers that they seem quite happy and efficient as they are, thank you very much. About the Dyaks: ‘These were a people who knew not the poorhouse nor the lockup, whose lives were not blighted by working in great factories. They knew nothing of steam locomotives or spinning machines but led a simple life at one with nature.’
Highly recommended: ‘A tale of adventure set against the background of a jungle world of extraordinary beauty and terrible savagery’.
Invalided out of the East India Company’s army, James Brooke looks for adventure in the South China Seas. When the Sultan of Borneo asks him to help suppress a rebellion, Brooke joins the war to support the Sultan and improve his chances of trading successfully in the area. Instead, he finds himself rewarded with his own country, Sarawak.Determined to be an enlightened ruler who brings peace and prosperity to his people, James settles with his lover, John Williamson, in their new Eden. But piracy, racial conflict, and court plotting conspire to destroy all he has achieved. Driven from his home and a fugitive in the land he ruled, James is forced to take extreme measures to drive out his enemies.The White Rajah is the story of a man, fighting for his life, who must choose between his beliefs and the chance of victory. Based on a true story, Brooke’s battle is a tale of adventure set against the background of a jungle world of extraordinary beauty and terrible savagery. Told through the eyes of the man who loves him and shares his dream, this is a tale of love and loss from a 19th century world that still speaks to us today.
Terry has been reading Backstories by Simon Van Der Velde
This is a novel idea – a series of easy-read short stories, each one an imagined snapshot of the early years of well-known person, but ‘the reveal’ doesn’t come until the end, so you can have a good time guessing the identity of the main character as you read.
They’re clearly well-researched; I guessed all of them except one (Past Time), which was about someone I’d heard of without knowing anything about their life; however, I was able to do ‘swapsies’ with another member of the review team, as I knew a couple that she didn’t!
Slight downsides – I found some were made too obvious; I’d have an idea who it was, then instead of there being a more telling hint at the end, it was given away too early or spelled out in black and white, and then underlined (metaphorically). Not all of them, just some. Also, the nature of the theme does rather tempt one to rush through to spot the clues, rather than just reading the story at a normal pace. They’re all nicely written but, for me, lacked that ‘X’ factor. This is, of course, only down to personal taste.
My favourites were The Blank Face, Preserved in Amber and Tonight’s The Night.
Dreamers, singers, heroes and killers, they can dazzle with their beauty or their talent or their unmitigated evil, yet inside themselves they are as frail and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them? Can you unravel the truth? These are people you know, but not as you know them.Peel back the mask and see.
Terry has been reading Fireflies and Chocolate by Ailish Sinclair
I very much liked Ailish Sinclair’s debut novel, The Mermaid and the Bear, so was looking forward to this, and I was pleased to see it’s about the same family, a couple of generations on – this time the main character is Elizabeth Manteith, whose family is going through difficult times. Her father is caught up with the Jacobite rebellion, and Beth spends most of her time with the servants.
A ghastly accident of circumstance leads to her being imprisoned on an Aberdeen slave ship, taking children and young people to the tobacco plantations of North America. A round of applause to Ms Sinclair for using fiction to highlight little-known history – I knew nothing about this. Once in America Beth’s life remains hard, though not as hard as one might have feared for her. She longs for word from home, and strives to find out the location of Peter, a boy she became close to on the ship.
Beth is an engaging character, as is Michael, in whose house she works. I’m not a romance reader (not least of all because I always know exactly who is going to end up with whom, as soon as they meet!), but in this book the romance aspect is subtly threaded through the main story, an undercurrent rather than centre stage. I loved reading about life in the mid 18th century; it’s a very ‘easy read’, just flows along, while being quite a page-turner. I enjoyed the whole book; the pace is just right and there were no boring bits!
Ms Sinclair has chosen to write Beth’s first-person narrative in Scottish dialect. Normally this would drive me nuts, but the way she has executed this is perfect for the book, absolutely right. She concentrates on the Scottish words Beth would use (‘dinna’ rather than ‘didn’t’, ‘fit’ rather than ‘what’, for instance) rather than trying to write dialogue in a Scottish accent, which would have been tedious in extreme – from the beginning, I found myself reading it in Beth’s voice.
I was most interested to read, in the Author’s Notes at the back, that not only was it based on a true occurrence, but some of the characters are based on real people. This always adds a pleasing dimension to a story.
It’s a well-researched and delightful book, as was the last one. The only reason I’ve given it 4.5 rather than 5* is that I tend to like books that are a bit darker than this, but that’s only personal preference, not a criticism. It’s a story to curl up and escape with. A definite recommendation, and I look forward to the next.
Elizabeth craves adventure… excitement… love…
For now though, she has to settle for a trip from her family’s castle, to the port in Aberdeen, where her father has promised she’ll be permitted to buy a horse… all of her own.
Little does she suspect this simple journey will change her life, forever. And as she dreams of riding her new mount through the forests and glens of the Manteith estate, she can have no idea that she might never see them again.
For what lies ahead is danger, unimagined… and the fearful realities of kidnap and slavery.
But even when everything seems lost, most especially the chance of ever getting home again, Elizabeth finds friendship, comfort… and that much prized love, just where she least expected it.
Set in the mid eighteenth century, Fireflies and Chocolate is a story of strength, courage and tolerance, in a time filled with far too many prejudices.
Terry has been reading The Cotillion Brigade by Glen Craney
4* This novel is quite an achievement, and I so appreciated how much it taught me about the American Civil War, a subject about which I knew very little before.
The Cotillion Brigade tells a fictional version of the true story of the Nancy Hart Rifles of Georgia, begun by former debutante Nancy Colquitt Hill, who lived on a plantation. Her chapters alternate between those of Hugh LaGrange from Wisconsin, on the side of the Abolitionists; he and his men’s aim is, initially, to make sure that the territory of Kansas remains a free state when it joins the union.
The novel is intricately researched, and the characters are clearly defined. I liked the way in which the author wrote the characters authentically, using (some of) the dialogue they would have used at the time, rather than sugar-coat it too much, so as not to offend the sensitive ears of the 21st century. He has walked a successful middle line between the two possible extremes.
Nancy was an interesting character from the start; she dived into her new role with the same gusto and impulsiveness that she displayed when all she had to think about was her standing in society, and her love life. Hugh’s side of the story contains all the gritty atmosphere you would expect, and I felt the author had really got into the heads of the people of the time.
My only complaint is the length – I think it could have been chopped down by 20% to gee up the momentum a little. The first third sets up the lives of Hugh and Nancy in great detail; I thought this, in particular, could have been edited down, though I did love Nancy’s wrangles with her rival in love! As the story progresses into the war itself, and the conditions under which the army fought, the pace did ramp up somewhat.
At the end is a most fascinating author’s note, telling what happened to the people after the end of the book – and, best of all, photographs of the characters within and some of the actual places mentioned. If you have a particular interest in the American Civil War, I would recommend buying this straight away! As it is, I’m interested in reading another of his books, either The Yanks are Starving (set in the Depression), or The Spider and The Stone set in 14th century Scotland.
1856. Sixteen-year-old Nannie Colquitt Hill makes her debut in the antebellum society of the Chattahoochee River plantations. A thousand miles to the north, a Wisconsin farm boy, Hugh LaGrange, joins an Abolitionist crusade to ban slavery in Bleeding Kansas.
Five years later, secession and total war against the homefronts of Dixie hurl them toward a confrontation unrivaled in American history.
Nannie defies the traditions of Southern gentility by forming a women’s militia and drilling it four long years to prepare for battle. With their men dead, wounded, or retreating with the Confederate armies, only Captain Nannie and her Fighting Nancies stand between their beloved homes and the Yankee torches.
Hardened into a slashing Union cavalry colonel, Hugh duels Rebel generals Joseph Wheeler and Nathan Bedford Forrest across Tennessee and Alabama. As the war churns to a bloody climax, he is ordered to drive a burning stake deep into the heart of the Confederacy.
Yet one Georgia town-which by mocking coincidence bears Hugh’s last name-stands defiant in his path.